Deadly Violence & Conflict Transformation article

Catholic Peacebuilding: a Personal View from Colombia (Part 1)

In an environment that can be described as “hot” in every sense, it is refreshing to find a volume that combines the relevance and scholarly sophistication of Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis (Maryknoll, 2010), edited by Robert Schreiter, Scott Appleby, and Gerard Powers. In a series of three posts, I reflect on this significant set of essays in light of my own peacebuilding work in Colombia under the auspices of the Development and Peace Program. Of course, this work has been significantly affected — and buffeted — by the decade-long armed conflict and its attending violence.

The Development and Peace Program is a Jesuit-led initiative that emerged in 1995 as a joint endeavor of the Dioceses of Barrancabermeja, the Jesuits, the national oil-firm Ecopetrol, and the oil workers’ union USO (Unión Sindical Obrera). It was the response to widespread violence, extreme poverty and a virtual lack of civilian institutions in the region. The Development and Peace Program’s activities consist in the defense of human rights, income-generating projects, promotion of dialogue between civil society, communities and the state, development of a culture of peace, and many other activities. From 2001 to 2009 it was funded by the European Union under the title Peace Laboratory.

The River, the Refinery, and the Cathedral

After reading each of the volume’s essays, I stepped out of the offices of the Development and Peace Program, located in the Magdalena Medio Region in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, to enjoy the view from the balcony on the ninth floor. From there, I have a wonderful perspective on the Magdalena river, Colombia’s longest. To my right there is the old Cathedral that belongs to the Jesuits. Behind me is the oil-refinery, a symbol of the region’s wealth in natural resources particularly oil, gold and coal.

What does “Catholic peacebuilding” mean in this context? The Development and Peace Program may be categorized as a mid-level organization that builds bridges between local communities, grassroots organizations, international cooperation and the government, thus diminishing the social, geographical and cultural distance between isolated villages and the capital Bogotá. Consequently one may add that the Program is an example of a classical peacebuilding organization according to the “pyramid” model of peace scholar John Paul Lederach in that it has both vertical and horizontal capacities of communication and action. As a Jesuit-led organization, the president of which is the local bishop, it is firmly rooted in the Catholic Church’s structure. Through its variety of projects, initiatives and activities, it also covers a wide range of peacebuilding-related fields.

Victims and Healing

Viewing the Magdalena River, however, I have to wonder if Catholic peacebuilding in practice as well as in theory as explored in this volume is sufficient given an enormous range of grave challenges. For the river is not only the life-vein for a vast share of the population. It is also the country’s biggest cemetery.

I first realized the river´s tragic character as both a source of life and a symbol of death when the victims’ organization in Puerto Berrío, Ave Fenix, organized a symbolic purification of the river. From the 1980s onwards, in this town of around 70,000 people, situated some three hours away from Barrancabermeja, many thousands of left-wing politicians, young people, unionists and ordinary people were killed by the paramilitaries and their predecessors. In 2006, Ave Fenix organized the first victim´s week, inaugurated by a march for life from the cemetery to the main square of the town. Afterwards, the victims were remembered with bricks that carried their names. Many of them registered as disappeared in the mid-1980s — a terrible uncertainty for the victims’ relatives.

A year later, one of the main priorities of victims’ week is to re-dignify public spaces, including the Magdalena river. Entering the town one has to cross an impressive iron bridge, for kilometers the only connecting point to the other side of the river. This bridge was also used as an execution site, where people were killed and dropped into the river below, where they disappeared forever or were caught in the nets of local fishermen. Given these atrocities and the consequent social imaginary of the river as a place of death, one instantly appreciates the practical importance of rituals of purification and revitalization.

In his chapter in the volume, “The Catholic Social Imaginary and Peacebuilding,” Schreiter analyses in some length the role of rituals in peacebuilding. In addition to their role in linking the past with the future, Schreiter defines them as “alternative social formations” (228) insofar as they propose a social alternative, are based on participation, and are “rule-bound forms of aggregation, formations that have symbolic as well as empirical significance” (228). In Puerto Berrío these rituals concerning the river, in which fishermen had a significant role, constitute an attempt to combine the memory of the past with a vision of the future. At a time when death rates remain high, the vision to establish a town of peace, life, and community suggests a radical alternative to the present violence.

In another chapter by Schreiter, “Practical Theology of Healing, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation,” he describes the context of such endeavors of social healing: “Social healing has to take into account the lingering, toxic presence of the past in society; it must diagnose and mobilize the energies of the present; it must sketch out a vision for the future” (377). According to Schreiter, social healing has as its cornerstone the quality of relationships. It certainly depends on a significant number of healed individuals who can testify to the reality and power of the healing process.

The healing process consists of three inter-related phases: dealing with the past; diagnosing the present; and envisioning a positive future. The manner in which the past is addressed and remembered provides a clue about the design of the future. Justice makes clear that wrongdoings will no longer be tolerated. The second phase consists mainly of mobilizing resources for social change. This also means coming to terms with existing trauma, individually and socially. Here, a shift of narratives towards those that transmit hope and new possibilities instead of defeat and violation contributes to increasing the potential for positive change and a positive future. This narrative necessarily includes both victims and perpetrators; it avoids further polarizations (377).

Puerto Berrío, particularly due to the ongoing armed conflict and the permanent threat of the drug mafias, is far from being a reconciled town. But the initiatives directed towards truth-telling and the healing of memories, without excluding the possibility of integrating former perpetrators, include several elements that Schreiter deems essential for reconciliation. The enormity of the challenge and the wounds to be healed threaten to cause despair among those who have initiated these activities or try to support them. Therefore, Schreiter rightly starts his article by recalling the principles of a practical theology of reconciliation, the first being that “God is the author of reconciliation; we but participate in the work of God” (370). This prevents peacebuilders from overestimating their role. It also keeps them from regarding every failure as personal.

The Catholic Church in the person of the local priest and the competent bishop, but also in the form of Catholic-inspired organizations, played several key roles in these peacebuilding activities. First, it shielded the members of Ave Fenix from violent actors, who in 2006 saw any organized movement of victims as a potential threat. Second, it built bridges of communication to other organizations and authorities, which was essential in the politically charged environment. Third, it supported the endeavor with financial resources as well as space to meet. Fourth, it had some impact on the orientation of the organization. The use of the highly controversial term reconciliation and the potential for forgiveness, which have at least not been excluded as possibilities, is probably due to the influence of the Catholic Church. This is why the Church may also be seen as a moderating factor — not always welcome in an environment where political discourse and interests, feelings of revenge and mobilization of the victims often result in an opaque mix of goals and activities.

Christian Wlaschütz
Christian Wlaschütz holds an MA in political science from the University of Vienna, Austria and one in international relations from Syracuse University. He worked three years as a political advisor to the Development and Peace Program of the Magdalena Medio region, formerly known as the EU-Peace Laboratory. The Archdiocese of Vienna financed his work. In June 2011 he returned to Colombia to conduct field research for his Ph.D. in political science on the contribution of transitional justice to peacebuilding. He is currently living in Bogotá.

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