Peacemakers in Action: An In-depth Discussion of Religious Peacebuilding

Oct 18, 2016

Don't miss this remarkable conversation with Joyce Dubensky, CEO of Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, and one of Tanenbaum's peacemakers, Rev. Bill Lowrey, who spent a decade in South Sudan. They explain the work of Tanenbaum's international network of peacemakers--the people on the ground who never quit.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council. I'm delighted to see you all here this evening for our book launch event for the publication of Peacemakers in Action: Volume 2: Profiles in Religious Peacebuilding.

We have with us the editor of the book, Joyce Dubensky and one of the distinguished peacemakers noted in the title, Rev. Bill Lowrey.

Joyce is not only the editor of the book, but she is also the CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, an extraordinary organization that works at the intersection of religion, education, and peace. The Tanenbaum Center is at the frontier of thought and action in the field of religious peacebuilding, and Joyce is the architect and engine of its multifaceted programs.

Joyce, we at the Carnegie Council admire the work of the Tanenbaum Center and your leadership of it, and we're delighted to host this program with you.

Bill has played an important role in the center's peacemaking work, offering his years of experience as the former director of peacebuilding and reconciliation for World Vision International. Among his many activities in this realm, Bill worked for over a decade in South Sudan, trying to reconcile opposing tribes during the most difficult times of the civil war, and we'll talk about some of that experience this evening.

Bill, you are an exemplar of our Council's motto, "Making Ethics Matter." Thank you for sharing this experience with us this evening. Thanks for being here.

I have just two simple observations to offer by way of introduction.

First, at a time when religion is most often cited as the source of conflict in a complicated, connected world, it is refreshing to see and hear a different side of the story. As Joyce puts it in the introduction to the book: "There are religiously motivated men and women who have done exceptional things to promote peace. Many of them labor heroically in obscurity. Their stories deserve to be told."

Second, the title of the book is telling and worthy of emphasis, Peacemakers in Action. Ethics is not just about reflection and contemplation. Ethics is about action. Religious peacebuilding, as this book describes it, is a powerful framework for encountering the conflicts we see today. We can use our ancient traditions to forge better outcomes in the present, and the Tanenbaum peacemakers show us how.

We hope our conversation this evening helps in the building of a new narrative about religion and peace, one that can inspire all of us toward a better future.

With those opening remarks, I'm going to turn it over to Joyce. Thank you all for coming. Joyce.


JOYCE DUBENSKY: Thank you, Joel. It's really good to be here with you and the Carnegie Council this evening.

I know I speak for all of us when I say that we miss our colleague and yours and the author of the foreword to Tanenbaum's new book, the wonderful George Rupp, who wanted to be here tonight but had a conflict, so he sends both his regards and his regrets.

I am delighted to be here to be talking about religion, peace, and the people who never quit, and the intersection of religious peacebuilding with ethics and international affairs. If you think about it, by its very nature, religion and peacebuilding involve ethics. This subject goes not only to the heart of what Tanenbaum does every day, but also to the heart of the Carnegie Council. You see, when Andrew Carnegie founded this institution, he started by convening 12 religious leaders from different traditions, and he called on them to work together. As he explained it over 100 years ago, they were joining together in the "holy task of abolishing war."

Though we haven't yet reached this vision, I'm here tonight to tell you that there are reasons to hope, because across the globe there are unsung heroes who are pursuing peace and justice, and I have the privilege of knowing a couple of them. My focus tonight will be on the work that Tanenbaum has done in the field of religious peacebuilding for nearly 20 years—how it evolved; a few key lessons that we've learned along the way; and a few of the trends that we see in what is now the field of religious peacebuilding. Then I'll turn it over to Bill, and he will be able to share with you what I really mean, because he exemplifies it all.

First, about Tanenbaum. As Joel mentioned, we all know people who say that religion causes conflict or, at the very least, that it's the fuel for violent conflict. That conviction that religion is a problem has been around for a very long time. But, more recently, a new focus has emerged, as scholars and activists have started asking how and to what extent religion can be a positive force for peace.

Tanenbaum was among the early explorers. In 1997 we set out to prove that there were individuals—not institutions, but individuals—driven by faith who pursued peace, notwithstanding the risks. Our goals in those days were simple: to find the people, to give them an award, and to do in-depth case studies to document their work, prove their impact, and provide them with some recognition—or, if you will, cover—so that they would somehow be safer.

