The Harsh, Yet Inspiring Truth of Creative Peacebuilding

Joel Aguilar, wearing a Covid mask, in Constitution Plaza, Guatemala City, with the Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago in the background.
Lyle Enright

We spent the past year interviewing people working to transform conflicts around the world. This is what we learned.

UnRival is the hub of a global network for artisans of peace working tirelessly for nonviolent social change.

Their grassroots work is vitally important, but their localized work keeps them out of the news. Their work goes unseen, understudied and under-funded. By serving these leaders, we aim to amplify their impact in their contexts and around the world.

Since the summer of 2020, we’ve interviewed peacebuilders from diverse places. These include Croatia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, South Africa, South Korea and more. We expected to learn a lot from these interviews. But the common threads between these peacebuilders and their stories astounded us:

  • Each felt marginalized by their communities, and sometimes endangered.
  • At the margins, they learned to see rivalry as a major contributor to violence.
  • Their experiences with rivalry converted them to nonviolence in ways that theories and values alone could not.

Each of these insights affected how these men and women transform conflict and cultivate durable peace.

*This article originally appeared in Waging Nonviolence, thanks to our friends at the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

Andrew DeCort
Andrew DeCort helps lead the Neighbor Love Movement, based in Ethiopia.
Peacebuilding at the Margins

When we asked him to describe his work as a peacebuilder, Andrew DeCort — co-founder of the Neighbor Love Movement in Ethiopia — had this to say:

“Doing this work means you constantly have to explain why you’re not a terrible person. Even as you’re trying to put your life on the line for the dignity and precious value of every neighbor, [you’re] constantly feeling you have to explain, ‘I’m not a terrible person, I don’t want to hurt you, I’m not trying to destroy Ethiopia.’”

Andrew describes a terrible reality for many peacebuilders: Because peacebuilders mediate between opposing factions, those factions often see them as enemies. When Andrew and his partner Tekalign made friends with Christian politicians and collaborated with Muslim executives, Ethiopian Christians were furious, and Muslim leaders started distancing themselves.

When peacebuilders explain they aren’t on anyone’s side, working instead for the good of all, they’re often met with an inflamed response.

At best, they’re called wishy-washy, or hypocritical. 

At worst, it confirms for some that the peacebuilder is working for their enemies.

This is when the threats come out. Some react with anger, others with shock or a sense of betrayal. Some might see a peacebuilder as a friend of the poor and oppressed, only to vilify them if they show any civility to the rich or powerful.

This happened to Joel Aguilar multiple times. A fellow of the global urban ministry Street Psalms, Joel deconstructs violent theology in Guatemala. Some of his biggest aggressors are other Christians. 

Some believe they have a divine right to use violence against politicians and business moguls ruining their lives. Others silence indigenous activists who question their religious authority. Whenever Joel works with these groups and encourages them to see the other’s humanity, he soon becomes a target of violence himself.

These circumstances led Joel to deep places of anger and hopelessness, to the point of physical illness. They also drove Andrew to burnout, and to the feeling that he was a “terrible person.” Their help and wisdom fell on the ears of people who didn’t believe that you could help both sides of a conflict at once.

Peacebuilders who navigate circumstances like these are often scapegoated and pushed to the margins. Their efforts are frustrated by the very people they’re trying to help. 

This crucible produces grave levels of fatigue and burnout. But it also leads to a glowing and under-studied insight: that violence has its roots in rivalry.

Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog at sunset in Osijek, Croatia near the Drava River.
Professor Julijana Tesija beside a river near her home in Osijek, Croatia.
Patterns of Rivalry

As victims of marginalization, the peacebuilders in our network ‌see rivalry as a key element of conflict and an under-appreciated driver of violence. 

Andrew DeCort in Ethiopia and Joel Aguilar in Guatemala both traced the conflicts in their territories back to deep-set rivalries over wealth, race and religious values. 

Professor Julijana Tesija discovered similar patterns while archiving stories of the Yugoslav War. 

Memories of political and religious violence still haunt Eastern Europe. In her home in Croatia, where Julijana is creating an archive of peace, many prefer the dark memories housed in war museums. 

According to Julijana, when Croatians talk about the war at all, they repeat simplistic stories about Serbian and Bosnian violence. Suggesting that Croatia committed violence of its own sets them on the defensive. Because of their rivalries, they cannot confront complexity. Julijana’s desire to tell true stories of the region places her under suspicion — even from her neighbors.

Researcher Dong Jin Kim even faces opposition in a comparatively peaceful nation like South Korea. 

While the Korean conflict has been dormant for decades, Jin’s care for his neighbors in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sometimes places him under the suspicion of other South Koreans. 

Based on his experiences, Jin believes ‌South Koreans don’t know who they are if they can’t view North Koreans as enemies. Despite humanitarian efforts and political outreach, this rivalrous identity discourages South Koreans from reconciling with their communist neighbors. Each side needs to see the other as an enemy to keep its own sense of identity.

