Monday, February 4, 2013

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Wolfgang Schonecke

The Wisdom of a Life’s Journey

Wolfgang Schonecke (born in 1938) is since 2001 head of the Network Africa Germany in Bonn ( From 1965-1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda; from 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership in the Society of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers); from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).

Yago: Wolfgang, welcome to this blog where we are exploring efficient ways to deconstruct today’s energies of enslavement. This is done mainly through new forms of awareness. I appreciate very much your willingness to share with us your life experience serving in this demanding field of Justice and Peace. We shall pay special attention, among many issues, to the structures and identities perpetuating modern slavery. I would like to begin this interview asking you about the hardships at the very beginning of your life.  You were born in Germany just before the Second World War. Could you share with us your early childhood, how the war affected you and in what ways it has shaped your commitment to Justice and Peace?

Berlin in ruins, 1945
Wolfgang: In early childhood I spent many a night in bomb-shelters, witnessed the violence of Russian soldiers and suffered the hunger and cold of the post-war years. As a missionary in Uganda I lived through two wars and witnessed the terror of the Ugandan army on helpless civilians. As a child you feel absolutely helpless in front of physical violence. As an adult you have a strong urge to react, to change the intolerable situation. The spontaneous reaction is one of counter-violence, a wish to eliminate the aggressor. The psalms are full of such desire of oppressed people to crush their enemies. If we cannot do away with the threat, it will often do it in our dreams and our fantasies. Eventually we forget the experience and get on with life.

Meditating on the person of Jesus and reading about other prophets of non-violence I realised that there is another way: not suppressing the memories of violence, but rather addressing the present reality of violence and trying to change it in a non-violent way.
My experience of violence is ambiguous. It awakens strong feelings against the perpetrator, but it also gives me a greater sensitivity and more compassion towards people whose integrity and dignity is violated. Somehow my commitment to justice is a fruit of the experience of injustice, in childhood but also in many other situations in my life.

Yago: You have been for decades in the field of Justice and Peace in Africa and Europe, could you share with us briefly your life story in this field? What role has your on-going formation and sabbaticals played in this journey?

Luzira Prison, Uganda
Wolfgang: There were many different experiences in my missionary life that sharpened my sensitivity toward injustices and opened up different ways of responding to it.
During the civil war in Uganda I did chaplain work in the central prison of Luzira. The place was overcrowded with some 2000 political prisoners who were never sure if they would survive the next day. I never experienced so deeply the power of God’s Word. In that precarious situation we read together the difficult and misunderstood book of Revelation and it became for them a source of inner peace and confidence.
The years of political oppression and civil war in Uganda under Idi Amin and Obote left their mark on me. My formation and my own self-image did not allow me to run away from the dangers. I was responsible for the group and thought I could not admit to weakness. It was only when I moved out of Uganda that the tensions began to show and I went into depression. It was a very hard, yet fruitful time. I learned more about myself and the workings of God than in all my formative years.
Later I had the privilege to do a Sabbatical at the Maryknoll School of Theology. It was a time of blessings and insights and a time of inner healing from the wounds of violence. The beauty of nature surrounding the house, the riches of relationships among the students from all over the world and the many moments of sharing our experiences and searching for answers, a fresh look at the bible and the insights from liberation theology, and most importantly, the listening ear of an emphatic counsellor, all contributed to renewing my vision and my commitment.
Later I worked for the East African Bishop’s conference (AMECEA) in Nairobi /Kenya. The first African Synod of 1994 had just taken place which was strongly influenced by the genocide in Rwanda and the miraculous victory over apartheid inSouth Africa that same year and as a result, placed a strong emphasis on the church’s duty to work for justice and peace.
Fr. Peter Henriot, S.J.
As a tool to conscientize church people we used the “Pastoral Cycle” of Fr. Pete Henriot, a more elaborate version of the See-Judge-Act method. For twelve years now, I have done the same kind of work in Germany.  This is much more challenging as the political machine is so complex and confusing and the influence of highly professional lobbyists working for powerful corporate and financial interests is overwhelming. I have slowly learned to keep working for justice not because of the results, but because I believe it is simply my duty as a Christian and a human being.

