Teaching ‘Overcoming Violence’: Reflections on Violence, Peace, and Practical Theology

Photograph by Kevin Dooley.
Download PDF: Teaching Overcoming Violence

Editor’s Note: The following reflection is based on the authors’ experiences teaching a collaborative course entitled, “Overcoming Violence”. The syllabus and supplemental materials for this course can be downloaded here.

The Decline of Violence?

By the recent account of Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, a course on “Overcoming Violence” may be unnecessary—or at best purely historical. In his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,1Pinker argues that violence has been on the decline for several millennia and that we are living today in the least violent époque of human existence. In a recent opinion article in the The New York Times, provocatively titled “Why War Is Going Out of Style,”2Pinker and co-author Joshua S. Goldstein, an emeritus professor of international relations at American University, argue that “war no longer pays” and that there is a “growing repugnance toward institutional violence.” They cite statistical analyses over time that have indicated a decline in the numbers of both full-scale wars (defined as resulting in a thousand or more deaths) and of smaller civil wars and conflicts that result in a lower death toll. “True,” Pinker and Goldstein concede, “we still harbor demons like greed, dominance, revenge and self-deception. But we also have faculties that inhibit them, like self-control, empathy, reason and a sense of fairness. We will always have the capacity to kill one another in large numbers, but with effort we can safeguard the norms and institutions that have made war increasingly repugnant.”

Against the panoply of violent acts that humans commit, Pinker suggests that the better question is not why we do these things, but rather “What is it in our nature that allows us to refrain from all of these things?”3 Pinker’s proposal has been controversial. A Harvard colleague, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, a longtime researcher of violence and mass atrocity, has rebutted Pinker’s “decline of violence” argument, arguing that such violent events as Auschwitz and Hiroshima have been “defining events” in the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Lifton finds in Pinker’s thesis a “terrible paradox,” in that while “for most people alive today, life is less violent than it has been in previous centuries, it is also the case that never have human beings been in as much danger of destroying ourselves collectively, of endangering the future of our species.”4

Lifton shares something of Pinker’s optimism about our capacity to refrain from violence—but not without an active effort toward nonviolence. In this regard, Lifton observes, “We are not helpless about our fate. There could not be a more crucial moment to draw upon our gradual taming of individual violence, along with our growing awareness of the grotesque consequences of numbed technological violence, to achieve lasting forms of what can be called peace.” In the current context of ongoing violence, however much reduced from past eras, Lifton’s suggestion is that the reduction of violence requires us to seek diligently and deliberately those “better angels of our nature” in an immediate and ongoing way—and, importantly, to pay attention to violence in its individual and interpersonal, as well as institutional and structural forms. In that sense, the need to overcome violence—and the rationale for teaching about violence, nonviolence, war, and peace—could not be more necessary, or more relevant.5

Practical Theology and Conflict Transformation

It was out of this set of concerns that we devised and taught the course “Overcoming Violence: Practical Theology and Conflict Resolution” at Harvard Divinity School in the Spring of 2007. We are honored that the syllabus has been selected for publication in this issue of Practical Matters. The course was an initiative of the Boston Theological Institute (BTI) and conceived and team-taught by the authors along with Ed Rodman of the Episcopal Divinity School, Samuel Johnson of the Boston University School of Theology, and Ann Riggs of the National Council of Churches. The immediate rationale for the course was to instantiate into the curriculum of the BTI consortium schools a course that would provide ways for students in the BTI to engage practically theologically the aims of the World Council of Churches’ “Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace, 2000-2010.”

If we were to do it again, we would likely substitute the phrase “conflict transformation” for “conflict resolution” in the course’s subtitle. “Conflict transformation” has more recently become the preferred term of art and practice for its humble acknowledgment that not all conflicts can always be resolved—or be resolved definitively and to the satisfaction of all parties. The Boston Theological Institute now offers a certificate program in Religion and Conflict Transformation for students in its consortium seminaries. The notion of transformation suggests a sense of the process—and, hopefully, the progress—towards peace, while also gesturing toward the transformation of hearts and conversion at the level of the spirit and soul that must take place for lasting peace to take hold. This insight is captured in Tom Massaro’s key summary of what he learned in teaching the course—namely, that “peace is more than the mere absence of war.”6 As Massaro further observes, “The call to Christians, and to all people of good will, is to disarm our hearts and to contribute to the establishment of peace through all aspects of our lives, including our spirituality and our ordinary habitual practices.”7

