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Faculty and Students

Extolling Peace

When a letter with a King George stamp arrived in the family mailbox, Ronald Wells' parents would say, "There's a letter from home." Young Ron wondered what the folks back "home" in Britain and Newfoundland, the British colony his parents had left, thought of America, where Ron was born. Why did some come to America but not others?

The boy's questions would become the scholar's research, a way to link his parents' story with the stories of millions of other British, Irish, and Canadian men and women. Professor Ronald Wells read immigrants' letters, looking for their picture of America. He wrote books about what he found.

Hearing generations of letters and stories, Wells was moved by the stories of "people who had the courage and vision to go against the grain of their times and to speak in a prophetic way." In 1976, in London, he met some Irish Christians, who then introduced him to Irish clergy, both Protestants and Catholics. He was drawn to the ones resisting the spiral of violence in Northern Ireland, those bent on reconciling enemies.

Wells recalls that Nicholas Wolterstorff's book, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, had gotten him thinking, "‘What will the kingdom of God look like when it comes?' Both Protestants and Catholics share that prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come.' Well, if we can see a vision of that time when the lion and the lamb lie down together and all tears are wiped away, then why can't we behave like that, or try to, now?"

In People Behind the Peace, Wells writes about three Christian communities in Northern Ireland where Catholics and Protestants, living together peacefully, provide an approximation of that vision. He's now at work on a book about two "ordinary yet extraordinary men"—one a Catholic priest, the other a Presbyterian minister—who work together in Belfast. Not only do they extend kindness and generosity across the divide, but they also "make spaces where people can come to express their own anger and then to hear the stories of enemies embracing each other, stories of grace."

Wells believes it is telling and hearing the stories of confession and forgiveness that will make it possible for people to overcome their hatreds. These are the stories he passionately tells and retells to his students so that they can catch the kingdom vision and, going against the grain of their time, live it.

As a teacher, Wells has a motto: "Everyone who comes to the office door is the person God gives me to serve." Having been at Calvin for 34 years, he's now being given the opportunity to serve a second generation of students.

Wells had been at Calvin just three years when he became advisor, mentor, and friend to Paul Zwier '76. "This was right at the end of the Vietnam War," Paul recalled. "Ron had a great way of making historical discovery relevant to the day's current events. He was a great listener and gave me a strong sense that whatever you're going to do, it has to make a difference in people's lives."

Zwier continues to be influenced by Wells' thought and friendship.

"I've always had an interest in negotiated solutions. I thought, though, that it was when negotiated settlements had been tried and failed that you went to trial. Part of my maturing as a lawyer and as a law professor has been to see that people get trapped in a system of lawyers who don't have skills in how to negotiate and be conciliatory, in how to deal with anger and be a good listener.

"In his book People Behind the Peace, Ron tells powerful stories of ordinary people who have been wronged but who don't ask for retribution, who instead say, ‘I forgive you.' In the area of law disputes, where would a confession of wrongdoing fit in? As a Christian lawyer, does it mean you suggest to your clients—even if they don't share your whole faith package—that maybe there's a role for confession as a more healing approach to resolving disputes?"

Twenty-five years after Paul Zwier graduated, his son, John Zwier '05, found himself at Ronald Wells' door. He didn't know Wells had been his father's advisor and mentor. John just wanted to go to Britain for the semester in British history and culture that Wells was teaching there.

In Britain, a second generation of friendship grew. John had come to Calvin interested in the ethnic conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. During their study of British history, Wells directed him to the similarities between those struggles and the long conflict in Northern Ireland.

"I had not thought about those conflicts from a religious perspective," John said. "I had thought about them politically, so my response had been, ‘Education is really what's needed.' Professor Wells made me see it's not just about ignorance, that there has to be a mending process beginning in the religious communities and building on forgiveness. He really changed my view of what peace and reconciliation are all about. Now I go to him to talk about the whole range of current events."

 

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History professor Ronald Wells
History professor Ronald Wells

 

Wells believes it is telling and hearing the stories of confession and forgiveness that will make it possible for people to overcome their hatreds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul and John Zwier
For four years Paul Zwier, Jr., directed the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at the University of Tennessee College of Law. In July he moved to Atlanta at the invitation of Emory University's Law College to begin a similar center there. Paul's son, John Zwier, will return to Calvin this fall as a junior.