Those were the early days of what is now a very robust Peacemakers in Action program. We started by creating five criteria, and we set out to find the people who satisfy those criteria so that they could become our Peacemakers in Action. They are pretty straightforward:

  • First, the person selected has to be religiously motivated;
  • Working or having worked in an armed conflict;
  • Doing at least some of their work on a local basis, locally based;
  • Relatively unknown at the time of selection; and
  • Finally, having put their lives or their freedom at risk, either because of where they happened to be living and the conflict in which they are embedded, or because they had made choices that put themselves at risk.

Our first peacemaker was Friar Ivo Markovic from Sarajevo. But he was far from the last. Along the way, we fulfilled on that original plan.

Ten years after we started in 2007, Tanenbaum published its first book of case studies, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution. It contained the stories of 16 of our peacemakers and their work. We included histories of the conflicts and a careful analysis of their most commonly used techniques, because across the world we could find techniques that they were using in different parts of the world unbeknownst to each other. Our goal was that they could be identified and replicated.

Last week—and it was literally last week—our second volume came out, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religious Peacebuilding. We added seven more stories and updates on the peacemakers from the first book. But we did more this time. We also added analysis of each peacemaker's work in their case studies and how their different work fits into the developing theories of peacebuilding. We also shared in the book the lessons learned and tried to be transparent about how our own thinking has evolved over the years. And then we looked at the trends—what's happening in this field.

Since we started on this journey, Tanenbaum has named 30 individuals Peacemakers in Action from 23 global conflicts. They come from many traditions, including various forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Most are active, even today, in their pursuit of peace and justice. They are a remarkable group of individuals.

But over the years, as we learned, we kept discovering new things, including that sometimes our goals had unintended consequences. For example, we had the goal of giving the peacemakers cover through the publicity that we were going to give them. And that worked—for some of them.

For instance, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, who some of you may know as the pastor and the imam. Their work grew exponentially after we gave them their very first award. From there they have been recognized many times, there are films about them now, and people around the world know of their peace work.

But for others, being associated with Tanenbaum—an identifiably Jewish name, even though we are neither religious nor sectarian—actually put them in danger. So we have one peacemaker who had a fatwa put on him because of his association with us.

We also, rather organically over the years, found that we could do more. So our goals and our work expanded. For example, in 2004 we started with our first working retreat. It was in Amman. We brought our peacemakers together for the first time. We learned a lot there, but, in particular, we learned that many of them felt isolated—they were working alone very often in very difficult circumstances.

We have now held a total of six working retreats, each a week long. At first, we brought in experts to train the peacemakers. Now we know better. We use most of our time when we are together for the peacemakers to train one another, because they are the real experts.

After just a few of those retreats, our peacemakers let us know that they weren't enough. They wanted more, and they wanted to work together. So the possibility of becoming a formal network was put on the table. It took us a few years of conversation, discussion, planning, and at our next retreat in 2011 that peacemakers network was unanimously adopted by all of our peacemakers. That meant that Tanenbaum's work had to change, because we became the facilitators of that network, and we watched as the network itself became a learning community of mutual support, collaboration, and even discrete projects where a couple of the peacemakers get together and will go to a conflict and work together because they have the particular skills to make a difference. They know each other, they know who to call on, and they work together.

A lot of the Tanenbaum story is in the books that we have written, including, as I mentioned before, thinking about how this field has evolved. We've even had to reconsider some of our original, sometimes unspoken, assumptions. For example, when you think about religious peacemakers, what do you think of—religious leaders, clergy? You'd be right if you did.

But it's not the whole story. The truth is that the peacemakers are a very diverse group of individuals and they assume many different roles as they pursue peace. So we define them by their motivation—religiously motivated; and by their vision—the pursuit of peace through a lifetime. That means they're not necessarily religious leaders. And that's important, because the default language when people talk about religious peacebuilding is to talk about religions leaders, and in many traditions we know what that means—men. If we think of them instead as religious actors, we begin to see the other individuals who are doing so much for this cause, the other activists who are so often overlooked—the women, the youth, the indigenous religious leaders, and those beyond the Abrahamic traditions.

This leads us to another point that is equally important. For our peacemakers, religious peacebuilding is a vocational option. It's one that they pursue throughout their lives. But it's not like other jobs and other professions—it's not like being a lawyer or a doctor—because being a peacemaker is not defined by the type of job someone has. It's defined by what they do with it.

So I think about our Muslim principal Najeeba Sirhan in the north of Israel, who sees her greatest achievement as creating something that never got a name—it was called "the project"—with her friend and her sister of choice, Osnat Daphna-Aram, a Jewish principal 10 minutes down the road from her Arab village. These two principals thought it was important for their children and their communities to know one another, so they brought them together so that they would see one another as people and not only as enemies.