Yago: You talk about the complexity and confusion of today’s political machine in Germany. This makes very difficult the task of Justice and Peace. John Paul Lederach says in his interview that peacebuilding has always had the temptation to move very strongly towards the structural side. He mentions that the big challenge is to retain a sense of purpose in an ever-evolving creativity? Would you care to comment on that?

Wolfgang: Justice and peace work involves two levels. The level of awareness: becoming and making other people conscious of injustice and their own responsibility, changing innate prejudices and challenging false value systems. The other is political: trying to change the political and economic structures and power arrangements that create and perpetuate injustice. Lederach is right: in the “justice and peace community”, we tend to spend a lot of time and energy in campaigns and actions and to neglect the ethical, spiritual dimension of all justice problems. To change structures is hard enough and succeeds only occasionally. To change the mindset of people is harder. But it was the starting point of Jesus. His first appeal was for a change of thinking.

The structural approach is a necessary, but slippery path. It tends to make us think in terms of just and unjust structures and from there we can easily conclude that the people who are part of these structures are just or unjust. Structural thinking throws us easily back in the kind of dualistic thinking that we want to abolish.

Yago: Resiliency is a fundamental requirement for peacebuilders who insert themselves in the middle of conflict. Could you share with us the importance of developing resilient skills for our vocation?

Refugees Great Lake Region
Wolfgang: Working for many years with refugees from the Great Lakes Region I have learned a lot about resilience from them, particularly from women who have suffered the most appalling violence and humiliation, and still retain a great dignity and an amazing will to go on with life. A step towards more resilience has been a new understanding of Jesus’ parable of the sower as a story of his own life. His mission to bring people the good seed, the good news of a kingdom of justice and peace ended in total failure. And in spite of the failure of his life he asserts with utter certainty that God will bring in his harvest in His own time.
The lesson is that our job is to sow the good seed as well as we can. The harvest, the results are not in our hands. That conviction gives a certain serenity when plans and projects fail and a greater resilience in situations of conflict.

Yago: This is a challenge for all of us. Quite often in our vocation on Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), we see problems and people from a negative, critical stance. This blog stresses the importance of incorporating a non-dualistic mind in our Justice and Peace field, a form of thinking that begins with a Yes of “basic acceptance” of the conflict in which we insert ourselves. How do we develop a mind that can deal with this tension?

Wolfgang: As a product of a Jesuit school I have a strong inclination to look at conflicts and most other situations with an analytical, critical mind. My corrective is a constant going back to the bible with its holistic and hopeful view on the world and on people.
The first page of the bible is a powerful antidote to negativity. “He looked...and found it very good.” With the same eyes Jesus looked at every person and he saw goodness in the most wicked. The substratum of all reality is goodness, evil is put on later. But it takes effort and discipline to constantly return to the divine view of people and search for their basic goodness.

Yago: Jesus attitude is very much rooted in a non-dualistic mind. Today we are witnessing an on-going integration of the wisdom of the Eastern religious traditions and a re-discovery of the essentials of the quality of presence, mindfulness, living in the now, in our Christian living. How does this trend affect our JPIC vocation?

Wolfgang: In my work I have to read a lot of documents and have discussions with many different people. By the end of the day my head is overcrowded with many facts and figures and faces. The Eastern traditions and techniques offer me a way to clear out my inner house, to empty my restless mind and become present first of all to myself, become present in a deeper way to the people I meet during the day without really meeting them. Then, it happens occasionally that I wake up in the early morning with a sense of great peace and the unsolved problems and the mental confusion has cleared away and everything seems to have found its proper place and I can put into simple words what I had struggled with for days.

Yago: The openness and inclusion of the “big mind” of Eastern Religions is helping us to open new areas of reflection in the field of Peacebuilding (JPIC). This has already been reflected in previous interviews on this blog.  We are beginning to embrace and assimilate new concepts like fractal, holographic Universe, field and string theory. We are talking here about the New Physics and New Cosmology, what is your general impression of these new ways of thinking?

