Photo: Evan Cantwell

Andrea Bartoli is currently director of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He also directs U.S. activities for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Roman Catholic lay organization that has led successful peacebuilding efforts in conflict areas around the world. Extensive experience in the field makes his research on peacebuilding deeply rooted in on-the-ground practice.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Religion and International Affairs.—ed.

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NS: How did you get involved in peacemaking work, and how did your career bring you from Italy to the United States?

AB: In a way, I’m a gift of Mozambique, through Italy, to the United States. I stumbled into conflict resolution because I’m a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which was instrumental in bringing about peace in Mozambique. Between 1990 and 1992, we negotiated an agreement that brought together the FRELIMO government and the RENAMO opposition group, which had been fighting for sixteen years. The agreement led to a significant shift, not only in the politics of Mozambique itself, but regionally; it fostered a collective understanding of what a successful peace process looks like. I was in charge of the relationship with the UN for Sant’Egidio during that time. Because Sant’Egidio is an all-volunteer organization, I kept my teaching job at a university in Italy. Then I was asked to open an office in New York to monitor the peace process. The agreement was signed in Rome on October 4, 1992, but the implementation phase of the agreement was to be done under the aegis of the UN. I had to look for a job in the United States. I found Columbia University first, and two years ago I was asked to come to the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason. It was an unusual path—a path from practice to theory, from doing to reflecting.

NS: Was your research in Italy also about conflict resolution?

AB: Not really. I’m trained as an anthropologist, but it was only when I moved to the United States that the intellectual work and the practical experience came together as a new career. In Italy, I was interested in studying violence, but not in the context of conflict resolution. Actually, we in Sant’Egidio were surprised to discover that, in the United States, the literature on conflict resolution had developed so much. We had been experimenting with it as we went along, but the literature provided us with an interpretive frame that was quite helpful, and still is.

NS: In terms of that kind of reflection on practice, what do you think is the factor or set of factors most responsible for Sant’Egidio’s success in Mozambique and elsewhere? How important is its religious identity?

AB: The religious identity is fundamental. Sant’Egidio would not have been there if it were not for very specific ways of interpreting its religious commitments as an organization of the Catholic Church: solidarity with the poor, friendship, and peace. These motivated a small group of friends in Rome to become involved in this adventure and to find ways of thinking about Mozambique that went beyond the violent conflict in which the country was engulfed. Sant’Egidio’s work in Mozambique expressed, on the one hand, a religious commitment, and on the other, an appreciation for the capacity of political, religious, and cultural institutions to bring about change. We had the spirit of 1968 in us—a willingness to embrace what is new. We weren’t constrained by the idea that peacemaking is for someone else, someone in power, to do. There was a sense that what many would consider impossible was possible. By embracing that opportunity, Sant’Egidio contributed a dose of hope that the Mozambicans could seek, find, establish, and realize a solution for themselves. It is a wonderful case of self-determination. Since then we have been involved—without success, unfortunately—in Algeria, and very successfully in places like Albania and Ivory Coast.

NS: Does Sant’Egidio’s Christian identity ever become a problem, particularly when it works with non-Christians?

AB: Our own motivations aside, I would say that Sant’Egidio operates in a totally secular context. The world in which we live, after all, is fundamentally secularized. Even in Italy, which has a large nominally Catholic population, there is a de facto secular majority. Even those who try to build a theocracy in Iran or a Jewish state in Israel recognize the need to acknowledge some kind of secular universality. In whatever form you try to get there, you have to allow for the kind of human rights elaborated after World War II. Without them, you end up having all the anguishes that we see around the world when political structures are not capable of representing the interests of all of their citizens. Sant’Egidio sees itself as a creative minority, not as a Christian majority, and it appreciates what the secular state has to offer religious communities. The fact that Christians now participate in ecumenical dialogues with one another is phenomenal, because not long ago it would have been unthinkable. The secular state creates the occasion for Christianity to explore the breadth of the human experience without the temptation of using political power to dominate and oppress others. Wherever Sant’Egidio works, the orientation is always to encourage the development of secular institutions.