Next, we've also learned that, though our religious peacemakers are unique in their motivation, they are not totally distinct from their secular, humanitarian, and development and peacebuilding counterparts, and that they often use secular techniques that secular activists use as well. So in looking for these people, what we have to look for is who they are, what motivates them, and whether they persist in their vision for peace, notwithstanding challenges and setbacks. We can't look at their outward roles—it's not enough; they don't tell us who they are. And in fact, even what they are doing may not always be the same. Their work is often fluid; their jobs are fluid. Their pursuit of peace is not.

Consider Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. She was an anti-apartheid activist, a deputy minister of defense, and a leader of a non-profit addressing sex trafficking in South Africa—not all at the same time. She has done all of those jobs, and in each she has looked for and sought peace.

Religious peacemakers are powerful actors, they're important, and we need to find them and work with them. It's important that secular peacebuilders not silo them and that those from the secular community, especially diplomats and Track I actors, work with them.

In addition to all we've learned, I told you we've also identified some trends—and I'm going to give you just three right now—that make religious peacemaking a force in international affairs.

First, there is a field of religion in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, an evolving and growing field of scholarship and practice. We see institutions dedicated to this, including at United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Institute of Peace and Justice in San Diego. There are courses, and even degrees that people can get, so that the next generation of religious activists, scholars, and peacebuilders can be prepared. They'll be a little less entrepreneurial than the current generation probably, but they will add a lot because we will have learned from that generation.

We see a focus on refining the scope of the field. That also tells us that it is growing. So there are debates on terminology. Our first book was Profiles in Religion and Conflict Resolution. Today we talk about "religious peacebuilding." It's a more encompassing framework, because the work is not only about getting between two conflicting sides—or three or four—but it's about bringing people together.

Second, we see that the Track I diplomats are beginning to pay attention to religion—its power, its force—across society and the importance of working with religious peacebuilders. We are seeing some of that at the United Nations and at the U.S. State Department, and that is another reason for hope.

Third, we are seeing more and more religious peacebuilding networks develop. We think that, again, is a very good sign for the field.

As I turn this over to Bill, I want to say that it is a personal and a professional honor for me to work with our peacemakers in action. Individually and as a community they are extraordinary, they're special, they're very different, and they're very human. But they share a passion for a lived peace, and it's something that we can all pursue and that they pursue.

Now it is my privilege to turn this over to the wonderful Bill Lowrey.

BILL LOWREY: Thank you, Joyce.

I'm pleased to share from my own experience and also to represent many of my colleague peacemakers who are scattered around the world. My story is different from most of the others in our network because I am not native to the country where I did the bulk of my peacemaking work. I was born in Mississippi, one of five children in a conservative Christian family, and through high school attended segregated schools. I never imagined that my journey would carry me from Southern Mississippi to Southern Sudan.

The keys to the journey were the beliefs that were being embedded in me as I was taught the Bible in my home. They were simple but profound beliefs that in time put me in conflict with my own culture, beliefs like: Every person is made in the image of God and has equal and unlimited value. Reconciliation is the mission of God and it is far bigger than just reconciliation with God; it includes with self, with others, and with the natural environment. Following Jesus will require sacrifice; it may include opposition, and it will inevitably engage the poor and the oppressed. And finally, we are called to pursue a vision for a better kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, and that includes the pursuit of both peace and justice.

In 1991, the Presbyterian church sent me to Southern Sudan to work in rebel-controlled areas as a humanitarian worker. During the early years, I immersed myself in the culture and with the people of Southern Sudan. I was deeply impressed with their resilience in the midst of extreme suffering and their capacity to resolve conflicts when they used their traditional methods of conflict resolution. Their approaches were dramatically different from Western methods, and they incorporated traditional and religious meanings and rituals. This led me eventually to write my Ph.D. dissertation on the indigenous methods of conflict resolution among the Nuer people of Southern Sudan.

In 1997, I proposed to the New Sudan Council of Churches that we try to facilitate the end of a seven-year war between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, the two largest tribes of Southern Sudan, using their indigenous methods. Previous attempts using Western approaches had failed. That began what came to be known later as the people-to-people peace process.

During the following two years, I helped organize and then facilitated three major conferences that resulted in bringing an end to the Dinka-Nuer war and culminated in the Wunlit Peace Conference in 1999. This peace held to a major degree for roughly 15 years, until the latest civil war broke out in December 2013.

After receiving the Tanenbaum Award in 2001, I became a part of a growing community of recipients who are also religiously motivated peacemakers from around the world, including those from Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions. Based on my own work and that of my fellow peacemakers, I wish to highlight six aspects and learnings from our experience.

