Eastern Mennonite University

Summer 2007

Lessons from the Summer Peacebuilding Institute

SPI participants

Photo above: Rabbi Maurice Harris, author of this article,
in black and white along with 2007 SPI participants. (Photo by Matt Styer)

If We Can Handle Fires, We Can Handle Conflict

AUTHOR BIO: Maurice Harris is rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. Affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, it is the city’s largest synagogue with over 400 member households. Harris’s wife, Melissa Crabbe, is also an alumnus of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute. A fuller version of this message appeared in the January 2007 issue of Jewish Currents.


The Summer Peacebuilding Institute, or 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 now prefer, “peacebuilding – a word that’s so new I had to add it to my Microsoft Word dictionary as I wrote this. The various courses offered at SPI deal with different aspects of violence – from domestic violence to warfare. Students come from literally all over the world.

I was there in June 2006 for a week-long seminar, and 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 Shabbat with an Israeli Jew and several American Mennonites. And that only begins a much longer list.

The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University sponsors SPI, and I was deeply struck by their core values statement. The first value they list 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 core values statement can be read at www.emu.edu/cjp/corevalues)

At SPI I discovered an institution where 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.

Before I go on, let me say that I’ve fallen victim to my fair share of cynicism over the years about the prospects of human beings creating a much more peaceful and just world. I think I’ve often interpreted the famous verse from Ecclesiastes that states “there is nothing new under the sun” to mean that the location of empires and the sophistication of technologies may change from one era of human history to the next, but the same human foibles are too much for us as a species. Greed, short-sightedness, lust, narcissism, and ignorance reappear in one guise or another and keep the world in a permanently sorry moral state.

SPI gave me some new cause for hope. I had never before seen the disciplined study of the practical aspects – or as we say in Yiddish, the tachlis – 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 work. 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, those will never go away, but also practical choices about how we organize our towns and our institutions, and these choices can increase or decrease the likelihood that we’ll dwell in peace or in the midst of violence. After SPI, I developed a new take on that verse from Ecclesiastes. “There is nothing new under the sun” now signifies for me the idea that all the tools that we need to solve the puzzle of how to achieve a more peaceful and secure human society are here with us and have always been. We just need to do some homework.

"Why do we have fire departments, fire drills at schools, smoke detectors, and fire codes? Because there will always be fires, and because fires are too dangerous to take chances with. It's the same with conflict. What we've done to prepare for and control fire can teach us about what we need to do for conflict."

So what are some of these practical peacebuilding choices? Like many other things in life, the data seem to show that one of the most effective things we can do to build peaceful societies is to prepare and train people for conflicts before they occur. This goes for conflicts between neighbors, neighborhoods, and nations. For example, there are already studies that show that in neighboring towns with a cyclical history of warfare, when community leaders formed local peace-keeping committees that met regularly in order to anticipate potential conflicts and prepare non-violent ways to respond in advance, fewer violent conflicts resulted as compared with other similar trouble spots. 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 – make up part of peace-keeping 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.

This brings me to my next point. A big part of preparing and training for peace involves building infrastructure . As the SPI seminar continued, it started seeming more and more common-sensical for every society to have 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 at schools, smoke detectors, and fire codes? Because there will always be fires, and because fires are too dangerous to take chances with. It’s the same with conflict. What we’ve done to prepare for and control fire can teach us about what we need to do for conflict. 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, our offices, and even our 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. Stop and think about this for a second. This is a remarkable human achievement.

The bottom line is that we handle fire better than we handle conflict and its potential for violence because we have learned a whole way of thinking about fire. We began 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. The theory is that it can be the same with peacebuilding . It’s about learning a different way of thinking, and educating ourselves and our kids according to methods and patterns that work to curb violence.

It’s asking for a massive cultural change, but it’s do-able. Why do I think so? Because peacebuilding is a learnable skills-set that can be built into societies through deliberate choice. And because 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 drivers’ 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 in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding are especially interested in the role religion plays in violent conflict and in peacebuilding. The Summer Peacebuilding Institute 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, which was called, “Religion: Source of Conflict, Resource for Peace,” argued that one of the things religious leaders need to do in order to play a positive role for peacebuilding is to tell the truth about their religions – to own up to the dark side as well as the light. Professor Ron Kraybill 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.”

"The Summer Peacebuilding Institute 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."

During the course of the seminar, three presenters – a Christian scholar named Dr. Nancy Heisey, a Muslim Imam named Yahiyah Hendi, and an Orthodox Jewish studies professor named Dr. Robert Eisen – analyzed how their religions have been used to justify violence and what tools they offer in the cause of peacebuilding. Professor Heisey analyzed the history of Christian imperialism and militarism following Emperor Constantine and connected it 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 an Islamic legal ruling – a fatwa – prohibiting suicide bombing as contrary to Islam.

And finally there was Professor Eisen. He 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.”

He then went on to describe how core concepts in Judaism, like chosenness, war, messianism, historical memory, and even monotheism itself 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. One thing he said really stuck with me. He told our class: “If you are not prepared to be honest with your own tradition, 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 Twin Towers 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.

I think we need to not only be honest about our religions, but also about our countries. I’d like to share an example about how that realization dawned on me. 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.

After SPI, my wife and I traveled to Israel for most of the month of June, where we 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.

After experiencing SPI last summer, I returned to my home in Oregon inspired to learn more about peacebuilding, about the research and the practical aspects of how it works. I came back with a sense of excitement about the idea that a more peaceful world isn’t just a wish we repeat in our prayers, but that it actually can happen and that we can use some of the same tools we’ve applied to other challenges – like improving medical care or fire safety – to learn how to make a more peaceful world. This is do-able. Let’s get to work.

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