USIP’s Religion and Peacebuilding Program

Several weeks back my boss David Smock, my colleague Palwasha Kakar, and I participated in an event at the Rumi Forum here in Washington, DC at which we discussed the work of the Religion and Peacebuilding Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. David spoke about how the program came into existence, and Palwasha and I discussed some of our work on-the-ground in Libya, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Burma, and elsewhere. Marc Gopin, a scholar and practitioner of religious peacebuilding in his own right, moderated the event.  I’ve pasted the video here for your viewing pleasure (clearly in the still shot of the video I am describing how I determine the ripeness of a cantaloupe).

In a similar vein, in December an anthology will be published by Cambridge University Press entitled Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics in which I have a chapter about the evolution of the Religion programs at USIP over two decades. There are lots of awesome contributors in the volume. I felt a bit out of my league (one of these things is not like the other ones!).

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“Isn’t Buddhism Supposed to be Zen?”


This is how the British-accented news anchor on France24 framed her question to me, late into the interview. After a slew of images of monks in Myanmar expressing anti-Muslim attitudes and slanderous misinformation, and Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim communities… after I’d explained something about what lies behind the rise of the monk-led Buddhist nationalist extremist 969 and MaBaTha movements in Myanmar, she asked me: “Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be Zen?” I tried not to look irritated nor amused, but…. I have a hard time controlling my face. I have no poker face. See above.

Of course, I knew what she meant, but the way she worded her question was revealing. Zen is a school of Buddhism in Japan (its Chinese equivalent is called Chan), not an adjective; it’s a particular school of Mahayana Buddhism (the Buddhism practiced in Myanmar is Theravada) characterized, among other things, by confusing riddles (koan) and provocative acts like the burning of scripture, even more so than tranquil gardens. It’s also a school of Buddhism that produced several champions of violence and Japanese imperialism during World War II, including D.T. Suzuki, a figure often celebrated in the West for having brought Zen Buddhist teachings Westward. Given Zen’s own contribution to the sacralization of militarism and violence, the news anchor’s question was even more absurd.

But I knew what she meant. It’s a question I’m asked a lot by Westerners, whose notion of Buddhism has been shaped by the current Dalai Lama’s pacificism and charm, or the post-Enlightenment embrace of Buddhism as a “modern” religion, seemingly more compatible with science, more rationalistic, less encumbered by cosmological myth and ornate ritual. This romantic and Orientalist image of Buddhism held by Westerners as a rational, peaceful, and compassionate religion has been cultivated by Buddhists themselves who are motivated to propagate the tradition, and because of course — who wouldn’t want their tradition to be seen in this way? But the reality, as those who’ve spent time studying Asian history or living in Buddhist-majority countries know, is that Buddhism, like all religions, is constituted by humans, and reflects human nature. I still remember the first time I saw monks being violent; it was in a Tibetan neighborhood of Kathmandu where I was living as a college student of Buddhism in 2000. From my roof while I was studying one day I saw a trio of monks in their early twenties beat up a drunk man behind a building, kicking and punching him vigorously. It took my breath away, this act of violence so counter to Buddhist ideals of lovingkindness I was reading in the scriptures sitting before me on that rooftop table; violence enacted in a flurry of maroon robes.


I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. I grew up in a world in which Christianity, a tradition born out of the teachings of an absolutely pacifist and all-embracing preacher, had been twisted to support bigotry, slavery, crusades. So why wouldn’t other traditions be vulnerable to this, despite their own teachings privileging nonviolence? In graduate school I would go on to study the intersection of religion and violence in Sri Lanka precisely because it went against the popular assumptions in the West. There, Buddhist teachings and monks mobilized in support of the war, and the Muslim community, despite being ethnically cleansed by the Tamil Tigers and shot at by the government, never responded with violence, refraining with appeal to Islamic teachings idealizing nonviolence. With the Sri Lanka example, one was immediately forced into a more nuanced treatment of the relationship between religion and violence, beyond a mere reductionist nod to supposedly deterministic doctrines.

