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.

Ode to Rick

For some time now, I had been waiting for a major Catholic politician to publically denounce John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on religion and politics in America. That it was Santorum who did so, from the gut, invoking bile, was a bit unfortunate and made it that much easier for liberals and conservatives alike to frame the national conversation we’re having on religion in the public sphere right now as another battle in the culture wars. And that’s too bad, because Santorum had a good point to make about Kennedy’s speech, about his “absolute wall of separation” and the burdens he seemed to place on religious individuals to bury their social and moral activism in private, individual, personal piety (we’ll leave out, for now, the history our soon-to-be first Catholic president was up against at the moment).

This reevaluation of the role of religion in the democratic public sphere, which Santorum essentially advocated, does not have to be the wedge knocking out a republican-democrat, secular-religious divide in America today. The recent attention to the work of public intellectuals like Cornel West, Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam and David Campbell speaks to a much wider concern among contemporary thinkers of many philosophical stripes to recover public religious reflection in the right light, and appreciate the need for it in America’s national discourse.

This concern seemed to be shared by President Obama as well, whose discourse on religion in 2006 could also be read as an effective attack on the privatization-of-religion-thesis which Kennedy appeared to embrace (again, against an important, anti-papist backdrop). As Obama said then,

But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Now, Obama is much less intestinal than Santorum here, but the both of them (and Habermas, Taylor, Putnam and West) recognize that the idea of secularism in America as a scissors to any cords tying religion and politics together gets something wrong and that there’s got to be a better way of letting religions’ higher intuitions and moral verve shape policies and political visions. The culture wars framework and the accusations of “Santorum’s fatwa” or “Mullah Rick,” (other than indicating the problems the left still has when it comes to Islam and politics), miss the point that these guys aren’t trying to throw us back to the 1950s, whatever that means. It is not a reversion to a religious-based society that Santorum and Obama are talking about, but a recalibration of public religion’s role in a religiously-plural, politically-secular democracy.

And in an open democratic public sphere, we get to put Santorum’s political theology (and Obama’s and the bishops’, too) to a critical conversation.

So, to that end, I want to make a public appeal to Santorum’s greater visions here, in which, I believe, he looks out unto churches around America today, and he sees young men and women hearing a gospel calling them to reform themselves, to take the straight and narrow path and to be good to neighbors and the weak and the old and not just to yourself, and he sees cauldrons of civic activism in that call (and probably a lot of boy scouts, too), and he wants to pour it all out so badly.

True that Rick.

But can we work on our language a little more? And if you feel like vomiting on Kennedy’s absolute wall of separation, can you at least not puke on the eloquence and power with which he contests religious divisiveness? And which made him so loved for so long by so many Catholics and put his grin over all our little heads in every Catholic classroom in America for at least four decades? Kennedy, in the same speech:

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

That is the kind of America in which I believe.

Kennedy, at least, knew how awful religious polarization and discrimination in America looked like. If you don’t want something like that again, Rick, and if it’s the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood you’re trying to shore up, then you’re going to have to learn to find words that allow you to lock arms and grab shovels with your brethren across the way, who also love their neighbors and the old and the weak (and the girl scouts, probably, too) because the waters are still rising in America today.

And one last thing. This isn’t the first time Obama’s been accused of phony theology. Some of the best parts about religion from his 2006 address, and echoed again in his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech, were written as elegant reflections on implorations against the religious bigotry of some of his previous political language, when it came to the issue of abortion. And now, Barack, you’ve been accused of the same, including by fairminded voices much closer to home. Please, don’t sit out this conversation, Mr. President, nor the obligations of your former words.

New Italian Perspectives on American Political Catholicism

A certain profile of Public Catholicism has been on full show in America this past month. The show, so far, has included the strong opposition of the US Bishops to the White House’s decisions on contraceptives, Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign and, to some extent, the deliberations among Catholics of the Supreme Court over Obama’s health care policy.  Santorum’s comments on President Kennedy’s speech about religion and the public sphere were especially revealing and fueled several weeks of national conversation about the contemporary role of religion in politics. It has been a fascinating discussion and brought into light important shifts in the direction of American political Catholicism.

I just want to add some comparative perspective to this debate by noting that a similar national conversation is happening right now in Italy. There are important historical and political differences to political Catholicism in either country, of course. Just to name one, abortion is much less politicized in Italy than the United States, while “family welfare” policy is much more so. However, I believe that further, careful reflection on the structure of these two national debates could give us a richer understanding of the possibilities and risks in store for public Catholicism in certain post-secular environments.

Let me start with this word, “post-secularism,” and just say that what I want to get out of the term is an important sense of change in the religious fortunes of institutional religion in the United States and Italy. The Catholic Church, in both countries, has come to a realization that they have survived the period of “Great Secularization” in the West and remain in a position of social and political strength. Among the G8 countries, if we look at the World Values Surveys (WVS), the United States and Italy are the only two to broach 30% regularly practicing religiosity (World Gallup Poll figures put self-reported regular religious practice in 2011 for both countries at 47%, although that seems to be a stretch). Germany, the only country that comes close, boasts less than 15% on the WVS surveys of late. Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Russia slink down after that.

