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Peacebuilding: Learning to Cope with the Likelihood of Violence

Lawrence Bush
February 1, 2007

by Maurice Harris
The contemporary American philosopher Sam Keen writes about a cartoon he once saw that changed his life. It pictured a bearded prophet on a street corner of a major city, carrying a sign that read, “The world is not coming to an end. We will have to learn to cope.”
Unfortunately, that funny cartoon may be only half right. We do have to learn to cope, but at this time in human history, we also are imperiling human civilization’s future, as we collectively stare down the double barrels of global warming and the proliferating weapons of mass destruction.
Last June I participated in a week-long seminar at the annual Summer Peace-building Institute (SPI) of Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. SPI is an intensive program in which students from many religious backgrounds and nationalities investigate the social science of conflict transformation, or, to use the term some in the field are now preferring, ‘peacebuilding.’ The various courses offered at SPI deal with different aspects of violence, from domestic violence to warfare. While I was there I talked politics with a priest from the Philippines, shared breakfast with an Iraqi woman, wept with a Laotian who has lost relatives to American cluster bombs from the Vietnam era, and celebrated shabes with an Israeli Jew and several American Mennonites — and that only begins a much longer list.
The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at the university sponsors SPI, and I was deeply struck by their core values statement. Their first value is Shalom/Salaam/Ubuntu — a Hebrew word, an Arabic word, and a Zulu word. The definition they offer for these words is “the awareness of our interconnectedness and the importance of right relationships.” I was impressed that they didn’t simply define shalom as “peace,” as is commonly done. The word runs much deeper than simply an absence of hostilities. As Rabbi Marcia Prager puts it (in her 1998 book, The Path of Blessing):

The word “peace” enters English through the Latin pax. This pax was a much-touted goal of the Roman Empire: the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace.” . . . Roman military victory brought “peace.” . . . The Hebrew word shalom bears astonishingly little resemblance to this kind of “peace.” [It] conveys the meanings of wholeness, completeness, fulfillment, and perfection.

A Monotheistic PeaceAt SPI, people study current research on which choices, actions, and planning activities tend to lead either to violent outcomes or to peaceful ones, which choices tend to repeat destructive social patterns and which ones build the social infrastructure that creates genuine societal shalom. I had never before seen the disciplined study of the practical aspects — or as we say in Yiddish, the takhlis — of how peaceful societies work. There’s a need for much more research and study, but already scholars in the field are developing theories based on what they’ve seen.
One of the take-away lessons from my small brush with this relatively new field of study was that we have real choices: moral choices, of course, but also practical choices about how we organize our towns and our institutions. These choices can increase or decrease the likelihood that we’ll dwell in peace or in the midst of violence.
The data seem to show, for example, that one of the most effective things we can do to build peaceful societies is to prepare and train people to deal with conflicts before they occur. This goes for conflicts between neighbors, neighborhoods, and nations. There are already studies that show that in neighboring towns with a cyclical history of warfare, fewer violent conflicts resulted when community leaders formed local peacekeeping committees that met regularly in order to anticipate potential conflicts and prepare non-violent ways to respond in advance. Other data seem to show that when local business and union leaders — people who stand to lose a lot from periodic ethnic battles between communities — serve on such peacekeeping committees, they are apparently even more effective, not so much because of altruism, but because of self-interest being channeled into a well-planned piece of social infrastructure that helps nip emerging violence in the bud.
Preparing and training for peace, we learned, requires infrastructure. There is no shalom without an infrastructure of shalom, no peace without a network of institutions, structures, and organized practices that build a society at peace — no peace without peacebuilding.
As the SPI seminar continued, it seemed more and more commonsensical to me for every society to have such a peacebuilding infrastructure. After all, nobody would build a new town or city without infrastructure to control and minimize fires. Why do we have fire departments, fire drills, smoke detectors, and fire codes? Because there will always be fires, and fires are too dangerous to take chances with. Through a multi-layered infrastructure that includes a group of specialized professionals who are entrusted to handle the cases when fire does erupt, as well as a program of education that extends into our schools, offices, and homes, we prevent a huge percentage of fires from ever happening, and we lose fewer lives and suffer less loss as a result of fires. This is a remarkable human achievement.
What we’ve done to control fire can teach us about what we need to do to control conflict. We handle fire better than we handle conflict because we have learned a whole way of thinking about fire. We begin learning this way of thinking as small children in school. We train our citizens to think according to certain tested patterns and principles in advance, and then we respond, when needed, based on that training. Why not do the same with peacebuilding, learning a different way of thinking, and educating ourselves and our children according to methods and patterns that work to curb violence?
Peacebuilding is a learnable set of skills that can be built into societies through deliberate choice. We’ve already succeeded many times at these kinds of large-scale social training and education projects. In addition to the example of fire safety, think about what it took to educate an entire nation in creating our automobile culture: building millions of miles of roads, training generations of citizens in the traffic laws, developing regulatory bodies to improve the safety of the cars themselves, requiring schools to teach driver education, testing and re-testing and licensing. Only a few generations ago, no one had even invented the car! When we want to, we’re capable of massive education for change.