The first is that peacemaking is nonlinear in its nature. It's a process that must be sustained continuously, with the recognition that there will be significant setbacks as well as gratifying breakthroughs. At the macro level, this is illustrated by both South Sudan and Colombia.

In July 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was formed, bringing an end to their long civil war between North and South. But, in only two and a half years, a new civil war of South-against-South broke out. The setback is so great today, it is hard for us to imagine a way forward toward peace in the midst of untold suffering, violence, and displacement.

And I think of Colombia and our peacemaker Ricardo Esquivia, who has given his life and energy for decades working for peace, and, after 60 years of conflict and six years of peace agreement negotiations, recently, by the slimmest margins, the people of Colombia voted down the peace agreement. This is a shocking setback. It was unanticipated.

But peacemakers cannot give up, whether working at the macro level of negotiations or the local level of communities in conflict.

Secondly, in every culture there is traditional wisdom and there are indigenous methodologies of how conflicts have been settled in the past. Additionally, there are community leaders who live life as a calling to be peacemakers, embodying the traditional wisdom, understanding the indigenous methodologies. Identifying such leaders and understanding culture, beliefs, and traditions is critical to work for organizations like Tanenbaum, and it needs to be for diplomats who are engaged in Track I diplomacy as well as humanitarian actors who can contribute toward multi-track diplomacy.

The third principle is that one of the most effective ways to sustain peace efforts is to harness religiously motivated peacemakers who draw from their religious beliefs as a sustaining power and live out their compassionate commitments to work for peace and justice and build bridges across the boundaries of conflict. This is at the heart of Tanenbaum's work and the theme of the book that is being launched. I urge you to read the stories of my friends and fellow peacemakers, such as Azhar "Azi" Hussain of Pakistan, Jamila Afghani of Afghanistan, Bishop Ntambo Nkulu of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Hind Kabawat of Syria, and Ricardo Esquivia of Colombia. Their stories will amaze and inspire you, as they have me.

The fourth idea is that such religiously motivated peacemakers will inevitably face opposition, experience threats, and live with risk and high stress. Some will lose their loved ones and friends—maybe I should say all of us have—some will lose their properties, some will lose their reputations, and some will lose their own lives. The price can be very high for such a calling. It requires an inner life of commitment, an ability to assess risk, and an ability to make wise decisions. Many of my colleagues face constant threats against them right now. All of us have known death threats and worked in situations where our lives and safety have frequently been in doubt.

The fifth thought is that this work of peace is too difficult to do alone. Therefore, we have formed ourselves into this network of Peacemakers in Action that Joyce has mentioned. It's a commitment to support one another, to nurture our resilience, to bounce back in the face of the setbacks or major shocks that surely will come. Tanenbaum has helped organize and helps facilitate our network.

Approximately every six weeks, we have a Skype conference call—a couple of those calls actually—for whoever is available is able to talk. It's a time for mutual support, to share with one another what we are doing, to understand more of each other's context. Just last week, I was on a call with fellow peacemakers from Syria, Indonesia, El Salvador, and Nigeria. I came away inspired by our time together, and I did not feel so alone.

Also, every two or three years, Tanenbaum helps us have a global retreat when our entire network meets face-to-face. And now, as she said, we have become trainers to one another. We do hear from some experts in the field of peacemaking, but we also have our private times of quiet personal sharing and mutual support and some long walks, and sometimes some tears. It convinces us we are not alone.

Finally, we recognize the power of unity and diversity and the strength of outsider/insider collaborations. In my own work in South Sudan, I have been the outsider working collaboratively with insider tribal chiefs, elders, church leaders, women, youth. As an outsider, I brought some skills, could ask some tough questions, could link the communities to global resources and organizations, and symbolically brought the watching world to the local reality.

But always it was the insiders who carried the wisdom of their history. They could mobilize the people for peace. They have the capacity to lead and to confront violence and greed and grievances. It's the insiders who can imagine ways to move toward peace and justice, forgiveness and mercy, and even reconciliation. In the process of making peace, it is insiders who must be the ones in charge, who can make the decisions that determine their own future. In our Peacemaker in Action network, as Joyce has mentioned, at times we function as outsider/insider so that an insider peacemaker from one country requests support from other peacemakers to come.

Syrian peacemaker Hind Kabawat convened 160 peace advocates for Syria to do training, and she leveraged that by bringing one of our peacemakers from South Africa and another from Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few years ago, during a time of elections in Nigeria, our peacemakers Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye reached out to their communities, and they used a delegation of three of our peacemakers who were Jewish, Christian, and Muslim from three different countries.