I love Buddhism. Studying Buddhism through the academy and in my practitioner work for the past sixteen years, and living in Buddhist-majority countries, has indelibly shaped my own Christian practices and beliefs in ways that have enriched them. I have been challenged by Buddhist meditation practices — perhaps the most difficult spiritual practice out there — and inspired by teachings in Pali suttas, Nagarjuna’s philosophical writings, Zen haiku. I have been blown away, felt God, while sitting under the towering Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at sunset, or circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu, shrouded in incense and ringing with bells. I laud the vision of just governance carved into stone edicts in the third century BCE by Emperor Ashoka, believed to be Buddhist. I work with monks and nuns who act selflessly and with fierce commitment to the cause of justice, for humanitarian relief, to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhism is undeniably beautiful. But I have also met monks and nuns who have spoken with derision about Muslims (one monk in Myanmar last year described them to me as “crows, who steal eggs from the nests of others”), who have yelled at me or bossed me around, despite the fact that I am a clergyperson myself. I’ve watched video testimonials of young monks who have been repeatedly sexually abused by their elders in the monasteries. I study how Buddhist ideas have been used to support wars of conquest over millennia.

In the end, Buddhism is beautiful and complex, peaceful and violent, tender and complicated, just like humans. At its best, it inspires the best of human impulse, ideals that can help to create a world in which all suffer less. At its worst, it legitimates violence or bigotry for the sake of a cause it deems sacred and just. But so do all religions, and so do various secular ideologies/systems, including nationalism, colonialism, democracy-building, socialism. Don’t romanticize Buddhism, but don’t lambast it either. Just see it for what it is. A human endeavor.


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Group Shot Religious Actors

It has been a long time since I’ve written a new post. This is due to a number of factors. First, not long after I wrote the last post, in December 2013, I experienced a crisis in my personal life that left me distracted. My focus was directed to recovery, healing, and the logistics around some big life changes (among them: I’m now a homeowner! woah). That kept me from the rather narcissistic and, really, inconsequential, task of writing blog entries.

Secondly, it’s not been an entirely hopeful time to be a peacebuilder, and I don’t want this blog to devolve into a collection of Dear Diaries where I express angst and frustration about the world being directed against peace. I want this blog, ultimately, to lift up hope and optimism. Trayvon lives on. The story is not over yet. Truth and justice and love prevail in the end, always. And if I am in a place where I doubt that, I shouldn’t write for a public audience.

But I’m back.

Why? Well, the news has hardly taken a turn for the better. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is beheading Europeans and Americans. They are raping Yazidi women and assassinating those of all religious backgrounds. They are recruiting more people to their cause who are frustrated by seemingly contradictory, hypocritical, oppressive, foreign (especially U.S.) and domestic policies … and by a lack of real opportunity in places where violence and oppression reign. There are real grievances that motivate them, no doubt. But it is disgusting, what they are doing and what they are saying. It will not bring just peace. Nor will the anti-Muslim sentiments and policies being advocated by growing Buddhist extremist movements in Sri Lanka or Myanmar, or the ongoing Christian extremism in Nigeria, Northern Uganda, or even here in the States, which is fueling a spike in hate crimes and hate groups targeting all sorts of ethnic, religious, and racial “others.” Everywhere, it seems, hate and violence are on the rise.

Nonetheless, I’m back.

Last week we brought folks from around the world to DC and NYC for a symposium on “religious actors countering radicalization and violent extremism.” We had representatives from Yemen, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — places where violent extremism is ascendant, couched in Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian frames. These were all people who are religious actors engaged in CVE (countering violent extremism) work, or peacebuilders who work with religious actors in CVE. They are prophetic, insightful, fearless, faithful people, unwilling to relinquish their faith to the ideology of extremism, and courageous — willing to stand up to these movements, to stand for what is good/God, to struggle to ensure love, justice, peace prevail, as their faith tells them, even if it puts them at risk of death (and it does, believe me — we just lost one of our researchers in Libya, an 18 year old, who was assassinated because of his work for peace and justice). They laughed easy, they were circumspect, and they instilled in me a kernel of hope I have not felt in some time. I needed this week. I needed these peacebuilders who are in the thick of it, the heart of darkness, many of them, but are still digging in their heels and hands to the cracked earth, and pulling out the Kingdom against all odds. I needed us all to be together to realize we are not alone, we have strength in numbers. There are a lot of us.  More than there are extremists.


