The Common Good
November 2004

Web exclusive: Full text of Swanee Hunt interview

by Rose Marie Berger | November 2004

Replacing Hatred with Hope

Swanee Hunt, founder of Women Waging Peace, spoke with Sojourners’ Rose Marie Berger about her book This Was Not Our War, and the ways women are engaged in peace processes in conflict-ridden countries.

Sojourners: What got you involved in Bosnia?

Swanee Hunt: I was appointed ambassador to Austria in 1993, and Sarajevo was so dangerous then that the State Department didn’t want to open up an embassy there. I offered to have it in Vienna, so for over a year, the U.S. mission to Bosnia was actually in our embassy in Vienna. As a result, I was meeting the political figures and hosting negotiations, and I became very concerned about the 70,000 refugees that were in Austria. I went out and heard their stories - which sounded like they were coming out of World War II - and, you know, I’d always wondered who those policy makers were sitting at their big mahogany desks when Hitler was organizing and advancing, and all of a sudden I realized I was a policy maker sitting at a big mahogany desk. And I represented this lone superpower that wasn’t doing anything about it. I decided I had to add my voice.

Sojourners: Why did you decide to write this book, particularly with the voices of Bosnian women?

Hunt: I wrote this story about the women because a lot of other people were spending time with policymakers in general - and I was, too - but there were very few people who had the hundreds of hours that I had with the women. Partly that’s because I needed to not get in the way of the State Department people who were working on the official part. And so I worked on the edges, if you will.

Sojourners: Where one often finds women!

Hunt: That’s exactly right! And that’s also often where you find the greatest creativity, at the edges. Various journalists or policymakers were all telling their stories, and they were all about the man. You might have a woman victim pop up every now and then, but there was nothing - zero - about what the women had been doing to try to prevent the war, to stop it while it was going on, or to stabilize the country afterward. And I thought, this is an untold story. My son, who at the time was 10, said, "Mom, why are you doing this? Who’s going to buy this book?" I said, "Honey, probably very, very few people will buy this book." He looked at me and said, "You know, mom, libraries will. And it’ll be on the top shelf, collecting dust, and someday somebody will write the definitive history of the Bosnian war and they’ll pull your book down and it’ll get inserted into history." And I thought, "That’s about as good an explanation as any I’ve heard."

Since I started working on this book, I have been doing trainings with and visiting women in Rwanda, Guatemala, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and what I have discovered is that this book isn’t about Bosnian women. It’s about women all over the world who are organizing in remarkably similar ways with remarkably similar motivations. They don’t even know about each other. It’s not like there’s this model that everyone’s trying to follow. It’s much more indigenous than that.

I have worked on training over 350 women, not counting the Bosnians, from 35 conflicts, and I’ve linked them with over 3,000 policymakers. I was inspired by these women in Bosnia. My life was really changed by them.

Sojourners: What does the training consist of?

Hunt: In March I did a three-day training in Rwanda for 80 women who are all members of parliament, ministers, or civil society leaders. In Amman we had 25 Iraqi women, the members of the governing council, women who’d been elected to the city councils - women who are now ministers in the new Iraq. It was training on honing their message - how to speak to policymakers, what are three words to use instead of "peace" (security, stability, etc.), and why you want to have words like that in your vocabulary. And then we practiced. I would ask a question, hold the microphone in front of their mouth, ask another question, and just keep working on "keep it tight, keep it short, use the right vocabulary," helping them build their confidence.

I also brought women from Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Guatemala with me to do the training in Iraq. We brought nine Israeli and Palestinian women leaders in April over here; that has led to all kinds of things. The American embassy is now going to have a series of trainings by videoconference. They’re going to bring the women together in Israel, in Jerusalem, and I’ll be providing the women from Afghanistan who are here with me at Harvard, and we’ll do trainings by video.

Sojourners: How do you understand your own faith, values, and moral development, and how does it inform your work?

Hunt: I was raised Southern Baptist in Texas, and there was a period of time, from when I was about 17 to 27, where Sojourners was a lifeline to me. I didn’t want to completely turn my back on my upbringing, because there was much that was important about it. But I felt called to social justice work, and I didn’t see that being promoted in my fundamentalist environment. Which isn’t to say that the elements weren’t there - by elements I mean the teaching that we are responsible for the well-being of others. It was put in terms of "we’re responsible for saving their souls." We weren’t thinking so much about bread on the table. But still there was a sense of responsibility.