So, in summary, here are my six points:

  • Peacemaking is nonlinear. There will be breakthroughs and setbacks.
  • Tribal wisdom, indigenous methods, community leaders must be identified and harnessed for the work of peace.
  • Religiously motivated peacemakers are the ones who can have a sustained effort for peace over years of time, building bridges, drawing on faith and religious teaching, and maintaining the committed vision of peace and justice.
  • This type of work for peace carries high risk. It's not for the faint of heart.
  • The work of peace is too difficult to do alone. Networks are needed, both within country and around the world.
  • And there is power in the unity of diversity and in the collaboration of outsiders and insiders.

All of us draw on our own sacred writings to encourage us in the difficult times. Recently, when the Colombian peace agreement was voted down, there was both shock and discouragement. But I found inspiration by a message that came from the Presbyterian Church of Colombia to all of their partners from around the world, quoting from their Bible, and I read: "We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9, New Living Translation)"

Similarly, the Hebrew writer in the Psalms says, "Seek peace and pursue it"; the Holy Koran says, "When you speak, be just"; and the Buddha said, "Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace." Such writings inspire the peacemakers in our network, and I am grateful to be able to know them and to be one of them.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you for those inspiring words from both of you.

This is a question for both of you. Bill, you said "religiously motivated peacemakers/peacebuilders." I think probably many people in the room are curious about the relationship between a secular approach and a religiously motivated approach because I know that that's very distinct to the Tanenbaum Center's work and to the selection of peacemakers. I know you both touched on it, but if you could say just a little bit more about the religious dimension.

JOYCE DUBENSKY: One of the things that we always thought about, assumptions we had about religious peacemakers, was that they were driven by religion, religion and faith was important to them; that somehow they must be using religion for peace in their work; and that probably they were involved in religious conflicts.

When we applied our criteria and selected the peacemakers, we began to learn that these assumptions are not necessarily true. What is true is that they were all motivated by faith. What wasn't true is that they were always involved in a conflict that somehow was implicating religion. And what wasn't true was that they were necessarily using purely religious techniques. We found that some of their techniques were a mix between religious and secular, and some were religious, and some were purely secular. To give three examples:

  • A purely religious technique would be teaching a girl in Afghanistan to read the Koran and understand that women should be literate and should be respected so that they use that to convince their families to respect them and allow them maybe to work. That would be, I think, using a religious technique.
  • The power of the pulpit on its face is a religious technique. You have a member of the clergy, or of some religious tradition, standing at a pulpit or giving a Friday prayer, talk and using their authority as a religious authority. Well, when José Inocencio "Chencho" Alas did that—he was a priest; he no longer is, but he was at the time—and he stood behind the pulpit, he used it to organize the peasants so that they would seek land reform and go together and march together for land reform and protest for political, economic, and not per se a religious one.
  • And then, there are the purely secular, like Najeeba and Osnat, who I mentioned. They are educators, and what they did was bring the students together. They didn't necessarily talk about religion, although sometimes they might have. But, mostly, kids were painting murals or they were taking the children from the two communities and bringing them to a residential center for the elderly, where in pairs these kids would go to the older people and draw with them and talk to them and try to cheer them up. A secular technique by two religiously driven women seeking peace.

So it's very complicated. There is an overlay. That's why it's important to recognize the religious peacebuilder—not silo them, but make sure that they are understood as part of peacebuilding writ large.

BILL LOWREY: I will maybe just add a couple of things related to the inner dynamics of the peacemaker who is motivated by their own religion or faith.

I think there are inner beliefs that we have that have a great deal to do with what we are going to do with our life, how we will handle discouragement and difficulty. So it becomes the inner care system. A religiously motivated peacemaker needs to have that kind of system of inner care, and to question oneself as to "What do I really believe?"

When I was being raised in Mississippi, it was not the common belief that blacks and whites were equal, but my theology that I was being taught said we all were. And so those beliefs inside led me to serious questions and conversation in my family that then led me to a place of being able to stand against some of the cultural things.

The second aspect is I think within the religious community there is the casting of a vision of a better world and seeing that better world out there, however your religion might frame that, that that better world is worth sacrifice, it's worth energy, it's worth using your giftedness for it. Disappointment might set you back for a while, but as long as there is a vision out there that you are moving toward, it does help the sustaining work of peace that must go on not only for a year or two but actually for lifetimes.

QUESTION: Yousif Yahya. I'm from Sudan. Thank you both for the great talk and for the work that you guys do.

My question is a little bit broad and can be specific to you, Reverend: What has been the government's reactions about the work that you guys do in general?

And for the Reverend: What was your experience with Bashir's government in Sudan while you were working there in 1997? How do you see the conflict currently going on in South Sudan being overcome in the coming years?

