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Nonviolent quest lands alum in Bolivian prison

Photo of ASU Alum Rachel Bishop in Bolivia.
December 03, 2012

Rachel Bishop, an undergraduate research fellow with the Center for the Study of Religion, traveled to Bolivia in the summer of 2012 with support from the Friends of the Center Student Awards Program to learn firsthand about the role of religion in conflict resolution and non-violence. This is her story.

In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his book, "Stride Toward Freedom," that “at the center of nonviolence, stands the principle of love.” Perhaps a perfect example of the intersection of religion and conflict resolution, King, a Baptist minister and a civil rights activist, cited love, not religion, as standing at the center of nonviolence.

Throughout my studies of religion and conflict at ASU, however, I have been exposed to the numerous ways that religion plays a role in conflict resolution. This summer I witnessed firsthand a different way that religion actively serves as a catalyst towards peace, in a delicate balance of action and inaction.

Working as an intern for the NGO Bolivian Quaker Education Fund, I was able focus my efforts this summer as a volunteer for the nonprofit organization Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). AVP grew out of a collaboration between a group of prison inmates in New York and the Quaker Project on Community Conflict in 1975. What emerged was an experiential prison workshop in conflict-resolution, responses to violence, and personal growth.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined myself working alongside Bolivian AVP facilitators in a juvenile prison called Qualauma. But, that is exactly where I found myself this summer. It was a challenging experience to be sure, filled with intense discussions on peace and nonviolence, individual struggles of the participants, and goals for the larger community. Always out of my comfort zone, I juggled speaking in Spanish (not my first language) and trying to be at ease in a room full of 25-plus Bolivian young men (ages 14-22), who were – how should I put this – overeager to be working with a female foreigner. However, surprisingly enough, out of an environment that would not quickly be described as positive, I emerged with an optimistic view of the positive ways that religion can aid towards peace efforts.

During my internship, I asked my advisor (who is an AVP facilitator) if she would consider AVP to be a religious effort. Her response, “Absolutely not!,” surprised me. Given the fact that the very organization was founded by Quakers on a fundamental Quaker notion, the idea that there exists in every person an inborn power for peace, I assumed that AVP would consider itself to be religious. This assumption was far from true.

One contributor to AVP’s success is that it is not blatantly religious. There is no religious rhetoric during the workshops, no reading from religious texts, and the organization and its participants are not defined as one single religious group. Yet, there are strong currents of religion running through AVP. From its initial founding, to the fact that many AVP facilitators are deeply religious people, religion cannot simply be taken out of the equation here. What’s more, one also cannot deny a certain religious/spiritual sentiment that seems to underlie all of the AVP workshops: a profession of unity and a calling to the greater good in all of humanity.

So, how does this work? Religion is at once, taking a back seat and a fundamental part of the AVP experience. At first, this notion seemed counterintuitive to me. But after much thought, I don’t believe that it is. In fact, I believe this delicate balance that AVP has achieved, in regards to the use (and non-use) of religion for conflict resolution purposes, could speak greatly to peace efforts on a larger scale. In this instance, religion takes a back seat by masking itself.

Essentially, AVP took the most widely-applicable, overarching beliefs of religion and presented it as spirituality. Losing the structure, politics, and rhetoric of institutionalized religion that so often plays a role in creating division and conflict, what was left were the universal appeals to humanity – relatable to people of all faiths and those who practice no faith at all. To me, this is an interesting idea – to lose the “ego” of institutionalized religion that so often feels compelled to say “my way is the right way!”

As King and many other leaders in the struggle for peaceful conflict resolution have realized, the foundation for peace lies in the most basic, elemental aspects of the human experience: love, unity, the collective experience of humanity. To this extent, religious efforts can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, most world religions speak directly to these elemental aspects. On the other hand, many religions and religious followers insist that their teachings alone are correct. By encouraging the aspects of religion that unite people and draw them to act towards peace, yet discouraging the aspects of religion that so often draw lines between and separate people, AVP achieved, in my opinion, a most effective use of religion in conflict resolution efforts.

On her return from Bolivia, Rachel Bishop graduated from ASU's Barrett, The Honors College with a double major in global studies and religious studies. Her honors thesis project explored the role of religion and violence in American history, but her real passion lies with finding alternatives to violence, work that she is continuing to pursue in the San Francisco Bay Area with AVP and the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.