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Seeing the Presence of the Divine in the Other: The Role of People of Faith in Creating Peace

In his 1971 song, John Lennon writes: “Imagine there’s no countries… Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion, too.” For many people, religion is construed as a cause of conflict–something for which people kill or die–but people of faith are increasingly recognizing that they can and must work for peace. Indeed, as Rabbi Joseph Levi stated at an event on faith-inspired organizations, “Religions have in common the desire to come into contact with the divine. Interreligious peace efforts are about seeing the presence of the divine in the other.” For people of faith, their search for the divine that bridges the divides of borders and ideas, that helps them imagine peace.

I had the opportunity to attend two meetings on the role that faith-based efforts can and do play in peace this week, in the shadow (or rather, the light) of the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first was a panel discussion hosted by Rondine and Caritas Internationalis titled ‘Human Rights and Conflict Transformation: The Role of Faith Inspired Organizations’. The second was a smaller chat with Bob Chase, a Fellow with the School of Diplomacy’s Center for UN and Global Governance studies, during which he discussed the impact of and future plans for the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium. In both, they recognized broadly the crucial role that religious leaders and organizations play in advocating for and creating peace in their communities, while giving examples that showed the vital and very real impact that they have had.

I found the case of Sierra Leone particularly striking. During a December 10 Rondine event, at which youth from conflict-torn areas who are now learning techniques for conflict management presented their plea for peace to global leaders as part of their Leaders for Peace campaign, one speaker stated “In America, they say the proof is in the pudding. Sierra Leone offers the proof of a sweet cake.” At the December 11 Rondine-hosted discussion on the role of faith-inspired organizations, Mons. Giorgio Biguzzi, Bishop Emeritus of Makeni (Sierra Leone), expanded on how faith-based organizations were able to use the respect they had from their communities to work together for peace, to train their own people about the inclusive, peaceful values of their faiths, rather than allowing religion to be used as a tool by religious leaders. These religious leaders realized that: “You don’t put out fire with fire. You put out fire with water. Violence against the other will not achieve peace.”

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the Rondine students, and her deep respect for Mons. Biguzzi was clear: When the conflict started, she said, they all left. But for ten years, he stayed. Everyone knew that he was neutral, so he could go and talk to everyone without fear. He could have left, but because he had the ability to talk to everyone, he knew he had to stay. I asked her what lessons had stuck with her from her time at Rondine, and she spoke about how she learned how important it is step towards the other: to listen to the other, instead of expecting them to come to your side. This is a key message of Rondine’s work, as expressed by its president, Franco Vaccari: that by framing the other as an ‘enemy’, by refusing to engage with them as a human, ‘enemy’ becomes a wall that does not allow you to see the face of the other person.

This is also what the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC) is all about: fostering contact between people of all faiths to challenge stereotypes and create opportunities to act together to address issues (like human rights and development) of mutual concern. As we spoke with Bob Chase, he told us how his experiences of ‘stepping towards the other’ in Pakistan challenged his own misconceptions. We also watched videos from other participants, who spoke about their experiences encountering the other, which helped them become more understanding not only of those of different religions or nationalities, but of their own faith.

Attending these meetings, the role that people of faith have played and can play in creating peace was clear: after all, as Marie Dennis from Pax Christi noted at the Rondine meeting, many of the characteristics of peaceful societies reflect qualities of faith communities. Peace, speakers at both meetings emphasized in their own ways, is a process, not a product. Religious leaders, with their long-standing, deep ties to the community, are particularly well suited to engage in this process and carry it through to competition, whether it takes ten years (as in Sierra Leone), or an ongoing process (as with UPIC). They can help their communities begin to imagine “people living life in peace,” a peace deeply grounded in the faith that allows them to see, not an enemy, but a brother.

Kendra Brock is a Research Assistant for the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies. She is a candidate for an M.A. in International Relations and Diplomacy, with specializations in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Economics & Development. 

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