Part 3 (and final): Q&A with a student of conflict resolution

The first posting in this series listed “professional” questions; the second “personal,” this third and final posting lists questions about the subfield of religion and conflict resolution

(1) In what general direction do you see the field of conflict resolution moving (i.e., what do you feel are the dominant theories and practices in the field?)

I think that the conflict resolution field is in part struggling, in part thriving around the classic dichotomy of the ivory tower/government elite and the grassroots. CR should be an inherently practical field. I think that increasingly, we are making the necessary connections so that practice and theory nurture one another.

I also think that law is diminishing as a focus, while international relations is increasingly viewed as a natural fit with conflict resolution.

(2) What do you find to be the biggest challenges and benefits to working in the field of conflict resolution, in general, and religious peacemaking, specifically?

On a personal level, I find it difficult to explain to people what I’m doing. This is especially true once the word religion is thrown because in terms of that subject, we live in a polarized environment. Instead of nice, neutral or open-ended reactions you might get any variance of zeal or rejection. In the benefits column, I love meeting people that are doing this work; I find hope and inspiration in them.

I think that the above apply professionally as well. Because religion is provocative and manifest in many different forms, interactions require more getting to know you time. Assumptions are less of a good idea than usual. Also, as implied above, the work can fuel itself – there is plenty of motivation to stay engaged, especially when the suffering to which you are exposed is tempered by examples of success and compassion.

(3) In what ways do you feel the study of religion will or will not be incorporated into the fields of conflict resolution and peace studies?

Sociology, culture, politics. These are words we are comfortable with and to the degree that ‘religion and conflict resolution’ is associated with them, I think that the general field is ready to work with us. But spirituality, theology, creed – these are not words that fit comfortably into Western academic and policy space. Yet, these are an inherent part of religious identity and religious practice. I highlight this disconnect not to say that the study of religion will remain bifurcated; I hope that it does not because we’ve much to learn from the aspects of religion that do not fit neatly into a social science curriculum. Still, it is helpful to think of the relationship between religion and conflict resolution as a work in progress, one that will require both sides to avoid essentialism or utilitarianism.

(4) Finally, in what ways do you believe the skills and tools developed within a religious tradition should be utilized for various conflict resolution practices (i.e., reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts)?

I think it is important to realize that many religious people that have never even heard of conflict resolution are already involved in reconciliation and peacebuilding. The skills and tools that are developed in the process should be utilized with the participation of those who preserve or create them.

The Rev. William Lowrey (a Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Action award recipient) tells a story of an indigenous ritual “discovered” by conflict resolution practitioners from outside of the community. The ritual was misused by the outsiders and this not only caused the specific intervention to fail, it also destroyed the power of this particular ritual of the community. What was once an effective and cherished practice could no longer be enacted.

The above story highlights the importance of supporting local indigenous peacemakers. It also illustrates that religious skills and tools are agents of change as they exist within religious traditions and communities. While secular practitioners can certainly adapt religious techniques and vice-versa, they have most to learn in partnership with their religious counterparts.

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Part 2: Q&A with a student of conflict resolution

  (1)  When did you first become interested in the field of conflict resolution, generally, and religious peacemaking, specifically? 

Since my earliest days, I’ve been concerned by issues of justice. In college, my desire to be an attorney was soured by my experiences with campus advocacy. While I did – and still – find a lot in common with some protest movements, I realized that I prefer to work in a less adversarial environment. I didn’t know then the term ‘conflict resolution,’ but I was headed in that direction. Choosing to give myself more time to think about law school, I signed up with an AmeriCorps project involved in ‘violence prevention,’ and that opened the door to the field for me.  

During the same time that I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, I participated in an adult education program called JustFaith. It’s a primarily Catholic, but ecumenical, program that combines the study of Catholic social teaching and concrete acts of social ministry. This deepened associations already ingrained in me: the connections between religion, justice and peace. 

Even so, I partially chose to study conflict resolution at the University of Bradford (UK) because it was a secular environment. I did not originally intend to focus on religious peacebuilding. Rather, this desire developed during my masters degree experience as I realized, first, that this approach most appealed to me and, second, that it is a marginalized approach that requires further study.   

(2)  What processes and theories guided your research and studies at the University of Bradford? 

Bradford’s Peace Studies Department is really good at providing students with the layout and history of the field of conflict resolution / management / transformation. I was most influenced by the concepts of conflict transformation, especially theories that defined peacebuilding as process-oriented, bottom-up, organic, eliciting, nonlinear, etc. I also worked substantially with critical theory.  

a.      What processes and theories guide your work at Tanenbaum?  How have your views developed since the completion of your M.A. degree? 

The theories above inform my work at Tanenbaum and allow me to relate to the work of many of the Peacemakers. However, Tanenbaum’s Religion and Conflict Resolution Program also operates within academic, diplomatic and policy realms in which the peacebuilding paradigm is not the norm. I am learning to transition back and forth between paradigms, hopefully carrying valuable lessons from each. This sort of crossover is part of the growth of track II diplomacy.   

