Diary of a Peacebuilding Mission with Tim Pownall

Diary of a Peacebuilding Mission

Peacebuilding is strategic, elusive, complex, and predicated on hope.

Hope that a collaborative pursuit of common interests will afford a better future for our children. This is nowhere more evident than in the emerging work of faith-based diplomacy. Track two diplomacy is proving to be the sophisticated, cutting-edge, 21st century transactional diplomatic process among state and non-state actors that effectively creates opportunities for progress in the world’s identity-based conflicts. Faith-based diplomacy is the most promising manifestation in this developing field as it moves beyond win-lose paradigms of the Westphalian past, reanimating ancient principles of Abrahamic faith-based reconciliation. Yes, religion factors significantly in this mix!

The singularly most exciting and successful proponent of this approach is the PACIS PROJECT in Faith-Based Diplomacy, winner of 2011’s PEACEMAKER AWARD bestowed by the national Association for Conflict Resolution for significant and sustained contribution by an organization to the cause of peace. A joint effort by the number one ranked ADR program among US law schools, the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California, and the leading Washington, D.C. based field-savvy “do-tank”, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, the PACIS PROJECT in Faith-Based Diplomacy, in consultation with governments, religious leaders, and popular movements, addresses intractable identity-based conflicts that exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy and legal remedy. PACIS intentionally and effectively combines the transcendent power of religion with the practice of international diplomacy through an innovative model of faith-based reconciliation that has borne tangible fruit in the United States, Sudan, Kashmir, east central Europe, and of late, in the Arab and Israeli spheres of influence.

The PACIS PROJECT emphasizes “on the ground” intervention among polarized communities in situations of identity-based conflict. It seeks to work with leaders and emerging leaders in policymaking circles, foreign ministries, national security agencies, religious denominational communities, higher education, and humanitarian non-governmental organizations who must grapple with the complex role of religion in societies and faith as a contributing factor in violent conflict. Religious worldviews, when used by extremists to promote violent conflict, threaten world peace. The PACIS PROJECT focuses on the development of this specialized field within track two diplomacy and is able to work in collaborative fashion with official track one government-to-government diplomacy.

In his book, “Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, Dr. Douglas Johnston, President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy writes: “Almost anywhere one turns, one finds a religious dimension to the hostilities.” The PACIS PROJECT seeks to bring together the principles and practices of religion with politics in the cause of peacemaking and conflict resolution. W. Timothy Pownall, Assistant Director of the Straus Institute, who shares PACIS PROJECT co-director duties with the Reverend Canon F. Brian Cox and Mr. Michael E. Zacharia suggests “We have allowed our religions to become politicized and our scriptures to be weaponized and this makes enemies of us all.”

This unique and pioneering work of the heart is sometimes messy and surprising. Pownall says: “Our effort is propelled by the notion that until a shared value system is socialized across combatant societies, peace treaties remain pieces of paper. Abrahamic faith-based reconciliation is that new and ancient construct calling to us through our respective sacred texts to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. To that end, where possible and when invited, we bring together disparate parties into an innovative facilitated process to create a mini-crisis of conscience, a facing inward, and then a facing outward, in a kind of controlled sacred space dynamic where participants are led through a consideration of core faith principles such as ‘the other,’ justice, forgiveness, healing relationships, peacemaking and the sovereignty of God. As you would imagine, emerging from this process stereotypes are dismantled, new understanding and relationships are forged and a fearlessness in addressing heretofore ‘dangerous’ topics becomes an exercise in friendship formation. It’s quite moving and deeply humbling to witness and experience participants and facilitators alike recognize they are experiencing the transcendent”

In forming these new relationships, trust and understanding ensues and “participants find themselves comfortable holding one another accountable to the highest and best of their respective faiths” says Pownall.

As the PACIS PROJECT emphasizes “on the ground” intervention among polarized communities in situations of identity-based conflict, its latest diplomatic mission this past November to Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv highlighted again PACIS’ ability to connect with significant state and non-state influencers.

PACIS is overseen by Timothy Pownall, the Assistant Director of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University and Principal at The AGENCY FOR DISPUTE RESOLUTION; Brian Cox, International Center for Religion and Diplomacy Senior Vice President; and Michael Zacharia, a veteran of the White House, U.S. State Department, and international corporate law.

