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Cultural Resources for Peace in Asia


Felix Wilfred

I would like to start my presentation by distinguishing between culture of peace, and cultural resources for peace.  So much is discussed and written about culture of peace today. We will find a lot of references also the recent social teachings of the Church.  What I am going to present has another focus. It concerns the various resources in the cultures of the people to overcome conflicts, mending inter-human relationships and building peace. In other words, we want to acknowledge and affirm that cultures have a lot of potential for peace. However, they need to be discovered and need to be harnessed for the cause of peace.

Barring some exception like Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464) and Roman Lull (1235 – 1315), theologians in the Christian tradition hardly ever dwelt on peace.  Rather, spiritual warfare on heathens, crusades against Saracens and just war for defence found greater justification than the cause of peace.  But today, peace has become a challenge to theology and to our Christian faith. Peace is an issue of utmost importance   and urgency for the life of the world, of nations and societies. Hence, theology needs to turn its attention with great urgency and commitment to contribute to this issue of momentous public concern. In the process, it may need to relativize certain issues, questions and debates in which it has been engrossed, which, however, may have scant significance for the life of the world today.

In modern times, it is Pope John XXIII who brought peace as a common issue of the entire humanity which the Church needs to address. The  encyclical of Pope John  XXIII Pacem in Terris (1963) set a new direction for opening up Church and theology to this concern. It was the first time that the world was to hear from the Church something addressed to the entire human family. Highlighting the significance of this encyclical, Joseph Gremillion notes,

It was Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) which won for John and his aggiornamento a universal hearing. Millions who had never paid the least attention to popes and their ja-breaker encyclicals suddenly sat up and listened. Here for the first time, a pope was addressing himself  “to all men of good will”. And his message responded to a deep longing shared by all.[i]

The significance of Vatican II is that it went beyond an understanding of peace tied to war,  and viewed it, drawing from Patristic tradition, as inextricably related to the practice of justice.

Peace cannot be limited to a mere absence of war, and the result of an ever precarious balance of forces. No, peace is something that is built up day after day, in the pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect form of justice among people.[ii]

Vatican II View of Culture and Its Implications for Peace

One way for  theology to  contribute to peace is to take further the important teaching of Vatican II on culture and draw out its  implications for the promotion of peace. The colonial period was characterized by an evolutionary and hierarchical  understanding of culture. Accordingly,  some cultures were viewed as superior and developed, whereas others – those of the  colonized peoples – were looked down as inferior and needing development. Thanks to the contribution of anthropological studies, Vatican II refused to entertain any such evolutionary and hierarchical understanding of culture. Rather, it saw cultures as a deeply human reality, each one with its own unique characteristics.

What we have, then, are a plurality of cultures,  every one of them different, but none of them superior or inferior to others. I think the plurality of cultures so clearly acknowledged and affirmed by the Council cannot be deployed only to contexualize Christianity. Vatican II,  after having presented a larger and humanistic view of culture, turned it to the advantage of the Church for its programme of inculturation.  But the point is culture has a larger role to play in humanizing the world and society and in fostering mutual understanding. It offers among other things ways and means to resolve differences in human and societal relationships. Promotion of peace at the local level needs to be nourished by these sources and latch on to the concrete strategies each culture has devised and transmitted from generation to generation. The local culture may have also important lessons for the construction of peace in other societies and at the global level.

Culture and Theology of Creation

A theology from above would view culture in relation to economy of salvation. Culture needs to conform to God’s Word, instead of God’ Word coming in encounter with culture, some would argue. On the other hand, a theology of creation would view culture as  a reality of human collective life and having value in itself. If God acts through human agency and medium in different areas of life, this applies as well to the case of peace. The evil of violence is caused by human beings, and God brings about peace  through the same human beings by letting them use positive means and ways at their disposal. If violence and conflicts have existed from the beginning of humanity, the same humanity has also found the means to resolve conflicts and bring to an end hatred and violence.  Human interrelationships and encounters are shaped by culture, and the ways in which people relate are culturally embedded. It is easy then to understand why when ruptures take place in these relationships and manifests themselves in conflicts and violence, the same culture is crucial in bringing about healing touch, reconciliation and peace. Thus it makes sense to investigate the cultural potential among every people for cessation of hostilities and entry  into a process of peace and reconciliation.

Mystical Approach to Culture – Way to Peace

I already referred to Nicholas of Cusa. In his work “Peace of Faith”, he sees harmony of religions resulting from a vision. It is remarkable that at a time of great religious conflicts, he was able to relate the warring religions from a mystical perspective and see their ultimate unity.

It happened that after several days – perhaps because of long continued meditation–a vision was revealed to this zealous man. From it he concluded that of a few wise men familiar from their own experience with all such differences which are observed in religions throughout the world, a single easy harmony could be found and through it a lasting peace established by appropriate and true means.[iii]

Today, even as we try to deepen the mystical dimension called for in inter-religious understanding, we need to also see the mystical dimension in the plurality of cultures, and in the harmony of cultures. Mysticism breaks the barriers, borders and leads us to see greater unity, and it has the power to make us see things in a different light. That applies to different cultures. They do not become rivals, but are bonded together as manifold expressions of a single humanity united with the divine mystery. The sense of unity and harmony helps us also discover in each culture, though circumscribed by particularities of geography and history, something that surpasses these, something that relates it at a different plane with other cultures. It helps us learn how each culture promotes and sustains peace, and the resources  it  possesses  for this goal. This mystical vision of cultures could be assisted by such concrete practices as inter-cultural communication.



