Moved by the realization that the Syrian war was dissolving into the depths of a horrific proxy war in which religious extremism was a problem but not the main problem, Dr. Marc Gopin, an expert in interfaith peacebuilding, sought a new way of thinking. His methods, he said, had become “rather inadequate” in the big scheme of this savage conflict.
“We can’t change history,” Gopin said, “but we can change human habits.”
Those habits include cultivation of compassion, empathy and love, he told approximately 130 peacebuilders, local community leaders and guests on May 25 at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI).
“If we teach what the great spiritual traditions of the world teach, which is love your neighbor, love the stranger, even love your enemy, that has a magnetic effect,” said Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. “As we develop empathy to strangers through music, movies, great literature, simple interactions and deeds, that shifts the brain. If I love the ones on the opposite side, my brain gets activated in a different way.”
Participants from 24 countries and of many different faith traditions attended the second of four “Frontiers of Peacebuilding” lectures hosted by SPI this summer. The events both honor and celebrate the institute’s early format when all participants shared meals together. SPI is a program of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
A peacebuilding practitioner from 1983 to 1996, Gopin came to SPI for training at first and then later to teach a course on inter-religious peacebuilding titled “Religion: Source of Conflict, Resource for Peace.” Gopin was ordained in 1983 at Yeshiva University and earned a PhD in ethics from Brandeis University in 1993.
He views his time at SPI as transformative, as the start of his career: “In terms of my intellectual growth and turning this [experience and knowledge] into teaching and writing, it began here in this unique community… to find a community that was deeply committed to piety yet at the far end of the political spectrum for social change and social justice, it was electric.”
During his introduction of Gopin, SPI director Bill Goldberg shared that Gopin’s experience as a back-channel negotiator and his emphasis on relationship-building had remained an inspiration to him in his own work.
“I remember several conversations with Marc about informal and back-channel talks he had or helped set up so that people who could not officially talk would get together,” said Goldberg. “That influenced my own attempts to have these informal conversations at SPI and create better relationships between people on differing sides of a conflict.”
During his talk, Gopin shared several moments in his worldwide travels during which heartfelt and intimate connections were made with a small gesture or a carefully chosen sentence. “I’ve honored and been amazed at the power of deeds to transform people within minutes, way beyond all of our peacebuilding workshops,” he said, urging the audience to remain open to potential for human connection in all of their relationships.
Gopin’s latest book is “Bridges Across an Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers” (Oxford University Press, 2012).
He discusses his journey in a TEDX talk, “Peace Steps: one rabbi’s life journey into the heart of his enemies.”