Dissecting The Anatomy of Peace

Tomorrow, my husband Clint and I fly to Alaska for the Alaska Annual Conference in Seward, the first of three in the Greater Northwest in the next few weeks. I invited members at all three Conferences to read The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.  The book was recommended by the Commission on A Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, as a tool to help people know each other at a deeper level, so that they might discover a way to live together peacefully, despite deep difference. As a church, we are seeking a unity that is deeper than our differences.

Last summer, during worship at a training event when the leader asked us to “turn to your neighbor” and share, I met United Methodist pastor, coach and trainer, Brian Brown. Brian said he wished that every clergy person was introduced to The Anatomy of Peaceat the beginning of their ministry. I learned that he was a passionate evangelist, and certified teacher of The Anatomy of Peace. I bought the book that day, read it immediately, and later invited Rev. Dr. Brian Brown to teach and lead us into the practices of The Anatomy of Peacefor our annual conference sessions in Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest. Rev. Donna Pritchard will be leading a condensed workshop in Alaska.

Last week a controversy erupted over the book, when Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner blogged a provocative critique of The Anatomy of Peace, unmasking issues about its sources that are hidden in shadows. Why is the author listed as the “Arbinger Institute?” Why aren’t they transparent about the authors? Why is it written as if the people and situations are real, when they are fictional? Are a group of mostly white men competent to give advice about how to resolve conflict among people of diverse ethnicities and cultures, some of whom are oppressed by systems of injustice?

I asked similar questions in the early 2000s when I first read Leadership and Self Deception, also authored by the Arbinger Institute. I liked the book, but I felt queasy, so I did a little online fishing and discovered that the Arbinger Institute was founded by Terry Warner, a scholar and member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. I used the insights of the book personally, but was reluctant to share it with others, not so much because of its source as the lack of transparency. If there’s nothing to hide – no deception – why not reveal? I’m not going to presume to know the answer, and I’m not going to make excuses for the people who made these decisions.

In her blog, Hannah seems to imply that there are original sins of deception and racism that disqualify the book for our use. So, do we reject The Anatomy of Peace? Or, with awareness of its limitations and flaws, is it still a useful tool? Can we use it to invite newer, deeper understandings between people? Does it offer a way for conflicted United Methodists to venture beneath the surface of our set positions, seek a deeper understanding of one another, and explore how we might live together as we continue to journey together toward the fullness of God’s mission?

I find the book’s approach useful. Written in a narrative style, The Anatomy of Peace is an easy read and helps me see how, acting from a “heart at war,” I sometimes shut down relationships, or put others in a limiting “box” of my own creation. Instead, it helps me see that I can learn to act with a “heart at peace” to go deeper with a spouse, an undocumented immigrant, a transgender co-worker, or a United Methodist who likes a different style of music, to listen and understand.  This kind of curious, humble, respectful conversation is at the core of Christ’s teaching that we should love neighbor as self. And I trust Brian Brown and a host of others who have practiced what The Anatomy of Peace offers and found it to be helpful for individuals who are stuck in conflicted relationships. It’s one way of striving to better love God, and neighbor as self.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see United Methodists leaning into a small circle of colleagues, listening, clarifying, and seeking new understanding. We don’t have to love the way the tool was produced, or apply it where it might do harm. But, where two or three are gathered . . . peace can break out.

Comments (7)

  • Right on, Bishop. We don’t discredit an opinion by discrediting unrelated characteristics of the source of the opinion. The style of argument based on attacking the person, rather than what the person says, is most often labled “Poison the Wells.” A good idea is a good idea, regardless of its source. A bad idea is a bad idea, regardless of its source.

  • The problem IMO is that the recipe for peace from an actual diverse authorship could very well be vastly different from the one described in the book. Yes, we need a heart at peace…but the path to that heart must be different for a dominant group than it is for an oppressed minority. So long as we are following this book’s path, we are trusting that people from the dominant group to lead people on all sides of all divides. That is fundamentally different from actually listening to the marginalized. The Black Lives Matter movement has taught me (at an elementary level at least) the sin of false-equivalency. Anatomy of Peace doesn’t seem to know that concept. I appreciate that Rev. Bonner exposed that false equivalency.

