by Olga Bonfiglio
Hildegard Goss-Mayr, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Kalamazoo College in 1988 (see sidebar). More recently, Assistant Professor of Education Olga Bonfiglio had a chance to talk with Goss-Mayr on matters of peace and social justice. In October, Kalamazoo College received a $2.1 million grant to launch the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. BeLight found excerpts of this interview relevant not only to the new Center but also to the College's Peace and Justice Guild.
Shortly after World War II, the Austrian born peacemaker (she's been invited to more than 60 countries on various peacemaking missions) began working with her father, a veteran of World War I who co-founded the Netherlands-based International Fellowship of Reconciliation. IFOR stands against war and its preparation and works for healing and reconciliation by "envisioning a world based upon love in action."
Goss-Mayr says her work is guided, in part, by Gaudium et Spes ("Joy and Hope"), one of four Apostolic Constitutions resulting from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It charges the faithful "not to close their eyes to the modern world but to be positive and to help transform it."
BeLight: How can peacemaking be made more vital today?
Goss-Mayr: To do peacemaking in a coherent and effective way, we must remember that economics and social justice cannot be separated and that there is also a link between religion and politics. The way we live is a more important witness to those who oppose our position than is our critiques of those opponents. In Austria, where I live, the Church is divided between the liberals and conservatives. However, nonviolence and helping the poor are two areas all people can agree is the mission of the Church. What's important (but which I find difficult) is seeing positive things in the other side. We have to be aware that there is no group inside our churches that is all negative. So we must learn from the other side and remind ourselves that our opponents may have good elements that our side lacks.
BeLight: You've written of the need to "tend to the dictator in ourselves." What do you mean by that?
Goss-Mayr: There is no human being that is completely nonviolent. We always have to observe ourselves and deal with our negative aspirations and reactions. But we can't do it on our own. We need help through prayer, meditation, personal growth and we must let ourselves be helped by others. Every evening I ask myself how I dealt with the people I encountered today and how did I respect the other?
BeLight: How do we deal with terrorism and what is to be done to stop it?
Goss-Mayr: The important thing is to go to the root of a problem and ask why terrorism exists and under what conditions it grows. From such an analysis we learn how to address causes rather than symptoms. Terrorism grows in places characterized by unsupportable economic and social conditions, where people suffer injustices. The solution must involve peaceful and constructive actions that can help build more just conditions. When people feel they are respected and that they have an equal chance in the world, that's the best way to diminish the appeal of the terrorist.
BeLight: How do we deal with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Goss-Mayr: Like everybody else, I do not have an easy answer. Afghanistan has never been subdued by any foreign power. In order to prepare for a peaceful solution there, it is necessary to rebuild the country economically with an infrastructure and a police force. That's my European point of view. German peace groups and peacekeeping troops, however, have difficulty linking the rebuilding of the country with a military presence. The Afghan people can't distinguish them either. Troops are seen as an occupation force. Rebuilding has to be separated from any military action. Rebuilding is what will make the people in those places see the United States more favorably. Simultaneously, discussions need to take place with local leaders in order to prepare for negotiations that include all forces involved in the conflict. The Taliban see themselves as freedom fighters against an occupation. But there is also the fear of an Islamic regime, in particular in the cities. We need to understand the motivations of the people who live in Afghanistan.
BeLight: You've linked economics, social justice, and peace. Is such linkage possible given the widening gap in wealth among nations?
Goss-Mayr: Let me give you an example of how we work for more consciousness and greater justice on the international level. When war broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1980s, IFOR formed a coalition of peace groups to learn more about European effecters of the war. German firms, for example, were taking out gold and talgon and causing strife among the ethnic groups. So the IFOR objective was to create more consciousness among the Germans and Austrians for their role in the war. Our statement of the situation of war and its causes named European firms that were involved and listed where the arms for the war were coming from. We sought signatures from important persons in Europe denouncing the war, which included leaders from the Catholic Church, among them several Cardinals, as well as of the World Council of Churches, national presidents, ministers and parliamentarians, etc. We then went public with a petition asking the UN to provide peace-building troops to the Congo, prepare a conference of all the states involved in the conflict, and to enforce an arms embargo for the region. As a result of the media coverage, the people in Germany began to learn about the war and their role in it. It is most important to analyze the situation and be objective when presenting the facts. That is to say: we must speak the truth. It made an impact on the UN, which did commit troops to protect civilians from the conflict.
