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Washington Post

12 Octubre 2010

Recipe for Peace: Dialogue

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Dialogue, especially interfaith dialogue, gets a bad rap these days, but a pugnacious Italian historian and peacemaker, Andrea Riccardi, is not about to let such denigration stand. Looking already to the tenth anniversary of September 11th next year, he argues that the lesson we must learn, yet again, is that war achieves nothing and that tenacious dialogue is the path to peace.

Riccardi founded the Community of Sant'Egidio as a high school student in the ferment of the year 1968. A group of young people committed to act with and for Rome's poor immigrant populations, with prayer a binding link. They stuck together and their spirit took off. Theirs is a remarkable story of friendship, grit and principle, and today this unique, lay Catholic group is one of the world's most forceful and effective forces for both peace and justice.

Sant'Egidio's spirit also captivated Pope John Paul II, who sought the group's help in organizing the path-breaking 1986 Assisi gathering of religious leaders. And Pope John Paul II's vision captivated the Community, so that every year since then it leads a gathering called a Prayer for Peace. This year it was last week in Barcelona, and had a special poignancy because many of the religious leaders were also in Barcelona in early September, 2001. Their appeal for peace then asserted: "The name of God can never justify hatred and violence. Peace alone is holy, not war." Just days later, the Twin Towers fell.

Peace seems a rather fragile hope today, fragile in practice and spiritually. But that was not always so. Riccardi reminds us of the vibrant hope that gripped the world as World War II ended and the United Nations was created. When, against all odds and predictions, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990, anything seemed possible.

Andrea Riccardi's speech in Barcelona looks at 9/11 as a false start to the 21st century that we must put behind us. The first reaction after that terrible day, he said, was to dismiss dialogue as an illusion, dangerously naïve, meaningless. "Nine eleven seemed to crush, like a mountain of hatred, the voice of the appeal for peace that has risen only a few days before from Barcelona. Dialogue is for dreamers - we were told again and again: useless, rhetorical. What was its use?"

The idea that war is in the nature of a conflicted world gathered consensus. People spoke of conflict as history's midwife, as they had in the 19th century. Conflict was seen as the true nature of peoples, of religions, and history's very dynamics. "Spiritually frail men and women felt strong by speaking of strength and war. Fanaticism became the landfall for people who had lost their bearings, weak people with hardened faces and hatred in their eyes. People who are empty and mediocre are always the worst threat."

Yet, Riccardi argues, what we can see clearly nine years later is that war fails to achieve peace. "Whoever ponders over history is aware of the poisoned inheritance that war and terrorism leave behind." War does not make the world a better place. Worse, despite the promise of the 2000 Millennium Declaration, we have seen little political will to put our brains together to develop ways to end poverty. It is a dangerous myth that war can lead to either peace or prosperity.

So today we need a new, spiritually grounded sense of vision, a new route for the decade ahead. "Men and women suffer due to a lack of vision, because their horizon stretches too far, flooded with lights and signals. Confused, they focus on themselves, challenged by too many different neighbors, feeling the need to entrench themselves in short-sighted self interest."

Riccardi offers a vision that focuses on the world as a family, however naïve that may sound. And we need to force the objective with the strength of the spirit. That means bridging the gulfs that divide, not just the surface gaps. Markets won't do it. "It takes something deep, able to bring together the many differences under one single destiny. We need a movement that starts in the depths of ourselves. 'The longest journey is the journey within', wrote the first UN secretary, a mystic, Dag Hammarskjold. We need to make the longest journey into our own hearts, in order to recover ourselves as friends of God and friends of the others."

So, it comes back to dialogue, robust dialogue that leads to determined action both for peace and for justice. Dialogue and working together has to be the foundation. Riccardi offers a compelling vision. And meetings like the Barcelona Prayer for Peace rekindle hope in what is possible and what the "family of peoples" might do if we worked together.

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