Spring2010

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Lee Capristo
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Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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From Jerusalem to Cape Town: Reconciliation in the Face on Political Conflict

Written by Björn Krondorfer, Professor of Religious Studies

photo by Elke Geising
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Professor Björn Krondorfer, both seated in the middle, met in Cape Town, South Africa, to study ways to address the aftermath of mass trauma and political violence. Right, in Jerusalem, participants create living sculptures of their countries’ histories.


When communities find themselves in violent political conflicts, the human capacity for empathy and compassion fades away quickly. Civil discourse is replaced by ideological entrenchment, moral self-righteousness, and political justifications for the use of violence. At the same time, alternative strategies that envision a place where today's enemies are transformed into tomorrow's neighbors are belittled as wishful thinking of unrealistic dreamers. But should we content ourselves with such a dim view as we enter the second decade of the 21st century?

In 2009, I had the opportunity to engage questions of social repair in politically fragile situations in three different international venues: Israel, Germany, and South Africa. In each case, I returned to St. Mary's College inspired by the people I met and their unflinching commitment to reconciliation.

In Jerusalem, I met educators from Muslim Palestinian and Jewish Israeli backgrounds taking the risk of talking to each other directly in order to start a peace-training program for students. In Germany, I met with European theologians and social scientists discussing how to link an ethics of memory with the reality of political reconciliation. In Cape Town, I spent fi ve days at an international conference dealing with the aftermath of mass trauma and political violence. At the center was the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I also had a chance to talk to ex-combatants of the Irish conflict, survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the grandson of one of apartheid's ideological founders, internationally known trauma researchers, and American and German therapists concerned about the effects of social violence in the generational chain. I'd like to share some insights about my time in Israel and South Africa.

I arrived in Jerusalem in August. I last visited the "Holy City" in 1981 and now was taken aback by how crowded and populated the city has become. I stayed at a place across from the Old City with views of contested religious sites, such as the Wailing Wall and the Haram Ash-Sharif (Temple Mount); I also had time to visit Bethlehem and Hebron. The organization that invited me to facilitate a dialogue process is called Friendship Across Borders (FAB). Founded by Germans, the goal of FAB is to initiate
a trilateral peace project for Israeli, Palestinian, and German students, training them in active empathy in light of diffi cult histories and a politically volatile present. Among the unique features of this educational project are its length (two years), its emphasis on facilitated interpersonal encounters, and the steady mentoring of the students by trained adults.

FAB invited me to prepare the Palestinian, Israeli, and German teachers, counselors, artists, and educators for their roles as mentors. In the past, the three national groups had a hard time sustaining their efforts beyond the initial enthusiasm. Despite good intentions, people did not follow through with their tasks, and the student program never got off the ground. It was hoped that an outside person like me might be able to help identify the road blocks and break through the stalemate of politicized discourse.

Working through Differences of Perspective
I introduced various creative and nonverbal methods. Rather than engage in prolonged conversations about individual stories, which are always embedded in larger national narratives, I designed sessions in which people were asked to condense their experiences to a few key elements. I did not want the Palestinian, Israeli, and German mentors to get lost in what is today known in the field of intercultural dialogue as "compassionate listening" (long sessions of listening to individual stories without active intervention). Instead, I guided the participants toward actively engaging each other in relation to the core elements they themselves identifi ed. My sense was that the participants - despite their almost compulsive need to relay stories from their national perspective - had already heard of the grievances that each group brought to the table. What was needed, I felt, was not just to listen but to work through the differences of perspectives and (mis)perceptions.

Since one of my aims was to cultivate "active empathy," it was necessary to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that groups in conflict perceive reality very differently. In my experience, it is shortsighted to assume that people would be able to fi nd common ground if only they were allowed to share their respective experiences of individual and collective suffering. As a matter of fact, the repeated retelling of memories of pain and injustice can easily become a stumbling block for reconciliation. Such retellings confirm and cement national narratives but provide little room to let the respective "other" participate in one's own uncertainties, failures, ambiguities, and internal strife.

To inject nonverbal exercises into intercultural dialogue has the advantage of taking people by surprise and off the well-trodden path of verbal disputes. It also counteracts the Palestinian and Israeli proclivity to politicize the conversation and to become defensive about their collective identities. Never mind that most of the adult mentors in Jerusalem were not trained in nonverbal communication! Particularly, I worried at fi rst whether the imam, the Muslim cleric, would join in the movement exercises. But once we clarified that women were not to touch him, accidentally or otherwise, he became, like everyone else, enthralled by the creative process.

Living sculptureFor example, I asked the participants to create separate "living sculptures" about their national history. In a "living sculpture" people use their own bodies to represent a still image without the use of words to communicate. After a short preparation time, each group presented its national monument to the rest of the participants. We pretended that it was displayed at a public square, thus inviting comments and reactions. We walked around each "monument," articulated what we saw, and eventually engaged the "living sculpture" in verbal conversation. Switching back and forth between self-perception and perception through the eyes of others helped to move our intercultural dialogue to a deeper level. The initial anxiety that people felt when asked to enter the realm of nonverbal communication eventually gave way to a sense of shared vulnerabilities and new layers of trust. Creative reconciliatory processes enable people to envision and implement alternative realities-beyond the confines of dominant national politics. At the time of completing this writing, the organization of FAB plans to offer the first unit of the two-year student program in the summer of 2010 in Israel.

Exchanging Ideas on Social Repair
The international conference in Cape Town, South Africa, was a very different venue to exchange ideas about reconciliation. This was a meeting of nearly 200 experts in the field from around the world. The conference opened with a plenary session with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, recipient of the Nobel Peace Price and chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Next to Nelson Mandela, Tutu has come to symbolize the story of the relatively peaceful transition from the old apartheid regime to a nascent democracy.

I had the good fortune to be one of the panelists conversing with the archbishop on questions of social repair in the aftermath of massive political repression and violence. I talked about the human ability to empathize with others beyond the social location into which one is born. I also talked about the power of fear and shame as a consequence of violence. From a perpetrator's point of view, shame is the realization that one has profoundly failed one's human capacity to care for one's neighbor. From a victim's perspective, fear and trauma rupture lives and leave them fragmented and in ruins. If no healing occurs, shame and fear lead to emotional and moral paralysis, which, in turn, stalls the willingness to seek political change. If social trauma as well as levels of complicity in mass violence are not dealt with, no trusting relationships can be established. For transformations to occur, fundamental human issues such as fear, trust, and shame must be addressed.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has modeled one path to seek social change beyond a mere judicial process of justice. When Desmond Tutu responded to my comments and those of the co-panelists, his incredible humor and sharp-witted mind were revealed yet again. His understanding of the moral and political dimensions of the human condition is truly impressive. "Our moral vision," he said at one point (and I am paraphrasing him here), "always has to be greater than what we can actually accomplish. But without a belief in such a vision, we will accomplish nothing."

I, too, believe in the power of the moral imagination. If nourished and nurtured rightly, it is an indispensable element for reconciliation and peace work, for it feeds the human capacity for compassion and empathy.