CORONA CONNECTIONS: An Inquiry into Plowshares and Pandemics

“Corona Connections: Learning for a Renewed World” is a special series exploring the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways it relates to other peace education issues.

“Corona Connections: Learning for a Renewed World” 

Readers of the Global Campaign for Peace Education are likely familiar with our call to make “Corona Connections.” We urge peace educators to give more focused attention to the interrelationships among all the global problems that constitute the substance of our field and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently, great emphasis has been placed on the convergence of the causes and the actual and potential consequences of the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and the climate crisis. As we enter the second quarter of 2020, we become sharply and painfully aware of a third existential threat, global pandemics. We feel the need for peace education to provide a life-affirming response to this newly recognized existential threat through forms of learning to address both the unique aspects of this pandemic and the ways it relates to all other peace education issues.

The coronavirus, now enveloping the world in an unprecedented health crisis, undermines economies, exacerbates all other global problems, and adds suffering to the vulnerable throughout the world. COVID-19 is likely the first of repeated pandemics to be experienced in an already frighteningly uncertain future. As peace educators, we know that we cannot deny or retreat from the fear, but take hope and action to engage in the learning we believe to be the best and most effective response to the full range of threats to our planet. This crisis is an opportunity to formulate questions that lead us into authentically new, fresh forms of learning, unprecedented inquiries, truly distinct, but still derived from those we have for some time employed in our attempts to elicit visions of and plans for a preferred world. It is time, as well, for a truly new vision. Toward the conceptualization of that vision, the GCPE is posting this series, “Corona Connections: Learning for a Renewed World.”

The crisis offers us some good starting points for learning for a renewed world. The iconic illustration of the novel coronavirus is, perhaps, now more familiar to more of us than any national flag or globally popular “brand,” be it product, sports team, institution or “leader.” It can also become a globally uniting symbol.  All the world is caught up in a commonly experienced global trauma that, for most, is the first that we fully understand to have befallen the whole human family in “real-time.”  While the realization of the common destiny of humanity may well be a given to peace educators, even we ourselves, still do not have adequate conceptual and pedagogical repertoires to confront pandemics as a given of a common human future.  We have sought to confront all obstacles to peace and human well-being with a view to draw from the experience learning that will better enable us to strive toward the just and nonviolent planetary order we espouse. We hope that we may be able to do the same now, as we enter the uncharted territory of responding as a global community to a common existential threat. “Corona Connections” is an attempt to explore the learning possibilities of this frightening new territory.

We begin our intentional and planned learning experiments with an inquiry into the interrelationships between the causes, characteristics and potential consequences of the threats posed by nuclear weapons and global pandemics, suggesting a learning process to facilitate reflection on the connections and the peacemaking capacities that the connections require us to develop. In this process, we hope the learners will also acquire essential knowledge of the weapons and of pandemics.

An Inquiry into Plowshares and Pandemics:

The Content Basis and Scheduling of the Learning

The primary material for this learning experiment is “The Nuns, the Priests and the Bombs,” a documentary on Plowshares, a faith-based, pacifist movement’s anti-nuclear non-violent actions. Peace educators, undertaking this exploration of nuclear-pandemic convergences may have time to use only this film, drawing on the learners’ experiences and general knowledge of COVID-19 for the pandemic content. However, those seeking to address the interrelationships on the basis of substantive information on pandemics equal to that provided on nuclear weapons by “The Nuns…” will find such substance in Bill Gates’ 2015 TED Talk: The next outbreak? We’re not ready.

Since both videos are easily accessible through the internet, scheduling of common time or individual viewing can be according to the preferences of and possibilities open to individual peace educators.

Framework and Focus of a Nuclear Weapons-Pandemics Inquiry

This exploration of connections is framed within issues of moral courage, civic responsibility, ethical obligations that accrue to knowledge, and the risks undertaken in principled civic actions to raise public awareness of impending and traumatic dangers to society.

The key framing concepts, appearing in italics in the inquiry, are articulated so as to: highlight the integral interrelationships between these two existential threats; raise issues of civic responsibility and pose ethical dilemmas that arise when citizens perceive a need to confront public apathy toward and/or acceptance of evident causes of highly likely and extreme harm to society; the costs of bearing witness to such potential social harms and the capacities required to make such witness and pay the costs.