So what about political Catholicism in Italy today? In the 1990s, what caught the eye of most political scientists was the collapse of the Christian Democrats in Italy, thanks to corruption, scandals and overreach.  And yet, in the midst of the wider destruction of the Italian political system which followed, the Catholic Church (as opposed to the Catholic party) proved to be one of the most popular institutions left in Italy and was generally looked to for a source of political stability. This has proved to be the case once again today. Following the collapse of Berlusconi’s government and an impending economic crisis in Italy last fall, the Italian Catholic Church proposed that the time had come once again for Catholic politicians and organizations to step into the fray. To some extent, they got what they wanted: Italy’s “technocratic” government is also a heavily Catholic government and includes Prime Minister Monti, himself a devoted Catholic, and several other major Catholic figures in Italy with close ties to Catholic movements. Italy’s new Minister for International Cooperation and Integration, for example, is Andrea Riccardi, founder of the lay Catholic movement of the community of Sant’Egidio. Riccardi, perhaps more than any other Catholic in today’s government, has become a lightning rod in the media for the debate over Italian political Catholicism.

There are rumors that a new Christian Democratic party will arise from the ashes following the end of the technocratic government’s term. Yet, even if these rumors turn out to be true, it is doubtful that such a party could include the whole Catholic world in any way that resembles that of the old Christian Democrats. Instead, what looks to be happening is the development of a new form of political connection between Catholic movements and organizations, on the one hand, and the national public sphere, on the other. In this respect, the Italian situation looks very similar to that in the United States, a country that has always been allergic to any organized form of a Christian Democratic party.

The lay movements here are key. In both countries, powerful individuals, who are supported by the clergy, and whose identity, politics and charisma were forged in the intensely associative life of a lay Catholic movement, have  taken on political roles of leadership and acknowledged their religious sources and values in the process.

Some sort of parallel can be drawn between this and  the experience of Catholic Action in the first part of the last century, which produced a Christian Democratic political elite that ran governments in many post-war Catholic countries. Catholic Action was also deeply associative and activist, but one thing that has changed is that there is no longer one Catholic movement and no longer one (mass) Catholic party. Jacques Maritain, it should be noted, and many of the writers of Vatican II documents, foresaw this shift as inevitable and even, prophetically, thought that it could be understood in the right light as a rich, growing experience.

That might yet be the case, but for the moment, a growing political polarization has accompanied this pluralism of public Catholicisms in Italy and the United States. Splits, which can often be personified by naming certain movements, are raking Catholic communities over the coals. In the old days in Italy, the Christian Democratic party became masters of compromise and inter-ideological synthesis, and when that didn’t work, the Church helped cajole individuals of all stripes to stay together.  This is no longer the case. Catholic Workers, Charismatics and Traditionalists (the biggest Catholic movement without a name, Scott Appleby has claimed) have not often seen eye-to-eye politically in the States; nor have Communion and Liberation, the Neocatecumens or Sant’Egidio in Italy. The presence of Santorum and Riccardi bring these divisions to the light even as they showcase the possibilities for future, public Catholicisms.

So there’s got to be a better way of navigating this pluralism.  Putnam and Campbell have made a strong case that one of the gifts religion can offer to modern democracies is in the creation of thick, “horizontal” bonds of social trust among  citizens, even in Catholic societies like Italy. In other words, the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood, a point deeply ingrained in the spirits of many early Christian Democrats.  Compromise marks democratic politics, even religious politics, and has often been accused of sapping the moral strength of religious political movements. But new political Catholicism, in the plural, might make a run for brotherhood by distinguishing themselves in the pursuit of the politics of compromise in a different key. We might call it the pursuit of the politics of reconciliation. Over the last 25 years, Catholic leaders have built up substantive skills as political peacemakers in civil war contexts by preaching political forgiveness. Could those skills be applied to everyday domestic politics, too?

Elections and Algerian Islamisms

At the beginning of last year, when protests built some steam in Algeria, its public face was young, democratic and mostly secular. But Islamists understood that the times were changing as well. Bouguerra Soltani, captain of the MSP-HAMAS, an Islamist party with Muslim Brotherhood connections and a member of the ruling coalition in Algeria for a decade, challenged the ruling parties in interviews and projected that a full democratic course had become inevitable. Abdallah Djaballah, one of the few consistent Islamist opposition figures in Algeria, also made appeals for further democratization and drew up his own plans for political reform. In the few moments when Islamists and democracy advocates pushed Bouteflika last year, as in pressing him in the parliament to repeal a deeply unpopular Emergency State Rule law, they won substantive concessions.

One could have hoped that these concessions and the success of united protest movements elsewhere in the region might have given enough impetus for the secular and Islamist wings of the opposition to unite forces, dramatically alter the composition of the parliament, push Bouteflika even harder and make an effective call for a new constitution.

