Loving Enemies in Uganda

My colleague and mentor from the University of Notre Dame, Dan Philpott, has just come out with a beautiful, short, fresh film entitled Uganda: The Challenge of Forgiveness and produced by the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. The film features a series of gracious interviews with community and religious leaders in Northern Uganda and the acts of forgiveness, political and personal, they committed towards Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA):

Now, Kony and the LRA have terrorized northern Uganda with wretched violence for more than twenty years, and they have a particularly cruel history of abducting children and women. But, in the film, we find out that Philpott’s interviewees have responded to this cruelty with an unusual calculation: because Kony and his men were children torn from their own communities, they decided to seek him out.

Among others, then, the film includes lengthy conversations with the Catholic Bishop of Gulu, John Baptiste Odama who, along with Anglican Bishop MacLeord Baker Ochola II, had pursued options to make it easier for Kony rebels to lay down their guns. In 2008, Odama had advanced on peace talks with Kony, himself, and then went on a tour of the United States to criticize military operations backed by the US and the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a solution to his country’s crisis. The indictment of Kony by the ICC, in fact, was partly to blame for the failure of the Bishops’ negotiations and produced a classic moral dilemma which peace scholars have often referred to as the tradeoff between peace and justice in certain conflict situations.

Philpott, who is just out with a new book on the politics of reconciliation argues that Kony certainly should be brought to justice, given the breadth and cruelty and intensity of his crimes. And it is a good thing that his continued impunity has recently come under the intense light of the world media audience, thanks in large part to the video Kony 2012 produced by the young, daring activists at Invisible Children which, as they say, went viral over the waves last month.  The headline stories have continued this week with US troops tracking down Kony in the Central African Republic- Fox News has dubbed it the Man Hunt.

But lost in much of this quest for righteous vengeance has been this incredible story captured in Philpott’s interviews which pushes us to expand our short horizons of justice. As Odama challenges, finishing off Kony will not heal their communities, at least not in any enduring way. For to get to that, there is only the struggling movement towards political reconciliation and personal forgiveness.

Jean Vanier, World Peace and the Politics of Gentleness

There is a new website up dedicated to the life and work of Jean Vanier, founder of the international community of L’Arche, a global federation of homes and workspaces where adults with intellectual disabilities and assistants try to live in prayerful and mundane communion with one another. They are messy, beautiful communities where authenticity, tenderness and time-lost-at-table are cherished above all. The care and patience demanded to live  in a L’Arche home creates a good deal of frustration and the feeling of being worn out, often. Yet, these acts can also give themselves over to this searing self-discovery of one’s capacity for gentleness and the deep joy of being in the presence of another. I always remember the bewilderment on the face of a 19-year old German assistant when she described to me about just how much time she spent preparing for and then eating at the table in her first week at L’Arche, and then I remember the inner flicker of her eye a few months later as she shuffled over, arms a-tangle with a core member to cut some rosemary branches and petunias for dinner. And I think that walk from bewilderment to the inner-flickering of the slow act of being with the little of the earth is L’Arche at its best.

The website tries to get at some of this, hoping, explicitly, to make Jean Vanier’s witness to communion-across-difference more public, and articulate it, as Jean has attempted himself, as a political source of peace. Jean’s “politics of gentleness” as Stanley Hauerwas has put it.

For those who love L’Arche and Jean Vanier, the website is a delight and gives an excuse to reflect on what a politics of gentleness could really mean. There are glimpses on the site. The quotes about Jean Vanier from Romeo Dallaire, for example, the Canadian Lt. General famous for doing the best he could with a token UN force to shield Tutsis from the genocide slaughter of Rwanda in 1994, evoke the darkest sides of political structures which prize competition rather than slow-little-being as their motor of existence.  The hope against this darkness, then, is in the work of listening to the weak as teachers; filling the relationships of our polities with reconciled understandings of our fragilities; living broken bodies and souls as an experience of growth and goodness. These global hopes of Jean remain in the realm of the prophetic, but when the words start feeling a bit too airy, start clicking on some of the photos, read some of the tags and the hopes of more German kids carrying rosemary, and all the global peace-flickering that goes with it, doesn’t seem so impossible.

Interreligious Dialogue in Doha

The Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) recently held its ninth annual Conference, from October 24th to 26th in Qatar. This year’s theme was “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue.” An impressive group of international Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars reflected on how religious leaders might translate the moral insights of religious thought in such a way as to provide ground rules for an ethical use of social media.