I remember one of the songs we used to sing when I was a teenager in Youth for Christ was, "Does it make any difference to you?" Now, the second line was "if a soul dies in sin, God has called you to win," but still, the refrain kept saying "does it make any difference to you?" And it did make a difference to me. I had very much inculcated in me the belief that another person’s suffering is just as important as my own. I have felt very drawn to public service in latter years, but when I was 13, I gave my life to be a missionary. And I spent eight years in seminary at Iliff School of Theology - that’s where I got my master’s and my doctorate - and my professors there in ethics said, "Well, you see, you are being a missionary!"

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that there is little in common between the church as the early believers envisioned it and what we see in our society. I think that’s often true. So you go out and you make church wherever you are. I try to make church wherever I am. And often that means without using God language, but, rather, simply trying to be true to New Testament values.

Sojourners: St. Francis has the quote "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary."

Hunt: Yes!

Sojourners: Do you feel any sort of conflict about the initial source of the Hunt money, in terms of its oil and petroleum background? How do you think about it?

Hunt: Number one, I think about it a lot, because I don’t believe in living in denial. I don’t think that serves anybody. But I try to not be paralyzed by the inconsistencies, and that’s very important to me. I try to be prophetic, if I may use religious language. I try to represent at family meetings, which are business meetings, concerns about environmental issues, concerns about social justice issues, etc. I think a lot about how to use the wealth I have derived in a way that has the greatest leverage. Maybe I’m even doing better than the government taxes could! I don’t know, but I was really burned when my taxes went down recently. I said it was unconscionable, and I railed against that and lobbied hard to not have a decrease in the taxes on the wealthy. The love of money is the root of all evil; I take some small comfort that that’s the right interpretation - not that just money is the root. But on the other hand, money does corrupt, and I’m not blind to that.

Interestingly, both of my parents were raised on farms, so this is not old money. My father had a third-grade education, my mother had one year of college and she was the only one of the six kids in her family who even had that. So it was a family where my parents were very much rooted in farm-type rural values. They used to sing a song called "Just Plain Folks" - we are just plain folks, and when Mike Wallace was doing a "60 Minutes" segment on dad, he ended it with a voiceover of mom and dad singing "we are just plain folks," and meanwhile the helicopter is doing this panoramic view of the estate and pool. And the irony is mom and dad were just plain folks. Dad had very, very simplistic ideas about how to save the republic from the communists. He was handing out leaflets at the Louisiana State Fair, literally. People thought they were coming to see the hogs and instead they got H.L. Hunt. In a way it’s not as nefarious as people imagine from the outside.

Sojourners: Your work puts you in contact with a lot of suffering. Where do you find hope?

Hunt: I have two answers. First, my faith is that there is a greater context to all of this. I have spent many hours with people who have suffered tremendously, and [in the process] have felt even closer to God. I don’t believe, by the way, that God has a reason for the suffering and that somehow it’s all part of a divine plan. I find nothing divine about children with leukemia, or earthquakes, or war. I’m not going to make that into [something] divine, in some kind of theological twist. I’d much rather have a God with less power than a God with less love. To say "oh well, it’s the work of a loving God, but we just have to redefine love" - that doesn’t work for me. We have to redefine power. That’s how I deal with it.

I live an extremely comfortable life. I also work 70-hour weeks, I also have a daughter who’s attempted suicide five times, I also have also and also and also. I’m not living in a war situation, and I’m not trying to say that somehow poor me this or that. But there is a lot more we have in common as human beings on this planet than we have that separates us.

I remember talking to the women from Srebrenica; they were so burned by the international community. Ten months had gone by and nothing had happened since the massacre, no one was insisting that we get in there and see what was going on. As I was trying to establish a connection with them, I said, "Look, you all have every reason to hate or distrust the international community. I just want you to know that while you’re trying to figure out if your children are alive, I am trying to keep my daughter alive, too. She’s back in Vienna and she’s in a hospital." [Hunt’s daughter had attempted suicide]. The women had tears running down their faces. The amazing thing about that story is that they were feeling sorry for me. There was such a capacity for empathy that they were wanting to make things better for me. Moments like that, which are almost a pure essence of love, you find those in the situations of war.

My mentor in Vienna, Viktor Frankl, said, "You know, Swanee, sometimes it’s only through ruins that you can see the sky." I’ve thought about that many times, about how being in a war situation completely turns the social order on its head, and maybe it helps you understand the king who got born in a trough in a barn.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)