PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

The Gift of Stubborn People by peaceprobe
July 6, 2006, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Nonviolence

Thirty nine years ago when I returned from Viet Nam I discovered a peace community ravaged by conflict within and shell shocked by stubborn people who insisted that their way was the only way, the right way. Frequently when I spoke across the country about the need to end the war I was savagely attacked by people who were outraged that I didn’t condemn the US government for genocide or give direct evidence of villages being napalmed. In some groups when I failed to herald the promise of communist revolution and Ho Chi Minh for world justice, my historical and sociological approach to Vietnamese people was condemned as outdated or irrelevant. And in churches whose pacifism had survived centuries of testing, my critique of the US war was sometimes met by dour withdrawn faces and silence from persons who felt that I might be too harsh or pushy in my call to end the war.

Our collective memories of that period are replete with images of stubborn voices for change whose listening skills, we now see in hindsight, could have been more informed. But a realistic appraisal of the period also reminds us that enormous positive change came about and the otherwise unlimited exercise of military power was constricted. We can all tell stories of positive great leaps forward due to a single person born with the naturally endowed gift of stubbornness. We often joke about these stubborn people, sometimes out of respect and at other times out of condemnation arising from our inner nature of not wanting to be bothered by change. 

People among us born with stubborn traits sometimes sustain those traits for life. How those traits are sustained, negatively in a life long struggle against the community or positively to give tenacity and perseverance to get things done depends upon the character and consciousness of the stubborn one. It also depends upon the character of consciousness of the community body to not just tolerate conflict but to embrace it, listen to its deepest needs and words, converse with it and sometimes to be changed by it. 

Anyone who is willing to take leadership must have an internal sense of confidence and vision. Leadership cannot simply be a matter of tactics or nice words. Leadership requires a long term goal. Inherent in leadership is a quality of stubbornness which can at times be grating and disruptive of the culture of niceness in churches, organizations and nations. In a dynamic peace ministry, conflict is inherent and at least temporarily disruptive. This strategic discontinuity is upsetting but necessary in order for change to happen within us and beyond. A constant culture of strategic discontinuity, however, wears people out and ultimately destroys community because no one can survive unlimited conflict.

Healthy stubborn people are not static. When their tenacity is coming from a healthy center empowered by the spirit of peace and nonviolence, they will understand that even in their acts of perseverance, new implications and possibilities for themselves and for the larger body become visible. Successful stubborn people have a sense of timing but recognize that their time frame may not be widely held. It’s the problem of timing that is so hard for stubborn people. When they hold their line too long, the whole vision will be trashed because they become isolated. Stubborn people may have developed deep callouses to derisive descriptions of their vision or personal styles. 

What about those of us who are not born stubborn, those of us who hate conflict, those of us who are easily shaken off track from our natural center by pushy people? Remember the spirit that animates the stubborn and the unstubborn comes from the same place. Remember too, that the last thing that our nests of peacemaking need is a bland, soupy, sweet consensus that doesn’t get much of anything done. Even stubborn people sometimes are adverse to too much conflict and may share some distaste for upsetting the narrow confines of consensus. Stubborn people bring an enormous gift to all by pressing us to more engaged peacemaking. Peace organizations and churches inherently attract stubborn people and therefore by definition, conflict.

We deal with the stubborn folks among us in one of three ways. We can isolate them and push them out. Occasionally this is the only alternative even though we are both losers. We can urge them to go start their own group, recognizing that stubborn people aren’t always group starters. Again we are both losers. Or we can accept the reality that it is in our nature as humans to engage at times in hard conflict stimulated by the stubborn ones. This is, of course, hard work because it pushes all of us to a deeper definition of needs and goals in a process that may be inherently confrontational and even painful. In that process we are never sure that the end product will be better. The inherent spirit of light and God which comes to us from various sources can sustain, encourage and provide wide margins of patience.

There will never be a “nice” peacefulness as long as we have stubborn people among us. Our stubborn friends should know that it takes a lot of action and reflection to clarify the next steps for the nonviolent community. My best example, at this moment, is Jesus who slogged his way with curious companions through the dusty countryside trying to explain a vision of overcoming violence and bringing wholeness to all of humanity with a combination of words and actions. But, when he reached Jerusalem for the final project, his companions still didn’t get it and deserted him in his final act of stubborn perseverance. The companions argued about the power structure for the “new” politics when Jesus, recognizing that no amount of good stubbornness could get the point across, took the next step. The story, however does not end with death or even the complete break up of the community. In fact it opened the window for historic new more positive ways of getting things done.


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