At HDS, Establishing a Place for Peace

February 18, 2015
Dean David Hempton
Dean David N. Hempton / Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Far too often, and seemingly more and more in recent months, conversations and headlines are driven by death, fear, and hate. There's much less focus on cooperation, service, and peace.

With that in mind, and while also recognizing the need to highlight and enable peacebuilding actions around the world, HDS Dean David N. Hempton announced that the School is seeking an endowed faculty chair and program for the Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) initiative.

"This will ensure the Divinity School will always have on its faculty a world-class scholar and practitioner to drive these important programs well into the future," Hempton said. "Making this possible, however, will require the support of generous philanthropy or foundations who share our vision and commitment. We believe that a permanent program of this kind at Harvard stands to make a real difference and is one of the most critical investments we can make in our future."

Hempton explained that fostering a sustainable peace around the globe is one of the pivotal issues of our time.

Addressing the daunting problems of climate change, chronic poverty, limited access to education, and global health epidemics, among others, will require an unprecedented degree of intercultural dialogue and cooperation, both at local and global levels. However, both new and old conflicts around the globe are hampering the efforts to work effectively together to address those urgent crises and are instead worsening conditions.

Started last year, the RPP initiative seeks to stimulate cross-disciplinary conversation and scholarship to explore how individuals and communities worldwide have drawn on religious and spiritual resources to foster mutual understanding and peace—and how such efforts can inform contemporary peacebuilding theory and practice.

Hempton said that colleagues working on entrenched conflicts in various parts of the world—from Israel and Palestine to Myanmar—have indicated that the RPP initiative is already influencing their discourse and inspiring them to explore further possibilities for engaging religious communities and resources in their work.

"What we're appealing to in the RPP program is not some kind of make-believe wishful thinking and hope for the best in the face of all the evidence," Hempton explained. "We want to go at this with realism and a sense of how complicated and difficult peacebuilding can be."

Hempton made the comments before a recent event at HDS marking World Interfaith Harmony Week. Scores of students, faculty, and members of the public gathered to view Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about Liberian women's interfaith action for peace, and to participate in a dinner-dialogue moderated by HDS professor Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project.

They also heard from Melissa Batholomew, MDiv candidate, who spoke about her peacebuilding efforts in Seattle, where she started Women United for Peace through Prayer. The event, "Promoting the Practice of Peace in the 21st Century," was open to the public, which is an important aspect of the RPP's mission, Bartholomew said.

"This is developing into a forum for ideas to be exchanged, and events like this—when open to the public—become an avenue for information, for people to engage at the table, and to empower us, because ultimately the Dean's goal is for us to see ourselves as peace agents and, to do that, we have to have the tools to become peace agents," she said.

In speaking to the crowd, Hempton said that if we were ever to attain a world in which the goods of social harmony and human flourishing are more widely enjoyed, it will require the soul searching and thoughtful engagement of all of us.

"We're here at a moment in history that is calling upon each of us to ask, 'How am I using the abilities and resources, the rights and the privileges, that I've been given to make the world a more humane and harmonious place?' "

—by Michael Naughton