Grass-Roots Christian Peacebuilders

The wars that have most deeply scarred recent history have not been wars between national states. Internal conflicts killed far more people during the 20th century than international ones like the First and Second World Wars. In a deadly dynamic, government and government-allied forces have wiped out staggering numbers of people within their own borders. Sometimes neighbors have taken to slaughtering neighbors, as in Rwanda. Religious and ethnic divisions have figured prominently in much of the killing.

When peace has been sought amid the devastation of such conflicts, it is the international engineers of peace who tend to garner public attention. Local artisans who preserve, mend and cobble relationships together from the ground up are ignored. The U.N. prosecutor Carla Del Ponte is widely recognized for her efforts to respond to Rwanda’s genocide, while members of local gacaca tribunals or courageous citizens, like Jean Banzubaze, remain unknown. Norwegian mediators get much more credit for recent progress in the Sri Lankan conflict than committed pastors like the Rev. Nirmal Mendis. Undoubtedly former U.S. Senator George Mitchell is more renowned for his efforts in Northern Ireland than a local peacemaker like Mairead Maguire, despite the fact that she was once awarded a Nobel prize.


Banzubaze, an ordinary Hutu Christian about whom we learned in the course of preparing a study on grass-roots Christian peacemaking (Artisans of Peace, Orbis, 2003), was driven to compassionate response by his horror at the ethnic killings in Rwanda. When he spotted a young Tutsi neighbor on his way home from school one afternoon, he grabbed him and pulled him into the bushes. Fanatical fellow Hutus had been attacking the boy’s home. Jean assured the lad that he was taking him to his parents, who were in hiding, and to safety across the border. If anyone sees us and asks who you are, he ordered him gently, tell him that you are a Hutu and that you are my son. The boy was saved.

Nirmal Mendis is an Anglican priest from Nugelanda in Sri Lanka, where Tamil and Singhalese farmers lived and labored side by side until the Sri Lankan army launched an operation over a decade ago to recapture territory from Tamil militants. Rice paddies became barren killing fields, draining life from Tamils and Singhalese alike. After years of interethnic dialogue meetings promoted by Mendis, hundreds of families were able to meet and embrace in this devastated zone of death. Tamils and Singhalese cultivated and harvested together again under banners proclaiming Peace to the Rice Fields.

Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a Catholic homemaker, was galvanized into action after the tragic deaths of her young nephews and niece in Belfast. The broad ecumenical movement she helped to organize, the Community of Peace People, came to have major significance. It grew to number half a million souls energetically rallying for an end to Northern Ireland’s Troubles. When ordinary Christians bend swords, blunt blows or build bridges of understanding, they help forge grounded hope for a more peaceful world.

Energy From Below

Most peacebuilding activity involves diverse actors playing roles at different levels of society, employing a variety of contacts and networks. The public usually learns only about the elite actors at the top, whose power and influence seem to give them privileged potential for success. But neglected grass-roots actors are important in preventing and transforming conflicts. This is not simply because they often engage large numbers of people. As one Pax Christi representative, Cesar Villanueva of the Philippines, put it at a recent U.S. Congressional staff briefing last summer on peacebuilding, To cook a good rice cake, you need heat from above and heat from below.

Grass-roots makers of peace have a wealth of wisdom about the shaping of everyday, peaceful coexistence. They have experience in dealing with outbreaks of violence and its brutal effects. Their responses, ranging from clever ploys for avoiding complicity to the bold construction of peace zones to the use of local traditions to promote reconciliation, can be astoundingly creative. They are almost always culturally appropriate. Unlike political stakeholders or outside mediators, such actors may be risking their very lives for the sake of peace. Their interests are long-term and their commitments crucial to making any peace settlement sustainable. In short, while grass-roots artisans of peace may be few in number at a given site, and are frequently in need of greater resources or training, they can be key to forging lasting peace. They merit attention and support, because they are capable of weaving a living and durable fabric of peace. Without their efforts at the grass roots, negotiations and agreements at higher levels may quickly unravel.

Timing and Purpose

A helpful way to envision the diversity of grass-roots peacemaking action by Christians is to focus on its timing vis-à-vis stages and levels of armed violence. In our study we found actions that were timed to prevent aggression or to influence attitudes or policies, such as public prayer services and human rights demonstrations, or the rallies and theater productions organized by Victory Outreach Church in gang-riddled areas of southern California. We discovered efforts to respond to or blunt the impact of imminent or extremely intense violence, such as warnings transmitted among Filipino villagers by drums or the use of church buildings for sanctuary in Rwanda.

Longer-range actions often came to the fore during more protracted, less intense periods of violence. These included resistance to forced conscription and direct mediation between parties in conflict. A remarkably effective experience has been the People-to-People peace process in southern Sudan. Dialogues there have relied on the power of both traditional chiefs and local women, as well as storytelling, ritual and widespread community participation.

