Religion and Peace

Daniel Philpott is a professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University. He delivered the following remarks as a keynote address on “Religion’s Role in Peacebuilding” at the ICLRS International Law and Religion Symposium on 2 October 2022.

Wanted: An Effective Peacemaker

Engage with me in a thought experiment. Imagine a civil servant in the foreign ministry of an African country that has been immersed in a civil war that has lasted fifteen years and taken thousands of lives. The African Union and United Nations diplomats have each made efforts at mediation, but they have failed, and the fighting now looks likely to escalate.

Desperate for an effective mediator, the foreign ministry official places an advertisement in a listing that is likely to be read widely by governments, NGOs, and other organizations. “Wanted: An effective peacemaker,” it reads. The advertisement explains that the peacemaker ought to have a long-term presence among the country’s people and not be a powerful outside state or an NGO who is likely to operate for a short time and then leave, according to its political interests or the wishes of its donors. The person should be part of an organization that has deep ties and credibility among the grassroots of its country, as well as connections among intermediate and elite levels and in official international circles. The organization should not be tied closely with only one side of the conflict such that it would be seen as a partisan. The organization ought to have a strong mission statement that commits it to peacebuilding as one of its fundamental activities and roots this activity in its basic beliefs. And it ought to have top staff people who are experienced in building peace and negotiating in difficult conflicts. 

I can think of few organizations that better fit this requirement than religious communities.

The Community of Sant’Egidio

Consider one of the most well-known examples of religious peacemaking—the Community of Sant’Egidio. Around 1990 in the country of Mozambique, after about 16 years of a civil war that took more than 1.6 million lives, as the Cold War was rapidly winding up, it looked like both sides of the conflict were interested in a settlement. The Community of Sant’Egidio was instrumental in bringing the parties into nine rounds of peace negotiations, which the community conducted at its headquarters in the Trastevere district of Rome between 1990 and 1992. Here, the community brought together what one diplomat called an “idiosyncratic bouillabaisse” of actors, including the main armies in the conflict, UN officials, representatives of 10 different governments, including Italy and the United States, as well as a British wheeler and dealer businessman who boosted morale named “Tiny” Rowland. The General Peace Accord was signed on 4 October 1992, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, a medieval saint and a great peacemaker. This peace would prove fairly lasting, unlike the 43 percent of agreements that relapse into violence within five years, though new conflicts have arisen there in the past decade.

Who is the Community of Sant’Egidio? It is a lay community of the Catholic Church. Full disclosure: I am a member, though I have not participated in the community’s peacebuilding work. In 1968, a year of political ferment across Europe, a handful of students at Rome’s Virgil High School decided to put their Catholic faith into practice by gathering regularly to pray together and to befriend the city’s poorest inhabitants. During the 1970s, their ranks grew as they expanded their work to include addicts, orphans, the handicapped, and the elderly poor and extended their friendships into countries such as Albania, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Vietnam. The Catholic Church approved the community’s status and gave it an abandoned convent in the Trastevere District of Rome, linked to the Church of Sant’Egidio, from which it took its name. Today, that community includes more than 50,000 members spread over seventy countries.

It defies conventional wisdom that Sant’Egidio negotiated the 1992 agreement. Peace agreements are supposed to be negotiated by states and international organizations that can provide material rewards and enforce the peace through security measures. Many a nongovernmental mediating organization has tried to do what Sant’Egidio did, but without success. To be sure, what might be called “realist” factors mattered: the diplomatic role of the United States, the United Nations, and Italy, as well as the end of the Cold War, which dried up Soviet support for the Marxist government.

Yet seasoned diplomats agree that Sant’Egidio was essential. Why? Members of the Community had formed networks of friendships in Mozambique going back into the 1970s, and that facilitated economic aid and promoted religious freedom in this Marxist-governed country. The community had contacts with leaders from both sides of the civil war and with the Catholic Church in Mozambique, which had an indigenous presence that was far more than a colonial legacy, and with the Mozambique Christian Council. Friendship was a crucial charism for Sant’Egidio, one of the defining pillars of the community. Yet Sant’Egidio was not a partisan of either combatant in the civil war. Its presence in Rome and relationships there enabled it to network together with the Italian government, the Italian Communist Party, and the United Nations. Just as importantly, the Community carried the credibility of the Catholic Church, whose theology committed it to peace and justice for all and practiced prayer as a part of its modus operandi. On the reputation of Mozambique, the Community has been called to mediate, sometimes with success, sometimes not, in Algeria, Burundi, Congo, Guatemala, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Liberia, Senegal, Uganda, and, most recently, South Sudan.

