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Exploring ‘the place in the middle’

Jo Hart  |  14 February 2019

Students from Catholic and Anglican schools across the country are learning about peace and nonviolence.

On the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2017, Pope Francis reflected on active nonviolence as a ‘style of politics for peace’.

‘To act in this way means to choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society. Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict’, the Pope said.

Inspired by the Pope’s words, members of Pace e Bene Australia, a group that promotes the spirituality and practice of nonviolence, wondered if a way could be developed so that students in Christian schools across the country could learn about peace building and nonviolence.

Since asking that question less than two years ago, more than 700 students from Anglican and Catholic schools from Perth to Sydney have had the opportunity to consider the person of Jesus as a peace builder and practitioner of nonviolence. Some schools have included the nonviolence curriculum in their RE offerings, while others have built it into their character development programs.

Grounded in the actions and words of Jesus, Christian nonviolence teaches that ‘violence begets violence’. It holds that there is a way to respond to violence through nonviolent means. It calls us to change the narrative and make a positive contribution in a world held captive by violence. It begins on a personal level with us as individuals.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR HEALING

At Rostrevor College in Adelaide, the peace and nonviolence curriculum became an opportunity for some healing for the young people in the classroom. They were able to see through the lens of René Girard’s theories of scapegoating and mimetic desire, and thus process the harrowing violence they had experienced in their lives.

For Adam Whitefield, a teacher at the school, this pedagogy of nonviolence was also an opportunity to also reflect upon his experience being a father to two young boys. He found himself much more conscious of the ‘redemptive violence in their young lives albeit in the form of superheroes who fight and beat “the baddies”’.

Martina Cooper, the Head of Religious Education at Waverley College, an all-boys school in Sydney, believes the nonviolence curriculum has allowed her to explore concepts prevalent in our world.

‘Violence still remains a real threat in people’s lives and at times, being female, I certainly experience that fear. We must educate our boys to build bridges of peace and to engage in conversations around these issues’, she says.

THE ACTIVE NATURE OF NONVIOLENCE

In exploring theologian Walter Wink’s reflections on the teachings of Jesus, students have come to understand that the active nature of nonviolence is not passive acceptance. One student commented: ‘This unit was interesting and made me reflect. When someone hits you on the left cheek, turn your right cheek to the person (Jesus), instead of an eye for an eye.’

Students at Aquinas College Perth learnt from the example of Gandhi, who wanted to ‘bring the other side to their senses, not their knees’. They were struck by the radically different approach to conflict that this represents. Rather than vanquishing the other, ensuring they stay ‘on their feet’ allows them to retain their own dignity. The students have been highly engaged in the content and practices of active nonviolence and peace education.

‘I’ve enjoyed exploring topics such as racism, because I feel more informed and it makes me feel as if I can take action on these issues.’

OPPORTUNITIES FOR TRANSFORMATION AND CHANGE

For Dan Valencic, head of Religious Education at CBHS Lewisham, exploring the teaching of nonviolence and peace building in the RE curriculum has been more than a teaching and learning exercise.

‘Listening to “the other”, responding with nonviolence and seeing things from their perspective has opened up many opportunities for transformation and change,’ he says.

The following passage from The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu speaks to his experience:

Is there a place where we can meet?
You and me
The place in the middle
The no man’s land
Where we straddle the line
Where you are right
And I am right too
And both of us are wrong and wronged?
Can we meet there?
And look for the place where the path begins
The path that ends when we forgive.

This ‘place in the middle’ is where Jesus stood in his time on earth – a counter-cultural place in his time and in ours. The emergence of new possibilities, new wisdoms, comes from being willing to hear another’s truth and speak your own from the centre of your being.

Jo Hart is a member of the Identity and Liberating Education team at Edmund Rice Education Australia. Part of her role is to support EREA schools to be educators for justice and peace.

In August 2019 Melbourne will host the second National Peace and Nonviolence Education gathering.

 

 

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