John Paul Lederach's "Meeting Place"

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

April, 2017



John Paul Lederach designed and implemented perhaps the most fascinating conflict resolution exercise of all times. He, we, and many others use it as a training tool as well as an intervention tool to get people to examine their goals, and to consider how the oft-competing goals of peace, truth, justice, and mercy can be brought together in the "place called reconciliation."

Recommended and Referenced Resources

  • John Paul Lederach, Journal Toward Reconciliation. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press. 1999.
  • John Paul Lederach, Building Peace United States Institute of Peace (February 1998)
  • John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (August 26, 2010)

Things to Think About

It is interesting and valuable to try to apply these ideas to any complex conflict you are involved in or interested in. In a cross-group, or single group setting, or even alone, consider what each of these terms means in whatever context you are concerned about. Which is more important to you and/or the other parties? Which must come first? Which last? Which impedes the other? Such considerations always deepen one's understanding both of the concepts and of the conflict they are being applied to.


Hi! This is Heidi Burgess. I want to talk about John Paul Lederach’s exercise, which I call-- I'm not sure he calls this-- but I call it “The Meeting Place.”  I'll explain why I call it that in a minute.

This is an exercise that John Paul first developed when he was working in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. He was there as a Mennonite peacebuilder and he was working with the Monrovian and the Baptist churches, acting as a facilitator with their Conciliation Teams that were trying to resolve the conflict between the Sandinista Government and the East Coast Resistance. He writes up this story in numerous places--one of them is his book Journey Towards Reconciliation which has a chapter called “The Meeting Place,” which is where I got the name for the exercise.

One of the things that he talks about in that chapter, and in many other places in many of his writings, is that his work Nicaragua helped him learn to see conflicts in new ways through a "new set of lenses." Different lenses is a metaphor that he uses in Building Peace and he uses that again in The Moral Imagination and in his lectures as well. Different lenses produce different ways of seeing what's going on.

On page 51 in Journey Towards Reconciliation he explains that, “through their eyes,” -–by this he meant the participants in these Conciliation Conferences—“I saw beyond conflict resolution to reconciliation.” What's the difference?  Well, he explains that conflict resolution focuses on issues and problems, while reconciliation focuses on mending relationships. The chapter on “The Meeting Place” and  the exercise on the meeting place focuses on just exactly what this means and how it can be done.

Lederach explains that the Conciliation Teams almost always started their meetings with the reading of Psalm 85. This is a psalm where the writer pleads to the Lord for for peace, righteousness, and well-being.  In the Spanish version, which is somewhat different from the English version, verse 10, Lederach says, “four voices are called forth,” and they say, “Truth and Mercy have met together, Justice and Peace have kissed.” Lederach goes on to explain that the psalmist treats the concepts as if they were alive. Quoting directly from the book he says,

“I could hear their voices in the war in Nicaragua. In fact, I could hear their voices in any conflict. Truth, mercy, justice and peace were no longer just ideas. They became people and they could talk.” (Ledearch, Journay Toward Reconciliation, p. 51.)

This is the fundamental idea that gave rise to the exercise that he used multiple times with the disputants in Nicaragua, and he's used it at many conferences among conflict resolvers and disputants in other countries. It is such a powerful exercise that many other people have used it. I have used it a lot of times in classes and in conferences and workshops.  The outcome of the exercise differs in significant ways every time.  But every time people say it's incredibly powerful and they learned a lot from it.  I've actually participated in it myself when John Paul was facilitating it three times, and I've learned new things from it every time. So it's a wonderful exercise and I want to explain some more about it.

What he does is he breaks people into groups. There's one group for truth. There's one group for mercy. One for justice and one for peace. They meet separately. The first question John Paul asks all of the groups is this: “What are you most concerned with in the midst of conflict?” ("You" being peace, justice, truth, or mercy.)  Now, when I've done this with him, he doesn't tend to give a context—in other words-- he doesn't say what the conflict is, but rather discusses conflict in general.

Sometimes I do it that way too.  But sometimes when I'm working with students I give them a particular conflict to think about. Right now when I'm doing it, I'm looking at the conflict between conservatives and liberals in the United States.  Here truth, mercy, peace and justice are all very much apparent and are very important issues to the people on all sides of that conflict.

