Last week, Colombians re-elected Juan Manuel Santos as president in an election that many observers hailed as a “referendum on peace.” But while Santos’ victory ensures that negotiations with the rebels will continue, hopefully bringing an end to the world’s longest civil war, communities face the much harder task of healing the scars left by years of conflict.
James Patton, Executive Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), believes achieving a lasting peace will take more than just disarmament; it will require communities and even families deeply divided by the conflict to heal the seemingly irreparable damage inflicted by all sides.
“Right now, there is a deep sense of division and suspicion in Colombian society,” he explained. “Who is removed enough from political and conflict identities and can access a broad range of society?” Patton asked. “Who can reach outside identities based on politics to work as an effective third party with all sides?” In response to these questions, ICRD has launched a program that focuses on religious communities and women directly affected by the conflict: two groups “often times left out of the equation” in Colombia’s official disarmament negotiations.
Colombia’s civil war officially began in 1964, when peasants responded to harsh anti-communist repression by forming a Marxist guerrilla group called the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the FARC. Over the past five decades, the conflict has pitted government forces, guerrillas including the FARC, and paramilitary groups funded by wealthy landowners against each other, claiming over 220,000 lives. Virtually no Colombians remain untouched by the conflict, as civilians make up four out of every five of the casualties.
Although the FARC’s ranks have long included women, men have historically made up the majority of the combatants. Patton believes this noncombatant status allows many women to reach across deep-seated political divides. “In Colombia, women are the ones who can influence young men in terms of whether or not they join these groups. They tend to have a strong influence within their communities with respect to thinking about the violence, and what types of collective activities the community can engage in to help transform the violence.”
Patton believes shared religious values also have potential to facilitate peace-building in a society fractured by war. “Religion as a motivator is left out of peace-building strategies all too often,” he explained. In Colombia, where 90 percent of the population identifies as Christian, commonly held religious values unite a great majority of an otherwise divided population. “ Indigenous traditions focused on healing and harmony and Christian traditions have a long history of reconciliation. So there’s already a methodological approach. There’s a concept of how to turn spiritual language into action, and use it to change relationships,” Patton remarked.
Far from the official disarmament negotiations in Havana, Patton described how a group of women directly affected by the conflict has been working towards reconciliation. In a church on the outskirts of Bogota, representatives of 250 Protestant and Catholic women from 8 regions met last February for a faith-based reconciliation workshop led by ICRD and the the Steering Committee of the Ecumenical Women’s Peace-building Network.
“During a break, after a challenging discussion, a group of participants came in dressed in costumes,” Patton described. “They acted out a biblical story of forgiveness. In the Christian gospels, there’s a moment in which the community brings forth an adulteress and throws her in the dirt in front of Jesus. The Pharisees are standing over him and challenging him that the law states clearly that the woman should be stoned, and everyone’s standing around picking up stones.”
“Then Jesus makes his well-known statement, ‘let those among you who have not sinned be the first to cast a stone.’ He completely inverts the whole legal argument into something that’s much more transcendent,” said Patton. The story’s central message that when all parties are guilty, justice must be based on restoration and forgiveness, has special resonance in Colombia, where the government, paramilitaries, and the rebels have all committed war crimes. By calling on the power of stories like these, “Colombians are using their doctrine and their traditions to help create a durable, stable peace,” Patton concluded.
“I’ve seen religious belief move people to do the most dehumanizing things to each other, but I’ve also seen it move people to get beyond such deep, visceral personal wounds,” he said. “Religion can do things that can’t be done with simple disarmament. Faith is a powerful motivator that, if applied correctly, can open a window of opportunity for healing that wouldn’t otherwise be there.”