(3)  What mentors and/or prominent scholars/practitioners inspired your interest in conflict resolution and religious peacemaking?  What experiences and/or ideas of theirs most inspired you and why? 

· John Paul Lederach – the pyramid, “web-watching,” credibility of bottom-up approach

· Scott ApplebyThe Ambivalence of the Sacred is a pivotal text

· Marc Gopin – connection with the severity and depth of what’s at stake for religious groups

· Paulo Friere – learner-centered, participation, participation, participation

· Alasdair MacIntyre – religion as a ‘living tradition,’ the junction of the particular and the universal, tradition dependent rationality

· Andrea Bartoli – chronicling the work of the Community of Sant’ Egidio, especially in Mozambique

· Neil Cooper – my thesis advisor who helped bring in the critical theory with a focus on the psychosocial power of religions  

(4)  What previous life experiences have most helped prepare you for your current position?          

Working with faith-based relief agencies in my own Catholic community including during my violence prevention work with AmeriCorps; Working for a former Congressman 

a.      How have they shaped your understanding of religion and conflict resolution? 

I understand that this field is both community-based (about everyday living and ritual, social identity) and political (about power, elites and constituents).

Q&A with a student of conflict resolution, part 1

Last fall, the Religion and Conflict Resolution Program held a “brown bag lunch” – informal discussion – with students from Georgetown and American University in Washington, DC. Last month, one of the masters students who attended this event asked if he might interview me for a class project. Jason is writing about the growing sub-field of religion and conflict resolution. It makes me very happy to see students of conflict resolution and international affairs recognizing the important role of religion and, moreover, reaching out to Tanenbaum as a resource. Jason asked me questions organized under the categories “professional,” “personal” and “conflict resolution and religion.” I’ll share with you excerpts from this written interview, and this will be the first of a three post series. Enjoy!

(1) What major lessons have you and Tanenbaum learned through the publication of Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution?

I arrived at Tanenbaum (at the end of July 2007) several months after the publication of the book (which occurred in March 2007.) Still, even at this point and since, the response to the book has been strong. Those who have been exploring the intersection of religion and conflict for some time, have an “at last” reaction, because the book fills gaps: First, the case studies focus on individuals rather than organizations; this encourages emulation at the personal level and discourages stereotype based critiques. Secondly, the case studies have one institutional author (Tanenbaum), allowing for systematic approach and analysis.

In terms of those who are new to the idea that religion can be a force for peace, I have observed that it is helpful to gather religious peacemaking stories within a framework of second order language. While the Peacemakers often use primary language (words and references from their religious traditions), the case studies are presented with the secular reader in mind. Tanenbaum is a bridge building organization; we work with, study, and are informed by religious individuals and institutions, but we are a secular organization.

Finally, perhaps the greatest draw of the book is that it provides examples, models, real stories. I know that I personally have read countless descriptions of theological resources for peace within the world’s religions. They are never as convincing or exciting to me as the actions that result from such theological and spiritual insights. Many readers seem to agree; therefore the lesson is that we need more books, trainings, workshops, and conferences that focus on the how-to of religious peacemaking and peacebuilding.

(2) What trends, if any, are you seeing through the dissemination of Peacemakers in Action in how students and universities are engaging the issues of religion and conflict resolution?

People are curious. Many don’t know quite what to think about the intersection of religion and conflict, which is understandable as it is very complex. We find a scattering of courses and a handful of programs that focus on this. Resources also tend to be vague or anecdotal; the field is still in its infancy. Still, the excitement is definitely there.

a. Do you perceive an increase of interest in these issues by undergraduate and/or graduate students and university programs?

Again, yes. There is interest from every direction. Skeptics and even those hostile to religion realize that it’s not going away. On the contrary, the importance of religion as a factor in international affairs and conflict resolution is growing. This is remarkably evident in U.S. foreign policy. If you have not already, please see the CSIS report “Mixed Blessings”! And you know, especially in the Beltway, that what happens in universities and government is related. In another type of university setting as well – in seminaries, we find an increase of interest among students.

Around the Web: Religious Diversity at Work

Lately in religion / workplace news:  product design and advertising take the top spot!

Sharia-compliant investing:  The British treasury plans to back sharia-compliant bonds to help London become a global gateway for Islamic finance.  (While you’re at it, check out our recent post on sharia investing and 401Ks).

Sikh model breakthrough: Cobbler Kenneth Cole’s new ad campaign “We All Walk in Different Shoes” features Sandeep Singh, a Sikh model.

Crisp-labeling debacle: Muslim groups in the UK call on Walker Food Company to add labeling to crisp packets (known as “potato chips” to us Yanks) stating that the crisps contain trace amounts of ethyl alcohol, so that devout Muslims will known which flavors to avoid.

Fear of the occult:  The UK hits the news again for banning a TV ad for a Hindu religious pendant, claiming that it “violates codes which do not allow the promotion of the occult, psychic practices and exorcism.”

On this side of the pond, the U.S. Congress is again considering the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a piece of legislation that would raise the bar for employer’ claims that a religious accommodation would be an undue burden.  This isn’t the first time WFRA has been kicked around – will 2008 be the year?