A Discussion with Betty Reardon, Peace Educator

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A Discussion with Betty Reardon, Peace Educator

Conducted by Katherine Marshall
Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs – Georgetown University

(Original article: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.  April 23, 2016)

reardon-elhibriBackground: Betty Reardon is an authentic leader and guru in the field of peace education, which she defines broadly and inclusively as something as fundamental to basic social education as public health or personal finance. She has worked for many years on the pedagogy involved in teaching topics related to building a more peaceful world; the Betty Reardon archive is located at the University of Toledo. This conversation with Katherine Marshall on April 23, 2016 (by telephone) focused on the agenda of a U.S. State Department-appointed sub-group working on women, religion, peace, and security. It also explored wide-ranging issues including interfaith relations, women’s approaches to and roles in work for peace, and the contemporary challenges of educating citizens who can appreciate differences and navigate in a world where different viewpoints are an immediate and significant factor in everyday lives.

Let’s start with the practical challenges of what you might recommend to the State Department on the topic of women, religion, and peace. You have highlighted the importance of taking interfaith initiatives into account. Could you elaborate on why and what kinds of initiatives you have in mind?

I am convinced that the whole interfaith, and what I also call multi-faith, movement is very important. That is especially true now, especially for the United States, in the light of Islamophobia and the appeal to religious exclusionism that are so evident in the current political campaigns. It is important not only in terms of the evidence of what these interfaith groups are doing and what they can accomplish in tangible terms. It is also a demonstration of the antithesis of the sectarian antagonism that exclusionist movements are trying to persuade people is a social good.

Building multi-faith movements and searching, as they do in a fundamental sense, for what is called common ground is vital. That means not so much common ground in terms of specific beliefs, but what those beliefs lead them to value in the society, which is made up of multiple faiths and beliefs. People who have been through that process are pretty well grounded in positive peace values. They see the differences in beliefs as a source of strength from diversity, rather than a cause of social fragmentation or conflict.

I am not directly involved in interfaith organizations now, but I have been involved from time to time and have watched them quite closely. I have friends and colleagues who are involved in and supporters of the movement. I think it is extremely important in our society, which is a secular society, that religiously-based action not be sectarian. I have seen some rather destructive things in sectarian approaches and thus stress the multi-faith dimensions. This often involves coming together around an issue, in ways that can transcend points of difference that might in other circumstances separate rather than unite diverse groups. People who are motivated to converge around a common concern to strengthen efforts towards peace and justice and who work together toward common goals can be highly effective.

Can you cite some examples?

The work of the Interfaith Council of New York comes to mind. They are involved in many areas, including policing, addressing Islamophobia, and violence against women. They sometimes are involved in direct action. An example is the controversy that surrounded the proposal to develop a Muslim social center near Ground Zero [the Park51 proposal]. There was a great outpouring of resistance that tore open the wounds from September 11. The Interfaith Council of New York took an active role in educating the public and insisting on protecting rights of our Muslim brothers and sisters. When there were anti-Muslim subway ads they also were involved and helped to assure that the ads were amended. And the council is led by a woman, Rev. Chloe Breyer. There are other groups doing similarly good work. The Temple of Understanding (that was founded by Judith Hollister) is another example.

It is interesting to me that this impulse towards knowing about and even worshipping with others has always been present in the peace movement. When we first ran summer peace education programs, some were residential over weekends. I remember that often participants got together, on their own, and developed a kind of common multi-faith worship, in ways that would have been surprising to more traditional religious leaders. It reflected the motivation to work for peace that participants found in their religious beliefs and their willingness to find ways to share them in meaningful ways.

So, in spite of the fact that religion can be used as an instrument for creating or exacerbating conflict, there has always been this positive peace-building element that is integral to most faiths. When used in an appropriate context, it can be very constructive.

How do women come into this picture?

