Background

 

My interest in conflict and reconciliation goes back to my earliest childhood memories. I remember watching the news as a 7 year old in 1998 when the NATO operation began in Kosovo, frustrated because none of the adults I knew could explain the situation to me. My dad encouraged me to take my curiosity to the library, and so I did. I soon had my hands on every book our school possessed on the Holocaust, the Bolshevik revolution, and the Bosnian conflict. 

Of course, much of the conflict on the news in my childhood dealt with the aftermath of 9/11 and America’s involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia. I kept close tabs on the region accordingly, and soon developed a strong interest in the history, peoples, and cultures of the region. My junior year of high school, I wrote a 20 page research paper narrating the last 30 years of foreign military intervention in Afghanistan. The more I read, the more I wanted to engage.  I became particularly interested in the role religion plays as a response to suffering. After all, I had turned to my faith in God when my father died, and I had learned to love from Jesus Christ when my mother remarried and I gained 3 new family members. I began to understand that religious radicalization was just a response to suffering that took matters violently into one’s own hands. (Living in a step family, I could relate to that feeling). What if religious radicals could gain the hope of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, a kingdom that is not defended by the sword because it is not of this world?

I decided to continue pursuing this passion in college by completing the Middle Eastern Studies degree at Florida State University. There, I learned Arabic, studying in the Middle East twice over consecutive summers. I also delved into the region's history from multiple perspectives, including through the lens of religious movements. Finally, I took several classes that allowed me to look at the relationship between religion and conflict from a broader comparative perspective. My interest in the subject was confirmed all the more by the joy I had in studying and the encouragement I received from my various professors. I came to understand that promoting and making peace as a Christian is one of the most authentic and convincing ways we can witness to our Muslim friends about Christ. During my study, I encountered one Christian scholar at Oxford who seemed to write about all the big issues that were pressing to me: forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. As I finished my time at FSU, I received some encouragement to apply there for my master’s degree in theology.

Lastly, my time in Egypt and Lebanon confirmed the need for this work in reconciliation all the more. A community leader in Beirut once remarked to me that the civil war which destroyed their country 30 years ago is still not talked about in public circles. Religion, if anything, has made the conflict worse by being reduced to a political badge of identity rather than a set of beliefs and practices that put one in right relationship to God and neighbor. In Egypt, meanwhile, it is encouraging to see the church calling for love and forgiveness to be extended towards enemies like ISIS. Nevertheless, there is room for growth. The Christian community often feels marginalized and excluded from the public realm, and sentiments can easily divide along religious lines. All of this further inspired me to work in the realm of ethics and reconciliation, formulating the vision I have today.