At this point in the game, all of that seems unlikely. Much of the reason has to do with the Islamist electoral sweep in Tunisia and Egypt, which has heightened Islamist expectations for the same in Algeria. So high, in fact, that Soltani, in a game-changing move, pulled his party out of the presidential alliance last month and announced that Islamists would win a majority in parliamentary elections this May. As I’ve posted before, Algerian Islamists possess a formidable electoral base in Algeria which scholars have too often dismissed, and it is probable that Islamist parties will see their electoral numbers go up thanks to the region’s mood. However, if Soltani wants Islamists to take over parliament, and then drive for reform, he has his work cut out for him.

One of the greatest roadblocks to Soltani’s aspirations is that contemporary Islamism in Algeria is cut up into sharp divisions. No less than four major Islamist-inspired parties, in fact, will be contesting the elections in May, including Djaballah’s Front pour la Justice et le Développement and Abdelmadjid Menasra’s Front du Changement. Djaballah’s opposition credentials are beyond doubt and Menasra, a former MSP leader who split from Soltani after the party’s founder, Mahfoud Nahnah, died, is as impeccable and politically astute as they come. While Soltani has said that negotiations are in the way for the formation of an united Islamic political front, it is hard to imagine either Menasra or Djaballah working for the MSP under Soltani. Djaballah has consistently rejected offers to join other Islamists for more than twenty years now, and Menasra and Soltani are locked in personal conflicts which are difficult to sort out.  Many Islamists, in fact, bitterly dislike Soltani, accusing him of too much compromise on the one hand and too much authoritarian party politics on the other. And Algerians, unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, have already had the time to experience buyer’s remorse when it comes to Islamist electoral gifts. After twenty years of elections and ten years in political positions of some import, Islamist parties have garnered only modest political achievements and their electoral shares have declined somewhat in recent years.

The Islamist push towards the parliament also signifies that little energy is being devoted to a political alliance between Islamist and secular parties. As it is, Algerian secular democrats already have bad memories of protests which they started and that finished with Islamists winning elections. It is doubtful, however, that Soltani can achieve real reform in Algeria without them right now. These divisions, naturally, play into Bouteflika’s hand, and make substantive political reform in Algeria an elusive task.

This does not imply that Islamists or secular parties will not be able to take advantage of elections in May to confront the regime and push for more political changes. But in order to do so, Algerian opposition parties cannot assume that the winds of the moment will be enough to get them there. Which means that Soltani and company will have to pound the pavement with some convincing mobilization strategies or the road to gradual reform in Algeria will be very gradual indeed.

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.

E se i Fratelli fossero la Dc del Cairo?

[Excerpt from an interview by Lorenzo Biondi published with Europa, an Italian daily newspaper, on the November 28th, 2011 elections in Egypt. To read the whole interview online, click here]

Non c’è il rischio che l’affermazione elettorale degli islamisti li spinga verso il radicalismo?
Di certo la vittoria li inorgoglirà. Ma l’elettorato egiziano oggi è molto scettico nei confronti di chiunque cerchi di accentrare troppo potere nelle proprie mani. La Fratellanza cercherà di rassicurare quell’elettorato, come sta facendo anche Ennahda in Tunisia: mettendo in chiaro innanzitutto che non hanno intenzione di instaurare uno stato islamico, che non vogliono guastare i frutti della rivoluzione.
Un portavoce della Fratellanza ha detto a Der Spiegel: «Il “modello turco” non ci interessa. Loro consentono l’adulterio e l’omosessualità». Qual è il potenziale “democratico” dei movimenti a ispirazione islamista?
Se ci aspettiamo una laicizzazione completa della politica islamica, siamo fuori strada. Nel breve periodo si dovrebbero tenere sott’occhio alcuni criteri “minimi” come il rispetto della democrazia elettorale e delle opposizioni laiche. I Fratelli musulmani continueranno a perseguire valori che hanno un fondamento religioso, ma in una cornice diversa di regole. La retorica sulla loro agenda morale può rimanere invariata, anche se cambiano i mezzi con cui cercano di realizzarla.

The Ennahda Effect?

[This month’s post is being hosted by the Contending Modernities blog, a new project at the University of Notre Dame exploring modernity from Catholic, Muslim and Secular perspectives]

Tunisia’s Islamist-oriented political party, Ennahda, appears to have won slightly more than 40% of the popular vote in constitutional assembly elections on October 30th, the first elections since protests there ignited the Arab Spring last January. In December 2010 and January 2011, in the first days following popular revolutions in Tunisia and then Egypt, commentators emphasized their non-religious nature and the central role that ideologically neutral, social-media-toting youths played in toppling authoritarian governments. So the impressive, outright electoral victory of a major, religious political party in “secular” Tunisia should give pause for reflection.

Two questions seem particularly important: 1) Why did Ennahda do so well?, and 2) What does their success say about the future of Islamist-oriented parties elsewhere in the region?

Read full entry here