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May-June 2012

Vol. 37, No. 3

 

The power of religious peacebuilding

As the violence in Libya escalated to all-out war last year, an interfaith group of African religious leaders, including Muslims and Christians, visited the conflict zones in an effort to facilitate a negotiated end to the violence. As war in Colombia raged on and war clouds hovered over the border between Sudan and South Sudan, Mennonites worked diligently for peace on the ground in both situations. As Islamic separatist movements and the Filipino government vied for control in Mindinao, religious peacebuilders were present and talking to both sides. In Israel and Palestine, Christian Peacemakers Teams and Ecumenical Accompaniers move on a regular basis through zones of real or possible violent confrontations to reduce by their presence the likelihood of violence.

Peacebuilders who are "motivated and strengthened by religious and spiritual resources" and who have "access to religious communities and institutions" are present and active in just about every situation of actual or anticipated violence in the world.

Clearly, religion can be a force for peace as well as it can provide motivation or "cover" for violence.

Heather DuBois, in the article Religion and Peacebuilding (Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, Spring 2008, referenced above and quoted below), reflects on some of the characteristics of religious peacebuilding. She includes humility, in recognition of the difficulty and complexity of peacebuilding vis-à-vis human capacity; the use of different tools, including spiritual guidance, prayer, modeling, ritual and myth, moral and prophetic imagination, readings from sacred texts and fasting; and the application of concepts such as forgiveness and restorative justice in combination with their theological or spiritual understandings

Religious actors function at the three levels of society's organization as described by peacebuilding expert John Paul Lederach: grassroots, mid-level and elite. Often, these three levels of engagement are linked through religious networks, with the world's largest religions able to network their peacebuilding activities across local, inter-communal, national, regional, and international levels and to exchange support and information both horizontally and vertically.

Religious actors also tend to be engaged long term and in different facets of the peacebuilding process, thus their efforts are more stable. Because they are often either members of the affected communities or have well established institutional links with affected communities, they are able to provide "channels of information and/or resource distribution in the absence of state-sponsored alternatives." And because they are frequently supported financially by local religious bodies, they are less dependent on the changing priorities of large funders.

The legitimacy of religious peacebuilders in a given context often depends on whether local communities and parties engaged in conflict consider spirituality or religious practice important; whether the religious peacebuilders themselves have personal or institutional credibility; and whether the religious peacebuilders are perceived to have ulterior political motives. If they are accepted as legitimate, their effectiveness may be enhanced if their religious tradition is familiar to the local community – or in some circumstances, if their peacebuilding efforts are inter-religious.

DuBois also notes that religious peacebuilders may benefit from local connections, making them better able "to draft volunteers, challenge religious and secular traditional structures, and communicate with governments."

Referring to these characteristics of religious peacebuilding, she continues, "Listing this multitude of factors begins to illustrate the complexities that determine the impact of religious peacebuilding. The cumulative effect may be one in which religion plays a significant role in portions but not all of society, or, as can be the case with large, transnational traditions, religion may permeate every level of society—institutionally, socially and culturally. In that case, the significant elements of authority, ideology, spirituality and fraternity are all at the disposal of religious peacebuilding."

Religious peacebuilding, DuBois writes, has at least four strengths:

  • It is a vehicle for addressing the spiritual aspects of conflict experience.
  • It can counter violence that is rooted in religious and/or communal identity.
  • It can offer a moral alternative during times of state collapse, threats of war and outright war.
  • It can offer vehicles for internationalizing peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

Despite the ambivalence of religion; the possibility that religious motivations can fuel violence; the fact that religious actors often enter the field of peacebuilding "without the benefit of professional training and experience" or that they are (or are perceived to be) proselytizing; and that many of the world's religions themselves have poor records in terms of human rights and inclusion, religious peacebuilders can make a significant contribution to peacebuilding by teaching "the peaceful doctrines of their traditions." §

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