Education PYPA 2008 Courses What Can We Learn From Peace Movements? Lessons of the Past for the Present and Future

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Essays

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Dubravka Kalac Zadar, Croatia >Sometimes, when I walk the streets of my city, late in the evening, when there's only silence present, pictures of  not so distant past strike me, and I...

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What Can We Learn From Peace Movements? Lessons of the Past for the Present and Future

What Can We Learn From Peace Movements? Lessons of the Past for the Present and Future

Course facilitator:
Brian Phillips

Peace activists are by nature often preoccupied with the present and future - and perhaps only vaguely aware of the extraordinary history of past campaigns and movements that have generated non-violent strategies for social and political change. Exploration of this frequently neglected tradition is no purely academic exercise, but a vital dimension of preparation for contemporary practice. Rigorous reflection on this diverse body of experience and witness to peace can provide today’s activists with a durable foundation for sustained action. In testing our current visions and techniques against the ideas, principles, and approaches of previous movements for peace and social justice, we can both enrich our own initiatives and remind ourselves continually that our efforts to promote a non-violent transformation of society are part of much larger historical narrative. Recognising that the space in which we situate ourselves today has in part been opened for us by activists and witnesses of the past can be an inexhaustible source of inspiration - and a vehicle for the development of the kind of long-term perspective so crucial for a lifetime of peace activism.

Through a series of presentations and discussions, this course will provide a lively, practitioner-oriented introduction to some of the most significant personalities, philosophies and campaign strategies of nineteenth and twentieth century movements for peace and non-violent social change. Beginning with European and North American movements for the abolition of slavery and extending to the appearance of new models for conflict transformation and peacebuilding in the last decade of the twentieth century (i.e., a critical assessment of truth commissions; a look at civilian accompaniment in the midst of violent conflict, etc.), the course aims to generate deeper reflection on what might be learned from such examples and asks how we might connect our lives and our work more meaningfully with these individuals and initiatives. Participants will be encouraged to consider how we understand our own struggles in relation to these remarkable histories – and to explore definitions of what counts as “success” or “effectiveness” in various forms of witness and action. What does a “successful” peace movement look like? What can be learned from apparent “failure?” Do we require detailed models for non-violent social and political change to be “effective” – or is the unchanging testimony to a set of values the most important factor in peace work? What can these personalities and movements teach us about sustaining commitment and vision over many years – and through many setbacks or defeats? Particular emphasis will be placed on an in-depth exploration of the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. – who through satyagraha campaigns in India during the 1920s, 30s and 40s and through the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s made profound contributions to our understanding of both the potential and the limitations of non-violent action. With an eye to the relevance of Gandhi and King’s peace practice for the contemporary activist, the course seeks to recover these two giant but very human figures from the ways in which they have each been made more acceptable to mainstream political culture through a process of turning them into secular saints.

The course aims to highlight the truly radical challenge to power and to the uses of violence that both these figures more accurately represent, and to consider how we might adapt their visions and techniques for peace work in our own time. Other movements to be discussed in the course include War Resisters International and its long struggle against cultures of militarism; the Catholic Worker movement and its integration of issues of social and economic justice with its fierce pacifist stance during the Second World War and the Vietnam War (with a focus on the life of its founder, Dorothy Day); the distinctive contribution of the Quaker and Mennonite communities to recognition of the right to conscientious objection to military service; the liberation theology phenomenon in Latin America during the 1960s and 70s (including the witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and Don Helder Camara in Brazil); the civil resistance movement of Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s; and the peace movements working today in the context of Isreal/Palestine.

In addition to the presentation/discussion sessions, the course will also include evening screenings of a number of powerful films linked to key themes and influential figures in the history of peace activism – among them Richard Attenborough’s biographical portrait of “Gandhi;” “The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It” – a documentary profiling conscientious objectors to military service during the Second World War, and the cost of their witness to peace; “St. Nikolai’s Church” – a fascinating drama about one family’s involvement in the non-violent protests of 1989 in the German Democratic Republic; and “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” and “State of Fear,” two revealing documentaries charting the work of truth commissions in South Africa and Peru respectively in their efforts to deal with the violent pasts of their societies.

Summary of course objectives:

  • To provide a lively, practitioner-oriented introduction to some of the most significant personalities, philosophies and campaign strategies of nineteenth and twentieth century movements for peace and non-violent social change.

  • To encourage participants to consider how we understand our work as activists for peace and for non-violent change in relation to these remarkable histories – and to explore definitions of what counts as “success” or “effectiveness” in various forms of witness and action. What does a “successful” peace movement look like? What can be learned from apparent “failure?” What can these personalities and movements teach us about sustaining commitment and vision over many years – and through many setbacks or defeats?

  • With regard to an in-depth exploration of the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the course aims to highlight the truly radical challenge to power and to the uses of violence that both these figures represent - and to consider how we might adapt their visions and techniques for peace work in our own time.