BILL LOWREY: Going back to that period of time in the 1990s, that was very dicey. It not only was Bashir in the Northern part with the government who was opposed to this, but actually during those early days of working the people-to-people peace process and trying to end the Dinka-Nuer war, John Garang, who was the head of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), was also opposed to our process.

So it became a critical issue of what do you say publicly and what do you keep working at the grassroots level. When we held our first conference in Lokichogio with only 18 chiefs and church leaders, everyone was sure that would be a complete failure. It turned out, after nine days, that they were reconciled with each other, and they decided then to lead this process using their own methods because Westerners would say, "Send representatives and sign an agreement." But in those settings, what they said is, "There have to be hundreds of people who come together and participate in a consensus-building process that resolves all these conflicts." And so, they began to plan something that would take nine months to do. But they kept it completely quiet because they knew that people's lives would be at stake.

During those months I was moving in and out both in the North of Sudan as well as in the rebel zones. When I went into the North, I had a person there who enabled me to get a visa stamp when I arrived, so I secretly entered in a sense.

At that time, Riek Machar was the vice president in Sudan. He was in the palace. I needed—we needed—for him to cooperate with the people-to-people peace process. So I would meet for hours with him there.

I would also meet with those who had fled the war in the South who were in the North. We worked out an underground railroad to quietly help them, about 200 of them, get to the south to be a part of the peace process.

We also had to meet with other people in the SPLA and say, "Are you going to be with the people in moving toward this reconciliation?" At that time, it was Salva Kiir, who was the second-in-command to John Garang, who actually sided with the peace process and stood against John Garang.

It's amazing that, all these years later now, it's these two men, who both cooperated with this but were also intentionally marginalized and not allowed to control the process, who today are the prime antagonists in the war in South Sudan. It shows you how there are setbacks. It is nonlinear.

JOYCE DUBENSKY: One of our goals for a very long time has been that diplomats around the world would recognize the power of religious peacebuilders, would be looking for them in their conflict zones, and trying to identify them and work with them as another resource for peacebuilding.

For years, one of the steps was to imagine training of diplomats at the State Department. We have seen movement under Shaun Casey at the State Department. He is an advisor to Secretary Kerry. He has a department now called Religion and Global Affairs. Among the things they are starting to do is looking at curricula that might be used, the beginnings of curricula, to introduce these issues. This has been years in the making, but it's very exciting. We are part of the development of that. It's a very exciting development.

I will say that, even if it doesn't happen because of a change of administration, because it has been started it will happen, and we will keep working for it.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

I went to a panel discussion this morning at the International Peace Institute about atrocities, genocide, and prevention. This was done in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a wonderful panorama of organizations from around the world. So certainly the concepts of peacebuilding and conflict resolution and preventing atrocities and so forth have spread widely.

What are you doing in cooperation with some of these other institutions, organizations, the United Nations, and so on in order to strengthen the possibilities of combatting genocide and atrocities and all the other horrors?

JOYCE DUBENSKY: I'm going to try to answer that. But I will also say that that hasn't been per se the focus of our work. It has been supporting the peacemakers and documenting their work and showing the power of religious peacebuilding so that they are not marginalized in those efforts, because many of those efforts come from a secular perspective.

But we've also worked with the United Nations and with colleagues at the United Nations. When our peacemakers had their last working retreat this summer, we had two panels trying to share information about the power of religious peace actors and why they are a necessary and important ally in all of this work.

That's probably not enough. There is a lot of work to be done. I thank you for your question. I'm sorry I don't have more.

QUESTIONER: Thank for all you are doing. The idea is I'm sure everyone here wants to help, wants to eliminate all the terrible scourges of war and genocide, and the fact that there are groups coming from many parts of the world—and you're including many of them—it's so important for people to know about each other, to interact with each other. You are doing so much, and you are working with indigenous leaders and so forth. But it's amazing how many other things are going on. The more people can coordinate and inspire each other, the better, as for example in Sudan, or Rwanda, or whatever it is.

BILL LOWREY: I might just comment a moment about that.

I think with our peacemakers, because they are basically from the grassroots, it varies a great deal as to different ones of them to what extent they are working with a variety of organizations at different levels.

Even though there was a disadvantage for me not being an insider in South Sudan, there was an advantage that as an outsider I did have links with a number of these organizations. So USIP funded some of the research on documenting the indigenous process among the Dinka and the Nuer. The United Nations at that time actually could not use the "peace" word in any of its conversations, but quietly many of those UN people were working with us to help with transport and various types of emergency relief. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is a major actor with all of that, whether it's on the peace side or the humanitarian assistance side.