In documenting Plowshares’ acts of civil disobedience, “The Nuns the Priests and the Bombs” offers a sharp and clear case study for educators seeking to demonstrate nonviolent action as a strategy of public witness, and ethically based political positions. It also lays out much of the terrain of the fundamental problem of nuclear weapons and their consequences, both actual and potential, including essential facts still largely unknown to the American public. It might as well be used to initiate considerations of definitions and requirements for national and global security, an issue touched on in a previous post, The Nail Problem: Patriarchy and Pandemics, and in a recent alarm sounded by the UN Secretary General ( UN News – COVID-19: UN chief calls for global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’, March 23, 2020).  Educators will, no doubt, see in the film multiple issues central to the concerns of peace studies.  Either nonviolence and/or the problem of nuclear weapons and security could be used as frameworks, separately or in their convergence. The learning process outlined here, however, is framed as a “corona connection,” relating the current pandemic to other global problems.

The inquiry is designed to initiate reflection on and discussion of the particular threats and harms integral to nuclear weapons and global pandemics, as well as their common characteristics, and the convergences which interrelate them. The objectives are to guide the learning toward a holistic view of the core problematic of peace education, violence defined as avoidable harm, in the multiple forms it takes in most global problems, and to illuminate the ethical and strategic issues raised by the avoidable harms of nuclear weapons and those harms that we might prevent and contain in pandemics.

A Suggested Learning Sequence

Start with a viewing of “The Nuns..” and, if so decided, with the Gates TED talk as well. Follow the viewing(s) with a review of first reactions: feelings evoked by the film should begin this review; (It is strong feelings that arise from knowledge that often produce civic action); new knowledge gained and facts that may have alarmed the viewers. Responsible civic action is based on knowledge reflected on in light of an awareness of the affect that may have inspired the action. This may be done by journaling or discussion or both.

With such awareness as the foundation, an inquiry such as that suggested below, or one designed by the educator, independently or in cooperation with students, might be undertaken.

The Inquiry:

  1. Important new learnings: What issues and conditions were new information to you? What facts did you find most alarming, and why did they alarm you?
  2. Warning of imminent danger: What major dangers did the Plowshares activists assert moved them to action? What are the major dangers Gates asserts to be the probable results of pandemics? Do you see any similarities between the consequences of a nuclear strike and those of a pandemic to: the economy, environment, long-term public health, the social fabric, the psycho-social wellbeing of affected populations? Compare COVID-19 maps and death tolls with those that predict the breadth and destructiveness and death tolls of a nuclear attack.
  3. Contemplating and assessing risks: What was the full range of risks that the Plowshares activists contemplated and accepted in taking their actions? What are the individual and social risks of unchecked pandemics? In both situations, who is reflecting on these risks and making the decisions? Who else might/should be involved in the risk assessment-policy making process in cases of such dangers? Whom will the assessments and policies most affect?
  4. Engaging in ethical and strategic reflection: What religious/ethical principles did Plowshares apply to assess their moral obligation to give such potentially, personally costly witness to the dangers they perceived? Why do others not seem to have the same perception? Did the film change your perception? What principles of your own, or of those supposedly avowed by this society, would you bring to the contemplation of such risks? Have you seen such risks taken in the face of other public dangers? Look into the cases of: the physician and journalists who sounded the first Corona alarm in China: those who warned the US administration at the end of 2019, the US Naval officer who pleaded to come to dock to save infected sailors on his ship. What were the personal costs to each?
  5. Courage to accept the personal costs: What do you believe inspired the courage mustered by Plowshares and those who raised Corona alarms? How is it different from the forms of courage and heroism accorded public honor? What makes it possible for some few to draw upon such courage, when most of us can’t or don’t? How might those of us who have not yet developed that kind of courage take other forms of morally responsible and politically effective action when we perceive such grave dangers as those posed by nuclear weapons and pandemics? Is there perhaps some degree of risk in all striving for justice and peace? Is solidarity, so often invoked in these cases, one possible impetus to moral courage? As we hear daily in reference to the COVID-19 virus, “We all are in this together.” Are we really, or will it take more? What are your hopes and expectations?  What might you do?

-Betty A. Reardon, New York City, 4/10/2

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