Subtitle aside, many of the themes and contours of our course would likely remain the same, with updates to reflect current events and concerns. The first set of concerns that we addressed in the course had to do with the biological, psychological, and sociological sources of violence. This interdisciplinary background material exposed themes that we returned to time and time again with our students in the course, and the literature in the area has continued to evolve.8 The biopsychosocial materials provided a necessary background for our inquiry into the roots of violence, for as Massaro aptly observes, “Nobody simply wakes up one morning and decides spontaneously to use deadly force. Hitlers, Pol Pots and bin Ladens are long in the making. Those who embark on violent courses of action most often reflect complex webs of influences, including warped patterns of gender relations, racial and ethnic subtexts, ideologies of hatred and histories of the tragic demonization of ‘othered’ groups.”9

From the science and social science of violence, the subject matter moved quickly into theological and philosophical perspectives, with particular attention to the ongoing relevance of Rene Girard’s concepts of desire, mimesis, and scapegoating in a splendid guest lecture by Robert Daly, S.J., of Boston College, another BTI consortium school. If Girard’s Violence and the Sacred stands as a stark analysis of the violence at the heart of the Christian tradition, and certainly other religions as well, then Robert Cover’s essay “Violence and the Word” is an equally seminal, though less well-known, testimony to the capacity for violence at the heart of law. Law and religion are institutions that have historically done violence, but have also promoted peace and reconciliation. At their intersection, the course also examined new theories and practices of restorative justice in law and religion, as an evolution away from retributive forms of justice that have characterized both law and religion in eras past. The notion of restorative justice has also recently transformed the fields of international relations and conflict resolution, where truth and reconciliation commissions, local customs of mediation and dispute resolution (both cultural and religious), and other forms of transformative mediation and conflict transformation have sprung up to achieve the jus post bellum about which Massaro has written.10 Restorative justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness have become important requisites of the “Age of Apology”11 that began to emerge in the twilight of the twentieth century.

From these institutional manifestations of violence and nonviolence, the course shifted toward particular individuals as models of nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi and Howard Thurman emerged as key early twentieth-century avatars of nonviolence, mostly through the powerful resources assembled by authors Peter Ackerman and Jack Du Vall in their chronicle of the rise of the twentieth-century nonviolence movement in the book and accompanying documentary film A Force More Powerful—the latter of which was the catalyst for the multimedia component of our course. Ackerman and Du Vall begin their account with the rise of Gandhi’s nonviolence movement. Howard Thurman, the noted theologian, civil rights leader, and first black dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a BTI consortium member school, was an obvious addition. Thurman paid a visit to Gandhi during which Gandhi asked him to bring practices of nonviolence back to America. Thurman was also a teacher and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., another distinguished graduate of Boston University, who paid a visit to Gandhi’s birthplace in 1959, in a trip that was deeply influential in King’s own development of the theology and practice of nonviolence. Borrowing a theme from the acclaimed Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, which was part of the course’s accompanying film series, we put King in dialogue with Malcolm X in their contrasting views of nonviolence.

From the neat line from Gandhi to Thurman and King, we moved to examine the lives and work of recent Nobel Peace Prize recipients for what they reveal about the new terrain of peace and nonviolence. In this connection, we read from the autobiographies of the Muslim Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize (notably the Peace Prize, not the Economics Prize) in 2006, along with the Grameen banks that he established for their development of microcredit practices that enabled many Bangladeshis—particularly women—to rise from poverty in the decades after civil war, famine, and floods. The late Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” in the words of the Nobel Committee, becoming the first environmentalist to win the prize. Even earlier, in 1992, indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala won the Nobel Peace Prize for her promotion of the cultural rights of indigenous peoples in the context of Guatemala’s nearly four decade-long civil war, thereby bringing indigenous and cultural rights into the list of requisites for peace. The autobiographies of these Nobel Peace laureates raised important connections between gender and peace, (and the legacy of Mathaai and Menchu was felt in the awarding of the prize to three women in 2011 “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”). Further, the autobiographies highlighted the evolving and broadening definition of peace as entailing freedom from economic, environmental, and cultural violence.

