Conflict Transformation in Divided Societies
I have been involved in peace and conflict work for many years. In the 1980s I was involved mostly in work against nuclear weapons and apartheid in South Africa, and I attended demonstrations and lobbied members of the United States Congress. It was peace protest. In the 1990s this shifted as the Soviet Union collapsed and apartheid ended. Violent conflicts came into focus in places like Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. Peace activities shifted from peace protests to peacebuilding. At the time, I was living in Norway and got involved in conflict resolution training and inter-ethnic dialogue work, and that work took me to places like Chechnya and the North Caucasus in Russia; the former Yugoslavia; and eventually East and Central Africa. I have learned that dialogue has real value, but I have also learned that when third party interveners from outside have goals of peace and reconciliation for local communities, it can undermine the achievement of peace. I believe that if we look more closely at what the Quaker peace testimony really means and how it arose, we will see that it can point us to a different approach. I have been working on nondirective approaches to conflict transformation in areas where there has been ethnic conflict and political violence, and I will present how those approaches are different from the ones that are most common now.
In post-conflict settings like Bosnia or Rwanda, it has been common to hold conflict resolution workshops. This is often done with youth, and often the participants are recruited somewhat randomly. They might come from different towns or social settings; they do not have a social connection prior to the workshop. At the workshop they are given training in communication and mediation, the idea being that if youths change their attitudes towards others and learn how to manage conflict, then the likelihood of violence will be reduced. I facilitated many of these workshops, and while I sometimes saw personal transformation take place, I didn’t see community or political transformation. I wanted to contribute more effectively to change, so I designed a series of workshops intended to train trainers who could then go out and train more people, hopefully increasing the number of people reached almost exponentially. I also included elements of proposal writing, budgeting, and reporting in the workshops so that participants would also be capable of setting up a non-governmental organization (NGO) for social change. The projects I designed had money available for young people to run their own workshops, but only after they had written a proposal justifying their activities and presenting a realistic budget; they also had to report on the money spent. I would include at least four youth from a given town so participants could work in teams and have others to support them. Unfortunately this rarely worked; in most cases, activities ended when my organization’s involvement stopped.
I had come in with ambitious goals for peacebuilding and reconciliation, but they were my ambitions and goals. If there was sufficient motivation for social change, then it was already happening. For example, Serbia had a mass movement to oust President Slobodan Milošević, and Serb youth did not need me to teach them about social change. I was imposing goals and approaches that fit where I lived and worked, not in the conflict setting where I was.
The Quaker peace testimony calls us to a different approach. Today we usually see it as a call to activism against weapons systems and military spending, but it began differently, as a witness against the use of outward weapons. Friends had experienced a different power, and while they believed peace and justice on earth was imminent, they thought it would be the result of a transformation that would happen inwardly. Early Friends preached that Christ had come to teach his people himself and that Christ represented a power that manifested itself as an Inward Presence, Inward Teacher, or Inward Light. Faithfulness to this inward power would transform not just individuals, but also communities. This did not mean surrendering individuality or agency; instead, Friends were urged to ground themselves in a true sense of self and connect with God.
The way that this happens is not coercive. God does not harass, judge, pester or patronize us. God’s still presence is enough for us to see both the light and the dark sides of ourselves clearly. Opening up to this presence is transformative. Certainly divine leadings can be tumultuous and intense, but God lets us decide how we want to respond to him. Paul writes in Philippians 2:5, “Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus.” This means living with a certain orientation to life and to those we interact with. The Sermon on the Mount shows this orientation: when people hate us and treat us badly, we are to love, do good, bless, and pray (Luke 6: 27–28). Jesus instructs us not to condemn. Early Friends understood that outward weapons could only destroy, not transform. If we engage in political activities without engaging in this transformative process, then we circumvent the necessary steps that need to precede any coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
If we accept this, it changes the way we interact with people, both individually and as third-party mediators. Certainly violence becomes impossible, but so too does the indirect violence of imposing goals, judgments, and ambitions. We can model the life in Christ, but must not force anyone into it. This approach to life trusts people’s capacity to connect with themselves and their lives.
Imagine the advice you might give if a good friend was considering a divorce. You would probably approach this situation with humility and respect and simply be present for your friend. Giving advice or solutions in situations like that is not what people need or want. This is just as true for a political conflict as it is for a personal one.
It is common to view conflict as either a problem to be solved or as a set of incompatible goals. We often try to reframe conflict in ways that make it more palatable. When we become problem- solvers, we undermine real peace. We violate the faith we should have in people’s capacity to decide for themselves what the conflict is about and what they want to do about it. By reducing conflict, we can hinder transformation.
In contrast, transformative mediators view conflict as a crisis in human interaction. Conflict might have problems to solve, but only the parties know that, and the goals of mediation can change as the interaction proceeds. It is, therefore, important that third parties do not act directively. The role of the third party is to support participants in gaining clarity and agency. Conflict interactions can change from negative and destructive to positive and constructive even if parties do not agree, reconcile, or interact frequently after the mediation or dialogue.
Ethnic conflict exists on both the individual and community level. In communities that have experienced violence, people often go to different shops, doctors, and schools due to ethnic identity because normal patterns of interaction have been disrupted. In post-conflict communities, people also often feel paralyzed because of unemployment, lack of opportunities, and general underdevelopment. People who live in such communities often have to make decisions in the context of what international organizations, NGOs, nationalist politicians, neighbors, and friends are doing and thinking. This is complex, and it is too simplistic to think that reconciliation is automatically the “right” goal for people.
It is important for outsiders not to promote their agenda of peace and reconciliation for two main reasons.
The first is ethical. Getting involved in social change in places that have experienced violence can entail risks. If I try to encourage women in Afghanistan to fight for equal rights, I am asking them to take serious risks without having to take those risks myself.
The second reason is practical. If I come in with a goal of reconciliation or inter-ethnic integration, then it influences who I invite to talk together, what I encourage them to talk about and how the conversation proceeds. Rather than seeing ourselves as architects of change, we help people define their conflicts. When I talked to Serbs in Kosovo earlier this year, many of them said that what they needed was intra-ethnic dialogue rather than inter-ethnic dialogue because they needed to find out where they stood as a community. But outside priorities have closed off that possibility because intra-ethnic dialogue is not valued. Donors want results, and that means reconciliation.
For the last several years I have worked with the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation to develop a different approach to working in divided communities where there has been ethnic violence. We have called the approach Transformative Dialogue because it builds on transformative mediation. It can, of course, involve agreement or reconciliation and forgiveness, but only when parties decide that is what they want. When seen in the light of the Quaker peace testimony, I would argue that Transformative Dialogue is much more than a set of new techniques. It is a spiritual practice based on humility and respect, and on faith in people’s abilities to make decisions for themselves.
In 1652, George Fox wrote in his tenth epistle, “If ye do any thing in your own wills, then ye tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.” In the story of Jacob and Esau, the two brothers have been estranged from one another for many years due to a conflict over their birthright. After about 30 years, God tells Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and your kindred, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). Jacob returns and is reconciled with his brother. The command to reconcile came not from any human intervener, but from God. Reconciliation comes only through grace, and only God can command it. We can be with people as they explore it and support them compassionately; we learn to stand still in that power which brings peace. This is the true spirit of mediation.