The setting of the conference, however, was just as interesting as its theme, and revealed how the relationship between religion and state is being re-evaluated in contemporary global politics. This re-evaluation recognizes that religious institutions continue to provide services which further the business of statecraft in a way that the state, by itself, is not always capable of doing. Whether it be through promoting inter-religious dialogue in Qatar, reconciliation in post-conflict societies, religious political parties in emerging democracies or faith-based initiatives in the United States, regimes are attempting to harness the power of religious projects in increasingly explicit ways. The advantages and risks of the new relationships between religion and states which form as a result are not often well understood, and the DICID conference put both on display.

Let’s begin with the opportunities. The sponsorship of the DICID by the state of Qatar has clear advantages for advancing the success of interreligious dialogue as well as its normative goal to build peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations of different religions. The most important of these advantages is that the DICID guarantees that a major, inter-religious dialogue will be hosted annually in the heart of the Middle East by an Islamic-friendly, modernizing state. In this sense, the projection of inter-religious dialogue is not only good for world peace, but good for Qatar as well, and its ambitions of becoming the region’s leading diplomat-at-large and global promoter of “Muslim modernity.”  As an economically powerful, Muslim-majority state, Qatar is burning to prove to the world the success of a religiously infused model of modern Muslim society.  The DICID’s opening video, replayed throughout the conference, emphasized the extraordinary promise of this vision, with moving images which recalled Qatar’s media campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.

The success of this vision, so far, endows Qatar with a unique credibility within the Muslim-majority world to act as a trustworthy interlocutor with religious others in the West. Thus, the conference was able to include religious leaders and clerics from the Muslim world who might normally be suspicious of the political agenda of an interfaith dialogue initiated in the Christian or secular West (as many such initiatives are). An eminent cleric of Mauritania, for example, began his presentation by heaping profuse thanks and admiration for the projects of the Emir of Qatar, saying, “I do not have much hope for the success of interreligious dialogue, but I came because of the good work of the state of Qatar.”  For interreligious dialogue to succeed, and bring religious leaders to a meaningful, transformative discussion, it must gain the confidence of these skeptics and convince them of its neutral design towards peace. As the conference’s host, Qatar can do much to build this confidence in the Muslim world.

Yet, at the same time, the very nature of the conference as a state-led political project complicates this quest for a religious consensus among the leaders that could build such peace.  As its host, Qatar implicitly recognizes the importance of interreligious dialogue as a political tool for order, security and peace, and justifiably uses its position of power to invite religious leaders to help in the task.  The effectiveness of a meaningful consensus among religious leaders, however, is hampered when that consensus becomes a function of a political agenda, as opposed to a religious one.

In this respect, it was interesting to note the paucity of prayer at the conference, and the lack of any organized attempt at a shared sacred ritual among participants. Although the meeting began with a prayer by a Muslim Imam, the sacred content of the meeting remained in the background. In other inter-religious initiatives which are hosted and led by religious organizations (the Sant’Egidio International Prayer for Peace, for example), the attempt by religious leaders to unify hearts and souls together and beg God for illumination, compassion and mercy, is the explicit framework which sets the tone for religious leaders’ search for consensus and peace.

As the Grand Mufti Ceric argued, part of the business of inter-religious dialogue is to ensure that the “serious business of politics is not left to politicians alone.” Inter-religious dialogue can help do this by articulating universal truths about human existence and question, critiquing, fustigating, and pulling politics (and each other) towards divine ideals.  Religion, of course, is also too important a business to be left to religious leaders alone. It is the political imperative of constructing everyday peace and order which moves politicians to host initiatives such as these in the first place and to invite religious leaders to remember their vocation as mediators of divine compassion, including here on this earth. These, in essence, represent the contours of a new model of religion and state in global politics, one in which religious and political leaders recognize their distinct, but dependent, universes of action and meet together in the public sphere to work towards the common good.

Qatar, therefore, has a difficult line to walk in order to encourage inter-religious dialogue, but to not set its agenda; to encourage an inter-religious framework for peace, but to set the dialogue free and to allow its religious logic and gifts to fill out the political imperative for dialogue today. If Qatar is successful in doing this, and I hope it is, it will not only further its distinctive political prowress in the gulf, but will have also contributed to the creation of a fruitful model of religion-state cooperation in the Middle East today.