Wolfgang: I read the interviews with great interest. Some of the reflections were unfamiliar to me and I am not sure that I understood them fully. But I am convinced that we have to find new images to express our vision of reality today. The old church language no longer conveys the message to a younger generation that has grown up in a different age and is in touch with many different cultures. To use images from scientific thinking and theory can be very stimulating and opens up new vistas. Yet, we must keep in mind that they are images and comparisons of realities that defy language. The use of scientific narratives to describe spiritual realities looks to me a bit like the parables Jesus used: The kingdom of God is like... One must also be aware that only a relatively small group of people are familiar with these scientific theories. For many the idea of a holographic universe means very little.

Yago: Diarmuid O’Murchu talks about the crucial role of Patriarchy and Anthropocentric worldview as key perpetuators of the energy of enslavement that keeps millions of people in situations of physical and non-physical slavery. What would you say to this?

Wolfgang: If we understand by Patriarchy the domination of men over women, I am a bit skeptical. The key issue is rather domination of one human being over another. Historically, men have oppressed women for centuries. But women are just as capable of oppression. Political Thatchers, tyrannical mother superiors in convents, wives dominating their husbands, cruel women guards in concentration camps, women involved in the sex trade of women are also sad realities. Power can corrupt both men and women. And both need conversion. The call to all, men and women, is to become servants of each other.

An anthropocentric world view has indeed led to a terrible abuse of nature. But I am as weary of the tendency to swing to the opposite extreme: that as humans we are identical with nature. Both are true: we are part of the natural world, we are one with the whole of reality and at the same time we stand vis-a-vis nature in awe and admiration seeking to understand it, something no other part of nature can do. Let’s keep the balance!

Yago: In your mind, what are some of the hidden motivators (the subconscious elements) that drive modern slavery?

Wolfgang: Are the motives, conscious and subconscious, of modern slavery so different from those which organised the Arab and the transatlantic slave trade? My guess is that both were driven by that strange and irrational thirst for power and riches and control, riches being the means to gain and retain power. Maybe today we can cover up those motives more effectively with ideological or theological justifications and it is important to become aware of our subtle ways of self-deception. The great challenge remains to identify our own subtle mechanisms to achieve domination over others, be it in our world of fantasies, our language or the little power struggles and competitions of daily life.

Yago: You speak about the challenge to identify our subtle mechanisms to achieve domination over others. Today’s world is built on an unjust economic system. There is an urgent call to reconsider, reformulate the world’s economic system. Could you comment on your work in this area?

Wolfgang: For ten years, our network of religious congregations have worked on various issues of global justice or rather injustice: the debt problem, arms trade and child soldiers, unfair trade relations and patent rights. When you analyse these issues you become aware that all have the same root: an economic system that no longer serves the needs of people, but uses natural and human resources for the main purpose of maximising profits. Increasingly we are becoming aware that this system is dysfunctional. It widens the gap between a few superrich and the “bottom billions”. It uses up natural resources and creates pollution at such a rate that the very survival of the bio-sphere is threatened. It puts such pressure on employees to produce more in less time that burn-out becomes endemic.

Worst of all, it destroys the human spirit by changing “homo sapiens” into a “homo economicus”, defined exclusively by the capacity of producing and consuming goods. Our specific human capabilities of creative reflection, freedom of decision and selfless love are systematically undermined. 
Routledge, 2011
A main cause for this development is a lack of holistic thinking. Economic theory has cut itself off from the other vital disciplines of human sciences. It tends to refuse any input from ethics, to ignore social impacts, does not calculate long-term ecological destruction. It functions like a cancer cell that develops rapidly, independent of the body, while feeding on the body and finally destroying it.
But there is a rising outcry and a call for a “great transformation”. This is how the Scientific Council of the German Government has called it in an impressive document that describes in detail how our economy has to be changed if we are to survive physically and socially. This is at present my main area of interest. There is a growing literature to show how we can live better lives without plundering the earth, like Tim Jackson’s recent study “Economics for a finite planet”.

