“When there is war, nothing is possible”

An interview with Laurie Johnston and Andrea Bartoli, leaders in the Sant’Egidio community, on globalization and peace

Photo by Palinchak | Dreamstime.com

8 min read

Our world is more and more interconnected. We see how the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is affecting the whole world. All of a sudden, there’s the danger of a World War III, yet also a broad coalition against the aggressor. Is our connectedness generally helpful for peace or does it increase the danger of a worldwide war?

Johnston: It depends on what kind of connectedness we’re talking about. Because as you say, it’s true that the conflict in many ways is affecting the whole world, which can then be a harmful distraction from other conflicts that we need to be worrying about.

But I think it’s also showing us the limit of economic connectivity, because on one hand, the European Union is a wonderful example of how economic interconnectedness can be a component of what makes for sustainable peace. But it’s not enough.

Bartoli: It is also important for us to recognize that what is at stake in Ukraine is the “usefulness” of war. After World War II, humanity has experienced many moments of war, but those moments typically did not have a decisive, transformative dimension. The collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, was done without war.

It is not true that humanity as a whole is under the spell that war is the only answer. There is actually a general stronger feeling that peace is the answer, that politics is the answer, that it should be possible for people even with very different ideological views to find an agreement.

And it seemed like that for decades, but now it seems like we are back in the era of the Cold War, or even worse—it’s a real war. All of a sudden, countries in Europe again talk about raising the budget for military expenses and of developing more advanced arms and weapons.

Johnston: Part of what we’re seeing is that the generation that experienced World War II and the Holocaust is dying off now, so we’re forgetting again the horror of war. That’s what makes it possible to think about war in this way as a solution.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that one of the last things that happened in Russia before the invasion of Ukraine was the suppression by Russian Supreme Court of "Memorial," the Russian human rights organization that has preserved the memory of people who suffered initially under Stalin, and in general preserves the memory of the victims of violence and repression.

It’s only by forgetting the victims of history that you could possibly think that war is a useful and helpful solution.

Bartoli: It is important to hear the voice of the victims. I was listening again to Gorbachev’s last interview with the BBC as Secretary General of the Communist Party, and he said that everybody was telling him, “Do not lead us to war, we can manage with food scarcity, with job losses, we are creative people, we can manage. But when there is war, nothing is possible.”

It seems that for Putin right now, war seems to have an advantage because he wants to bring back his country to the old extended power that it had. What can be done to change Putin’s mind?

Johnston: This is really complicated, because you’re asking a question about how you change humans, which is ultimately a mystery. But I think in any situation, you can look for peace without being naive.

Maybe this is a silly example, but I can think of when one of my kids is suddenly being very nice to one of the other kids. Probably there’s more going on, and maybe this daughter is just trying to get that daughter not to tattle on her. But even if I know that there are mixed motives, I can still point to the good that’s being done.

But I also think that focusing on Putin is not what we’re called to do as Christians right now. We are called to show solidarity with the victims, because that’s what makes for long-term peace.

Bartoli: It’s also important to remember that the West has used war and violence in Vietnam, in Korea, in many countries in Africa and so on. After World War II, it’s not that the West refrained and became an exporter of peace.

I think that there is a little bit of oversimplification in simply saying, “Putin, Putin, Putin.” Putin is the expression of a certain way of looking at war; it’s a very widespread calculation.

And in a sense I think we should definitely not be shy about praying, inviting people to pray for peace, about stressing these values of openness, the value of person-to-person encounters.

If you think about Europe welcoming 4 million refugees, you say, “How did it happen?” It’s an extraordinary gift to Europe to use their peace to create conditions for the people to diminish the trauma of war.

Are there any actions that Sant’Egidio is taking in this situation in Europe or worldwide?

Johnston: The community has been present in Ukraine for many decades. The community center was hit by bombing, but some members have been distributing medical and other supplies in Kyiv.

Of course, the community has also helped getting a number of the most vulnerable out of Ukraine, especially a large group of people who depend on dialysis.

The whole community has been collecting resources to donate to support refugees, and we have a well-established humanitarian corridor program that brings refugees directly to Italy, France and Belgium.

Bartoli: The whole community has been very much in support of Pope Francis’ effort to keep peace before war erupted and to bring peace once the war was raging.