Because Eastern Mennonite University is a religious institution, its faculty members in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding are especially interested in the role religion plays in violent conflict and peacebuilding. SPI deliberately seeks to bring people of many faiths together to examine why religion plays the role it does in inspiring violence, and how to take advantage of the role it also sometimes plays in creating peace.
The professor who taught my seminar argued that religious leaders, in order to play a positive role in peacebuilding, must tell the truth about their religions, owning up to the dark side as well as the light. Dr. Ron S. Kraybill, associate professor in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, writes that “most people of faith have little awareness of the dimensions of their own traditions that are most commonly used to justify destructive actions and attitudes towards others. . . . People of faith have an obligation to become informed about the full extent of the damage done in their name. Survival of our world requires ‘an end to assumed innocence’ ” on the part of religions.
During the course of the seminar, three presenters — a Christian scholar, Nancy Heisy, a Muslim imam, Yahya Hendi, and an Orthodox Jewish Studies professor, Robb Eisen — analyzed how their religions have been used to justify violence and what tools they offer in the cause of peacebuilding. Professor Heisy analyzed the history of Christian imperialism and militarism following Constantine (4th century CE) and connected this history to militant expressions of Christianity today, such as the embrace of the war in Iraq by the Christian right.
Imam Hendi presented and analyzed the major Qu’ranic verses that Osama bin Laden has cited in promoting a violent version of Islam, and described a contest of interpretation taking place within Islamic society in which imams like him are fighting for traditional readings of the Qu’ran that defy the narrow vision of the modern-day extremists. Imam Hendi, by the way, is a Palestinian Muslim who during the second intifada was one of the first imams to publish a fatwa (Islamic legal ruling) prohibiting suicide bombing as contrary to Islam.
Finally, Professor Eisen opened his analysis of Judaism as a source of conflict and of peace by saying, “I’m going to tell you lots of terrible things about Judaism in the next hour. And then I’m going to show you how many of the same texts [that are sources of violence] . . . [can be] sources of peace. And in the end I hope that you will be very confused.” Ahh, Judaism! Entangled, hyper-intellectual, neurotic, self-contradictory — after several days as the only Jew in the room, I found Professor Eisen’s arrival to be like mother’s milk!
He described how core concepts in Judaism such as chosenness, war, messianism, historical memory, and even monotheism have been marshaled in the cause of violence or hatred of the Other. He also shared his ideas about how those concepts have been, and have the potential to be, interpreted and handled so that they act as peacebuilding tools. “If you are not prepared to be honest with your own tradition,” he insisted, “you are not prepared to be a peacemaker.”