Last Friday we had a public event at USIP where we featured Vinya Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka, speaking about Sarvodaya’s efforts to counter Buddhist extremism, Pastor Esther Ibanga from Nigeria who works against Christian and Muslim extremist movements, and Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a prominent Muslim scholar who recently issued a fatwa against ISIS and spoke eloquently, along with Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, about the Muslim heritage of peaceful treatment to minorities, and the worthlessness of violence. Among the many things Sheikh bin Bayyah said was this: ‘There are some who say justice first, and no peace without justice. But from my perspective, if we say no peace without justice, then given the amount of grievances that we’re dealing with, let’s forget about peace altogether.” It’s true. I recognize there are real grievances that drive people into violent movements — very real issues of injustice. But violence and hate will not bring a solution. It will only fuel more injustice, more grievances, more hate. I see that in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where I primarily work these days, where Buddhist extremism and violence targeted against the Muslim community has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Communities that had previously been pacifist are now trending toward violence to protect themselves.

We have to work together. The world is dark right now, the circumstances bleak, but this is just the time when things can turn — when we can wake up, find one another in the darkness, and start struggling toward the inevitable end God promises. Thanks be for the Vinyas, the Sheikh bin Bayyahs, the Pastor Esthers.  Their stories are more powerful than the stories of beheadings and rapes and assassinations. I believe that, honestly, because that’s what my faith is about in the end: believing the promise.

To watch Sheikh bin Bayyah’s talk, which will no doubt light a fire of hope in your own bones, click here.  To read a letter signed by 126 prominent Sunni scholars against ISIS, click here. To read about monks in Myanmar who sheltered Muslims in a monastery to protect them from violent crowds, click here.  To watch a (beautifully shot) video about a monk in Myanmar who counters anti-Muslim rumors and helps build relationships between Muslims and Buddhists, click here. These stories are just as true, just as real, as the bad news stories we’re hearing in the media. Share them. Drown out those other stories.

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When I was in Sri Lanka several years ago, not long after the end of its civil war, I had a long discussion over curry lunch with a man with whom I work, Nimal, about Nelson Mandela.  If only Sri Lanka had its own Nelson Mandela, we lamented, perhaps the next generation could be liberated from the cycle of violence, resentment, revenge violence, entrenchment.  But there were few Lankan voices at that time, or now, who were advocating the kind of message of reconciliation Mandela advanced: one that recognized the atrocities of the past, told the truth about them, yet advocated a compassionate and collaborative moving forward into a just future free of vengeance, beyond the suffering all had experienced.  No victor’s justice.  Of course, the end of the war in Sri Lanka, won by the government still in power, was very different from the end of apartheid in South Africa, with its change of political structure and its appointment of a former “terrorist” as president. So the analogy could only work so well. But the point was taken: that the end of war does not mean the end of suffering, and it’s rare to find people who rise out of the ashes and destruction of war with a clear vision and a compassionate heart that moves communities out of the cycles of violence, social-psychological divisions, communal competition, and into a healthy future.  Phoenixes are mythic.  Later the lunch conversation turned to Nimal’s family cat who had no name (typical of Sri Lanka).  I was giving him a hard time about this feline indignity, especially considering their family dog had a name.  Why don’t you call him Nelson Mandela, since this country needs one?, I joked between mouthfuls of curry. The next week when I was home I received an email from Nimal saying his family had named their cat Nelson Mandela.  I laughed, delighted that back in Sri Lanka Nelson Mandela was basking in the sun, chasing geckos.  And then, a couple years later, I received the following email from Nimal:

Dear Susan,
This is sad news about our peaceful Nelson Mandela.
This evening it is died peacefully.
My Daughter and son are very sad.
But this is the nature,
I pray Nelson Mendela will have Rest in the peace.

When I received the email my heart caught in my throat for a moment. For a split second I had forgotten that Nimal had named his cat after Madiba.  Then I remembered and I felt relief wash over me, before the regret revisited me for Nimal and his family.  Losing a family pet is hard.

But not like losing a hero like Madiba, of course.  This saint among us, gone. We knew this was coming. He was old and had been sick for months.  At my church, we had been commemorating him already, praying for him these past months.  The world knew the end was nigh.  But still, when death comes, even if you know it is coming, it feels so sudden and absolute. Death is not gradual or gentle; it is immediate and decisive. I assume there will be no other like Nelson Mandela in my lifetime. He is the living saint with whom I was lucky enough to have shared this earth for a brief time, as if breathing the same air could allow me to take something of his soul or spirit into me.  But like all saints, like all those messengers of God we revere because they seem somehow human and yet more-than, he is gone.  I thank God for eternal life and the knowledge that his spirit continues to shape me and this world, calling us into Kingdom creation.  I thank God for his inspiration, the message that he still conveys that it is not namby-pampby, not weakness, not naive idealism, to forgive, to reach out, to strive, to put vulnerability above defense, to hope, to advocate, to critique.  To love fiercely, to the point of giving oneself to others despite the fact that they hated you once and may still hate you.  That kind of message lives on forever, beyond death, inspiring hope.  Maybe even taking root in some young thing now, who will be the Madiba for the next generation.  Thank God for eternal life.  And Nelson Mandela, may God embrace you home into the heaven that you constantly strove to create here on earth.  We shall not give up the fight.