I was talking to Chloe Breyer recently about a speech she was to give at the Episcopal church in my hometown. I told her about my personal experience in the town. When I was growing up, sectarian separations were very strong. The men in the pulpits would speak to us about how we should deal with others, which meant other Protestants and Catholics. They said that we could be friendly but perhaps not too friendly and best we not worship with others; Sunday morning was a time of separation. However, outside this formal religious context, the mothers of the community had a completely different outlook. In my generation, we all went to most of the Christmas parties of the various denominations, and these were often in the basements of churches. I remember quite how we went from one party to the other. I was once Shirley Temple in the Sunday school play of a different church. The mothers wanted all the children to be part of all such events that they saw as communal rather than sectarian. They resisted the notions of separation and exclusion that we know to be characteristic of patriarchy. And these were women who would never have called themselves feminists.

The women, most of them homemakers, also had the instincts of community makers. During the Depression years, they collaborated in ways that helped families to be supported through the schools and the churches. It was only years later that we see the assertion of women’s rights to ordination and formal participation in institutions, and that women are recognized as religious leaders and actors, but the core instincts were there long before. So it is hardly surprising that many women are very much involved as peacemakers. If you look at peace activities around the United Nations, the United Methodist Women, women from the Anglican Communion, the Baha’i, countless women from Catholic women’s orders, and others are very actively involved in international movements for peace and justice. Women have always been important peacemakers, but it is only now that it is being formally recognized such as it is in Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000).

These reflections on the United Nations bring a vivid image to my mind. In 1995 in Beijing [at the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women], after the events of the civil society forum, some of us stayed on to try to do some peace and human rights lobbying among the member states at the interstate conference. I was looking for a friend who was active in a religious NGO and thought I might find her at a gathering of religious organizations. It turned out to be a meeting on women’s rights, and as I recall, including reproductive rights, which was very controversial at that time. When I arrived the door was closed but not locked, so I opened it and tiptoed in. What I found was a mass of black garbs. It was a room full of virtually all men, bearded and non-bearded, most in black, thus priests, ministers, and imams (some women from Muslim countries were accompanied by men). The image was stunning and brought home that this was one of our problems. Wherever you fall on the issues of reproductive rights, women have a right to participate. Not many among us in the peace-related NGOs were attending to what was happening with this particular group, because each of us was rather caught up in the issues that concerned us most directly. I was involved with many meetings on disarmament and armed conflict, while others were meeting around their own particular concerns, while this group in black garb worked to maintain women’s traditional secondary social status and limit their voices in reproductive matters. The gender makeup and the dominant role of religious actors in that meeting room were stunning.

Returning to interfaith approaches, evaluation is notoriously difficult. Do you have any insight on that?

The basic questions should be “Did it work?” And “What can we learn from it?”

The Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding working group is looking both at the broad challenges of engaging women more actively and at short-term actions. What do you see as practical approaches?

At a broad level, it can be very helpful for the State Department to show an interest in gender perspectives in peace issues, as well as in constructive approaches to religion. The United States presence around the world could be more positive if our people were more sensitive to what religion means in people’s lives, how it affects women both positively and negatively, and how it is a basis for many of the worldviews that we have to interact with. The secular nature of our civil society is kind of a two-sided coin, and one implication is that many people filter out and do not recognize religion as one of the major variables in world affairs. The same is true for women’s positions in society and their role in religious matters. These should be included as an essential factor in training people who are going to be in the diplomatic corps, who are going to go abroad within the context of U.S. policy and representation. It is a topic that we have not heard much about.

One thing people need to look at in the arena of women’s action in the public sector and civil order is an assumption that religion is an obstacle, in light of its divisiveness and sexual prejudice and its common link to religious teachings. That is true, but we also need to look at it from the other direction. Who are the women who are active in their faith communities who are also active in trying to advance women’s equality and positive peace values in society? These approaches often converge with peacebuilding. In international women’s rights and peace movements there is a tendency to see only the divisiveness of religions, which can be shortsighted and impede the positive possibilities of religiously-based action for peace and justice.

We find that women speak very broadly in defining peacebuilding.