Fleshing out the question of what are you most concerned with, I usually ask the groups to think about:

  • what they need,
  • who they need it from,
  • how they know when they have it,
  • who could help them get it, and lastly,
  • which of these other people or groups are they most afraid of.

Then Lederach and I give the groups about 20 to 30 minutes to chew on these questions.  They are not easy, and for the students who think they are easy, I come and ask some probing questions and they immediately figure out that it isn't as simple or as easy as they thought.

Then I ask each group to choose a spokesperson who I bring up – and Lederach brings into the center of the room-- and we mediate a conversation between the four people. For instance, in the scenario that's described in Journey Towards Reconciliation, Lederach starts out talking to truth.  After listening to what truth is most concerned about, he observed

“when I talked to one side, like these people over here, they say that you are with them. And when I talked to the others, like our friends over there, they claim you are on their side. In the middle of all this pain, you seem to come and go. Is there only one truth?”  That, of course, gets at one of the stumbling blocks that students -- particularly beginning students -- tend to fall into: thinking that facts are facts, truth is truth, and it's very easy to tell the difference.  It isn't. Which leads Lederach to ask, later in the conversation recorded in the book, “why are you so hard to find?”

Later he asks, as I do, “who are you afraid of?”  In the version given in the book, Truth was afraid of Mercy. Mercy, in the book, was a man, but in my picture here, here she is a woman. So I changed the gender in this quote, but truth said

“In her haste to heal, [s]he covers my light and clouds my clarity. [S]he forgets that forgiveness is our child, not [hers] alone.” (Ledesrach, Journey, p. 56.

This brings up a metaphor that, if it doesn't come up automatically, Lederach brings up himself during the conversation. He asks “who comes first?” He names these people great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children.  You can get into really interesting discussions because people will claim, for instance, that peace and mercy are twins and their parent is justice, or justice and truth are twins and the parent is peace. You get many, many different relationship arrangements. And there are lots of disagreements and lots of interesting conversations about who comes first, who is required for the other to appear, and so on.

In the book version, Truth was afraid of Mercy, but it turns out that Mercy was afraid of Justice. Lederach confronts this issue in the scenario in the book by saying  “everybody in this room feels that they have been wronged, and most are willing to justify their actions, even their violent deeds, is doing your bidding. Is that not true?”

Then in the book, Justice has to explain how he isn't the enemy of Peace, how he isn't the enemy of Mercy, and perhaps, how he isn't the enemy of Truth. Most often, however, Justice and Truth see themselves as allies more than Peace and Mercy do. That's another question that I ask and Lederach asks too. I'm not sure that I put in the slideshow, but the question is “who are your best allies and who are your enemies-- or who are you afraid of is essentially the same question.  I ask these questions every time I do the exercise.

The answers are different each time I do it, but the bottom line is that there are four concepts: truth, justice, peace and mercy. It's not clear what any of them mean; it's not clear how any of them are obtained. It's not clear which comes first, which later, which needs the other, and which opposes the other. So there are many paradoxes.

But Lederach says the solution--if you'll accept that term-- is what you get when you mediate and negotiate between these four concepts. If you can get them to recognize the legitimacy and the importance of each other and give up some things in order to get some things… and ultimately… if you can bring all four together you can get to the Meeting Place of Reconciliation.

Now, as I said, I use this exercise in almost every class I teach because I think it is so powerful and it illustrates so many complexities related to each of these concepts, which are often considered to be simple. The exercise can be applied, as Lederach says, to pretty much any conflict. So it can be used as an exercise independent of conflicts. It can also be used as a way of analyzing a particular conflict.  It be can be used as a theory upon which to analyze action. It can be used as an intervention tool, which in fact, is the way Lederach ended up using it in Nicaragua. It's just many faceted and extremely powerful. And we will be pulling these ideas out frequently in both the Fundamentals and the Frontier Seminar because they're so central and so important.

Photo Credits:

Slide 3: Lenses:  by  Adam Singer CC by ND 2.0

Slide 8: Truth  group By Shimer College [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.  Mercy group: – public domain.  Justice group: public domain.  Peace group: by Shane Claiborne. CC by SA 3.0

Slides 9 and 10: Truth  group By Shimer College [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. 

Slides 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. Spokesperson for truth: Truth  group By Shimer College [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.  Spokesperson for the mercy group: – public domain.  Spokesperson for the Justice group: public domain.  Spokesperson for the Peace group: by Shane Claiborne. CC by SA 3.0