I am very sad.
But this is the nature,
I pray Nelson Mandela will have Rest in the peace.

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This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Advent in 2008 to a community of harried DC over-achievers, at a time when the church was without a building and we were worshiping in borrowed space.

December 7, 2008
Advent II
First Congregational Church DC


Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Please, people, for the love of God, let us never forget that Jesus’ messenger ate bugs.  John the Baptist, that seminal one built up in a crescendo by the ancient Israelite prophets, the one granted the glorious task of readying the world for the Messiah’s arrival on earth… he was not the sort of resplendent dewy-skinned angel we usually see this time of year.  He was a bug-eating Saddhu-like wanderer dressed in animal skins.  How awesome is that?  John the Baptist is such a testament to how fiercely God upturns our expectations in order to shake us awake and call us to a new way of living.  A way of living in which we see the divine everywhere and in every bizarre, bug-eating character.

But if the image of John does not get you looking at our sacred world through new eyes, then open your ears to his message.  Our readings today reminds us that before Jesus began his ministry, before he even arrived into the cold stink of barn, the world needed to prepare itself.  And so John was sent to tell us to “Prepare his way by clearing a straight path for him.”

We are now on our second week of Advent.  As Keisa reminded us last week, Advent is our church year’s January – the beginning of the new lectionary year.  The new year.  And y’all know what this means: it’s resolution time… and because this is church, I’m not just talking about resolutions to visit the gym more often, or to call your mother more.  Those are important; mom would love to hear from you and she and I would love for you to keep your body healthy so you live a long time.  But the kind of resolutions we talk about in this space are not just about things to do, as about a way to be.

Up in Boston, there is a man who lives in a house on road called the Arborway. My friend refers to his house as the German castle, and it does look like something out of a Bavarian countryside – all thick pointed turrets and gray cobblestone sides.  And though I’m not up in Boston this year, I can assure you that way back in October, the baron of this German castle on the Arborway began doing what he does every year.  He began preparing his home for Christmas.  First he brought out the lights, tens of thousands of them, which he strung along edges and curves of his house.  Then he dragged out the giant ornamental sleighs and figures and set them in suspended animation, flying over the roof of his house.  Then he grabbed a set of colored lights that swept up to a point in his yard, forming a twenty-foot tall silhouette of a tree.  Nearly every day for the past fifty days, I know this man has done what he does every year.  He has gone down into his basement, grabbed another handful of lights, and then climbed up onto his roof and added them to the building crescendo.

Certainly this labor of love is worthy of a testament of some sort.  Last year in the Boston Globe some of his neighbors offered their perspectives for the record, muttering about the man’s ego-driven ejaculation of gaudiness that glared through their windows at night.  The pulsing artificial light kept them awake, as they watched their bedroom walls turn from green to red to blue to yellow.  They were not charmed.  For my part, as I used to zoom past his adorned castle I often found myself asking –what if?  What if we prepared our hearts with the same sort of slightly manic obsession and over-the-top zeal with which this man prepares his German castle?

Friends: something big is coming, soon.  It is looming there, just around the corner of time.  And it will be glorious, and it will be upsetting.  It will be comforting, and it will be utterly de-stabilizing.  That small baby who is even now growing and turning and dropping in Mary’s round large belly, slowly being pulled down towards us and the world, that baby is not just any small innocent baby.  He is our Lord and our Judge.  And with his birth in two and a half short weeks, all our habits will be revealed in the light of day.  And we will be called once again to begin on the path of that radical way of holy discipleship living that we are capable of and yearn for, but that takes a sort of energy that is really hard to sustain.