This is something that we have seen for a long time and the blindness to it on the part of policymakers is especially prominent in the fields of international relations and in the diplomatic service. The tendency there is to differentiate and to think of peacemaking only in political terms, thus peace as political accommodation, rather than the positive peace of comprehensive human security. But broad understandings of peace have always been very important in women’s peacemaking, which focuses on the human and social conditions that make for peace. It makes little sense to separate that out into other areas: for example, to see development as separate from security.

This is an important contribution that women can make. Women tend to have a more holistic approach to the whole area, that is, more people- than state-grounded, taking into account broader variables. When this is the approach, the results of peace processes are more deeply rooted and thus more durable and lasting.

It is surprising and common that development studies and conflict studies are often separate in universities. Why did this come about?

That has been true for a long time, and we have known and pointed to the problem for decades. Many women have a holistic and distinct definition of security that goes well beyond the basic notion often used, that security means that the nation can defend itself by military force. Security in peace studies, and, I would argue, for women, means meeting the needs of the people and also preserving the earth. The separation among these components of human security is an unfortunate legacy of past, narrow, single discipline approaches, separating the relevant knowledge from the various fields and disciplines addressing issues of conflict, peace, and security.

You have worked on peace education for many years. Where do you see the challenges today?

I hope that in the next years, while I am still cognizant, there will be more change in the field. What is at stake is the basic idea of what social learning is and how it can be fostered. My understanding of the approach that is needed is pretty much the same as it has always been. I see it as rooted primarily in respect for the dignity and the autonomy of the learner, so that they are helped in developing a sense of communal understanding, having the knowledge one needs to be a constructive member of the community, whether one is a doctor or a plumber or a diplomat. The general field has moved from mainly war prevention – basically from negative to positive peace. Comprehensive peace education has broadened to a framework of a culture of peace. That idea and approach still needs to be pushed forward, but change is essential.

An important recent strand, called critical peace education, involves developing citizenship capacities that involve the critical skills to understand and prevent violence and injustice and to work toward social and political alternatives that reduce possibilities for the resort to violence and increasing those for strengthening peacemaking and peace-building institutions. I am calling for focus on skills development that includes communications skills and capacities for recognizing the limitations of one’s own perspectives.

What we need right now is to be more reflective about critical peace education. Sometimes practitioners become the reflection of what they are seeking to overcome, advocates of an ideology that obstructs the fully open inquiry essential to effective peace education. We need to be more sensitive to that possibility.

Above all, we need to prepare people to deal more positively with contentious, destructive political discourse that is so prevalent today. We need to have a peace education approach to learning about other religions and belief systems that is transferable to politics. People have political beliefs that come out of deeply held beliefs about humanity and society. We need to educate towards understanding various and contending belief systems as a mainstream part of education. Some people in the field are beginning to focus on the skills of public discourse about difference. It needs to involve respecting the human dignity of the other, seeking not to convince or overcome the other, but, with the other, to construct a new mutually advantageous reality. I hope that people are thinking about that. I myself want to do more methodological work on the topic, the more so after what we have seen over the past year; in our evolving political conversation in the United States it is all too evident that we do not have the skills we need to deal with difference constructively.

At what level of education do you think this kind of teaching is most needed and most effective?

It is needed at each stage. Each sphere and each stage has something in particular that feeds into a properly educated society. But I have always felt that in terms of these public discourse questions the level most critical is public secondary school, especially the first two years. That is where you can reach the greatest number of potential citizens.

Does religion figure into the kind of education you are advocating?

I have spoken to friends from other countries, where religion is taught in public schools, not as a matter of faith but as a topic about the world you live in. There it is seen as part of what you need to know to function as a responsible citizen of the world. That understanding of religion should go alongside a multicultural education. Students should come out of secondary school knowing not only that some areas of the world are primarily Christian or Muslim or adherents to other beliefs, but what that means in terms of how those people see the world. What is the impact of their beliefs, on how they see us, and how our beliefs affect our relationships to the rest of the world should be central to the inquiry pursued in global and peace education.

