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Engaged Research and a Just Peace

In honor of World Day of Peace, I offer reflections from my ongoing research with immigrant-led social movements in relation to just peace ethics.

Quite a few of my interlocutors from immigrant-led social movements in the United States identify as Catholic women. This internally diverse group features a base of undocumented, single, working, Spanish-speaking mothers who have taken the initiative to organize in their parishes and communities around their felt needs. As I understand them, these efforts to raise consciousness, organize, and mobilize provide a tangible way to enter the daily struggle (la lucha diara) for survival and dignity. Through these intentional actions, they develop mutual solidarity with others as they envision and build towards a “we” capable of contributing to deep structural transformation. They are what we might call agents under duress: people whose lives are structured by constraints on autonomy but who intervene in instances of injustice and who participate in efforts to transform the patterns that produce the crises they suffer.[1]

Some movement members have found invaluable support in parish priests and communities. In the past six years, I have also observed practicing Catholic women struggling to make sense of shifts in relational dynamics when they expanded their ecclesial engagement beyond cooking, support for fundraisers, and church committees. Open lines of communication and possibilities for using church spaces close. Warm relations chill over. Suspicion arises.

According to leaders of Movimiento Cosecha—an assertive nonviolent social movement seeking respect, dignity, and permanent protection for all 11 million immigrants in the U.S.—the sense that Spanish-speaking churches (and predominantly White churches) tend to ignore immigrants’ leadership and knowledge has contributed to various forms of disconnection with their nourishing communities. This problem is at the heart of an engaged research initiative: a research agenda that addresses a problem defined by affected communities; intersects with scholarship; analyzes practices considering scholarship (and vice versa); and is evaluated according to the researcher’s double accountability to the academy and communities. Each phase of the process is discussed, from conceptualization of the problem to data collection then member checking and dissemination. Throughout I use strategies of reflexivity, which refers to an approach for thinking consciously about writing style and the nature of argumentation, both of which require self-critical choices about how to represent what the author (thinks s/he) knows to potential or actual audiences. I seek reflexive strategies that are accountable to my interlocutors’ own struggle.[2]

While exploring these claims and the limitations of common approaches to immigrant communities in predominantly White church spaces, I am also seeking to understand the agency under duress found on what the Vatican Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synod on Synodality calls “prophetic edges.”[3]

In this post, I use “engaged research” as shorthand to describe my position alongside this immigrant-led movement, understood as one context of agency under duress. I will outline several features of this engaged research to highlight contributions to peacebuilding scholarship and practice, first by describing a methodologically distinctive space of insight and then by briefly engaging a just peace ethic supported by the Vatican.

Part 1.

Coding field notes and interviews make plain six discernable, if interrelated, currents in the lives of many of my interlocutors. First, there is a desire to participate in their spiritually nourishing communities (despite the disappointment and ache of being ignored). Second, there is a longing for church to be an ally in their moral struggles. Third, “little stories” of popular religion,[4] gospel stories, and movement of the Spirit ground individuals amidst different degrees of connection and disconnection from institutional church. Fourth is nonconformity to subjugation and attempts to eliminate indigenous religious elements through mechanisms of colonization.[5] Fifth, circulating is embodied knowledge of (what one interlocutor called “spiritually active”) Latin American movements, such as a campesino movement founded in Puebla and Catholic base communities, and their ancestors’ yearning, desire, and struggles against the injustices that buried them and that prodded my interlocutors to leave their countries of origin. Sixth and finally, members are simultaneously dealing with deaths they have experienced in various borderlands and specters from childhood.

How participants negotiate the complexity, tensions, and even contradiction pulsing in these currents is constitutive of becoming a “we” that practices mutual solidarity and has a social justice transformative mission. Conversations with research collaborator Carlos Casteneda underscore the point: how participants apprehend and grapple with this complexity, tension, and contradiction, especially in relation to felt needs and goals, is an intimate space of profound insight. Wrestling with tensions, for example, means that the non-citizen (made to feel like a nonperson) is not “vanquished” but struggling to re-exist amidst various forms of violence. Methodologically, positioning oneself in relation to this complexity and contradictions, in view of the engaged researcher’s double accountability, become a site for theoretical and practical innovation.[6]  Cosecha members create spaces of “re-existence” that allow them to renarrate their own stories, which is akin to what others have called regeneration: “simultaneously an acknowledgement of historic pain and taking action against that pain in order to reframe that history.”[7] Religious practices and resources are vital to the process. Prayer and most others are uncontroversial in church spaces, but not all religious practices. According to my interlocutors, popular religion is sometimes demonized by priests and other religious authorities. Yet culturally and nationally rooted celebrations with race and class markers[8] link the present to the layered struggles for cultural survival, physical survival, and economic justice in the past to inform a transformative vision. They open theological and political imaginaries to transnational and translocal struggle and solidarities that contributes to what the field of peacebuilding calls a more justpeace. As such, those of us engaged in peacebuilding scholarship and practice have much to learn.

Having made my methodological point about engaged research above, I want to underscore two observations: theology and religion are enfolded in the complexity and struggle and, two, exercises contributing to re-existence and regeneration of violence affected communities are deeply contextual.

Part 2.

With that I turn to briefly consider how this engaged research supports the ethics and theory of a just peace, as outlined in the anthology A Just Peace Ethic Primer: Building Sustainable Peace and Breaking Cycles of Violence edited by Eli McCarthy (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020). The edited volume masterfully advances nonviolence, conflict transformation, and sustainable relationships rooted in co-responsibility and mutual respect for the integral flourishing of the human family and all creation. I am grateful to my friends and colleagues for this impressive text on urgent matters.

