Peace Education for a World in Conflict
The following blog comes from Pace e Bene Australia. See more at their website here.
“To reach peace, teach peace.”
How urgent is the need to teach peace?
Forty years ago, John Paul II issued a bold statement on the World Day of Peace (1979): “To Reach Peace, Teach Peace.” In his Angelus statement on Feb 18, 2007, Benedict XVI stated provocatively that “love of one’s enemies constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian Revolution.” On the World Day of Peace in 2017, Francis both expanded and fine-tuned the vocabulary by theming his statement “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace.”
Laid out here are three connecting concepts, spanning four decades: teach peace, teach love of enemies, teach nonviolence.
We look around these days at the many destructive conflicts that destroy people and societies, cultures and climate with escalating, and often indiscriminate, force. Pope Francis refers to a “horrifying world war fought piecemeal.”
In this milieu, what does peace and nonviolence look like for progressive activists striving to transform and for conservative activists striving to maintain? How do we the link this outer-activism to inner-peace, a peace referred to by Jesus as “not of this world”?
Pope Francis believes that “to be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” How widely known are these teachings? Francis has also gone on to “pledge the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.” How well equipped are our teachers and school systems to teach peace through creative and active nonviolence?
In response to these signs of the times, a group of educators and peace-practitioners, mainly from the Anglican and Catholic traditions, has initiated a bold movement towards promoting and providing peace and nonviolence resources to Christian educational systems and secondary schools in Australia and New Zealand. Peace education is about learning to weave pathways towards a Christian understanding of peace while acknowledging, and engaging with, daily conflicts in our inner and outer worlds.
Peace Education Symposium
In August 2019, a group of around 40 educators gathered in Melbourne, Victoria, for three days to learn collaboratively about the fundamentals of Gospel-inspired peace and nonviolence education and ways to embed these principles in curriculum and teaching practices. The Peace Education Symposium was co-sponsored by Pace e Bene Australia, Edmund Rice Education Australia, the Anglican Schools Commission WA and Catholic Education South Australia.
From the experience of those who showed up, there were many insightful reflections on the relevance of this program, together with a grounded assessment of the challenges ahead.
The thing that struck me the most on the first day of the Conference was the practical, engaging, and interactive nature of the program.
I suspected the Professional Learning would simply reaffirm a theoretical commitment to “the practice of peace”, which my role as educator grants desultory opportunities to apply. Perhaps I would hear more theory about Girard’s philosophy, which would do little more than soothe the spirits, rather than equip me with the practical tools to do what remains a counter-cultural practice in schools, let alone their wider societal contexts.
Teachers realize that they often face a tough cultural environment in which to teach peace and nonviolence:
Schools can be “violently” busy places with no time for “yet another social justice program” . . . any practical program was likely to be resisted or at best, de-prioritized. In my experience of teaching R.E., particularly to groups of senior students whose priorities are SAC scores, there comes a sense of collective weariness or resigned passivity to more “churchy” stuff.
Such illustrations of potential resistance provide plenty of opportunities to both recognize and challenge the presence of violence within the immediate environment. Peace education needs to take account of, and engage with, the reality of teachers and students lives in the milieu in which the learning occurs:
From the outset, we interacted and met educators from a range of rural and urban backgrounds. We partook in simple but overlooked listening exercises, for example, Who has inspired us? What life events have shaped us?
I came away genuinely believing in the transformative potential of this program . . . it was heartening to see that this is clearly a very practical and interactive course . . . it is in this aspect, I believe, where the “success” potential of the program lies for religious schools.
The course was grounded in deep theological perspectives, taking its cue from a Girardian reading of the Bible, which received its due. But ultimately its potential lay in the practicality and interactive nature.
Christian theology is integrated throughout the pedagogy and the content of the program, which includes a range of creative activities that can be utilized in multiple teaching contexts:
The next lot of activities dealt with the Jesus of nonviolence and presented fresh, layered interpretations of Gospel stories. For example, there are “three-in-one” subversively nonviolent messages in the “turn the other cheek” teaching (Mt.5:40). Not only is turning the other cheek taking a form of power, it is offering the more powerful transgressor the chance to slap with the left hand, which was culturally inappropriate. Further, the actions of giving up one’s cloak and that of carrying the pack double the distance was seen in the context of the Roman occupation. Lowly peasants of Jesus’ audience could transform the “violence” of their masters through such actions. All of these activities were brought to life in a participatory way by the facilitators. This opened our eyes as to the way certain scriptures are interpreted.
These interpretations were used to guide explorations of current issues that affect many people. An interactive socio-drama highlighted how easy it is to trigger the polarizations that we see around us:
One of the most telling sessions of the whole first day was when two groups of participants were placed at opposite points of the room facing each other, with “marginal” participants loitering in the background of both. The focus was the Adani Coal Mine dispute. There was supposed to be dialogue and listening but this was disrupted by certain announcements broadcasted by the facilitator on a frequent basis. This action fueled what became an increasingly charged and uncomfortable atmosphere. While this organic “conflict” represented in microcosm one of the deepest schisms of our time – conflicting values of secure jobs and planetary health – it illuminated how the issue affects people who live, literally, at the coal face. (A number of educators present were from Queensland and even had family in the industry.) All had the opportunity to “see” through the lens of each other’s perspective.