NS: It was partly Sant’Egidio’s ease in the secular order that caught the attention of Harvey Cox, as he said in my recent conversation with him. He contrasts its approach to that of Pope Benedict XVI. Yet, last December, the pope dined with the poor at a Sant’Egidio house in Rome.

AB: I admire Harvey Cox. His book The Secular City captured our attention when we were young, as did his later books that spoke about the liveliness of the spirit. But Benedict, I think, cannot be easily caricatured as a pope who is simply trying to reimpose an outdated kind of Christianity. Benedict is clearly aware that the Church doesn’t have control of the political machinery, especially through the papacy, as it once did. He also speaks about Christians as a creative minority, and Sant’Egidio exemplifies this for him. We have always been careful about being part of the Catholic Church—that is, not inventing a new church, but being an expression of a two thousand year-old tradition. When Benedict XVI comes to eat at the soup kitchen the Community runs for the poor, he’s saying that the Church actually starts with the poor. In his encyclical Caritas and Veritas, there is a call for a global social policy that is far to the left of any progressive policy. This is something that is difficult to appreciate if you look at the world only from a U.S./Western perspective, but it’s much easier to understand if you’re in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, where the majority of the human family is. The Catholic Church, these days, is one of the most powerful forces for the representation of the poor in the world.

NS: Do you think Sant’Egidio is changing how the Catholic Church as a whole approaches international conflict?

AB: Though the Church has been on the side of power, on the side of the oppressor, on many occasions, I think that there are many instances in which the Church has been openly and boldly, on the side of peace. Many bishops have done so very creatively, especially in Africa in the last century. A few years ago, I counted more than 28 cases of African bishops involved in peace processes. Sant’Egidio wants to support them and walks in that stream of peacemakers that has always been present in the Church and that now we think has reached a new momentum. Rather than pointing fingers and blaming others, we encourage change in the Catholic Church by recognizing and supporting those already making it happen. We do this both symbolically and operationally. Operationally, in addition to our work in conflict zones, we continue to organize the Prayer for Peace that John Paul II began at Assisi in 1986. That was the first time that a Catholic pope prayed together with representatives of so many world religions. Sant’Egidio makes sure that this gathering happens every year. Symbolically, we also insist on recognizing people like Oscar Romero and Franz Jagerstatter, the recently beatified conscientious objector who refused to serve in Hitler’s army. Sainthood and collective recognition have been very important in Catholic tradition, so we find this way of serving the Church to be appropriate as well as fruitful.

NS: Have there been conflicts between the Community and the hierarchy?

AB: As I mentioned before we have always thought of ourselves as part of the Catholic Church—that is, not as inventing a new church, but being an expression and fruit of a two thousand year-old tradition. In the reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council, Sant’Egidio has advanced causes that the Vatican would not have, or would have advanced differently. But, generally speaking, we certainly don’t want to ruffle anybody’s feathers. The relationships we have had with the hierarchy have always been established on the ground of a very open dialogue, in which the Community has often expressed the side of the poor and marginalized.

NS: Since Augustine, Catholic tradition has upheld just war theory. Does Sant’Egidio see itself, like the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, as a challenge to that tradition? Or does its approach to peacebuilding fit within the just war framework?

AB: Augustine discusses peace about 2,500 times and war a couple of dozen. Everybody discusses what Augustine said about just war, but they usually fail to recognize that he speaks about just peace much more. Sant’Egidio focuses on the parts of Augustine that focus on peace. War is a possibility. War is a human choice. But from our perspective, the Christian position cannot be but a peaceful one, both in terms of being peaceful ourselves and in terms of being peacemakers. We don’t begin with theories. We work for peace because, to the poor, war is the worst of all conditions—Andrea Riccardi called it “the mother of all poverty.” Rather than holding a theoretical argument in favor of, or against, war, we need to be bound to practice. We’re more concerned with orthopraxis than orthodoxy. We want to be orthodox, but we have an even greater desire to actually practice the gospel.