It does help when there are outsider/insider combinations, which we think are the most dynamic of all, if the outsider can see their role as not authoritarian decider on the ground but the linking person that is helping bring international resources to play so that the insiders can really give guidance as to where things need to go.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Can I just push on that just a little bit further? You talked a couple of times about indigenous processes of thinking about reconciliation or peace. Could you share with us a little bit of what that means, perhaps in the context of South Sudan, from the tribal chiefs, what their process is?

There is a second question to that, too. Classically, we think of religious conflict being between different groups. But I would imagine in the peacebuilding enterprise that peacebuilders would face strong resistance within their group, those who would see things going a different way. In other words, you may be moving toward a reconciliation but the rest of the group being resistant.

BILL LOWREY: Starting off with indigenous methodologies, of course the different cultures of the world have many different ways of doing that. But if you go and sit and learn from each one, you can see what has been their methodology.

That's basically what I did when I was supporting, just from a logistical standpoint, a Nuer intra-conflict that they resolved themselves using their own methods. I was so amazed by that. I had never seen anything quite like that happen. And so I did my Ph.D. on that to learn more. When I did that, I actually traveled with a Nuer academic. We went into the bush, sitting under the tree all day long, just people telling the stories of what they believe and how they resolve conflicts and how their ancestors had passed on this wisdom for them.

Just as a concrete example, the difference between the West and, for instance, the Dinka and the Nuer: Now, both of these tribal groups, the largest two in Southern Sudan, are known as acephalous societies—"a" means "no" and "cephalous" means "head," so they have no hierarchy; it is non-hierarchical. So there are no paramount chiefs, there are no kings; it is a flat organization. There were custodians for the water, custodians for the air, custodians for the land, depending on whose conflict it was, as to who helped resolve it. This meant they became masters at consensus and problem solving through consensus. But to do that takes a huge amount of time—days of telling the stories and surfacing the issues.

That is not a Western approach. Westerners usually want you to send a delegation who is authorized to decide for you and sit in smoke-filled rooms, and sometimes be in very nice hotels, and shuttle back and forth, and maybe spend millions of dollars, and then go back. But if you go back into that kind of setting, they don't accept that as having credibility.

That's one example. So their methodology has to be drawn from the people as to how they actually make decisions and how they resolve conflicts.

What I also discovered, particularly with the Dinka and the Nuer, is that rituals—and they have various religious aspects to it—are very, very powerful. If the rituals are not employed, then the people get the message that peace has not been established.

And so, in this case, for a peace to actually be reached and the covenant to be finished, there must be then—a white bull is brought out, all the sins of the people for all these years must be confessed over the bull. Each one has little different ways they do it, as to how they take the bull down, but the bull must be killed—taken down by hand, put his neck up toward the rising sun, slit his throat, bleed him out. Say to people, "If you violate this covenant, your blood will flow like the blood of the bull." And there are all kind of water rituals and sprinkling rituals.

But not only that, because it is an oral culture, then they need to enroll the people in the peace. You can't just print it and send it out through email. It doesn't work that way.

After the peace agreement, then the spiritual leaders would go to different holy sites and they would reenact the slaughtering of the bull and enlist the people in the commitment to the peace and also give the judgment that if you violate this your blood will flow.

These are very different approaches, but they actually bring the people into the peace instead of just pronouncing that there is an agreement.

QUESTION: My name is Mohammed Dahab.

I am from Sudan. I have worked my whole career in the humanitarian field within Sudan. I've worked in some of the most isolated and some of the less-well-known areas of Sudan. People are often surprised to learn that it's not just the South, or even the West, that is troubled, but there's a whole array of issues all over Sudan.

In my relatively limited experience, limited compared to yourself, because I've only worked in the field for five or six years, as opposed to yourself who has worked for decades, I find that the best approach, perhaps, a more surefire approach or perhaps a more comprehensive approach, would be a more pragmatic approach. There's where I differ from your approach. I believe at some point they have to sit down, there has to be a distribution of wealth, there has to be a distribution of resources, and there has to be a set plan as to what happens, where, and when. I find that to be more tangible. I find that to be more pragmatic.

I was wondering as to what you yourself would say to that. At what point do you get more tangible? At what point do you get more pragmatic? At what point do you sit down and perhaps get a piece of paper and start mapping out the resources and start giving a palm here, a stick there even? At what point do you do that?

BILL LOWREY: I think you do it from beginning to end. I don't think it's an either/or on that. There's the practical side. There's also the traditions and the beliefs and the wisdom and there are the rituals for it.