Clearly Timothy Pownall, Brian Cox, and Michael Zacharia bring an amazing wealth of experience in faith-based diplomacy including history, politics, conflict management, theology, personal faith, and social/political/religious movements among the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian populations of the region. This particular mission was no different. Each team member realized that they were undertaking an initiative that had no clear precedent in history. “There is no manual except the example of Abraham who took one step in faith at a time in answer to the promptings of his God”, suggests Cox.

We had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Tim Pownall about this latest mission to find out how these trips unfold and where they think they are making a difference. We also had a chance to discuss the significant momentum the PACIS PROJECT is gaining across the Middle East:

Q. Where can people find out more about your work?

Does PACIS have a website? “Yes, of course! People can read about our many diplomatic missions at www.law.pepperdine.edu/ straus/academics/pacis. The website presents the eight core values addressed in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and includes information about Abrahamic faith-based reconciliation as a moral vision.”

Q. What is your main purpose or message when you hit the ground on these missions?

“Our approach is to form and maintain and connect those strategic relationships we have established in order to socialize the notion of faith-based reconciliation through our diplomatic processes across the region. Our process heals relationships!”

Q. How do you bridge the gap between the various faiths?

“In conversation, we acknowledge that for all of us our faith is deeply heart-felt – we believe what  we believe – and we come to it through various experiences. We care in good faith to continue to grow in our faith and better understand its demands of us in our political and social/civic lives. This we share in common. From this place we begin to explore and learn together about bridging our differences, respecting those differences, and living with those differences according to the divine voice in our respective sacred texts. As its core intellectual and methodological framework, The PACIS PROJECT is an innovative approach to diplomacy and peacemaking that has been developed over the past twenty years by Brian Cox. This innovative approach is called faith-based reconciliation which is defined by eight core values and by a deliberative process that focuses on creating a reconciling spirit between antagonists and engaging in constructive joint problem solving as a means of not only resolving the conflict but of also addressing the need for a wider process of sociopolitical healing so as to develop a sustainable environment for peace.”

Q. How do you approach someone from the Muslim Brotherhood and get that person engaged in a conversation as a person of faith when by all accounts you can be perceived as their enemy?

“It is clearly understood that we have starkly divergent political and religious beliefs and are viewed, in fact, with great skepticism initially by a variety of groups we interact with. We engage senior and middle level religious leaders from both Israel and the Arab nations in the Middle East from groups and movements who typically resist constructive problem solving and tend to undermine the peace process. Since the faith-based reconciliation methodology focuses on ‘changing hearts’ as a prelude to joint problem solving, it was suggested that such a process is better suited to reaching such groups because our approach goes to where their hearts are and engages with them there as a matter of first priority.

Q. Do you find that some feelings get “lost in translation” at times?

“Yes, of course! Neither Brian, Michael, nor myself speak Arabic or Hebrew – and yet the ‘heart’ is an amazing communicator of intent and motive. Fortunately, we don’t miss too much. All three of us are highly experienced mediators, listeners, and internationalists so cross-cultural communication and understanding comes relatively easily. When we conduct our faith-based reconciliation events, we employ the services of knowledgeable interpreters.”

Q. What do you think is the most important question that can be asked during these conversations?

“I ask, ‘What do you believe? I know about your religion—tell me about your faith. What do you believe?’ Then we ask the obvious follow-up, ‘Would you help me understand why that is so important to you?’ It is important to understand we don’t throw out that question in the first two minutes of meeting someone. There is a process of formal/informal diplomatic protocol and social etiquette that is inevitably observed. Only at the appropriate time and in the most culturally sensitive manner will we eventually get to that question.”

Q. What was the biggest surprise during this recent trip?

“The serendipity in our most recent trip happened while we were working in Cairo. We were approached ‘out of the blue’ by senior members to the Syrian National Council in exile to enter into conversation with them about the possibility of consulting with the National Council concerning matters of consensus building and peace-building.”

Q. Are you seeing major shifts in the Middle East?

“Yes, there is something very big happening throughout the region – popular movements and indigenous political activism informed by what we would call democratic ideals of freedom and self-determination are rumbling and roiling about the so-called holy lands and North Africa. It’s a time of danger and great opportunity. My hope is that as the interests at play jockey for position, that the PACIS PROJECT’s innovative model of faith-based reconciliation (a religious framework for peacemaking that has been seriously ‘road-tested’ and has borne tangible fruit in other intractable identity-based conflicts) will be taken seriously to heart and appropriated by emerging popular movements as a deeply impactful and highly effective diplomatic engagement process alternative!”

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