From considering various models of peace and nonviolence, the course moved to consideration of various issues and types of violence. These included personal and domestic violence, including suicide and various forms of sexual violencehealth and environment, including violence as a global health issue and the violence of environmental degradation and economic injustice;ethnic and racial violence, including the connections between race, ethnicity, and identity; and war and terrorism, including related issues of just peacemaking and humanitarian relief. In the final unit of the course, we focused particularly on connections between religion, identity, and violence at the personal, interpersonal, and intergroup levels. At the course’s end, we framed the problem ofidentity and violence as located in the gap between the option for an identity based on retributive memory of the past, on the one hand, or a reconciliatory, hopeful, and future-oriented option of forgiveness, on the other.

Intrusions of Art and Life: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and the Virginia Tech Massacre

These problems of identity and violence—personal, interpersonal, and communal—had been contemplated from the outset as the likely culmination of the course’s inquiry into violence, but our hunch in this regard was borne out by two events that occurred midway through the course. The first was the premier of the film Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which documented a then still recent episode of the United States’ occupation of Iraq as part of the “War on Terror,” involving torture and prisoner abuse by members of the U.S. military, an event that was a turning point in public opinion on the part of many Americans, the majority of whom had supported the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.12 The second was the shooting incident at Virginia Tech in which a mentally disturbed student of Korean American background, Cho Seung-Hui, murdered thirty-two members of the university community and injured twenty-five others before turning the gun on himself.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, directed by Rory Kennedy, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007 and was seen by a wider audience on the HBO cable network the following month. The documentary film begins with footage of the famous experiments conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, beginning in 1961, into research subjects’ willingness to act against their own consciences in obeying apparently authoritative orders to inflict painful shocks to actors who convincingly expressed escalating levels of agony with each elevation in voltage.13 The Milgram experiment footage prefaces infamous 2003 footage of the abuse of prisoners at the facility of Abu Ghraib by American military police guards during the Iraq War. The film contains extensive interviews with both the Iraqi prisoners who endured the abuse and the military police guards who enacted and documented it in graphic detail. It explores a range of theories accounting for the abuse, including the “bad apples” theory that the incidents were perpetrated by just a few individual soldiers gone wrong; the “Animal House on the night shift” theory, suggestive of a broader pattern of interaction between the MPs and their prisoners; and the Milgram “obedience to authority” theory, with its implication that the incidents of torture at Abu Ghraib were the result of military policies and government directives that condoned and perhaps even specifically commanded that torture take place.

The interviews with the individual military police guards locate culpability at both the individual and institutional levels. The individual guards admit a certain amount of guilt, but not always full responsibility. In an opening comment, one of the military personnel at Abu Ghraib states, “That place turned me into a monster. I was angry. … This being Abu Ghraib, you knew it could change your whole mind frame. If you go to Abu Ghraib for a few … if you’ve been in Iraq for a while, you become a robot.” The sense that place and the context made them into someone else is an overarching theme in many of the accounts. However, later on in the film, another military guard observes, “It just blew my mind how it was normal, you know, that it was just no big deal. It was just like another day at work. … And I am just sitting there saying to myself, ‘My God, what is happening to this place?’” As one of the guards puts it toward the film’s end, “That animalistic, that dark element in each of us is just brought out. It’s just a matter of, you know, are the elements right?” The question of whether the incident was normal or aberrational is never really resolved, but it haunts the film and occupied quite a bit of time in our class discussions.

Those discussions probed the relationship between individual and collective responsibility for Abu Ghraib, eventually turning to the questions of whether the Abu Ghraib incident reflected larger cultural patterns of violence in America and how the incidents have affected the United States’ standing in the world. Toward the end of the documentary, an international law expert observes, “These photographs from Abu Ghraib have come to define the United States. The U.S., which was viewed as, certainly, one of the principal advocates of human rights and the view of the dignity of human beings in the world, suddenly, is viewed as a principle expositor of torture.” In a similar vein, a naval general counsel laments, “The United States used to be the model, but it is no longer. If you adopt cruel treatment … if we embrace torture … we blur the distinction between ourselves and the terrorists.” In addition to this problem of distinctions, there is also the problem of popular disengagement. In a time of war on two fronts from which the American public has been largely disengaged, retired army colonel and military historian Andrew Bacevich has been a vocal proponent of the idea that the military both represents and is a reflection of America.14 This sort of “violence by proxy”—or “representative violence”—must also be taken into account when it comes to understanding collective responsibility for violence. The incidents so carefully documented in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib offered the class the opportunity to think not only of direct violence, but also of the “representative violence” that is done in our name at the national and international levels.