Massignon, Maritain, Delbrel

I’ve been thinking all month about a great trio of French Catholics whose lifestories and thoughts pushed or presaged much of what was involved in the kairos of the Second Vatican Council, namely, Louis Massignon, Jacques Maritain and Madeleine Delbrel.  Massignon for his pushing the Church’s friendship with Islam, Maritain for pushing the Church’s friendship with democracy and Delbrel for pushing the language of the Church out of the Church and back to the “ordinary people of the streets.” It is amazing how fresh this trio reads in 2011. Delbrel, poetic and joyous:

Why should the song of the lark in the wheat fields, the buzzing of the insects in the night, and the droning of the bees among the thyme, nourish our silence, and not the crowds in the street, the voices of the women in the market, the yells of the men at work, the laughter of the children in the garden, and the songs coming from the bars? All of these are the noises of creatures advancing toward their destiny, all of this is the echo of the house of God in order or in shambles, all of this is the sign of life encountering our life.

Silence does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God.”

I don’t want to drive a comparison or shake syncretism out of this note, but I had early 20 century Algerian Islamic reformers on my mind as I read early 20th century French Catholics this month, Ibn Badis and Malek Bennabi especially. What might the freshness of Massignon, Delbrel and Maritain tell us in a reading near Bennabi and Ibn Badis? It strengthens my hope that politics illuminated by the light of faith might help in the bulwark building of tolerant, plural and, even, religious democracies in North Africa today, as it helped do the same in Southern Europe.

Democratization in the Land of Tibhirine

[This month’s post is being hosted by The Review of Faith and International Affairs]

Fifteen years ago, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria and assassinated in the mountains surrounding their home. In many ways, the story of these Catholic monks is an absurd entry point for a political reflection on contemporary Algeria. The Algerian Christian church is a tiny community in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, and the monks represent merely seven of the thousands of lives—perhaps as many as 200,000—that were extinguished during Algeria’s years of violence. Yet, with the recent release of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men in the United States, millions of Americans are being introduced to the monks’ story for the first time and, through their story, to Algerian politics. Given the film’s coincidence with political developments in the rest of North Africa, I would like to situate the film in its larger Algerian political context and consider what insights the spirit of Tibhirine might offer toward creating sustainable democracy in Algeria today…. read the rest of the article here

Faith and Political Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

This autumn’s issue of the Review of Faith and International Affairs has brought together an appealing group of articles which re-pore over the role of faith in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The issue reminds me of the voices I hear raised at conferences who complain that those worried most about the compatibility between Islamic immigration and European Christian culture aren’t really Christian politicians; that those most actively blocking democracy in Muslim countries aren’t Islamists; and that for all its talk about religious conflict, the Clash of Civilizations is never really framed theologically. In short, these articles appeal because, as Dennis Hoover writes, despite the overstated religious tenor to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, religion has still yet to really play a role in the making of its political peace.

The central theme of many of the articles, from Andrrea Bartoli to Dennis Brown, Suhail Khan and Michael Ostrolenk, is to think about how to recapture sacred tools and empower sacred leaders to respond to the sacralization of a conflict whose solution seems to lay outside of the political. In this sense, the articles are short on concrete proposals and often remain long on the level of anecdotes and hope. But, still, the hope and anecdotes help trace out resources which are already available to religious leaders in the Middle East, and it is a good idea to finger them to the front in this moment of negotiation possibility.  So Ostrolenk tries to dig about themes of reconciliation and mercy which run through Judaism, Christianity and Islam and propose them as catalysts for the negotiations, as they had been in places like South Africa and Chile. Bartoli leverages the Christian virtues of repentance and hospitality to make a point about the political potential for mercy. And Suhail Khan offers stories about religious leaders in the Middle East using sacred words well to speak to their constituencies’ spiritual needs for political peace. Food for thought as the peace envoys are stuck in salvage mode.

Burkas, Cannes, Tibhirine

Two mediatic moments of two quintessential French traditions of socio-religious-political intertwining in the month of May.

1. Laïcité. Earlier this month the French parliament moved to take up a vote to ban the wearing of the burka in public in France, following a Belgian law passed in April doing the same. Unlike the Belgian law, which draws its legitimacy from a logic of security (and which, several Le Monde comment-writers noted half-facetiously, should also have to apply to the motorcycle helmets of moped-driving pizza delivery boys), the French law contests that the burka is an unacceptable violation of universal human rights. One interesting and telling aspect about the move is the unequivocal determination of French parliamentarians from all across the political spectrum to reassert and articulate a legislative logic which is based on a societal consensus about the spirit of a founding constitutional value. In this case, the French parliament did not attempt to avoid the religious polemic associated with such a decision through a paltry declaration of “national security” (as the Belgians did). The Economist and others have pointed out that the constitutional value in question is egalité and that the legislative argument makes no reference to norms of laïcité. Yet, as protesters evidenced last week, it is hard not to interpret the proposed bill as part of a mounting defense by the French parliament of the primacy of the logic of public secularism over religious tolerance.