When Isaiah spoke his prophetic words thousands of years ago, it was during a dark time.  Babylon had sacked Jerusalem.   The Judeans were temple-less, which meant they felt there was no solid ground for their community to stand upon. Everything was uncertain, except for violence, and the abuse of the marginalized, and those with power exercising oppression, and growing poverty.  Our ancestors didn’t see much evidence of God among them in that world.  And so Isaiah was told to comfort the aching beloved community, assuring them that the Lord was on the horizon and would arrive to teach anew the ways of justice and love that could make everything right again.

But Isaiah saw something else.  He saw how the exhaustion of these people had made them close up into themselves.  How their cynicism and defeatism had made them fall asleep at the wheel.  And so Isaiah sought to wake them up, and remind them of all that is at stake in their lives, and all they are called to do as God’s people.  You have to prepare the way of the Lord, he told them.  You have to start tearing down the barriers you have erected in your lives before God can enter into them.  You have to shake yourself awake and stay that way, otherwise you won’t see the glory of the Lord revealed around you.  And it is only when that has happened that everything can begin to be made right again.  You can’t change the world if you’re sleepwalking.  You have to be awake for this.

You know where this is going, people.  Because we are similar people, in similar times.  Broken people, in a broken world that constantly assails our soul and spirits.   A world where wars proliferate.  Where the economy is seizing and everything seems uncertain.  Where this here beloved community is temple-less, without a church building.  It’s no wonder that in the face of all this, we might create walls around our soft, vulnerable hearts, and routines to maintain those walls.  It is no wonder that our cynicism sometimes overtakes and sets us sleep-walking through life, numb to it.

It’s understandable.  But in surviving in this way, we know we pay a price.  These walls separate us from our God, and our innermost selves, and others.  And this separation, as the theologian Paul Tillich preached it, is sin itself.  It takes us to a place where we cannot see or hear the truth, and where our spiritual practice becomes flatlined.  It may shut out the hurt and insecurity, but it ends up shutting everything out.  Even the sacred.  It leads us to live in one mundane dimension – where we don’t notice the miracle of a small round brown bird sitting on a new blanket of snow.  Or the brilliant glow of dusk that bathes us every single evening, or the delicious faint squeal and curled tongue of a cat yawning.  It leaves us estranged from the divine that is around us.  And it convinces us that we can just get by until things get better, rather than live into the solutions ourselves.  We know this isn’t the way we are called to be.  But sometimes we just don’t want to or feel we just can’t live the way we are called to be.  Sometimes we want to get caught up in life’s predictable and secure routines — work, pick-up the kids, the carry-out, watch TV, sleep.  And then sometimes, we just forget.  It’s what we do.  We’re human.

And God knows that.  And God understands.  And that’s why we were given John, who comes to remind us. Every year it is John who greets us at our starting place at Advent.  Earthy, wild-eyed John the Baptist sent to remind us to wake up, and to begin again.  That is what our lives in God are all about, that is what we are called to do as people of faith.  To constantly examine our selves and our world, to see the obstacles we have placed in the pathways to our tender hearts that prevent us from living open joyful deep awakened lives, and then to once again, with great deliberateness, remove those obstacles.  Clear a straight path for the Lord to enter our world.  And then to do it again.  And then again.

It’s resolution time.  And what is a resolution? It is about seeing that where you are is not quite where you want to be, and then deciding to try again, try anew, with great courage and resolve.  And this is what repentance is.  Repentance: that loaded word John calls out in the wilderness with a cry that rises above the darkness and the tumult of life, and travels across thousands of years to break forth into our very world, into our very hearing, into this very room.  Repentance is simply about starting again in the direction of God at the beginning of this new year.

So.  We’re back to the what if? What if we prepared our hearts with even a 1/5th of the energy that the man up on the Arborway in Boston has prepared his castle? What if we prepared our hearts with even a 1/5th of the energy that we prepare for the Christmas holiday – the buying of presents, the cleaning of the house, the traveling home, the cookie decorating – what if we spent some of that time sitting simply, in the Advent stillness, the pregnant trembling stillness of Advent, and we tip-toed past all our walls and slipped into our soft hearts, even into those velvet dark corners we spend so much of our energy avoiding and protecting, and what if we began to get things ready in there.

