The Mysterious Inner World of Spiritual Peacebuilders

Marc GopinSeptember 3, 2018Conflict and PeacemakersPerSpectives

I have spent the last twenty-seven years of my life as a peacemaker working on the Arab/Israeli conflict. It has been a long hard road, but I have traveled this road with many amazing people.

Their stories have rarely been told, as they are not ‘famous’ in the Western world that defines fame and power and impact with a very limited lens. I live in a different universe, a universe of the places in this world where two peoples are divided by bitter and violent sorrows, old resentments, outrageous but understandable suspicions, and completely polarized affiliations.

Within that world there is another world, a secret world, of those people who dare touch those on the other side with their words, with their food, with their hearts and souls. It is the world of spiritual peacebuilders. That special world to me as an activist, as a spiritual seeker, and as an analyst of conflict, is a magical world of enormous significance. For it is in that mysterious world of human bridges between enemies that we find, flowering up from the ground of death and hatred and war, the seeds of life, the seeds of the future, the seeds of what makes the human being such an exalted and courageous being, created in the image of God.

Spiritual peacemakers are a unique subset of human beings, partners in peacemaking across enemy lines. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian peacemakers stand on the bridge of a divide that goes back two thousand years to the very foundations of the split in the cluster of their religions known as ‘the family of Abraham,’ or the Abrahamic religions. These are very serious and violent divides with so many wounds of history, and they are the valiant healers of these ancient wounds.

My focus here with you is on the inner lives of spiritual peacebuilders, because it is the inner spiritual life that is most challenged in the effort to create a true partnership across enemy lines.

Any partnership is challenging for human life, from friends to lovers to business partners to academic colleagues. Partnership that is respectful, trustful, and generous, is a precious human experience that requires constant effort, much trial and error, and long-term evolution. The rewards are great but so are the challenges.

Imagine how much more difficult and how much more consequential–indeed fateful–is the difficulty of creating trusted partnerships and friendships across enemy lines where blood of the innocent, blood of family, has been shed for decades. The obstacles are overwhelming, the pressure from both sides to desist is unimaginable, and the inner challenges of guilt-ridden thoughts of betrayal are intense. Peace partners find themselves often deserted by their closest friends, family members, and neighbors as a price for their association with a peace partner.


My principal focus and interest is self-reflection. This is particularly important for me because I have concluded after decades of observation that a central source of endless conflict between enemies — but also a central source of misery in families and communities — is the emotional, cognitive, and ethical failure to be self-examined.

An inability to examine oneself is one of the greatest impediments to peace, because it prevents the crucial calculations of reason, it prevents an analysis of power relations, material relations, and it precludes a thorough examination of justice and fairness. The fulfillment of every human need in conflict resolution is thwarted by the inability to look at oneself, and it assaults each and every one of us every day in our personal conflicts.

The gifted spiritual peacemakers know this, and that is why they are working on themselves all the time. They are not saints, they are not perfect, but they are far more conscious of their internal life and struggles, and much more likely to ‘look into the mirror’ as they struggle for answers.


I am defining ‘self-reflection’ as our capacity to engage in profound and extensive internal conversations where we evaluate the good, the bad, what could be better, where we are going ethically and spiritually, and where we long to go. I further define it as a quality that is engaged over long periods of time, really as a fundamental part of a life journey.

Self-examination also means the capacity to openly share these conversations with others as a part of your personal growth, as well as a part of your peacemaking. This is vital to becoming a role model to others who also have difficult and contradictory feelings, and are often tempted to avoid self-scrutiny and instead channel these feelings into anger or violence. This makes self-reflective people far more authentic, persuasive, and peaceful in their character as well as their political work.

Self-reflection boldly confronts one’s own tragedies, and those of others; it confronts the resulting emotions of fear, remorse, and rage. It is about emotional honesty, striving to tell the truth to oneself and to others from one’s own group. Self-reflection also involves working on the capacity to hear hard truths and grow from the experience.

Self-examination is an internal process that not only is the key turning point between violence and nonviolence, it is the principal means of confronting and overcoming despair. Here is how. Reflection is the ultimate defense against burnout, because burnout, mental and emotional exhaustion, comes often due to an inability to face oneself honestly and accept the limits of one’s capacities. Reflection and self-examination, however, are by nature understanding of limits. Reflection encourages taking of responsibility for things we have evaded, but it also exposes the seizing of too much personal responsibility that is often a hallmark of burnout. Reflection is therefore very forgiving, and frequent forgiveness prevents burnout.

There is a good reason why thousands of years ago the Greeks summed up most wisdom with two words: Know thyself.

Inner knowledge is the key to the authentic peacemaker.

Inner knowledge is the antidote to despair, it is the path of authentic growth, and it is the key to nonviolence in the face of adversity, injustice and the tragedies of war.

The spiritual peacebuilder knows himself well, and it is for this very reason that he understands and empathizes with the heart of anger that is part and parcel of the injuries of war. The peacebuilder struggles day and night with her tendency to pass judgment on the violent ones, knowing full well that ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ that she could easily have become a warrior herself. The peacebuilder knows that the goal is justice and peace, but the journey there is through humility, self-examination, empathy, love, and compassion. It is a noble journey, worthy of those who hold their souls as precious gifts in the midst of oft-raging storms.

Marc Gopin is James H. Laue Professor and Director of George Mason University’s Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. As an author, professor, researcher, and consultant, Gopin brings an expert eye to issues of peace and global conflict. His particular emphasis is on the role of religion and culture in not only sparking conflict, but as critical to reaching lasting resolution between peoples and nations. Widely recognized for his lectures and trainings on peacemaking strategies, Gopin has worked in Ireland, Israel, India, Switzerland, and Italy, and has presented at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton Universities. He has also engaged in back channel diplomacy with religious, political, and military figures on both sides of entrenched conflicts, especially in the Arab/Israeli conflict. Dr. Gopin is the author of Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking, as well as Holy War, Holy Peace, a study on what was missing from the Oslo process and what will be necessary culturally for a successful Arab/Israeli peace process. His latest book is Healing the Heart of Conflict: Eight Steps to Mending Broken Relationships. He has appeared on numerous U.S. media outlets, including CNN, CNN International, Court TV, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, National Public Radio, The Connection, Voice of America, as well as on radio programs in Israel, Sweden, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. He has been published in the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and his work has been featured in news stories of the Times of London, the Times of India, Associated Press, and Newhouse News Service, regarding issues of conflict resolution, religion, and violence. Dr. Gopin was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University in 1983 and received a Ph.D. in religious ethics from Brandeis University in 1993. He is a senior researcher at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy’s Institute for Human Security. He is working in partnership with the Fetzer Foundation to create a web-based video series and book, To Make the Earth Whole: Creating Global Community in an Age of Religious Militancy, on enemies who become friends and close partners. More information can be found on, his weblog dedicated to addressing the transformation of conflicts facing humanity.