Two Global Trends: The Resurgence of Religion and Peacebuilding

Sant’Egidio’s peacemaking activities are part of a larger trend—the rise of religious efforts to promote peace around the globe in the last half century or so. This trend stands at the intersection of two other global trends. First is the rise of religion in global politics. In 2011, two coauthors and I published God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, which argues that a sharp rise in the political influence of religious communities has taken place all over the globe and has involved every major world religion since the 1960s. I draw much from this book in this presentation. Confounded was the secularization thesis, holding that religion was irrational, inherently conflictual and violent, and destined for extinction from the globe.

Time magazine printed on its cover in 1966, for instance, “Is God Dead?” Western intellectuals espoused the thesis with few dissenters until the 1990s. Today, though, religion exerts its influence in politics peacefully and violently, for a wide range of purposes and causes.

The second global trend is a global outbreak of peacebuilding activities that has taken place especially since the end of the Cold War in 1989. The UN sharply multiplied its peace operations. The number and share of civil wars that ended through negotiation rather than military victory sharply increased after 1989. The world has seen more than 40 truth commissions. An international criminal court began work in 2002. An outbreak of political apologies took place beginning in the 1990s, as did reparation settlements. Forgiveness became a part of the global discourse when it had little place before. Museums and memorials have been built; statues have been toppled.

Given these two global trends—the resurgence of religion and peacemaking—it is not surprising to find religious communities involved in the work of peace. There is the Buddhist monk, Ghosananda, who led peace marches through Cambodia in 1992 following civil war and the earlier killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. There is Sakena Yacoobi, a devout Afghani Muslim woman who educated more than 8500 Afghan women and trained them in peace, nonviolence, and reading the Qur’an in the 1990s. There is Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who traipsed through the bush in Uganda to meet with warlord Joseph Kony in the early 2000s to jumpstart peace negotiations and then became a public voice for forgiveness in the wake of the war in Northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government’s forces.

Examining Religion’s Role in Peacebuilding

In God’s Century, Toft, Shah, and I took two forms of religious peacebuilding activities and looked at them in depth through side-by-side comparisons in order to understand religious peacebuilding better. We chose the mediation of peace agreements and involvement in transitional justice, through which countries seek to confront past injustices in order to create a sustainable peace.

First, let us take mediating peace agreements. We examined 25 cases, all but one of which took place between 1989 and 2005. In 11 of these cases, religious actors were what we call strong mediators. In 10 of them, religious actors were what we call weak mediators. In 4 cases, religious actors were not mediators at all. Among the cases we coded as strong mediation were Sant’Egidio’s mediation efforts not only in Mozambique but also in Algeria amidst its civil war in the 1990s, Uganda, Kosovo, Guatemala, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. Its recent brokering of a declaration in South Sudan in July 2021 stands as another.

The Beagle Channel dispute between Argentina and Chile was another strong example of religious mediation. The two countries were on the brink of war in 1978 due to a maritime dispute, when both parties accepted mediation under the auspices of the Vatican and its Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonio Samore, who became known as the “Vatican Kissinger.” After five years of negotiation, the Church brought about a successful settlement in 1984. Another case worth mentioning is the mediation about El Salvador’s civil war by Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas between 1980 and 1990, when the United Nations then took over and brought the war to a settlement in 1992.

The second area is transitional justice, which a wave of countries has pursued through two broad approaches. The first is punitive justice, involving trials of human rights violators in a court of law. The second is what we can call truth recovery, which is usually conducted through a truth commission, a public body whose purpose is to report the human rights violations of a given period. Truth commissions are a recent innovation in global politics. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1996 to 1998 is the most famous to date. It was preceded and influenced by Chile’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation and was itself imitated and developed by subsequent commissions in Sierra Leone, Timor Leste, Guatemala, Peru, and elsewhere.

Religious leaders and communities are one of the factors that lead countries to choose the forms of transitional justice that they do. South Africa’s commission is associated indelibly with the purple robes, pectoral cross, and pastoral charisma of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the commission. Tutu gave truth recovery a distinctively religious tinge, beginning hearings with prayer and presiding while participants broke out into hymns in the wake of particularly wrenching testimonies. In Guatemala, the Catholic Church under Bishop Juan Gerardi actually constructed an entire truth commission of its own out of dissatisfaction with the government’s proposed truth commission.