Because the authority granted to religious leaders is so great, the potential is huge for influencing millions of people to harm others in the name of religious piety. As my friend Mark Hurwitt has said, few things are as potentially destructive as masses of people doing the wrong thing while they believe they are doing right. The people who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center believed they were doing the right thing; so did the popes who launched the Crusades, and so did Yigal Amir when he murdered Yitzhak Rabin.
We need to be honest not only about our religions, but also about our countries. When I arrived at SPI, knowing that a very small number of Jews would be there, I expected that I would be constantly aware of my place in the world as a Jew. What surprised me was how much more I learned about myself as an American, and about the shocking amount of power, influence, hope, and disappointment that America generates for people around the world.
A conversation with a Jordanian man, Omar, really drove home this point. During a break in the seminar, Omar had traveled with a busload of the foreign students to visit Washington, D.C. Afterwards, he told me about seeing the permanent exhibit on the history of the Vietnam War at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which includes a large display about the My Lai massacre of 1968.
“I couldn’t believe that your government had created this public display admitting that your soldiers had committed this hideous war crime,” Omar told me. “It was right there, for everyone visiting from anywhere in the world to see.” A look of such admiration came across his face. “This would never happen in my country. This is true greatness. This is real strength.”
Our country’s most impressive feature for Omar may have been a public display of one of our worst sins. What impressed him was what the display said about our values, our commitment to be honest about our dark side and learn from our mistakes, and our trust that we can integrate knowledge about what we did wrong in such a way that we recommit ourselves to our highest ideals. In Judaism we call that teshuvah (repentance/turning).

After SPI, my wife and I traveled to Israel for most of the month of June, where we bonded with my large, Moroccan-Israeli family. We also spent a day in Bethlehem, on the West Bank, visiting a Palestinian Muslim man I had met at SPI. Husam Jubran holds a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite. Upon his return to Bethlehem in 2004, he organized workshops on nonviolent resistance and political activism for Palestinians. In that year alone, over 600 people attended the workshops.
Some of the youth who participated raised the issue of domestic violence in their lives. One girl told him, “There are problems in the schools with the teachers; sometimes they hit us. Our brothers beat us or force us to serve them tea or clean the house. But we can’t speak freely about these troubles. Even our parents don’t listen to us, about what we need, what we are interested in.” The organization that Husam worked for responded by creating a public education campaign about violence against children within Palestinian homes.
After experiencing SPI and Israel this summer, I returned to Eugene inspired to learn more about peacebuilding, in both its theoretical and practical aspects, and excited by the idea that a more peaceful world can be built with some of the same tools we’ve used to overcome other challenges.
People have great faith in the human ability to accomplish all kinds of amazing things, technologically, medically, and so on. Why not moral accomplishment? The Jewish tradition doesn’t teach that we are doomed to endless moral failure and collective struggle, but that we have choices and we are capable of learning new patterns of behavior. That’s teshuvah. Our tradition doesn’t say that we’re trapped by our sinfulness, but rather, as God says to Cain in Genesis, “Sin crouches at the door. . . but you can be its master.”
“Surely, this instruction. . . is not hidden from you, nor is it far off,” says Deuteronomy, chapter 30. “It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? . . . Rather this thing is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. . . . therefore choose life, that both you and your future generations may live.”
The Talmudic rabbis interpreted part of this passage to mean that we, and not God, are now responsible for developing the techniques and the teachings to live rightly. When God says to the people, “It is not in heaven” (lo ba-shamayim hi), the rabbis take this to mean that it’s up to us to take the knowledge and skills we’ve been given and make the crucial moral decisions. The answers are not going to be given to us from heaven. Husam Jubran said something similar about the successes of his peacebuilding work in Palestine: “The ability to put together trainings about facilitation, conflict, nonviolence, peacebuilding, and human rights didn’t come to me from heaven. It came because of the hard work and great courses I had [at Eastern Mennonite University].”
Peacebuilding is as much a problem of research, and of learning and practicing new skills, as it is a problem of learning to overcome our baser instincts. And it’s urgent that we take action. As Professor Kraybill told our seminar, “we may have only a few generations to change the way human beings think” in order to prevent our own destruction.

Rabbi Maurice Harris helps to lead Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.