A possibility to find new direction
An interview with Andrea Bartoli, an international conflict resolution expert
By Maddalena Maltese
How do conflicts start? Is there something that all conflicts have in common?
Talking about tensions and conflicts, I appreciated Pope Francis’ words, saying that there is simply no life without tensions. The need to fight is in our biology.
But the human person has a responsibility regarding tensions and conflicts, embedded as they are in relationships. Scripture helps us to understand this responsibility better.
Look at Cain, in Genesis. He encountered something that every human person meets: the disappointment of life giving you what you didn’t expect. Cain goes to offer the product of his work to the Lord, Abel does the same; but Abel’s offering is welcomed and Cain’s is not.
Life doesn’t give me what I believe I deserve. What is my reaction to getting fired or having my family insulted — something that happened to me that I cannot explain? A lot of people would actually understand Cain being upset.
So rejection is at the basis of conflict.
Yes, I think that it is really fundamental how you respond to rejection. In the Bible, God asks Cain, “Why are you downcast?”
If you read that passage carefully, it is almost ludicrous because Cain experienced
God as rejecting him. The guys come with their offering, God says yes to one but no to the other, and then God asks, “Why are you upset?” Of course, I’m upset, you rejected me.
But what Scripture says is that rejection happens to everyone. Rejection is part of life. We cannot exist if we are not able to deal with rejection. But Scripture says that in this tension, you are actually in control, you can respond in a way that keeps everything together.
But Cain reacts by killing.
Cain does something peculiar. He doesn’t listen, and he doesn’t talk. He goes to Abel, who has nothing to do with it, because Abel is not the one rejecting Cain. It is the Lord who rejected Cain. But Cain takes his tension, his conflict, and unleashes it against Abel.
Here you have the first violence, the first murder. Cain chose isolation. The conflict is not just created by God in rejecting Cain. The conflict is actually escalated by Cain, saying he had no choice but to kill Abel. We know that this is not true because the Lord tried to speak to Cain, and what Cain experienced as rejection is rather mysterious.
There is no way out of any conflict if we’re not willing to repent, to understand our role in that conflict. Cain and Abel are the epitome of how to handle, or not, a conflict. Suddenly, Abel is not Cain’s brother anymore. Abel is just the object on whom Cain can release his anger.
I think Christians need to be deeply attracted to Jesus’ choice of dying on the cross, accompanying people in their suffering, of death, rather than giving in to Cain’s choice of taking life and deceiving ourselves that violence can be constructive or helpful.
What is our role in this process on the international level?
Pope Francis is calling us to universal prayer for Syria and South Sudan. He is fundamentally saying that the world is one humanity, the world is one village, the world is one already. In the same way that Jonah was sent to Nineveh, Francis is sent to the world today.
But we are the ones that need to repent; we are the ones that need to say our way of living is not right. I think Francis is fundamentally saying that a great majority of us are not innocent.
This is what the world needs: no more weapons, no more wars but repentance, and more people who invite us to conversion, to change our ways and do things differently.
What is the value of negotiation in this perspective?
Negotiation is fundamental because it always creates a situation that is new and creative. If I speak with you, I may see my goals and interests differently afterwards because you are becoming part of a solution that I could not access before.
Negotiation clearly requires wisdom and discernment; it doesn’t mean accepting any terms but seeking those that are really going to maximize the good of all.
The other element we should always consider is rooted in the social teaching of the Catholic Church: we cannot be against one another. You and I cannot make an agreement that puts a poor person in a bad condition. I think that the common good is finally emerging as a human concept, too.
In a conflict, there’s often exasperation in the two positions, “us” versus “them.” Your proposal introduces “us” and “we” to overcome this limitation. Which points are essential in that process of dialogue?
The first point is an honest evaluation of the present condition. Generally, when people choose conflict and violence, they tend to overestimate the advantages and underestimate the cost.
The second is to be open to the advice and support of people who have been working on peace, for example members of the Community of Sant’Egidio. Once you are in a conflict, it is very difficult to get out alone.
In many cases, one of the problems is that people keep believing that they don’t need help, nor need to get out of war and violence, because violence is actually the answer. And even after overcoming a conflict, peace is incredibly fragile. All that people have known is only war.
Having this presence of people who have been working for peace elsewhere for many years is like a well that helps restore the body that is seeking peace. And I believe that every person is capable of choosing peace.
How can a conflict such as the one in Syria be resolved? The situation in Syria, where we have the government, rebels, ISIS, Turkey, Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others involved, is very complex, and international institutions like the UN seem paralyzed.
In Syria, we have hundreds of conflicts, yet at the same time, we have hundreds of legal micro-level agreements among Syrian people, such as giving water to a community, taking care of a hospital and so on. Even amid war, humans are able to negotiate, to create pathways of peace in the most incredible circumstances. Think of the visit of Pope Francis to Bangui, Central African Republic. It was in the middle of a very serious violent crisis. Many did not want the Pope to go but the boldness of the move created the opportunity of negotiating with everyone, Christians and Muslims alike, so that security could be maintained. Negotiation is believing that it is possible to engage, to trust enough to try, to change the calculations by communicating.
I agree with you that the U.N. Security Council is deeply divided. I think the political forces must be at play, inviting all the parties to move beyond their own position, using the space that those institutions allow. It is important to appreciate even those moments in which people are screaming at the Security Council. At least we have a space where we can scream and talk.
The question is: what is the next step? I think that we have an enormous role as a society at large. We can decide to become war-friendly and support additional military action, or be against it. It is our social responsibility.
It is very interesting that the Lord sent one person to Nineveh to bring an entire city to repent. And I think we should seek that kind of commitment seriously. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi — they made an enormous change in the direction of less war, less violence and less oppression.
Andrea Bartoli is the dean of the School of Diplomacy
and International Relations of Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
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