Most cause for reflection definitely came to us southerners to see the human complexities behind the conflict. In a very real sense, the exercise was a microcosm of how our emotions and tribal loyalties obstruct genuine dialogue. We all too easily react from defensive positions, seek the “other” to blame, and fall into the traps of sensationalizing by media, which thrives on adversarial positions.. In this case, it was our facilitator, who gave the “human headlines”, which succeeded in escalating the conflict. We are a divided nation and a divided world. This activity showed us why. Possibilities for classroom practice from this activity were rich.
While this organic “conflict” represented in microcosm one of the deepest schisms of our time – conflicting values of secure jobs and planetary health – it illuminated how the issue affects people who live, literally, at the coal face.
Until polarized tribes can see the validity in the “other’s” truth, like Jesus, there is “no place to lay our heads”. This is the lot of the educator for peace and nonviolence.
As a result of increasing exposure to these concepts, comes the recognition that if we need to “teach peace to reach peace,” we also need to “reach peace to teach peace.”
In other words there needs to be a journey towards an understanding and practice of peace and nonviolence in one’s own life:
Deep listening involves opening up to vulnerability on the part of both listener and sharer. Whether in groups or in pairs, such listening is the foundation for dialogue, as it grounds the self in the truth of the other. This does require the ability not only to listen to the sharer, but also to oneself. This requires work but is essential if we are to move beyond a culture of blame.
A range of additional skills in nonviolent conflict transformation were presented, with high levels of participant engagement:
A whole day of such interactive activities also included the “Five Steps of Nonviolence”, a central pedagogical “method” to the program, which in short is: “Observe”-“Center”- “Listen to the Truth of the Other-“Speak My Own Truth”-“Create a Bigger Truth”. A range of other activities (line games, talking circles, open space, two hands of nonviolence, circuit-breaking centering prayer, five-finger turn-around, the mug game, project-based learning, to name a few) left me more than motivated to implement a program in the school. This is a deeper, much more holistic approach than restorative practices.
Curriculum and Culture Change
There was an invitation to educators to transfer appropriate resources and activities from the already prepared modular outlines to their own specific context:
Now the hard work must begin. A twelve-week program complete with rationale, resourcing and curricular linkages is the easy part.
The harder part is culture change. This can only come from the top in a school. Even then, implementing the “heart” change required in the microcosm of society, the school – let alone actually accepting what violence is, how it pervades everyday life, how the language of peacemaking works – makes such deeper cultural change that much more daunting to contemplate. In a polarized world, all the more so.
The crowded life of schools doesn’t make the job any easier.
But true to Girard’s message, it is by being attentive to the very contradictions of our world, by taking a step back and observing how our busy and reactive lives imitate those with whom we most disagree, where the emergence of a deeper truth might begin to point us back to the truth of our own hearts. It is there that the roots of true “peace and nonviolence” are found.
Following the first day of Professional Learning, there were opportunities throughout the remainder of the Symposium to learn more about the theories of Rene Girard, about restorative practices in South Australia and New Zealand and about nonviolent community building in Melbourne and Geelong. Participants were able to understand the significance of modelling “the change we wish to see” so that students and wider school communities can experience alternative, nonviolent ways of engaging with destructive conflict. Open Space sessions provided participants with the time to explore further links and implications for their own specific areas of interest, among which were: growing a whole school culture of nonviolence; new ways of teaching the “myth of redemptive violence”; making sense of anger; creating accessible digital resources for schools and teachers.
Learning to be an intentional peace educator is about learning the language of nonviolence, understanding the dominant cultural perpetuation of cycles of violence, developing the essential knowledge and skills for nonviolent conflict transformation and engaging with a personal journey inwards.
For further details about this Peace and Nonviolence Education initiative, including the ten-session Modules developed for Years 10-12 and for Years 5-6, please contact the co-authors below:
Brendan McKeague (email@example.com) and Michael Wood (firstname.lastname@example.org), who co-facilitated the Peace Education Symposium, are members of Pace e Bene Australia with strong interests in practical peacemaking in organisations, churches and communities.
Thomas Leydon and Valentina Satvedi are members of Pace e Bene Australia and were participants at the Peace Education Symposium.
To Reach Peace, Teach Peace Pope John Paul 11, World Day of Peace, Jan 1, 1979
Angelus Benedict XVI, Angelus, St Peters Square, Sunday 18 February 2007
Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace Pope Francis, World Day of Peace, Jan 1, 2017
Global Campaign for Peace Education. ‘There is no peace without peace education’