In the introduction, McCarthy tells the reader that he asked each contributor to respond to several questions, including: “does this particular conflict case illuminate something to enhance this just peace ethic?” I will pick up that question with a few claims evidenced, not fully justified, by what I have written above. Space limitations allow no further elaboration on what McCarthy and I discussed on a car ride to DC after joint speaking engagements in November 2022.

In the language of McCarthy’s just peace ethic, engaged research structures virtues of just peace into the method for theorizing and seeking just peace.[9] It provides a methodology that seeks “means/ends consistency” through solidarity with those who are surviving and seeking to transform violence. Strategies of reflexivity that contribute to nonviolent engagement one’s interlocutors also strive for such consistency.

Engaged research provides resources for a constructive conversation with a just peace ethic that is shaped by an emphasis on “principles and normative practices” of war prevention (Glen Stassen’s approach and much of Catholic Social Teaching).[10] Thinking with and about particular agents under duress in social struggle makes me wonder if such a focus removes principles and practices from historical context and discerning community and thus obscures how violence affected communities have and are navigating situations of injustice amid complexity. With my research in mind, I wonder if the current just peace focus on principles and practices shields from view how such Christian-identifying communities who navigate painful and ambivalent response from churches rely on unsanctioned theologies and celebratory practices of defiance and resistance and hope to become agents of transformation. A multidimensional lens that can bring these tensions into focus will aid strategies of reflexivity: it helps us to examine the just peace categories on which we rely and the various environments that make us (Christian ethicists and peacebuilders) who we are.

Finally, thinking with agents under duress further expands just peace ethics effort to conceptualize peacebuilding agent and victim of violence in other than binary terms. Along with the Vatican’s hopeful attention to women protagonists from the prophetic margins and emphasis on social movements, immigrant led movements teach us about new avenues for transforming asymmetrical exercises of power and breaking the normalization of violence crucial for the just peace ethic. Returning to means/ends consistency upheld by the just peace ethic, thinking about “how” immigrant-led struggles are consistent with the challenges they confront and goals for transformation (the “what”)—survival and transformation—may open wide our collective “moral imagination”: the “capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”[11] Immigrant-led social movements, movements on the move across borders of various kinds, open new horizons for thinking about transnational violence resistance, solidarity, and transformation towards a just peace.

[1] Hunter-Bowman, Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia (Routledge: 2023)

[2] For an elaboration on engaged research and reflexivity, see Hunter-Bowman, “Intersectionality and Representation,” Wiley Blackwell Companion to Theology and Qualitative Research, Pete Ward and Knut Tveitereid (Wiley Blackwell, 2023), 139-148; Kamala Visweswaran, “Defining Feminist Ethnography,” Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in Handkerchief, ed. Yvonna Lincoln and Norman Denzin (New York: AltaMira Press, 2003), 73–92.

[3] As cited by Susan Reynolds, “Are We Protagonists Yet? The place of women in the synod’s working document,” Commonweal (December 2023),

[4] Nichole M. Flores, The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021), 5. For Latine scholarship illuminating the themes and problems, see Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderlands = La Frontera : the New Mestiza (San Francisco, Calif.: Aunt Lute Books, 2021), 21.

[5] Such conversations arise in discussions of Catholic religious symbols and celebrations, including on the Virgin de Guadalupe. The work of Latine theologians richly addresses such themes. See, for example Néstor Medina. Mestizaje : (re)mapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2009), 120.

[6] See also Charles R. Hale, “Activist Research v Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology Vol. 21, no.1 (2006), 98.

[7] Tuck, “Suspending Damage,” 422.

[8] Stanley Brandes, “The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity,” The Journal of American Folklore 111 no. 442 (1998): 359-380; Eric Wolf, “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol,” The Journal of American Folklore 71, no. 279 (1958): 34-39.

[9]  McCarthy discusses nonviolence as virtue realized through practices (58) and solidarity as a virtue (60-64). As such, engaged research might constitute a method of “formation in virtue” (61 and 63).

[10] McCarthy, 56.

[11] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), ix, 5, 38, as cited by McCarthy, 64.

Works Cited

Brandes, Stanley. “The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity.” The Journal of American Folklore 111 no. 442 (1998): 359-380.

Flores, Nichole M. The Aesthetics of Solidarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe and American Democracy. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021.

Hale, Charles R. “Activist Research v Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology. Cultural Anthropology 21, no.1 (2006): 96-120.

Hunter-Bowman, Janna. Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia. Oxfordshine: Routledge: 2023.

_____. “Intersectionality and Representation.” In Wiley Blackwell Companion to Theology and Qualitative Research, edited by Pete Ward and Knut Tveitereid, 139-148. Wiley Blackwell, 2023.

Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Medina, Néstor. Mestizaje :(re)mapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latina. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009.

Reynolds Susan. “Are We Protagonists Yet? The place of women in the synod’s working document.” Commonweal, December 2023.

Visweswaran, Kamala. “Defining Feminist Ethnography.” In Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in Handkerchief, edited by Yvonna Lincoln and Norman Denzin, 73–92. New York: AltaMira Press, 2003.

Wolf, Eric. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” The Journal of American Folklore 71, no. 279 (1958): 34-39.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands = La Frontera : the New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2021.