Religion and Peacebuilding
by Cynthia Sampson
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Religion and Peacebuilding" Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997, pp. 273-316.
Sampson explores the roles that religious groups and individuals have played in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. She reviews some of the main religious institutions engaged in peacebuilding, and concludes with a case study of South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy.
Religious groups have been very active in peacebuilding in recent decades. Sampson suggests several reasons for this increased activity. Religions are organized at national and international levels, and so offer existing channels for communication and organization. Religions offer ethical visions that can motivate believers to action. In cases where the central government is in disarray, religious organizations may be the only institutions with some degree of popular credibility, trust and moral authority. Indigenous religious groups are long-term players, who are present throughout the conflict's lifecycle. Finally, issues that have traditionally been in the domain of religion are central to many modern conflicts. Quoting John Paul Lederach, Sampson notes "the primary arena of church activity and faith--that of the spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being of people--lies at the heart of contemporary conflict."(p. 275)
Many religious actors have no formal training in conflict resolution. However, two religious practitioners have contributed significantly to peacebuilding theory. Adam Curle, a Quaker conciliator, has developed a peacemaking framework that emphasizes the importance of a balance of power between conflicting parties. Building peace requires restructuring the parties' relationship to empowering the weaker party and address structural sources of inequality. Lederach is a Mennonite conciliator who focuses on transforming violent destructive conflict into constructive, peaceful relationships. In facilitating such transformations, religious actors will act both as mediator and as advocates. Religious advocacy in peacebuilding is always nonviolent, and generally focused on promoting empowerment and human rights. Religious peacemakers tend to focus on building relationships and community.
Sampson classes religious intervention under four roles: advocates, intermediaries, observers, and educators. She offers examples of each role. Advocates work to empower the disenfranchised, and to restructure relationships and unjust social structures. Independent advocates are able to promote the weaker group's cause to the opposition and to the greater community. Activists are a subset of advocates. Activists are affiliated directly with the less powerful party, and so may be less credible to the opposition or general community. Another subset of actors are truth-tellers, who identify and speak out against injustices. The Catholic Church played a truth-telling role in Rhodesia's war of independence. The Catholic Church helped lead the nonviolent opposition to the Marcos regime in the Philippines, monitored elections, and ultimately declared that the Marcos regime has lost its mandate to govern. The Evangelische Kriche church played an activist role in the East Germany's nonviolent revolution of 1990. In Vietnam and Burma, Buddhist monks have been active opponents to repressive regimes.
Intermediary roles include "fact finding, good offices, peace-process advocacy, facilitation, conciliation and mediation, usually in some combination."(p. 284) Church leaders successfully mediated a peace agreement in Sudan in 1972. When that agreement broke down in 1983and fighting resumed, church leaders were again called upon to mediate a settlement. A Conciliation Commission of religious figures paved the way for Indian refugees to return to Nicaragua. The Jain monk Acharya Sushil Kumar pressed for negotiations and mediated the Hindu-Sikh conflict at the Golden Temple in Punjab.
"In a conflict situation, the observer provides a watchful, compelling physical presence that is intended to discourage violence, corruption, human rights violations, or other behavior deemed threatening and undesirable."(p. 286) Observation can take very actives forms--monitoring and verifying elections, for instance, or even physically interposing observers between opposing sides. Church organizations in Zambia cooperated closely to monitor the 1991 elections, and later hosted a meeting between political opponents that resulted in a new national constitution. The ecumenical group Witnesses For Peace, and Mennonite Christian Peacemaker Teams, have been active observers in Central America.
Education may focus on training in conflict resolution, democracy, or living with diversity. Educators may work to increase awareness of injustice, or to promote healing and reconciliation. The Gandhi Peace Foundation, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Nonviolence International each provide training in nonviolent action at locations across the globe. Northern Ireland is home to a number of ecumenical intentional communities, in which Catholic and Protestant members work together to bring together their larger communities. In Mozambique the Christian Council launched a two stage training program to educate regional church leaders (who in turn trained local representatives) on an array of issues relevant to peacebuilding and resettlement.
Some of the main institutional religious peacebuilders include the Catholic Church; the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers; the Mennonite Church; the international, non-denominational group, Moral Re-Armament; The International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and other followers of engaged Buddhism; and the Nairobi Peace Initiative, which, although not itself a religious organization, actively engages religious groups across Africa in peacebuilding.
South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy involved more than twenty different religious actors, ranging from individuals to churches to coalitions, from many different denominations and active at every level of society. Many members of the Dutch Reformed Church spoke out against their church's support of apartheid, and many clergy members were defrocked for their opposition. Many other denominational leaders spoke out and organized against apartheid. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of nonviolent opposition to apartheid. As other opposition groups were banned or arrested, the churches and mosques became the only places where anti-apartheid activists could meet. Churches issued theological condemnations of apartheid, and calls to action. Other religious organizations worked to bridge social divisions, hosting conferences, interfaith dialogues, and retreats. Several international interdenominational organizations and the Vatican worked to oppose apartheid on the international level.
In conclusion, Sampson notes future trends in religious peacebuilding. Religious communities are taking an increasingly systematic, intentional approach to peacemaking. Religious universities have developed conflict and peace programs, and churches are incorporating more explicit peacebuilding efforts into their outreach and development activities. Interreligious organizations are also following that trend. Non-religious peacebuilding groups are targeting religious groups as ripe for training and mobilization. Religious relief and development NGOs are expanding their mandates and training to include peacebuilding activities. Indigenous religious groups are being called upon to provide spiritual, emotional and psychological support to people who have suffered from violent, protracted conflict. There is also an increased number of religion based citizen's groups focused on bringing about peace, justice, and reconciliation. The Internet has allowed people from across the globe to hold dialogues within and across denominations and religions.