The Virginia Tech shootings were another opportunity to reflect on violence and representation. Midway through our course, on April 16, 2007, university student Cho Seung-Hui15 embarked on a shooting rampage on the Virginia Tech campus that remains the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history and the largest mass killing to ever take place on a university campus. As with the events of Abu Ghraib, there was a visual dimension to the crime. After shooting two students on campus in the early morning of April 16, Cho took a break, stopping by a local post office to mail a videotaped manifesto to the New York headquarters of the NBC news network, before returning to campus to continue the shooting. While the sheer number of complaints in Cho’s manifesto and the variety of ways in which his mental state had displayed itself in the years, weeks, and days leading up to the shooting make it difficult to attribute his state of mind to any one set of factors, it has been argued that there was a significant religious component to his anger.16 The videotaped manifesto was mailed under the name “A. Ishmael,” which some interpreted as reference (through the opening line of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, in which the narrator invites readers to “Call me Ishmael”) to the biblical story of Ishmael as the cast-out and abandoned son of Abraham. The manifesto also included rants against Christians that Cho may have intended as a rebellion against the Christian faith in which he was raised by his reportedly devout parents. At the same time, at one point Cho appropriated the Christian narrative of sacrifice in asserting, “Thanks to you I died like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” The fact that Cho was born in South Korea and moved to America with his parents at the age of eight also raised questions about whether Cho had suffered hostility or discrimination as a result of his status as a member of an immigrant, ethnic minority.17

In addition to these possible religious and ethnic motivations for Cho’s violence, attention also centered, largely retrospectively, on what were apparently fairly early signs of mental illness in Cho, beginning in his childhood in Korea. These manifestations included extreme shyness, selective mutism, social anxiety, and other behaviors which some psychological experts later identified as possible precursors of schizophrenia. At Virginia Tech, he had been removed by one professor from a class for “menacing” behavior. Having switched his major from business information technology to English by the time of his senior year, when he executed the attack, Cho had alarmed his English professors with violent writings and threatening behavior in class, which resulted in his being removed from one class and urged by several professors to seek counseling, including one professor who agreed to tutor Cho one-on-one before becoming too concerned about her safety to continue.18 Roommates and several classmates reported additional disturbing behavior, and Cho came to the attention of campus authorities for stalking three women on campus. Though Cho was deemed a danger to himself by a community health service and a judge, he received little mental health treatment and was never given an official diagnosis.

In scheduled class discussion sections in the days after the shooting, students in our course opted to preempt previously scheduled topics with discussion of the connections between the Virginia Tech shootings and the subject matter of the course. For students who had experienced violence of various sorts, the Virginia Tech shooting raised painful memories and emotions. There is a presumption of safety that still attends many campuses of educational institutions, even in the aftermath of the high school shootings—of which Columbine is the most notorious19—that raised concerns about campus safety for nearly a decade prior to Virginia Tech shootings. For many of our students, the idea of such a violent event taking place within the boundaries of a university community was itself a shock. For many, the Virginia Tech shooting seemed to represent a traumatic capstone to a decade that began with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and had at its midpoint the chaos after Hurricane Katrina that devolved into violence and disorder, in addition to such international incidents as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing conflicts in Sudan, the Congo, and other locales. The Virginia Tech shootings, set within the context of these other forms and manifestations of violence, suggested an order of magnitude and loss described most aptly in the words of then-Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who, when asked to quantify the loss on 9/11, in a way that seem emblematic of the decade as a whole, replied that it was “More than we can bear.”