BeLight: IFOR was critical in the Philippines "People Power" movement that brought Corazon Aquino to the presidency about the time you received your honorary degree from "K."
Goss-Mayr: The people were hungry for change, for democracy and social justice. The person who stood for those changes, in opposition to the Marcos regime, was Benigno Servillano Acquino, Jr. He was assassinated in 1983, but his death catalyzed millions who joined in demonstrations calling for human rights and democracy. These nonviolent demonstrations were emotional, but not yet organized. In 1984 IFOR was invited to look at the situation and help build nonviolent resistance. My husband and I were charged with this mission. We traveled throughout the Philippines to learn more about the people and the situation. When we met with people we asked them if they wanted nonviolent resistance. This was an important question because there already was an armed resistance in progress and the population was caught between the guerrillas and the army. A third nonviolent power that avoids civil war had to be built up with the consent of the population.
"Economics and social justice cannot be separated."We held meetings with various people all over the country and many came, including the Aquino family. "People Power" started from its Philippine participants' commitment to nonviolent resistance. We were invited to help with the training and planning. It became one of the most outstanding examples of combining spiritual power - the nonviolence of Jesus - with political liberating action. Several million people participated in this struggle, and finally the dictator, who was supported by the United States, was forced from power, and Cory Aquino, whose husband had been assassinated, became president. It was a victory over dictatorship carried out with the nonviolent strength of the Philippine people.
Hildegard Goss-Mayr enjoys a conversation with Jerry Mechtenberg-Berrigan '97, one of the co-founders of Peace House in Kalamazoo.
Honorary Degree Citation for Hildegard Goss-Mayr
June 1988, Kalamazoo College
Mr. President, I have the honor to present HILDEGARD GOSS-MAYR, a vice president of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, for an honorary degree. Dr. Goss-Mayr was born in Vienna and was greatly influenced by her father's work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation during the reign of the Third Reich in Germany. She received her doctorate in languages, philosophy, and Reconciliation in the same year. Since then, she and her husband Jean have journeyed throughout the world to spread the religious and Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent service for social change.
For nearly ten years, Dr. Goss-Mayr and her husband worked to establish religious and political dialogues between organizations in Eastern and Western Europe, which produced the first meetings between East and West European churches since the Second World War. In 1962, she and Jean moved to Latin America, where for the next fifteen years they worked with trade unions and organized networks of pastoral workers and Christian base communities to empower the poor of Latin America in their struggle against poverty, exploitation, and violence. In the past decade, they have initiated peace and solidarity networks throughout Western Europe and have worked with grassroots peace communities in the Middle East, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, and many other countries. In the Philippines, their seminars on nonviolent resistance were instrumental in laying the foundation for the revolution that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship.
Dr. Goss-Mayr has won numerous awards for her work, including the Bruno Kreisky Foundation's Award for Commitment to Human Rights in 1979 and the Pax Christi Peace Education Prize in 1986. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times and has spoken at a special session of the United Nations Committee on Disarmament.
The International Fellowship of Reconciliation is composed of citizens from all continents and includes Christian, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, humanists, and others who are committed to the principle of nonviolence as both means and end. Referring to the work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dr. Goss-Mayr has written, "It makes a great difference, in a revolutionary process where people are highly emotional, whether you promote hatred and revenge or help the people stand firmly for justice without becoming like the oppressor. You want to love your enemy, to liberate rather than destroy him." These words summarize the unfailingly compassionate work of her own life, and it is therefore with deep appreciation for her work as an apostle of peace that I recommend Hildegard Goss-Mayr for the degree, Doctor of Divinity.