These common experiences add up to a common insight: that rivalry is a seriously under-studied predictor and a core element of violent conflict. 

This doesn’t reduce the complexity or singularity of different conflicts, but our peacebuilders recognize commonalities in violent outbreaks and how they play out from place to place. Their insights into rivalry — and their efforts at healing it — deserve our attention.

Peace is not the absence of violence; peace denies violence the fuel it needs to thrive. It commits to learning from and imitating others at their best. It sees them as worthy, and beautifully human.

Converting to Nonviolence

The spiritual power of recognizing rivalry lead each of our peacebuilders to a conversion experience‌ — intellectual, moral and sometimes even religious.

Their shared commitment to nonviolent peacebuilding emerged from such conversions. Very few made what we’d call a “rational” decision by counting the costs of violence. Rather, they describe spontaneous insights into violence, its structure and how it repeats in evermore damaging cycles. Most often, these revelations come about through relationships.

Joel experienced his conversion during an anti-government protest in Guatemala. As the crowd whipped to a frenzy around him, he realized, “We were calling for the sacrifice of our leaders.” Later, when he saw the vice president being imprisoned on television, he was struck by her fear and humanity. He saw she was not a monster to be punished.

Since then, Joel has committed to being a nonviolent artisan of peace. “Violence has ruined us,” he says of himself and his fellow Guatemalans. “We need to imagine differently.”

Jude Nnorom has a similar story. He recounts his journey between Nigeria and South Africa as a Catholic priest. He learned from his mother at a young age that violence coerces and manipulates, but never leads to peace. Only nonviolence can change communities and reveal their potential.

Julijana experienced conversion through survival stories of the Yugoslav Wars. Despite terrible violence, and the fog of official narratives, many Croatians, Bosnians and Serbians went out of their ways to help one another. Julijana found herself changed by their insistence that they had no right to take another’s life. 

One of the most breathtaking conversion stories we heard came from Vera Grabe, a Colombian politician and cofounder of the M-19 guerrilla movement. She and other revolutionaries realized the paradox of seeking peace through violence. If only violence could bring peace, Vera asked, how could they ever measure out “enough” violence? 

She and her compatriots laid aside their arms in the name of another path. They chose peace as a creative process, rather than a victory bought by blood.

Each of our peacebuilders at some point realized the folly of casting out violence with violence. Their insights weren’t necessarily into the power of peace, but into the impotence of violence to change the world.

By nature, Jude says, violence cannot solve problems; it can only push them to the side. Unresolved, they grow and demand greater violence to stave them off again. He saw that violence only entrenches rivalries and resentments, further convincing people they cannot coexist with their neighbors.

“Peace” is not the absence of violence, Vera says; peace denies violence the fuel it needs to thrive. It commits to learning from and imitating others at their best. It sees them as worthy and beautifully human.

Something other than principals or strategy motivates these artisans of peace. They see nonviolence as an existential necessity, as the only way to help humans flourish in conflicted spaces. 

Nonviolence means we don’t let violence have its way with us. It means transforming into people who resist violence by collaborating authentically with one another.

Joel Aguilar photographed with a view overlooking Guatemala City.
Joel Aguilar is an academic dean, urban ministry fellow, and grassroots activist in Guatemala City
What Peacebuilders Need

These insights into violence also place peacebuilders at risk. They poke holes in our ideals of patriotism, heroism and righteousness. When they question those narratives, asking others to give up their violence, even “good guys” lash out. Artisans of peace can buckle under this kind of pressure.

These creative peacebuilders are everywhere. They work quietly to change their communities and reveal the truth of violence. They often go unnoticed, and sometimes they are vilified. We’re sure someone in your own life fits this description. Here’s what they need:

Community support

Time to rest with like-minded others

Nonviolent activists are not rare, but they are often spread out, and they face pressure from violent actors in their contexts. They can rarely come together and reflect on their work and strategies. They need such spaces. Andrew DeCort has given us the best endorsement possible by calling unRival a “place where he can find oxygen” with people like him. Peacebuilders need places where the pain and fear falls away, where others affirm them for doing the right thing.

Others to know the impact of their work

Our polarized contexts keep us from recognizing what these peacebuilders do. We owe it to them to become slower thinkers and better readers, fleshing out their “theories of change” in practical language. Together, we become storytellers who communicate their insights and impact.

These are all ways that you can support artisans of peace in their hard, but life-giving work.

How You Can Help

We are meeting the needs of these peacebuilders through our Artisans of Peace program. We accompany them to nurture hope, inspire collaboration and overcome destructive rivalry. You can help us by reading their stories, signing up for the Frame to follow our story, and keeping in touch as we create unrivalrous spaces together. 

We hope you’ll join us in finding more creative ways to refresh and empower these leaders.

Hold onto hope with us.

When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

By contributing as little as $25, you join us in supporting peacebuilders who are bringing creative solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Your donation funds leadership formation programs, research, and resources for those resisting rivalry with you.