The premier of Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and the Virginia Tech shootings were unanticipated interludes in our “Overcoming Violence” course, but they were nonetheless important testaments to the relevance of the subject matter, as well as opportunities for reflection. They illustrated the important connections between individual and institutional violence. They illustrated how violence is universal in its reach, but also deeply personal and cultural in its manifestation. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the “9/11 Commission”) described the inability of the United States government to anticipate the events of September 11 as a “failure of imagination.”20 Events such as Abu Ghraib and Virginia Tech, in their power to shock, also prompt us to “imagine better” both our own capacity for violence and the variety of forms that violence can take.

A Thousand Words: A Multimedia Pedagogy of Nonviolence

From the pictures that exposed the incidents at Abu Ghraib, to the chilling images contained in the videotaped manifesto of the Virginia Tech shooter, from the Internet feeds of masked terrorists beheading their captives, to social disorder in the aftermaths of natural disaster broadcast over the evening news, the visual dimension of violence and devastation has already come to dominate these early decades of the twenty-first century. If, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” the pictures must be part of pedagogy, as well. With this in mind, we designed the course with a multimedia component in the form of a Thursday night film series to accompany the course.

A number of the film selections were documentaries that directly complemented material on the syllabus. Among these were A Force More Powerful, a documentary of the twentieth-century nonviolence movement which was our lead-in to material on Gandhi and other models of nonviolence and peace. Bonhoeffer, director Martin Doblmeier’s powerful documentary of the life and thought of the German Protestant theologian and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was also on our list, and the film’s website is exemplary in its range of resources and as a model of multimedia pedagogy. Another biographical film that was produced but not yet widely available at the time that we planned the course, or it would surely have been included, is director Claudia Larson’s documentary of the life and work of Catholic peace and social activist Dorothy Day. The film, titled Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint, takes its subtitle from one of Day’s wry remarks about the public reception of her work, to wit, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Three more films addressed topics of restorative justice, racial reconciliation, and environmental violence. The first of these, A Justice that Heals, featured the story of a remarkable process of reconciliation initiated by a local Catholic priest and members of his congregation. A young Latino man, whose parents attended the church, murdered another young man, who was from a white family who had drifted away from the Church. Through a remarkable program of prison visitation, the congregation, later joined by the victim’s mother, was able to achieve a reconciliation—across language, culture, and grief—between the families of the murderer and his victim. At the film’s climax, illustrating the paradoxical way in which violence both divides and connects, the victim’s mother says to her son’s murderer, “You’re a member of this family, whether you wanted to be or not, you are. You’re like my own son.”

On the cusp of its twentieth anniversary, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing addressed the ongoing need for racial reconciliation in its depiction of a hot day that culminates in inflammatory remarks and an explosion of pent-up hostility in New York’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. The character Radio Raheem’s brass knuckle rings forming the words “Love” and “Hate” illustrate the starkness of the choices. A lesser known documentary film, Green, filmed by director Laura Dunn in and around the chemical processing plants located in Louisiana’s notorious “Cancer Alley” along the Mississippi River, depicted problems of environmental racism and economic injustice. The lush greenery of the swampland contrasts with more unnatural greens of the chemicals in the chemical plants’ waste ponds, and the title is also suggestive of the green color of money involved in the selling out of poor neighborhoods to big industry.

Some of our film selections were still in production and could only be shown in fragments. These included director Katrina Browne’s important and largely autobiographical film detailing the complicity of her colonial ancestors, the de Wolf family of Rhode Island, in the slave trade. Traces of the Trade features an important “family reunion” in which Browne and other family members visit slave trading sites in Africa and the Caribbean that were the basis of the family business. The deep connections between the de Wolf family and the Episcopal Church also suggest the institutional complicity of the church in the trade. Harvard Divinity School student Valarie Kaur’s documentary of the Sikh American experience of 9/11, Divided We Fall, was also in the final stages of production. The film chronicles the rapidity by which Americans, fearful and shocked in the aftermath of the attacks, began to equate difference with danger and “turbans with terror” and explores the common values that can unite us as a religiously and culturally pluralistic society.