I am glad to note that Pope Benedict talks frequently about this great challenge to humanity. But unfortunately most church leaders are still unaware of the threat. I was among a group here in Germany which three years ago issued a “Call for a Prophet Church,” challenging their fellow believers to become aware of the dangers to humanity and engage in a dialogue about the needed alternatives as the prophets of old did whenever their society was threatened by national disaster.

Yago:  Unjust economic systems have caused tremendous pain and suffering throughout history. Acknowledging the harm caused by centuries of oppression and colonization and healing the wounds from both sides would appear to be crucial for a new world order built on permanent peace. What are your thoughts on this?

Wolfgang: Admitting guilt openly is probably the most difficult task for any individual and even more so for communities and institutions. My experience in Africa is that the acknowledgement of personal guilt happens only between true friend or in the sacramental celebration of reconciliation where the secrecy of the confessional offers a safe space to face the truth. Unfortunately, the Churches don’t give the good example themselves. They are afraid to admit their grave historical failures for fear of losing their credibility. If the Churches find it impossible how will a whole race or a civilization admit to centuries of racist attitudes and criminal behaviour? Especially the fear to be asked for concrete acts of reparation paralyses governments. But the public admission of guilt clears the royal road to reconciliation.

A classical example is the reconciliation between the archenemies Germany and France after World War II 50 years ago. Could something similar happen between the colonial powers and the colonised? It is all the more difficult because the colonial structures of exploitation are still in place in many different ways. Neither is the admission of guilt a one way street. The slave-trade and the colonial exploitation were only possible through the cooperation of corrupt and willing local elites. It is no different today.

Yago: The same energy that avoids acknowledging harm is also the one that keeps prolonging slavery in today’s society. What are some of the structures which perpetuate modern slavery in its various forms?

Wolfgang: Let me mention just a few among many enterprises of modern slavery.

  • · The most terrifying example is human trafficking. Tens of thousands of young girls and women from Eastern Europe and the Global South are forced into prostitution in Europe which prides itself of the rule of law. Criminal elements on both ends of the chain are involved.
  • · Another frightening form of neo-colonialism is called land grabbing. Huge stretches of the most fertile land are taken away from local communities and handed over to banks, investment funds, agro-industries, biofuels companies and other interested parties.
  • · Debt has been another structure to exploit the poor. Corrupt governments take up credits. The money often either disappears or is used for unproductive projects. Then the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund impose a “structural adjustment programme” that hurts the poor and only profits the investors and creditors. I have seen it happening in Africa in the eighties during the “lost development decade”. Today we see the same pattern at work in Greece creating social chaos. Our German debt network has argued for years to create a structured arbitration process for over-indebted sovereign states along the lines of an insolvency law for bankrupt companies as a fair solution for the present debt crises which cripples so many countries.
African Debt
Yago: Land ownership has been an on-going cause of suffering for thousands of years. Following your comment on the frightening form of neo-colonialism called land grabbing, could you share more in depth about the reason for the great land rush, the long-term consequences and how all this becomes a challenge to the Churches, especially on the African continent?

Wolfgang: Land grabbing is not new. The biblical example is King Ahab who murdered his neighbour Naboth in order to get hold of his vineyard (1 Kings 21). The colonial enterprise involved takeover of land. What is new is the amount of land involved and the people who grab it and the methods they use. No armies are needed today, a change in land laws is enough to disinherit millions of people in favour of investors.
The surge in land acquisition is connected to the series of crises the world has experienced in the last decade. Climate change and the realization that oil is running out lead to the idea of using land for biofuels and so creating a competition between food and energy. In the US 40% of the maize harvest is turned into ethanol. Then came the food and the financial crisis of 2008. Food importing countries like the Gulf States decided to look for fertile land abroad to guarantee food security for their own populations as they could no longer rely on the world markets. After the financial crash investors were looking for new opportunities and land promised safe and profitable returns. Other factors also contribute: fast growing cities, mining activities and an expanding tourist industry, all require land, usually land where other people are already living. Very often their traditional, communal land rights are simply ignored. They are driven off their ancestral land without any meaningful compensation.
The rural poor are thus losing their last resource and their livelihood. They migrate into the slums of mega-cities or try their luck in some other country.
If the churches are serious about an option for the poor, here is a valid cause to fight for. There is a powerful 1997 Vatican document on land reform condemning strongly - very much in the tradition of prophets like Amos or Isaiah - “latifundia”, the accumulation of land in the hands of a few. But most bishops have kept quiet, partly because the church in some countries is also an important landowner.

