Advent is a time when we particularly remember Christ as a bringer of peace, and recall the angels singing of peace to all God’s people.
In a world where the news headlines seem full of violence, it can be tempting to think that this message isn’t viable for us. However, when we recall King Herod’s brutal slaying of infants followed the birth of Jesus, it is easier to realise that the message of peace must have seemed just as relevant and impossible then as it does to many people today.
Koila Costello-Olsson of the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA) in Fiji, is someone who has been a witness to troubled times around the two military coups in her country. ECREA is a partner of Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.
Koila is in demand by other groups in the Pacific and beyond to help people to learn from and gain greater skills in peacebuilding and reconciliation work.
She said many church leaders in the Pacific, such as those caught up in situations of violence in the Solomon Islands in recent years, responded to situations for which they were unprepared.
‘Some of the things that people have done from gut instinct and the guidance of the Holy Spirit need to be learned from, and taught to others,’ she says.
People have told her they don’t understand the trauma they have gone through.
‘They said, “We need some skills on conflict resolution, we need some skills on trauma. We still hurt, we’re still suffering. We acted out of survival and the need to save lives. Now we’re dealing with things we don’t understand.’”
Koila encourages all people to gain better skills as mediators and interveners, regardless of whether they are facing armed conflict or just day-to-day workplace difficulties. She says peace studies should be an essential part of study in seminaries and theological colleges.
‘It’s a good skill set to have, regardless of how it is used. We are slow to upskill to be better interveners.’
She also plays an important role in Fiji in providing trauma counselling for military who have served peacekeeping roles in places like Lebanon and Iraq. She sees this as an essential role in peacemaking, helping ‘officers who have witnessed terrible things’ to find better ways of coping with their own stress and trauma.
Koila encourages the military to take responsibility for their own recovery.
‘If your way of coping when you come back from Iraq is to have kava and beer, your organs are going to pack up.’ She encourages the military – young and old together, as well as those of different ranks – to share their ways of coping.
‘Sharing experiences is not part of their culture.’
Fijian peace workers have looked to South Africa for models of peacebuilding and reconciliation between cultural groups following the end of apartheid. They have learned that stages of reconciliation and peacebuilding go through cycles similar to stages of grief. Taking shortcuts doesn’t speed up the final process.
Koila learned that in Soweto, people went through a formal reconciliation process and decided to set up a memorial to those who lost their lives there. Because it was the end of a shared process, the memorial is valued. However, in other places, decisionmakers wanted to skip straight to the memorialising, without working through the community’s collective anger and grief.
‘In Cape Town some memorials were put up without involvement. People smashed them down.’
She sees the churches as having a crucial role in helping heal relationships between peoples, especially in the Pacific. ‘But it requires planning, thinking, reviewing, assessing – a continuous process. We need peacebuilders to be more strategic in their planning.’