In the aftermath of genocide and large-scale acts of violence, people often struggle to grapple with the effects of trauma on themselves, their families, and their communities. The task of imagining a future in the wake of atrocities is difficult, but essential, as individuals and groups seek healing. Andrea Bieler, a Professor of Practical Theology at Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal/Bethel in Wuppertal, Germany, is examining the ways that people can imagine life beyond the logic of violence, breaking cycles of trauma that may go back for several generations. As part of her research for The Enhancing Life Project, she is exploring case studies in Germany, South Africa, and Italy to determine how these healing transformations can occur in practical contexts.
Read a blog post by Andrea Bieler on enhancing life in the aftermath of collective violence here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?
A couple of years ago, I organized a conference with Hans-Martin Gutmann, a colleague at the University of Hamburg, where we invited scholars from countries that went through experiences of atrocious collective violence: Rwanda, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany. In these places, the violence had ended but new forms of trauma had opened up because it was very difficult to address questions of how to deal with the past and how to remember the violence in life-giving ways.
I’m a Christian theologian, and questions of transformation of violence are at the heart of Christianity. And I’m from Germany, and I’ve been preoccupied for a long time with what it means to live in a post-Holocaust society. It’s been decades since the Shoah, but there’s still a need to think about its legacy, especially the mixed history within families. You might have one grandfather who was a Nazi and another one who was a socialist and had to go to prison because of his opinions. I’m very interested in how autobiographies of individuals affect the stories of families, larger communities, and nations; how they affect the wellbeing of people in the present.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
Enhancing life means engaging the human capacity to break the circle of violence and envision human relationality beyond the reproduction of violence in the next generation. Human beings who are victims of violence can later harm themselves and are able to inflict harm on others as a reaction to that, and pass on these patterns of violence to later generations. So how can we help people avoid distorted memory practices and really try to deal with deep emotions of bitterness, agony, shame, guilt? It’s equally relevant for the perpetrator and the victim.
What case studies are you examining as part of your research?
I’m looking at three case studies: the Holocaust in Germany, Apartheid in South Africa, and efforts to deal with the current refugee situation in Italy. With regard to the Shoah, I’m looking at the effects on people in the second and third generation, because that’s the situation we’re in now.
I recently went to South Africa, where I’m looking at the legacy of Apartheid. Apartheid ended formally in 1994, so now you still have these masses of people who were personally affected by apartheid in the immediate sense, but also a second generation who only know it through their parents. So it’s not just a question of how people remember apartheid, but how they deal violence today. There’s been a great deal of sexual violence and xenophobic violence, which I would interpret as symptoms of collective trauma.
The third example will focus on the work of the Waldensian Church in Italy. They have been working with refugees who are coming in through the Mediterranean Sea, so it’s very recent. We have different proximities to an event that has unleashed a lot of violence, and that’s one element I want to explore.
Have you had any surprising or especially interesting findings so far?
In South Africa, where I was just visiting, there is a very strong emphasis on the common humanity that needs to be restored. I lived in the United States for many years myself and the focus was always on respecting difference and understanding cultural distinctiveness. The people I met in South Africa put an emphasis on cultural differences and social context, of course, but they really stressed the commonalities as well. And if you have those assumptions—if you emphasize common humanity—the process is about sharing pain together, listening to each other’s life stories and believing that there is an ability to be empathetic with the pain of another person even if you don’t understand entirely where they’re coming from. And of course this very much resonates with an inter-religious or interfaith framework.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I lived for a long time in California and I still love northern California, especially the Pacific coast north of San Francisco. I love to walk the bluff trails and see the rocky, rough coast there. I miss the ocean!