Our look at transitional justice in 19 countries shows that, in 8 of these, religion influenced the kind of justice that emerged and that it usually did so in the direction of truth recovery rather than punitive justice. First, religious leaders often influenced the formation of truth commissions. Second, they helped to build and conduct them. They supply commissioners such as Tutu, provide counseling and services for victims and witnesses, and perform other roles. In Guatemala, the Catholic Church trained 800 animadores (volunteers), who traveled to villages and took the testimony of surviving victims while providing counseling and often conducting a memorial service. In Rwanda, Christian pastors prepared surviving victims of the genocide of 1994 to participate in the village-level gacaca courts, counseling them to consider forgiveness as a form of healing. 

Religion’s Efficacy in Peacebuilding: Three Factors

What are the factors that make some religious leaders and communities effective forces for peace? We gain leverage on the question by noting that some are also ineffective or even complicit in violence and authoritarianism. The factors that I think are important are the ones that I noted in the want ad of my thought experiment. Let me zero in on three that I think are most important.

First is what I and my coauthors call institutional independence. This is the independence of religious and state authority. It pertains to the freedom of religious authority from the state in its activities, leadership, finances, and other matters. It also pertains to the political authority’s independence of religious authority, though that is rarely threatened by the modern state. Institutional independence is something like what we call separation of church and state, though it is better specified by the categories of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, religious freedom and non-establishment.

Our contention in God’s Century is that the religious actors who are most effective in promoting their policies and peacebuilding are ones who are independent in their authority. We showed this with respect to the formidable involvement of religious bodies in the global wave of democratization that took place from 1974 up through the present day. The religious leaders and communities who were most effective in overthrowing dictators were ones who had maintained a degree of independence under the dictatorship. This was true of the Catholic Church in Poland, which Pope John Paul II led in open-air masses that galvanized opposition to the Communist regime there. It was also true of the Catholic Church in the Philippines and of major Muslim movements in Indonesia, which played a remarkable role in overthrowing the dictatorship of Suharto, in the open-air demonstrations of 1998.

We argue that those religious actors who were effective mediators and promoters of truth recovery were ones who enjoyed substantial independence from the state as well as from the authority of armed opposition groups. The Community of Sant’Egidio was free to mediate without being hindered by the authority of either side. Archbishop Damas in El Salvador was able to mediate well because he had established an independent position between the state and the armed opposition. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s role in South Africa was enabled by his independent authority, prestige, and credibility as a Nobel Prize winner and a long-time advocate of opposition to apartheid while remaining independent of anti-apartheid organizations.

By contrast, the large churches in Rwanda—Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian—were neither effective mediators nor influential actors in transitional justice. Because their leadership had been closely tied with the Hutu government over the generation prior to the genocide of 1994, these Churches were unable to oppose the genocide, and their members were in some instances complicit in it. Thus, they had neither the credibility nor the social standing to influence peace and justice in the aftermath of the genocide. Similarly, in Sri Lanka’s civil war, the meshing of the Buddhist sangha with state authority left the sangha with little mediating role in that conflict. It was not able to exercise the kind of independent witness that Ghosananda did in Cambodia, for instance.

The second factor that characterizes religious communities that are strong in making peace is leadership. In these cases, the peacemaker is one with a strong and deeply rooted conviction of peace and justice, who is in a position to set a course and possesses the abilities to gain followership for it. Again, Archbishop Tutu comes to mind. He was able to articulate his opposition to apartheid and his theology of reconciliation in a way that resounded widely in South Africa and internationally. Outside the cases of mediation and transitional justice, Ghosananda in Cambodia is one who spoke and wielded symbols to mobilize large numbers of people for peace.

There is a third and final factor that I would like to discuss in a little more depth. It is what my coauthors and I call political theology. It is the set of ideas that a religious leader or community holds regarding political authority and justice. Simply, those who are most informed and convicted of a political theology are the most likely to carry out activities related to that political theology. 

What are some components of a political theology that leads religious actors to be peacemakers? One is a commitment to human rights and the reduction of war. The Catholic Church, for instance, amplified its commitment to human rights at the Second Vatican Council, where it also proclaimed religious freedom as a human right. This newly oriented stance did much to make Catholic churches a formidable opponent of dictatorships during the global wave of democratization. The Church, through papal teaching, has also coupled its just-war ethic with a strong commitment to the reduction of war and violence through international law. Mediators such as Damas, and proponents of truth recovery such as Guatemala’s Bishop Juan Gerardi, were imbued with these values. In the case of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a commitment to peace through friendship and prayer led it to its activities. Ghosananda was a proponent of what is called Engaged Buddhism, a school of Buddhist thought that espouses a strong commitment to peace and human rights.