When you go, you will discover in your heart an eternal flickering – an eternal light of holiness that is yearning to grow big enough to shatter those protective walls that numb you.  John is calling you to that flickering, and he is calling you to lightly blow on it, to let it build so that it can illuminate more of your soul.  And then to do this again and again and again.  Every day.  Like that German baron on the Arborway, persevering with strong-headedness and insane giddiness to illuminate the darkness.  Every day a new string of lights, a new turning toward God, a new resolve, and a new breath blown on that flickering flame.  And if you do this, by the time the Lord comes, in two and a half short weeks, your hearts will be so open and so illuminated that they will light up the neighborhood of your soul, so that it cannot sleep anymore, so that it is awake to see the Lord arrive in your midst.


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Boys, Boys, Boys

This week I was in Vienna, Austria for two large interfaith gatherings. The first was the inaugural Global Assembly of the King Abdulaziz International Center for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue (KAICIID), a two-day event that brought together nearly five hundred religious leaders from around the world. Immediately following that event was the ninth global gathering of Religions for Peace, attended by some six hundred religious actors.

I’m still processing the whole experience: the tension between substance and symbolism, the opulence of Saudi hospitality, the varied meanings of the term “dialogue,” Bellanwila Thero’s delusional presentation on the situation in Sri Lanka, all the wonderful new contacts I made and exciting work I learned about, what I discerned were current interfaith peacebuilding priorities. But there is one element of the gatherings that I hardly need time or distance to analyze: the marginalization of women’s voices and experiences.

In some ways, I’m used to it… and rather numb to it. The interfaith world at this level — the splashy international elite level — is a boy’s world. This is because international politics/diplomacy is male dominated, as is religious institutional authority. Bring those two realms together, and women are scarce. And so I’m accustomed to being a minority in the room at inter-religious peacebuilding fora. I’m accustomed to sitting in the audience listening to a panel of all men (or, what’s more common: all men and one woman) talk about the need to create just and equitable societies in which all people have a voice. I’m accustomed to religious peacebuilding events making only passing (if any) reference to advancing and securing women’s empowerment through peacebuilding, or strategies for addressing sexual violence against and trafficking of women in wartime. I’m accustomed to the litany of male religious leaders held up as saints in the religious peacebuilding field: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffer Khan, Maha Gosananda… rarely accompanied with mention of any of the women of faith who have risked their lives, sometimes given their lives, for the cause of justice and peace. I’m accustomed to all this, but after being subjected to four days in a row of this phenomenon, I became frustrated anew. Check out these photos I captured during the events:


Two women, literally on the margins.


The closing plenary: a panel of five men and one woman (that’s Shaun Casey speaking, the new head of religious engagement at the State Department and a lovely man).


This panel had six male education ministers, one woman minister, and a male moderator (my friend and colleague Mohammed Abu-Nimer).


An afternoon panel that featured two male keynote speeches and five presentations (one by a woman). Another woman moderated.

A quick scroll through photos on my blackberry revealed a couple more photos I’d taken recently of panels at interfaith events:


This one is from the Coexist Prize award ceremony in New York City, 2012. All men. Ironically, a woman religious peacebuilder from Indonesia won this award.

And lest anyone think I’m attacking other organizations and not my own, here’s one from an event at USIP this year featuring all male religious leaders from Israel and Palestine, a male moderator, and a clergyman from Norway:


At this USIP event, I raised my hand to ask the first question, which was: where are the women? After all, studies have shown that women bring different wartime experiences, perspectives, and insights to peace agendas that are crucial for building successful and sustainable peace – for identifying and transforming the root causes of violent conflict. All the women in the audience clapped in response to my question. To answer, one of the clergy pointed to his teenage daughter sitting in the front row and said she always accompanies him. She was carrying his briefcase. None of the women clapped in response to his answer.

This is a topic I’ve written on a lot. I am co-editing a book with Katherine Marshall that explores women’s religious peacebuilding.  Amongst other things, the book illustrates how involved women are in inter-faith activities at the national and community-level, and how marginalized they are from the well-funded and international level initiatives, and the consequences of this. But clearly the point needs to keep being made. So, inspired by my friend Erin Matson who created the blog White Guys Doing it By Themselves, I’m going to start posting photos to this blog as part of an ongoing feature to illustrate how invisible women tend to be in religious peacebuilding public events. These images will be under the tab: “Missing Women.” Look for it soon!  {update: the page is now up!}

