Emily Brewer Interviews Paul Chappell

Editor's note: Emily Brewer begins her time as PPF's Co-Director on July 13, 2015. You can reach her at emily@presbypeacefellowship.org.

June 6, 2015

I first met Paul Chappell at lunch just before the 2015 Convocation of Peacemakers began. The quiet intention and intensity with which he listened and spoke as he ate his vegetarian meal was disarming, and it soon became clear that this way of being and interacting with the world forms the basis of his peacemaking approach. Over the next few days, Paul gave several keynotes and participated in the worship and work of the Convocation, helping ground the weekend in the hope that peace is something we can create as a daily practice, a revolutionary habit. It begins, he says, with respect, which is a practical step to peace and a precondition for empathy.

The most convincing argument that peace is indeed possible, he says, is that violence is preventable—violence is caused by people who have experienced trauma or feel disrespected, and when we respect others and ourselves it acts as a preventative cure to violence. We know this because people respond so well to being treated with and treating others with empathy. It seems so simple that peacemaking begins with respect and empathy, and yet we know it can be so difficult. Paul not only spelled out these peacemaking principles in his keynotes, but he also modeled respect, deep listening, and empathy in his interactions with people over meals and in small group conversations throughout the weekend.

On the last evening of the Convocation, I had the privilege of sitting with Paul to ask him more about how these principles might shape and guide the work of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in the coming years. Our conversation follows.

(Photo: Paul K. Chappel, far left, and Emily Brewer, third from right)

Emily: You’ve talked a lot this weekend about the principles of peacemaking—empathy, respect, listening—and how most human conflicts are caused by people feeling disrespected. Can you talk more about how we take these principles and apply them to creating systemic policy change?

Paul: Well, peace is often very abstract for people and something that’s “over there”—drones, Israel and Palestine--and we need to understand peace as something people can use in their daily life. People are in conflict with their spouse or partner, with their roommate, they get mad at the guy behind the counter, people just have all kinds of daily conflict, and these principles of listening and empathy make peace practical. When you apply them to your daily life you can see how they apply internationally and nationally; starting from a place of empathy and respect changes the way you see other people, other nations, and so I think that the next step is to make peace something that is daily living.

Then, if we applied these principles to, say, the issue of drones, it would solve the problem because it would eliminate hypocrisy. Drones aren’t the main issue—it’s the hypocrisy. We feel we have the right to use drones in other countries even though we would never let another country fly drones over the U.S. Just think of how many of our foreign policy problems are really about hypocrisy—nuclear weapons, war, and so many others. “We can invade other countries but you can’t invade us” – that’s something that makes people very angry. If we eliminated hypocrisy in foreign policy and instead used the principles of peacemaking it would solve so many problems. Jesus condemned the hypocrite who has a log in his eye and criticizes his brother who has a speck in his eye, and Buddha said that hypocrisy, which causes us to ignore our own flaws and emphasize the flaws of others, ends up magnifying our own flaws. Listening, empathy, respect are the practices which would help us go deeper under the surface of the problems and help solve the problems we see today.


Emily: How do we as people and organizations committed to peace help make this happen on a policy-level?

Paul: We have to have a cultural shift. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we have to create a culture in which it’s abnormal to do things like stereotype and dehumanize others. It starts with influencing our own institutions—schools, churches, etc—and other things like films and music. The great thing about it is that you don’t need everyone on board. If a third of people in Congress thought like this it would make a huge difference. One person who thinks like this in an org can help change the whole culture of the organization. Each person makes a difference. People want a quick fix, but there’s not a quick fix for many of our problems—it will take a broad cultural shift.

But I’m very hopeful, because everything that we’re talking about that we have to do humans respond so well to—to being listened to, respected—it makes humans feel good so that gives me hope that what we’re trying to do is something that people respond well to. For example, in all of human history, I don’t think anyone has ever seriously said, “I hate it when people respect me! I hate it when people listen to me! My spouse and I have to go to marriage counseling, because my spouse listens to me all the time and I can’t take it anymore!” That gives peace more power to spread because humans respond so well to it.  And one reason I think this cultural shift that we’ve talked about can really catch on is because everyone wants our spouses, bosses, parents, friends to listen more, be more empathetic. There’s a motivation for us to make this happen and we have to tie it to bigger issues. For example, we have to talk about respect to deal with the commodification of life, which is so destructive. We must have respect for life itself, recognizing the inherent dignity of creation itself.


Emily: You’ve talked some about the military and how the military provides purpose and meaning, belonging, sense of family--things that you have named as basic human needs. How do you see that outside the military? Do peace movements do that? Have you personally found that outside of the military since you left six years ago?

Paul: I’ve struggled to find that again, but I do think it exists. A lot of people who get out of the military have a hard time relating to people, because the military really has it down to a science. I’ve had glimpses of it with peace groups, though, where there is strong camaraderie because you have shared vision and values.


Emily: A long-time PPF member, Tom Driver, recently challenged the PPF to get back to some of the direct anti-war work on which we were founded. Based on your own work and experiences and after having spent a weekend with PPF, I wonder if you have any advice about how we might go about doing that or other ways you might see that we can move forward as an organization after this weekend.

Paul: I think the anti-war piece is so central to Jesus himself, and I would love to work together in the future. I think collaborating with other groups is essential, and I think the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has a lot to offer. During this weekend I’ve noticed that people aren’t bitter.  A lot of the people I’ve met here are hardcore and they’re gracious and nice, which is really refreshing.

The other thing that comes to mind is that I heard you all talk about the age demographics of the organization on the first night, and one of the things I always try to emphasize is skills. One reason why I have taken the approach of offering skills is that it gets young people involved. They want practical skills of how to live well, how to be more effective in the world, how to resolve conflict, how to cultivate respect, how to calm yourself and other people down. These are tools that you can use in any movement—environmental rights, women’s rights—and I think it’s a good way to get young people involved, which is essential. And PPF has a lot to offer to people. One person I talked to this weekend said that what they love about PPF is the collective knowledge and experience that is here, which is really wonderful.


Peacemaking is just as simple and just as difficult as practicing empathy with one another. Amal Nasser, who was the preacher at the Convocation, echoed these words as well—“we need to train the new generation on nonviolent resistance” by teaching youth to express anger in healthy and nonviolent ways. This is how it begins.