Internal Solutions to Conflict

One thing history and experience has shown is that solutions to conflict that is not rooted in culture, but imposed from outside do not serve the cause of sustaining peace. Numerous examples at macro and micro levels could be brought in support. To cite some of the glaring ones, the process of sustaining peace in Afghanistan, in Iraq or Libya seems still far removed. What external factors and forces are able to bring cannot but be a fragile peace  that breaks up in no time. The project of peace needs to sprout from the soil and engage the people themselves. This happens precisely when the potentials inherent in culture are brought out into the open and deployed for the purpose of promoting peace.  Culturally based peace initiatives require supportive institutions and  infrastructures.

We have from the African continent,  examples of deploying cultural means and institutions for reconciliation after conflicts and building up of peace.  A case in point is Rwanda.  In the post-conflict period there was urgent need for arbitration. After so much of violence and brutal mutual killings of Hutu and Tutsi, if the country is today  on the path of recovery and peace-building, this owes no small measure to the cultural means of arbitration. The traditional institution of gacaca courts has been functioning in the country, and it has taken up thousands of cases.  Gacaca in the local language means “neat and well-kept grass”.  The lush green grass-fields are where the local community meets and sorts out differences,  and it is a symbol of dialogue and participation. How successful have these courts have been? Certainly they are not perfect  or ideal;  there are many flaws, and many things are wanting.  Yet, they proved to be a little better than all the means and initiatives from outside in bringing about reconciliation and peace in the post-conflict period.  How could even modicum of justice and peace come to this society when in 2001,  more than 100,000 accused of genocide were  lodged in prison? It would have taken several decades to mete out justice and come to reconciliation –  and that too with at a very  large  financial cost – were one to depend upon modern court processes.  What the case of Rwanda proves is that the local and culturally embedded means such as gacaca courts could contribute to peace because they are transparent. The local and community-centred conflict resolution involves people so close to each other that they cannot pretend or hide facts.  Issues could also be transacted much faster. Moreover, they help people to be accountable, and chances of durability of peace are greater.


 An Illustration from the Field of Economy

I would like to illustrate the community and culture-based peace-construction by drawing a parallel to some of the recent insights in the field of economics. Way back in 1968 Garrett Hardin wrote a celebrated article entitled “The Tragedy of the  Commons” in the journal Science.[iv]  He said that the common resources like pasture land, forests,  air, water, fisheries etc. which served the community for millennia have come into a situation of crisis because, due to greed, some members start overexploiting them. This results in the destruction and it is ultimately to nobody’s advantage that the commons are destroyed thus. For him what caused this tragedy is the absence of well-defined property-rights. Decades later, Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded Nobel Prize for economics in 2009,  came back on the question. She showed that the real tragedy is in the destruction of the community-based systems of conserving the commons.[v] These systems had the advantage of turning the people into active participants using common resources responsibly. It allowed identifying easily the violators and dealing with them – something that created greater accountability for and control over the commons.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. People themselves have structures and means for peace which require to be activated and deployed.  Placing the community as the important player and most effective manager of the common resources,  challenges the role of primacy given to individual actors in neo-liberal economy.  Community management of what is common itself is an expression of culture and it helps overcome the violence the competition and  conflicts between individuals could cause. In neo-liberal economy, state and the market were viewed as the ones that would protect natural resources from overuse and destruction.  The community management of commons comes as an alternative to these two traditional  actors.

Peace and Justice in Cultural Soil

It is obvious today that any lasting peace involves the recognition of human dignity, the practice of  equity and justice. In resolution of conflicts the restorative justice and forgiveness occupy important place. While recognizing important values for the promotion of peace, we need to also be aware of the fact that these universal conditions for peace are bound up with culture. The way equity and social justice is practiced has its own history and tradition among the different cultures. We need to identify culturally rooted and community-centered practices of justice to be able to build bridges of peace and reconciliation.

The definition of peace by St Augustine as “tranquillitas ordinis” ( tranquility of order) is not to be understood as an exhortation to conform to the existing order. His definition needs to be viewed as a process of  right relationship of part to the whole and the harmony resulting thereof. Now, as a continuous process of building up right relationships, the construction of peace remains a community project with all its historical and cultural resources. The reconstruction of peace after creating violent disorder also calls for community resources.

In the discussion on  peace  after conflict, one of the central issues is the restoration of justice before reconciliation can take place and peace be established.  Though right in itself, this disjunction of justice and peace  would appear foreign to many cultures which  have developed ways to relate one to the other in such a way that both  justice and  peace are attained simultaneously   without having to dichotomize or sacrifice one for the other. Even when strict justice is enforced, we are not sure that the relationship between the perpetrator of the evil and the victim would be set right. This requires more than what justice could offer.  It is precisely here cultural resources for reconciliation and peace could help heal the wounds and facilitate the sustaining of communion. In other words, each cultural soil has its own potential, so that justice and peace may bloom and flower in a particular context.