I think it’s important for everybody to realize that every single Catholic pope in the last 100 years has been for peace. Francis’s papacy is perfectly positioned, especially after the legacy of St. John Paul II, which contributed so much to the transformation of Poland and the Soviet Union. It’s very important to keep dialogue and to keep bridges open.

And we see the interconnectedness. We had a beautiful moment where all communities of Sant’Egidio were gathering and connecting from Rome. And a person from Burundi said, “Oh, Ukraine is bordering Burundi now!” Burundi and Ukraine are now together. We are close to one another in a way that we were not before.

I feel that this is a beautiful way of understanding how unity comes from these groups of dedicated people that are touched by the story of Jesus and open to the idea that humanity actually is one.

Are we, as humanity, for peace, or are we for war? And in that sense, the way I position myself is actually relevant. Do I believe that victory is the only solution? Do I believe that peace is possible, that peace must be found with my enemy, with all these contradictions and complexities?

This is where humanity should stand, taking peace not as a defeat, or as a way to give up justice, but as a way to stop the carnage.

It also requires seeking peace in our own hearts, containing the anger and resisting the temptation of revenge which we have in us. I want to come back to our interconnectedness: many people demand now that nations should be more self-sufficient, calling for a de-globalization. Is that realistic? And would that lead to more stability?

Johnston: Globalization in itself is neither good nor bad. Catholic social teaching has always had a longstanding practice of not endorsing any particular form of economic organization or government. It asks, what is its effect on people?

The same comes with globalization. It’s certain that there are many ways in which globalization has created greater suffering for the poor, greater economic inequality. And so I can understand those who would say that we should aim at de-globalization.

At the same time, it’s impossible. In many ways, we need more globalization in the sense that we need more equitable sharing—just thinking of food. There’s really going to be a crisis of hunger in many places around the world, like in the Middle East.

Bartoli: We need to understand that the issue is not globalization; the issue is actually monopoly or dependence. If I depend on Russian oil or gas to keep my economy running, the answer is not to say no to Russian oil and Russian gas, but rather to have alternatives in such a way that makes one less dependent.

Globalization’s results are what need to be controlled. This is the responsibility of everybody.

Many people also oppose globalization because they fear the loss of their culture; they see the world is changing, for example, through migration. Are there positive effects of globalization? Can globalization foster peace?

Johnston: Of course, there are positive aspects. Christianity itself and the spread of the Gospel are a result of globalization in the Roman Empire!

Bartoli: Humanity developed for hundreds of thousands of years in relatively small groups. We developed thousands of ways in which we can express ourselves, but then we lost a lot of this diversity with the first violent globalization in the epoch of colonialism.

But in many interesting ways, I would say that globalization today, going in the direction of one humanity, gives us the tools of going back to see how precious any language, culture or artifacts are. There is a much greater awareness that cultural diversity is actually good for us—we don’t want to have a globalization where everyone is the same.

I agree, and I personally have many experiences with people from all over the world where faith and working for peace unites us. But it’s difficult to transmit this experience to people who are just nostalgic for the past, when there were small towns where everyone went to church, everyone looked the same. Now this sense of community is not there anymore. Is there a way to take away this sense of fear?

Johnston: Part of the problem with the situation you are describing is that there are so many politicians who would love to get people to focus on some mythical past where everything was great, but for their own political interests. There were a lot of things that were negative, so that is a misremembering of history.

Humans have a limited capacity for complexity, but that’s exactly our call as Christians: to grow in our capacity to love differences of all kinds, and embrace the Pentecost of humanity, where everyone is speaking in their own language, but where we understand each other.

So does globalization make peace more possible or not?

Johnston: It can always go both directions. Globalization is a tool—the question is how we choose to use it.

There was a really beautiful interview on Italian television with Yurij, the leader of the Sant’Egidio community in Kyiv. He was just saying: “I don’t hate Russians. The most important thing in the middle of a war is to not let our hearts be polluted by hatred.”

Bartoli: I think that if war is globalized, humanity is no more so; the only thing that can be globalized is peace.

My hope is that this war in Ukraine will be a call for everybody around the world to say “no more war, war is really not the answer.”

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.