Broad scale intolerance is largely a matter of ignorance. I see this to be the case with militant non-believers as well of those of exclusive sectarian faith. I would say this even if I were not a practicing Episcopalian: the aggressive stance of some atheist public intellectuals is just as destructive as the stance of some religious fundamentalists. It is the kind of intolerance that basic education must try to transcend. We all need to really understand the nature of our fundamental beliefs, to be less blind to how that affects our roles as citizens. We need to ask ourselves what fundamentals of our Christian or Muslim or Jewish or any religious perspective are relevant to the general public discourse and how do we avoid the possibility that those fundamentals could violate those of other faiths.

Have you seen examples of where this is well done?

Perhaps in Australia, though what I saw was a while back. A friend who went to seminary went to work in public education as a religious educator – not to initiate students into a faith, but to teach the substance of the different religions beliefs and practices of the society. That education was largely about a rather narrow set of traditions, beginning with Protestants and Catholics, perhaps some times other religions. I gather that they ran into some difficulties with teaching in an authentic way about the beliefs of indigenous peoples. But the point is that religion as a subject is an integral part of the curriculum to educate all citizens.

But what is most essential to understand is that one can teach about beliefs without indoctrination. In the United States, what it requires is taking a look at public education and how adequate or inadequate it is to preparing learners to deal constructively with the kind of ignorance and intolerance of differences we are seeing unfold in our public discourse. How indeed can knowledge of religion contribute to a better educated public?

This question of religious literacy is vital but complex: what to include? Do you have good examples?

The problem is that there are few if any good examples. We have to make them.

And finally, how would you define peace education today? Is it a field or a discipline?

It is to my mind a field, not a discipline, though in many places today peace studies, as distinct from peace education, is accepted as a discipline.

Peace education is multifaceted and trans-disciplinary. It is focused on the central problematic of violence in all its forms. Armed conflict, structural violence, gender abuse, and social, cultural, and religious intolerance that often results in cultural violence are among the components of the field. There needs to be a clear understanding that violence in most cases is a choice. What we need to be able to do is to develop a repertoire of behaviors and attitudes making violence a less viable and less attractive way to achieve political and social goals. This means studying violence, but also picking up the issue as it is embedded in various fields of studies. Both single problem and multiple problems approaches are valid, and both can be constructive. Whatever the approach, overcoming violence needs to be a core goal of education, as essential as knowing certain things about public health. In the same way that it can be learned that the chances of developing lung cancer can be avoided by not smoking, it can be learned armed conflict can be avoided by certain means of conflict resolution and by having fewer arms around when you run out of ideas. Achieving more conflict skills and reducing armaments are two essential means to overcoming violence.

Peace education practices are both trans-disciplinary and interdisciplinary. One of the things we need to do is to learn each other’s academic languages and to be sensitive to when others in our conversations do not understand the language. Such exclusionary behavior is rife in academia. Disciplines are sometimes in practice another mechanism of exclusion.

Economics is in my view a classic example. A Swedish finance minister once observed that if he could not explain his tax reform to his grandmother he was failing.

That’s a wise finance minister! But this is also a gender issue, as many women are socialized to fear numbers. They can traumatize us and can be a tool of exclusion. And for a long time quantification was the ultimate validation. This is the kind of bias that is hard to dislodge.

How did you come to this path? A few final notes!

I was a child in World War II and became keenly aware even then of the complete folly of the enterprise. And from there grew my interest in issues of war and peace! As a teacher, I became deeply interested in pedagogy. And I realized that issues like security must be seen within a systems framework and with a deep awareness of the historical context. I also grew up in a time when there was a common view that “women cannot really understand this stuff.” From that grew a conviction that understanding another’s perspective is the first stage of learning peacemaking. Peace education draws on all fields, as it requires both a comprehensive view and a willingness to engage respectfully with others and to work together towards better ideas and better ways to address our common problems.

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