Here is an example that comes to my mind. I have also been involved in humanitarian assistance. I found in a village once where there was a great deal of hunger that as we brought in food supplies or shelter or whatever it might be—but tangible goods—there were a lot of women who were not getting any. The reason we found, as we looked at how decisions were made, is that these women were widows; they were not then represented in the chief's council as they made these distributions, and so they were being left out. And so it became a time of recognizing that, discovering what the methodology was in their tradition, and being able to talk with people and saying, "The tradition is not working. These women are being left out." Many of these men didn't even know they were being left out because they were out of sight. So it began to let the widows then come into the council and be a part of the process of distribution.

In that sense, it becomes very practical, and that's a trust-building peace. If you don't do those practical things that build trust and relationships, then it's likely that you are never going to get to an actual peace conference.

There was a whole period of years in South Sudan, with the factional division in the South, that it was very difficult to be on one side or the other. This comes back to your question: What happens if you want peace but you're not being loyal to your own tribe or your own ethnicity? The desire to keep people divided was there.

One of the things we did was we found that if the church owned the radio, the rebels would not take it from them; but if an NGO owned it, they would come take it. So we began to place high frequency (HF) radios with church communities, all different church communities across the lines, and then get them to talk with each other by HF radio across the factional lines. What it did is it kept this network of religiously oriented peacemakers linked together and it kept them from being divided by their own tribe. And so, once the time came that they could then cross those lines physically, they discovered all the warnings—"You're going to be killed if you go over there"—didn't happen at all. They were greeted because they were known, just by radio.

QUESTIONER: That's an excellent example of a pragmatic solution to a rather troubling problem.

If I can expand upon that and perhaps have a more generalized overview as to the conflict in South Sudan regarding the Nuer and the Dinka—you would agree with me that it's a lot more complex than just Nuer-Dinka.

BILL LOWREY: That's right.

QUESTIONER: There's a political aspect, there's a social aspect, there's a cultural aspect, there's an economic aspect.

BILL LOWREY: And the Equatorians and all the smaller tribes.

QUESTIONER: Yes, you have all these tribes.

As someone who has worked in peacebuilding within that area, you said the peace which you helped to build, which has held over 15 years, just recently collapsed. Does that surprise you?

And second of all, do you see a means by which a permanent and final understanding can be reached here? I mean this is a tribal conflict that has been going on since the beginning of time, basically. The Nuer and Dinka have never gotten along, except perhaps to unite versus the North, and even then they were exploited against one another. Is there a solution?

BILL LOWREY: Well, your first question was, was I surprised that it fell apart. No, but I was deeply, deeply disappointed and pained. I think all of us who worked there knew there was the potential for this kind of worst-case scenario. When you take sometimes uneducated, sometimes highly educated, military people who all their life have solved problems by the use of coercive power and then you give them the government, they still know how to use coercive power as the primary way of deciding things. It has been so painful, these last three years.

And then, in my perspective, what the global environment does then is it basically amplifies and empowers the worst of the antagonists. The West and the global community decide Riek Machar and Salva Kiir are going to be the ones who decide this. So it's their people who get all the resources and power for working with that, and many of those others who are peacemakers are marginalized in that process.

At this point, I don't have hopeful visions of where it is going at the macro level in terms of negotiations. The question of whether the United Nations is going to stick by what it said and bring in a third party, whether the third-party force will actually be able to provide some security in Juba—who knows?

One of the few things that I'm encouraged by—and I have to keep looking for signs of encouragement, signs of hope—is in the macro war of the past, there were religious leaders who lived with their people, suffered with them, did not flee the country, and kept linked with each other. They were really critical in the next stage of peace. Many of those people then later were attracted by the political opportunity to become members of parliament, members of government—a new government has to form; they need hundreds of people. Many of them went into that, and they got caught right into the same process of greed.

Now there is a whole other generation of younger leaders that is acting like the old leaders from 15, 20 years ago, which really thrills me. They are making pronouncements. Some of them are being taken by security—they might be tortured, they're beat up; some of them have been killed. But they also are saying to their people, "We are not fleeing. We are not becoming refugees. We are staying with you. We will suffer with you."

My hope in the next few months—I'm in touch with a number of them—we're trying to bring as many as we can cross the border into Northern Uganda, just to give them a retreat time so that across all those differences they just hold on to each other, lament, gain their vision, encourage one another, and keep working the process.

There are religiously motivated peacemakers across every one of those tribes in Southern Sudan, but they are not in the positions of great power right now.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Good luck.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We have come to the end of our time together. I want to thank you all for sharing. This has been a tremendous learning event. The book and your work are really a great gift to us. Thank you for sharing this hour with us.

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