Yago: In what way has the historical Jesus become a source of inspiration for your vocation in JPIC?

Wolfgang: We studied the gospels during our “spiritual year” a period in our formation dedicated to greater self-knowledge and an encounter with the living Lord. In that context Jesus was presented to us mainly as a friend and a personal guide. The political dimension of his provocative words and actions I understood only much later.
Jose Antonio Pagola
Recently, I was very inspired by José Antonio Pagola’s “Jesus – a historical approximation.” He balances so well Jesus’ call for personal change and his prophetic stance for social justice and social change. What challenges me most is Jesus’ almost violent critique of religion and religious institutions whenever they become oppressive themselves or legitimize oppression. Some of Jesus’ critique applies to my Church, but I lack the courage to say so clearly. It is hard to criticize your spiritual mother to whom you owe so much.

Yago: Jesus was profoundly compassionate with the “sinners” and the oppressed people of his time. He understood the psychological mechanism of internalized oppression and the lack of basic needs of his people. How does Jesus’ wisdom challenge our demanding vocation to walk with “broken people”?

Wolfgang: Only a direct personal contact with the victims of religious, political and economic oppression awakes us both to compassion and to commitment for more justice. When I lived in Africa that direct contact with the victims of injustice was simply part of daily life and it was easier to feel compassion. In Europe I find it much more difficult. The anonymity of a city like Berlin and the institutionalization of compassion in social services make it harder to meet the poor as a person. The system pushes you to deal with injustice on a more theoretical level. Yet, there is so much loneliness and distress hidden behind closed doors, but only on rare occasions do I get really close to it.

Charles Lavigerie
Yago: In line with the courageous spirit of Charles Lavigerie, what kind of strategy do you envision for an effective Anti-Slavery Campaign for today’s world?

Wolfgang: There is no magic recipe to create a world where all live in dignity. But I can see two levels of engagement that we need to tackle simultaneously.
The first is on the level of our consciousness and involves a change in our ideas, in the vision of ourselves, of our fellow human beings, of the society we want to live in, of nature, of our spiritual identity. It is a slow process and it has to start within our own mind and translate into our way of living. It has to restart in new generations.
The second is on the political, structural level. It involves rethinking power relations, institutions, laws. A first necessary step is to analyse critically and denounce the deficiencies of present structures and systems. But this in itself never leads to change, unless we creatively imagine and experiment with alternative solutions. Often we stop at the critique. But we can win people’s hearts only with an attractive alternative vision. We tend to point at all the things that are destructive and unjust in our world. Jesus won people’s hearts with a fresh vision of God and of the human person.

Yago: Is today’s religious formation holistic enough to equip us to deal efficiently with the demanding reality of today’s world? Do you agree that our formation is still extremely academical/rational?

Wolfgang: Yago, we lived together in a formation house some years ago. I suppose it has not changed much since. An academic training is necessary. Students need to acquire not so much information, but a capacity to analyse critically and to reflect creatively. They also need to learn certain skills: to express themselves clearly, to communicate effectively, to dialogue respectfully, to promote community. But these are only tools. To become peace-makers, reconcilers and justice promoters we need to connect to and constantly drink from the source of the living spirit. We do not give enough time and attention to open up to the Spirit, to allow the word of Jesus to challenge us and to share our insights and experiences in community, neither in formation nor afterwards. It is easy to write about it but to do it in our hectic world with its constant challenges and changes remains a daily struggle.

Yago: Thanks a lot for your wisdom and time granted to this interview.

Wolfgang: Thanks to you, Yago!