In more recent times, a political theology of “peacebuilding” has arisen. One of the pioneers of this idea is Mennonite peace scholar and activist John Paul Lederach. The idea is that peace is not merely a matter of mediation or a top-down affair but also the transformation of a society at multiple levels to relationships that handle conflict nonviolently. Peacebuilders understand this work as slow and difficult but also insist that a sustainable peace must be lodged at the grassroots and middle layers as well as at the top. Lederach’s idea has inspired Catholic Relief Services, a global development organization, to add peacebuilding to its development activities, and has guided Catholic-Muslim peace efforts in regions such Mindanao in the Southern Philippines.

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

An important idea in political theology that has arisen in recent years is reconciliation. In a quarter century of study and activism in peace efforts in the wake of civil war and dictatorship, I have identified two competing paradigms. The first is what may be called “the liberal peace.” It is carried out by human rights activists, international lawyers, and diplomats and aspires to the rebuilding of the rule of law. Its dream is to place architects of atrocity in the dock of a court. The glass towers of the International Criminal Court in The Hague can be thought of as the cathedral of this theology.

The other paradigm does not reject these goals but posits a different center. It is often associated with religious leaders, who frequently have been involved in these efforts. Let us call it reconciliation. Its aim is the restoration of the right relationship and involves healing forms of truth telling, empathetic acknowledgment, apologies, and even forgiveness. No Future Without Forgiveness is the title of Tutu’s book about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Reconciliation is rooted primarily in Christian theology. It was the Apostle Paul who used the idea to describe God’s restoration of the world through Jesus Christ. There are closely analogous ideas in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, as I argued in my book Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation in 2012. In Islam, for instance, is the idea of musalaha, or reconciliation, which has been practiced on the level of tribes and groups in the wake of injustice. In the past 50 years, reconciliation has risen and developed among religious leaders as an ethic not just for individuals and communities but also for political orders such that it is now a global paradigm for confronting past injustice and building peace. To borrow the terms of sociologist Jonathan Van Antwerpen, it is the “heterodoxy” that contrasts with the global “orthodoxy” of the liberal peace.

In my coauthors’ and my study of transitional justice, we discovered that the religious communities that most influentially brought about truth recovery in situations of transitional justice were ones who espoused a political theology of reconciliation. Archbishop Tutu was a textbook example. Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala was another. After delivering the report of his truth commission in Guatemala City in 1998, he was assassinated by agents of Guatemala’s army. He might be called the “Romero of Reconciliation.”

 The most religiously distinct aspect of reconciliation is forgiveness. After I published my book on the ethics of reconciliation, Just and Unjust Peace, I was naturally delighted to have it reviewed in The New Republic by a New York editor. Though he appraised the book positively, he questioned my advocacy of forgiveness, which he thought was rarely a safe practice and was dangerous to boot. So, I decided to investigate whether forgiveness really takes place in the context of armed conflict and secured a grant to study forgiveness among 640 residents of war-torn regions of Uganda. I learned that 68 percent of victims of violence reported having practiced forgiveness and that 86 percent of respondents favored the practice of forgiveness even in settings of nightmarish violence. The vast majority of respondents were Christian, and they most commonly cited their faith as the reason why they forgave. The number one reason they cited for forgiving was their religious faith. Interestingly, the 20-plus percent of respondents who were Muslim also favored forgiveness. In speaking in focus groups and interviews with people who forgave, I found not helpless victims but rather people who spoke confidently about their forgiveness, seeing it as an act of peacebuilding.

One such person was Angelina Atyam, who forgave the soldiers in the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army who abducted her daughter along with 130 other girls from a Catholic boarding school in 1996. Like a friend of mine from Rwanda, Atyam was challenged by the words of the Our Father, which she prayed weekly with other parents of the abducted girls. She sensed and followed a call to forgive, advocated forgiveness widely, and even located the mother of her daughter’s abductor, through whom she forgave the abductor, his family, and his clan. When this soldier later died in combat, Atyam wept and consoled his mother.

Advocacy of forgiveness may be the most religiously distinct aspect of peacebuilding efforts today. Secular peacebuilders, even ones who adopt a paradigm of reconciliation, typically either criticize or ignore forgiveness. In contrast to the glass towers in the Hague, forgiveness has been practiced more commonly in villages and byways in countries recovering from conflict. It has been inspired by the theologians and religious leaders who have translated the ancient teaching into contemporary settings. This is indeed what I believe is most interesting and promising about religious efforts for peace. In an age in which religion and building peace are each resurgent around the globe, the religious are retrieving from their religious practices and traditions the practices of peace that are making a difference.

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