Friday, April 19, 2013

It Gets Personal, Part III: Religion, Peacebuilding, and You (Me.)

My last couple of posts discussed my ongoing difficulties squaring off with religion, faith, and spirituality in my own life. The current crisis stems from a song I heard a couple of weeks ago that contained some subtle Christian overtones, and I've been using the blog to work through my relationship with these dynamics. Today, we reach the exciting(?) conclusion, where I connect these themes both to my background and my potential future.

A subtle but nonetheless highly salient component of a Maine upbringing is a strong sense of individuality and a corresponding reluctance to push others toward adherence to my own belief system. Casey says that it's because "we're good people," and he may be right. That which makes me uncomfortable with GOP legislation of morality or religious proselytizing also repels me from making judgments about the ways in which others live their lives, but that seems like such a big part of being faithful/religious in the Strange Land.  Here in DC, when I ask someone how they're doing, I'm about as likely to hear "Blessed" as anything else. And I've been repeatedly told that not spreading my faith to others is akin to not having a faith at all. I refuse to accept that, but the fact that so many folks seem to feel that way gives me lot of angst about the role of religion or faith in our daily lives. 

That angst isn't so much a problem in and of itself, but for a peacebuilder, it complicates things. War and violent conflict almost never occur across national borders for reasons of territory or disputes between heads of state anymore. Conflicts are primarily internal and fought over identity, socioeconomic inequity, or political exclusion. Religion and faith, so essential to identity in many cultures and contexts, can be both a key motivator of violence and a strong draw to reconciliation. It all depends on the ways in which the tenets and  symbols of a faith are activated. To wit, my first professor at the School of International Service, Dr. Abdul Aziz Said, was a strong supporter of the power of religion and faith to motivate forgiveness and reconciliation. He often quoted a colleague/mentor of his from the days of SIS' founding, who was wont to explain "I don't believe in God, I see god in everything I do." Both Aziz and his grad assistant, Sheherazade, worked with this personalized notion of holiness and an inner deity to motivate forgiveness and reconciliation in transitioning societies. By the same token, if you neglect to include religious leaders or groups in post-conflict peacebuilding, at best you'll alienate a wide segment of the population, at worst you've made yourself an adversary or "spoiler" who's going to work against your goals. 

Openness to the inclusion of religious elements comes as close to a hard-and-fast rule as anything else in the peacebuilding/development world, and I don't have any problem with that on an intellectual level. Religiously based support for love and justice can be essential to promoting lasting peace. In practice, though, I'm concerned that my discomfort with some PDR or "public displays of religion," will make my life difficult. When it finally comes time to address religious groups as part of a capacity-building exercise or policy workshop, what if I can't properly identify with the faithful? Will I come across as resistant or unreliable because of my trouble integrating spirituality into my life? The harder I try to understand faith, though, the harder some of the faithful seem to try to alienate me and those who think like me.

As the arguments coming from these self-appointed standard-bearers of tradition and societal soundness get eviscerated time and time again, it seems they're turning to more abstract language and ever-greater intellectual leaps. Now, the Archbishop of Paris has spewed a bunch of nonsense about impending violence if France goes ahead with legalizing same-sex marriage:  
Does this procession look photoshopped to anyone else?
Cardinal Andre Vingt-trois taking a break from authoring
inscrutable positions on the state's role in people's personal lives
to take part in the Stations of the Cross.
I wonder if Jesus' cross was that nice and polished.

"This is the way a violent society develops," he told the spring meeting of the French bishops' conference. "Society has lost its capacity of integration and especially its ability to blend differences in a common project."


I'm not entirely sure how a state that's trying to give a broader swath of people equal treatment under the law is doing anything other than showing its capacity for integration and the blending of differences, and the Cardinal doesn't appear to explain his logical gymnastics. But I'm quite sure that he's ignoring structural violence, which can be just as damaging as overt violence, though tougher to see. A major concept in peace and conflict resolution, structural violence refers to the structures and dynamics within a society that allow people to be marginalized or made second-class citizens. In many cases, structural violence actually legitimates overt violence, e.g. our acceptance that a certain degree of youth violence is going to occur among our poorer, darker-skinned, and more urban fellow Americans. If development or conflict resolution interventions are ignorant of these structures or give too much deference to localized, traditional understandings of societal norms and social relations (often based in religion,) they end up doing little more than reinforcing social oppression. And I ain't about that. Drawing on both religious and localized perspectives in conflict resolution is super important, but I'd have a (justifiably) hard time, I think, with the idea that it could end up damaging social inclusion or buttressing oppression.  

Of course, it's unlikely that I'll be in that situation any time soon, so I suppose I have time to iron out my relationship with faith, spirituality, religion, whatever you'd like to call it. Still, if there are even small ways that I can make myself more like the peacebuilder I someday hope to be, continually asking myself these questions will hopefully help me do that. Even if it means I have to bore everyone with an interminable series of idle thoughts I had when singing an OK song by a reasonably skilled contemporary rock/pop/Christian artist. 

I probably should just have my iPod on at all times and stop listening to the radio.

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