2. French Monasticism. Although Rachid Bouchared’s new film, Hors-la-loi, has held French headlines captive this month for the protests it stirred among ex-French combatants in Algeria, it was Xavier Beauvois’ film about the monks of Tibhirine (see blog entry July, 2009), Des Hommes et des Dieux, which brought home the Grand Prix at Cannes last night. And so the same month of May which has brought France to the banning of the burka has also given the French public access to one of the great acts of religious-inspired religious tolerance, fruit of the French Cistercian monastic tradition. If the reviews are worth their salt, Beauvois and his troupe are achingly successful in their depiction of the peace of the monks’ decision to embrace the religious other in love without fear.

Obama’s Nobel

President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today and AFP reported the immediate reactions of world leaders to the news. Europe fawned, Desmond Tutu thought it was wonderful, Shimon Peres thought it could be a good asset for the peace process in the Middle East as did, at least according to his spokesman, President Ahmedinejad.  As of yet, and it is still early, the AFP reported that U.S. conservatives, Hamas and Lech Walesa had found this year’s Nobel choice to be a deeply troubling one. The interesting question to ask here is if the intent to give Obama the prize was partially motivated by the hope that it would bolster his chances of moving on peace issues and his attempt to make good on his Cairo speech and the Palestinian peace process in particular, will it work? Who does Obama need to convince more to help make peace in the Middle East? Israel and Europe or Hamas and U.S. Conservatives? A quick read of Middle East newspapers paints a picture of an Arab public which is rather wary of Obama’s foreign policy and still upset about his inaction over Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Obama needs both Israel and the Arab world’s trust and the Nobel prize might focus the negotiating mind, so to speak, especially U.S. and Israeli minds, on the Peace Process. But Obama also needs to produce some action, soon, to convince a big, waiting Middle East public of his evenhandedness in this all. It is not clear whether the Nobel prize will aid or prove bothersome in this hefty task.

Monks of Tibhirine

Although their story is still unknown in the U.S., the deaths of the 7 Monks of Tibhirine, in Algeria, in 1993, has long held the attention of both the French and Algerian public. For the spiritual testimony it announces. For the reflection of French-Algerian relations it provides. For the mire of french secret services it captures. The death of the trappist monks, which produced one of the most moving, contemporary documents of interfaith friendship, left behind in a letter of last testament by the abbey’s prior, Christian de Chergé, was always object of some mystery.  The official version, that the monks had been kidnapped and then assassinated by Algeria’s most notorious armed Islamist Emir, Djamel Zitouni, always suffered from some obscurantism. This past week, revelations by a French general, Francois Buchwalter, that the monks had been kidnapped by the Islamists but killed inadvertently in an ambush by the Algerian army, has re-stirred the mystery and ill.  Sarkozy was forced to speak about it in Italy at the G8, calling for the “truth” of the matter in a statement that seemed to hold both a veiled accusal towards the Algerian government, adding more disequilibrium to that delicate rapport, and a reminder to the French and Algerian public of the original accusals of complicity or simple botchedness of the event by the French security forces. If the Algerian Army was able to locate the monks, and kill them, even inadvertently, at a time when French forces were working hand in hand with them, then it would seem to imply a gross sin of incompetence for the French. If the darker accusals turn out to be true, that the Algerian Army, and not the Islamists, had orchestrated the kidnapping and assasinations, then that puts the French secret services in a much deeper mire. The monks testimony to friendship, over-violence and beyond religious tradition, which seems to have been very inconvenient for all the governments and armed forces involved, remains hidden between the accusals.

Benedict and Obama

I hope you are still thinking about the multitudinous of this speech:


Obama is meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome this week following the G8, and most of the news has highlighted possible cooperation on reducing global poverty as well as possible conflict over bio-ethics.  Following Obama’s speech in Cairo and Benedict’s own awkward, piece-meal attempts at addressing the Islamic world, I would be disappointed if these two giants of softpower did not save half of their alloted time to talk about inter-religious friendship. There might be  just as much that they can do together to improve relationships between the “(north)West” and “Islam” as they can hammer out to win the war on poverty.