NS: You have written that “the basic Christian injunction to peacemaking derives from the dying Jesus,” specifically from his desire to forgive those who crucified him—and not, for instance, from the Beatitudes. Why do you think forgiveness is so primary? And is forgiveness always possible? Or just?

AB: First of all, it is important to observe that, for Christians, forgiveness is offered, not commanded by a political structure. Jesus’ words on forgiveness, even the most radical, were always an invitation, a liberating message addressed to men and women to be free and saved. His words and his life show a possible path in the midst of adversity. Jesus speaks about forgiveness as something that one should always consider, and it has to be freely given. As the practicing Jew he was, Jesus knew perfectly well the Scriptures. Echoing the Psalms, he could have called for vengeful justice from above on his enemies. Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus chooses to introduce a peace that is different than what you can achieve by killing people, so the last words of his life were words of forgiveness, life, future, and hope. The fundamental Christian experience is to try to make sense of those words. This kind of forgiveness gives us the capacity to think of a future different from what seems determined by the conditions of the present. Forgiveness freely given—not mandated, not legislated, not forced—has a lot to do with our collective capacity to imagine a better future.

NS: What role has your identity as a Christian played in your academic work? Does research on peacebuilding at a secular university differ very much from practicing it in a religious organization?

AB: I have much less self-censoring prudence about calling myself a member of Sant’Egidio in the United States than I would have in Italy. There, as in much of Europe, the difference between one’s professional life and one’s spiritual life is much sharper, especially in public discourse. Having an explicitly religious identity is less accepted. In the United States, I never really had that problem. I taught for many years at Columbia University, and I teach now at a state university. I have been very transparent about my religious identity, and I never sense that there is a problem with that. However, it’s very clear that the kind of work that I do, in terms of my research and my intellectual commitments, is not itself specifically religious. My analysis of the case in Mozambique isn’t Christian per se.

NS: Tell me about the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason.

AB: The institute is the preeminent academic center on conflict resolution, established more than thirty years ago. It was a pioneer in offering degrees in conflict resolution, which was then a new field. In many ways, it operates like a professional school: the components of research, theory, and practice are blended together in our undergraduate, certificate, master’s, and PhD programs. It is a fascinating place because we have vertical integration among the programs, which isn’t available elsewhere. There are a lot of master’s programs in conflict resolution now and a number of undergraduate programs. But it’s rare to find all four programs together like at George Mason.

NS: What do graduates go on to do? Do they tend to work in government and diplomacy?

AB: There is a certain number that go into government and diplomacy. Others stay in academia; conflict resolution is growing as an academic field. For those who don’t go into government or academia, there is a wide variety of options. Any field can benefit from conflict resolution expertise.

NS: So it’s really not just about international relations, it’s about conflict resolution in a variety of contexts.

AB: Some students focus on international relations, and there is a specific curriculum for that. The field of conflict resolution developed in the aftermath of World War II because of the need for thinking beyond the hyper-competitiveness of the Cold War. Consequently, there is an emphasis on the international system, especially in the older generation, but the field is certainly not exclusively about that. It draws from different resources—social psychology, sociology, law, and mathematics—to address many different kinds of conflicts.

NS: What does your own research focus on now?

AB: I’m working on genocide prevention, mostly. Still, 60 years after the Holocaust, the institutional structures that respond to this prospect are insufficient. States need to take the challenge of preventing genocide much more seriously than they have so far. I think that religious communities can lead the way, beginning with a reflection on their own pasts. Christians in particular should be much more self-reflective about the instances in which they have participated in genocidal violence during their history. I’ve been working on this with my colleague Greg Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch. Our hope is to build an interreligious alliance that can help make the genocide prevention system that many are longing for a reality.