Nonviolence as a Continuing Challenge for Practical Theology

The course concluded with reflections on memory, identity, and forgiveness as central themes for understanding and coping with violence. In truth, it was difficult to know how, precisely, to end a course as wide-ranging and comprehensive as “Overcoming Violence.” As Petersen observed at the course’s end,

There is a need to move beyond a survey of violence to models for reconciliation and peace building. This necessitates analysis of what a just peace is and what this means in terms of human rights and a “restorative” or “transformative” justice. There is a need for an articulated spirituality of non-violence appropriate to our times, perhaps even an order of persons committed to non-violence such as in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Peace building cannot happen apart from a climate of truth-telling as a means toward forgiveness and reconciliation. In all of this, churches, as well as individuals, must be more proactive in finding ways to serve as ‘ambassadors’ of peace (II Cor 5:19-20).21

In that connection, it is worth highlighting an initiative that a group of students in the course took up as a special initiative and final project. This was the drafting of a “JustPeace Declaration” to be submitted to the World Council of Churches as an outcome document of the course. The product of meetings that took place throughout the course, the students stated their goal in the following manner: “We advocate the imagining and subsequent creation of a deep peace, a peace wherein the mind, body, and spirit are recognized as inextricably linked in terms of the individual, community, and nation. The transformative catalyst towards this imagined pacific landscape is located within the space between the victim and victimizer.”22 Drawing on central course themes of memory, identity, and truth, they maintained:

Central to our conceptualization of transformative space is an awareness of the way in which we envision and define our community in relation to our own past, present, and future. Deep peace requires constant, truthful, transparent, and public reflection upon the victim/victimizer cycle and the ways in which our community has both failed and succeeded in breaking this pattern. … To become fully human is to live in the present with a truthful knowledge of the past, to be aware of the ways in which the present is itself a process, and to understand that in every process there is opportunity for justice, redemption, and progress. In this capacity, we recognize that our ‘future’ is defined by our courage to become fully human in the present and our willingness to act with courage and humility.

With a central focus on North Korea, then as now a place desperately in need of peace and reconciliation,23 the students advocated a community approach to peace at both the local and global levels, calling for greater participation by faith communities in Track Two diplomacy alongside national governments and international bodies.24 The “JustPeace Declaration” makes a number of more specific recommendations for achieving peace at the local and international levels with respect to the continuing isolation of North Korea from the community of nations and communities of faith. The concluding recommendation gets to the heart of the continuing need to construct and enact practical theologies of nonviolence and peace, namely through the creation and promotion of institutions “to train people of faith for grassroots activism and place them in situations to help mediate conflict.”

In the end, to return to the argument with which these reflections began, the students in the “Overcoming Violence” course seemed more inclined to side with Lifton than with Pinker. Even if violence can be documented to be on the historical decline, the manifestations of violence in our deeply connected world are often more vivid and more widely known. Our knowledge of violence and its many causes and effects presents us with choices and options for nonviolent agency. Today “ambassadors of peace” require both an understanding of the nature of violence and a practical theology of peace to overcome it. It is to this end that we hope our course will be an ongoing contribution and an aid in the development of additional practical pedagogies of peace.


∗ M. Christian Green would like to express her gratitude to the outgoing dean of Harvard Divinity School, William A. Graham (2002-2012), for his support of this course and other practical theological endeavors at HDS.

Photograph by Kevin Dooley.