From a theological point of view, culture as I noted earlier is part of the economy of God’s creation  and is a site of God’s grace. By deploying the cultural means for the noble goals of justice and peace we are in the realm of every day grace. If, as Amartya Sen, rightly noted, perfect justice eludes us and we are in a quest from less justice to more justice,[vi] this applies as well for the attainment of peace  which cannot rely on the restoration of perfect justice. In the quest for peace  from less justice to greater  justice, culture and cultural resources could play an important role.  Culture represents embedded inter-human relationships and in the quest for peace could offer the balm for healing of wounds and for reconciliation.

Culture and Peace Initiatives

             The Nobel Prize for Peace for the year 2012 was awarded to the European Union.  A continent that saw fiercely fought two World Wars  and witnessed   violence, immense destruction and deaths of millions in the twentieth century has emerged as a continent of dialogue, peace and understanding.  The cessation of hostilities and promotion of dialogue is obviously facilitated by economic integration. However, without the support of a cultural dialogue and a shared common values and history, this change would not have been possible. We may recall here the contribution of such personalities as Cardinal  Suhard and Bernard Lalande who were  all engaged in reconciliation among the European nations, especially for German and French reconciliation. Oraganization such as Pax Christi supported this process of peace and reconciliation.

How shared culture, history and civilization could contribute to the promotion of peace is exemplified also by the creation of ASEAN. Ever since the creation of this body, there have been hardly any serious conflicts among the South East Asian nations.

Today, peace is threatened in East Asia, with the escalation of tension among Korea, China and Japan on the issue of  some uninhabited  islands. National sentiments and passion  ran high in these countries. There were vehement anti-Japanese riots in China, compromising the trade relationships. And yet, we note there are a lot of prospects of peace if these countries look at their shared culture, history,  way of life and adherence to some traditional common values. The Church in these countries can play a very significant role in the construction of peace by having recourse to cultural means available among the peoples of this part of Asia. These initiatives could be at the macro and at micro level . As an example, I  would like to refer to a micro level initiative of a Korean pastor and a Japanese pastor (Katushiko Seino) at  Tsuchiura Grace Church  involved in a movement called “Koinonia” which tries to bring the two peoples together for dialogue and peace. I have read reports and seen television images in which some South Koreans were trying to send leaflets and balloons from this side of the border to North Korea. While understanding the sentiments and emotions behind such acts, we need to raise the question about the usefulness of such exercises, and whether they are going to convert the people of North Korea to peace. On the other hand, initiatives which rely on historical and  cultural Korean resources could  open up doors for peace and overcoming of mutual hostile attitudes. Cultural exchanges, education and honest textbooks of history   could help overcome prejudices and move beyond ideological differences. Such culture-based peace initiatives would be very much in line with the affirmation of the value of culture in human life by Vatican II.

More than ever before in East Asia there is a lot of economic exchange and interdependence. The economic mutual advantages for example between China and Taiwan seem to have at least partly put aside traditional hostilities. The great volume of trade between Japan and China brought them closer overcoming historical memories of colonization, war and violence, until the critical situation created in this relationship through the issue of the islands. Political initiatives and economic integration may not bring about peace, unless  they are cemented by cultural dialogue and interaction at a broader level.


I have pointed out an area in which theology of public life could engage itself actively, namely in overcoming of hostilities, conflicts, promotion of reconciliation and construction of enduring peace. For this to happen, theology needs to look at culture and its potentials beyond the programme of inculturation. The unexplored dimension of culture in relation to peace will be one of the major tasks of Asian theology of the future. By involving itself at the local level for the cause of peace, theology will become contextual and closer to the realities of everyday life. Public theology should help the Church in promoting cultural dialogue for the cause of peace and understanding. This task is no less important than inter-religious dialogue.  Theology could play the role of leveraging the existing systems and procedures  to prevent conflict, and when they occur help resolve by drawing from the contextual resources. By playing this important public role, theology would help the Church to strike its roots deeper in the cultural universe of Asian peoples. Has  not FACBC spoken so very clearly about the need of dialogue with culture along with dialogue with religions and with the poor? Today we begin to see the wider implications of this dialogue with cultures and its potential for construction of peace for a harmonious and shared Asian future.

[i] Joseph Gremillion, The Gospel of Peace and Justice. Catholic Social Teaching Since Pope John,  Orbis Books, New York, 1976, p. 68.

[ii]  Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio 76 (echoing GS 78).

[iii] Nicholas of Cusa, De Pace Fidei (1453) chapter I.

[iv] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, in Science 162 (1968), pp. 1243 – 1248.

[v] Cf Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

[vi] Cf. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane, London, 2009.


<VaticanⅡ, Ecological Crisis and Peace of Asia>, Seoul : WTI 2013