  • Lonnie, your point is well taken. However, I am still sympathetic to Hannah’s argument. If the whole point is learning to listen to the diversity of voices around us, I’m not comfortable with them authors inventing (especially self-damning) words to stick in somebody else’s mouth. Especially when it is a White author who places words in the mouth of people of color on a topic that constitutes an critique of the internal dynamics of that community.

    Bishop, in terms of your above process of weighing the balance of these factors, I fall much more on the side of insisting that the medium /is/ indeed the message. Indeed, imperfect vessels can still be sites of transformation, but there is also a long history of White people putting words into the mouths of people of color, which justify, legitimize, or excuse racist attitudes and behaviors. To me, that is a big red flag, especially when, as Hannah noted privately, there are equally if not more compelling resources available authored by people of color, or (at the very least) not putting words into characters’ mouths that criticize marginalized communities.

    • Colin, thank you for this response. It echoes very much what I was about to write, so I won’t double down in much detail. I particularly want to highlight the point you make about authors from majority identities (white and Christian, in this case) infusing their voices and privilege and presumptions into the fictional bodies of people from minoritized backgrounds. While that might be less problematic in simple fiction, the fact that the authors are using this narrative approach to teach respect and listening is incredibly problematic. In reading the book, and trying to apply it to our UMC context, I hear it implying that we should assume good intentions, assume a level playing field, assume that compassion and respect for the other should trump justice, equity, and safety. Some theologies, like those that dehumanize our LGBTQ+ siblings, are lethal – literally, spiritually, and ecclesiologically.

      Our systems are set up to reinforce white privilege, to reinforce heteronormativity, to reinforce the status quo. I look forward to engaging this material in the conference setting in order to continue questioning and interrogating the ways our systems and power structures — including The Way Forward and the One Church solution — ultimately serve not liberation or justice but serve maintenance of a decaying denomination at the cost of those on the margins.

  • Mary Jo Reynolds

    As a lifelong Methodist woman with 30 years of recovery under my belt, I appreciated your missive and it prompted me to go out the next day and buy the book. I have learned (and am still learning) how important love and tolerance is and if I’m not able to show it towards others through my thoughts, words and actions, I certainly can’t expect to receive it. Two of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned through my recovery journey are: 1. Always place principles before personalities, and even more important to me is 2. Listen to the message, not the messenger. I’ve also learned to avoid “contempt prior to investigation”. Anything that can bring even a small measure of healing and peace into this world is worth exploring before being dismissed out of hand. Thank you for your message and God bless you on your journeys.

  • Are there any people from non-majority contexts writing reviews of this book? I would like to hear from them. Otherwise it seems like we are replicating the white Christian dominant echo chamber that got us into this mess to begin with.

  • Gifts can and do come from unexpected places. Engaging them does not necessarily imply acquiescence to their often problematic sources (the Bible comes to mind as a poignant example).

    Perhaps another helpful yardstick could be to engage an incarnational approach. After hearing severe criticisms of “The Anatomy of Peace” I chose to read it. Then chose to engage it, trying out its principles. The harvest was so encouraging that I read (actually listened in Audible) the book again. Listening now to “Leadership and Self Deception” and also finding its application in my life helpful.

    In a way, these two books are helping me “understand” at a deeper, cellular level some of the least explored, yet more distinctive aspects of the gospel, including the command to “Love my enemies, bless those that curse me, and do good to those that hate me”

    It’s getting deeper. Yesterday I became suddenly aware of how I, myself, function as my enemy.

    At the risk of re-engaging my cherished box of “better-than-thou” and semi-aware of the possibility that I may be deceiving myself, I believe that the learning and awareness that is slowly incarnating in me through these books is not diminishing my commitment to dismantling racism and rejection of false equivalencies. My hunch is that it is strengthening them in a strange out-of-the-box way (no pun intended).

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