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and they danced


This past weekend, I took a short trip down to Colombia to attend the 4th national gathering of the Ecumenical Women’s Peacebuilding Network in Colombia. I helped establish this network in 2008. I had arrived at USIP in 2007 and been told to build on the work of my predecessor, who had tried to launch an ecumenical effort to push for peace talks. I went to Bogota for a week, asked a lot of questions, and discovered that his efforts had hit many walls. Particularly those erected by the Catholic Bishops. I did not encounter much enthusiasm for reinvigorating that effort, or any ecumenical effort with the church leadership … at least the male leadership. With the ladies it was a different story. They were much more enthusiastic to connect across lines of difference, and in many case already were. They rolled their eyes at the efforts of the men, and the way those efforts were often handicapped by egos. They desired to be supported and to collaborate with others to enact their dreams. So a seed was planted, in their minds and mine, and within a year, the Ecumenical Women’s Peacebuilding Network had been launched — to strengthen and support the work of women building peace through their religious institutions, and to promote understanding and collaboration between Catholic and Protestant women, who don’t often work together (and whose relationships have been strained with the rise and spread of Pentecostalism).


Colombia is one of my favorite places on earth. Despite decades of violence, the emergence of armed group after armed group, the narco-trafficking, the abuses of the State, the seeping of violence into the domestic and criminal spheres, there is such openness and expressiveness in its people. When you visit a conflict zone, I’ve found it either goes one way or the other. Either you walk off the plane and your guard immediately goes up because you feel something in the air — some violence, mistrust, poison — or you visit a place where you would assume people feel that way, given what they’ve been through, but they confound you with their openness, willingness to trust, their easy laughs, their warmth. there’s rarely a middle ground. Sri Lanka and Iraq are places that feel like protracted conflict zones to me: tense and unhinged. Myanmar and Colombia, despite their decades of violence and authoritarianism, don’t (I’ve heard Libya is like this too). What is it about these cultures, these nations, that makes the people so resilient? So full of hope and warmth, despite everything? Despite the traumas? I find spirituality to be a common denominator. Not religion. Certainly Iraq and Sri Lanka are very religious places. But their religion often feels ceremonial, ritualistic, formal. In Colombia and Myanmar, their religious practices are deeply spiritual, deeply infused and embodied, lived out by the lay. The divine is thick in the air in these places. Is this a consequence of their cultural resilience, or a cause of it?

In any event, this weekend I went to spend time with my religious women peacebuilders in Colombia, who are truly an incredible group. These women are living in the crucible of machismo and violence; they are working at the front lines to pull the Kingdom out of the scorched earth. They are Catholic nuns, Mennonitas, and Pentecostal preachers. Some wear habits, some wear tight jeans and deep v-neck shirts. Some drink, some don’t. Some murmur during collective prayers, their appeals growing in pitch and fervor as the prayer continues, their bodies swaying and heads looking heavenward, and some sit silently, their head bowed, still and reverent. These are some of my favorite religious peacebuilders in the world. They work hard (for victims, in the prisons, doing advocacy, etc.), and they pray hard, and they dance hard.
One thing that always sticks with me is their way of referring to women from the tradition when they come together. They dramatize the stories of the women from the Bible who have been victims of male violence — those raped, those killed, those stoned. They identify with these women. They see the story of Colombia’s women in these Biblical accounts. And they also lift up the stories of women leaders from scripture. In this workshop, they spoke of Esther as a political advocate for peace. They broke open their Bibles and they explored how she identified and leveraged her power to save lives, how she convinced others, made her demands. They sketched out her methodology – how a woman persuaded a ruler to choose peace. Then they asked themselves how to live up to Esther’s actions in their context. They made plans to take actions to demand more women be represented at the current peace talks between the Government and the FARC — to push a campaign on the one-year anniversary of the start of the talks. They went to the plaza in town and collected 300 signatures for a nation-wide Covenant for an Ethical Peace. And then they came home and danced. At 11pm, after  being in a workshop since 8am. They are indefatigable.


On Sunday morning, we opened our day with worship and communion. Ana Mercedes sang. We read scripture. We reflected. Women from each region of the country came to the front and offered a prayer. And then a woman walked up to the communion table, lifted the loaf above her head, and broke it. The body, broken. The bodies. The body of Christ, the body of Colombia, the bodies of too many women. She took the cup and lifted it above her head. The blood of Christ, the blood of Colombianos, the blood of too many Colombianas, spilt. We prayed for peace, we prayed for the peacemakers, and we prayed for peace. And then we danced.


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