  1. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined(New York: Viking, 2011).
  2. Joshua S. Goldstein and Steven Pinker, “War Is Really Going Out of Style,” The New York Times,December 17, 2011.
  3. Carl Zimmer, “Profiles in Science—Steven Pinker—Human Nature’s Pathologist,” video interview, The New York Times,November 29, 2011,http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/11/28/science/100000001194711/steven-pinker.html?emc=eta1 (accessed April 9, 2012).
  4. Robert Jay Lifton, “Invitation to Dialogue: Are We Less Violent?,” letter to the editor, The New York Times,January 3, 2012.
  5. The literature on religion and violence, in particular, has continued to proliferate. For recent titles published since the conclusion of our course, see e.g. John D. Carlson and Jonathan H. Ebel, eds., From Jeremiad to Jihad : Religion, Violence, and America(Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming 2012),; James R. Lewis, Violence and New Religious Movements (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Andrew R. Murphy, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); Ulrich Beck, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and the Potential for Violence (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010); Jack David Eller, Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence Across Culture and History(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books,  2010); John Teehan, In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of  Religious Ethics and Violence (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); Jennifer L. Jefferis, Religion and Political Violence: Sacred Protest in the Modern World (London: Routledge, 2009); Kathryn McClymond, Beyond Sacred Violence: A Comparative Study of Sacrifice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2008); Lisa Isherwood and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Weep Not for Your Children: Essays on Religion and Violence (London: Equinox, 2008); Bryan Rennie and Philip L. Tite, Religion, Terror, and Violence: Religious Studies Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2008); Charles Selengut: Sacred Fury: Understanding Religion and Violence, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008); and James K. Wellman, Jr., Belief and Bloodshed: Religion and Violence Across Time and Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
  6. Thomas Massaro, S.J., “A Catholic Perspective on Overcoming Violence,” September 9, 2007, paper on file with the authors.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Were we to update this area of the syllabus we might well include Pinker’s The Better Angels of  Our Nature,along with such recent studies as Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Crown, 2009); Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathetic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (New York: Tarcher, 2009); and Michael E. McCoullough, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
  9. Massaro, “A Catholic Perspective.”
  10. See Thomas Massaro, S.J., and Thomas Shannon, Catholic Perspectives on Peace and War(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
  11. See especially R. L. Brooks, “The Age of Apology,” in When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy Over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice,ed. Roy L. Brooks (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 3-11. See also Mark Gibney, Rhoda E. Howard–Hassmann, Jean-Marc Coicau, and Niklaus Steiner, eds., The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) and Daniel Philpott, ed., The Politics of Past Evil: Religion, Reconciliation, and Dilemmas of Transitional Justice(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
  12. Nearly 60% of the United States’ population supported the invasion of Iraq, with the approval of the United Nations, in March 2003, and nearly half supported the invasion even without U.N. support. Richard Benedetto, “Poll: Most Back War but Want U.N. Support,” USA Today,March 16, 2003.
  13. The results are described in Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974; repr., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009).
  14. See Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) andWashington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010). The moral and political connection between Americans and military that represent them—against the many forces that have tended to isolate the current all-volunteer army from American society since the Vietnam War—is a pervasive theme in Bacevich’s writing.
  15. It is interesting to consider whether the media’s vacillation between Korean convention of placing the surname first and a more Americanize version in which the order is reversed—and there was a preference in many media outlets for the former—served to make Cho seem more “foreign” and less a product of American culture than perhaps was the case.
  16. For an important discussion of the religious significance of the Virginia Tech shootings, see Grace Kao, “Of Tragedy and Its Aftermath: The Search for Religious Meaning in the Shootings at Virginia Tech,” in From Jeremiad to Jihad : Religion, Violence, and America, ed. John D. Carlson and Jonathan H. Ebel (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming 2012).
  17. It should also be noted that Cho’s Korean background was of particular interest to students in the course. Several students were themselves of Korean or Korean-American background, and, as indicated below, North Korea was selected as a case study for students who opted to participate in the group discussions that produced the “JustPeace Declaration” that was an outcome of the course.
  18. For the tutor’s account of her interactions with Cho and the larger response to and lessons of the Virginia Tech shootings, see Lucinda Roy, No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech(New York: Harmony, 2009).
  19. For an insightful analysis of the Columbine shooting, see Dave Cullen, Columbine(New York: Twelve, 2010).
  20. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report,(July 22, 2004), 356.Also see http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf.
  21. See Deenabandhu Manchala, ed., Nurturing Peace: Theological Reflections on Overcoming Violence(Geneva: WCC Publications, 2005).
  22. “JustPeace Declaration—May 2007,” draft declaration written by students in the “Overcoming Violence” course and on file with the authors (emphases added here and below).
  23. Two of the participating students were Korean and had served in the South Korean army—thus bringing valuable knowledge and experience to this component of the course.
  24. A similar approach has recently been recommended by group of prominent scholars and religious leaders through the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. See R. Scott Appleby, Richard Cizik, and Thomas Winwright, eds. Engaging Faith Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy(Chicago: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2010).


By M. Christian Green, Rodney L. Petersen, and Thomas J. Massaro, S.J.
M. Christian Green is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Law and Religion. Rodney L. Petersen is Executive Director at the Boston Theological Institute (BTI). Thomas Massaro, S.J. is Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.