In post-conflict or lingering-violence contexts, we documented initiatives like providing public testimonies about crimes of genocide and building memorials. In Guatemala the initiatives ranged from placing monuments at local killing sites to a nationwide church effort to help recover historical memory among victims of armed violence. Timing is not everything in peacemaking, of course, but there does appear to be a time to every purpose. The stages and intensity of conflicts tend to frame and shape the realm of the possible.


Grass-roots peacemaking weaves a coat of many colors, but what moves peacemakers to action? Why do they assume the risks of this task? Explicitly religious beliefs and values were an important source of motivation for many of the peacemakers with whom our research partners spoke. These Christians declared that God wants us to live in peace, for example, or that the Bible teaches us to love our enemies. But practical, ideological and relational motivations were more frequently cited. In other words, it was common for people to explain that they acted because fighting keeps us poor, killing violates human rights, the others are people like me or our children are not safe.

Grass-roots images of God seem to have particular relevance to their peacemaking efforts or lack thereof. Data gathered in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and the Philippines indicate that when God is perceived as acting in people’s lives in creative, liberating or salvific ways, believers tend to act as peacemakers. Images of God as ruler, master or judgenot simply active at the service of creation, but in complete controlare, on the other hand, associated with fewer motivations and actions for peace. Such images seem either to serve as a disincentive to peacemaking or are the image of choice for those without much peacemaking zeal. Shirley Wijesinghe of Sri Lanka, a researcher, has commented, An image of God that emphasizes power over other divine attributes may seem to render human efforts meaningless or unnecessary.

Another of our findings has to do with the belief that the world is a place that is already just, one in which people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. The more that respondents held such a belief, the less they worked for peace, and the fewer motives they cited for doing so.

Higher levels of motivation for peacemaking were also associated with lower levels of formal education. Somehow, schools seem not to empower peacemakers. While they may provide useful skills and resources, it seems they do not inspire or encourage students to work for peace. Perhaps schools tend to engender cynicism; or perhaps more educated people develop other aspirations, like financial or material gain, that render peacemaking less important.

Challenges for Churches

What can churches offer to grass-roots peacemakers? Worldwide, Christian communities have been doing more and not merely saying more about peace in recent years. Papal pronouncements since John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and pastoral letters from many bishops’ conferences have both grown out of and invigorated practical peacemaking. Across the spectrum of Christian churches, there has been a rich development of theologies of reconciliation and an effort to explore their practical implications. Both religious officials and lay people have led conflict mediation efforts from Mexico to East Timor to Mozambique. Churches have participated in the work of national truth commissions in post-conflict circumstances from Africa to Latin America. They have lobbied and interceded with the powers that be.

As important and promising as such developments are, relatively little attention has been dedicated to supporting ordinary believers. If grass-roots artisans of peace are crucial to sustainable peace between peoples, Christian churches should also be championing their cause and channeling resources toward the enhancement of their abilities. To be sure, this is already happening in some areas. On the troubled Philippine island of Mindanao, for example, a group of grass-roots Christians calling themselves PAZ (Peace Advocates Zamboanga) encourages Christians in the area to fast along with their Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. It also organizes an island-wide peace week each year.

As R. Scott Appleby notes in The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), grass-roots peacemakers are often inadequately grounded in their own religious heritage. Furthermore, religious peacemakers as a whole tend to be overlooked, underfunded, relatively isolated and insufficiently prepared to engage in effective conflict transformation. Many of our research partners indicated that the success achieved by local peacemakers could be significantly enhanced with greater resources, more training, more effective networking, better ethical and religious education and the construction of bridges over the chasm that often divides grass-roots peacebuilding efforts from those of elites and professionals. In nearly all of these arenas, churches are among the organizations that can provide the most help.

Local faith communities in situations of pronounced violence face unique challenges and opportunities. Sometimes they have both material resources and moral authority among the population. They have educational centers and networks of global communication that can offer both means of conveying information and protection, even if limited, for grass-roots peacemakers. In extreme circumstances, they may be all that remains of social organization or one of the few organizations that can function.

Churches encounter distinct challenges in post-conflict or lingering-conflict situations like Guatemala, Northern Ireland or Rwanda. Our study suggested that such values as diversity, equality and human rights can be particularly attractive sources of motivation as people seek to rebuild peaceful relationships. Ironically, we found that while people in post-conflict situations are more highly motivated to work for reconciliation than those who are currently dealing with conflict, they do not actually engage in such efforts more than the latter, usually for lack of organization and opportunity. Churches must work more with others to promote social solidarity and help find ways to provide those newly motivated to work for reconciliation and rebuilding with the skills, resources and opportunities to do so.

Churches have served and can continue to serve as institutional supporters and key allies of grass-roots peacemakers. Christian leaders can encourage risk-taking and promote greater dialogue. They can provide spaces of safety, reflection and meaning. They can educate and help significantly to empower local people. They can and should help to sustain the gift of a grounded hopefor what can be an arduous journey, with a faith-filled vision that beckons beyond revenge and fear toward the life-giving realm of God’s just peace.

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