Growing HDS Initiative Builds Toward Peace

November 24, 2015
Imam Dr. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and Pastor Dr. James Movel Wuye
Imam Dr. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and Pastor Dr. James Movel Wuye

What led rival youth militia leaders to come together as peacebuilding partners? How do you negotiate peace when religious identities are at stake? What are Muslim experiences of conflict and peace and how do they mirror those of other communities?

These are difficult questions with complex answers, but they highlight how Harvard Divinity School is enabling peacebuilding through the growing Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative (RPP), which is holding its first public colloquium series this academic year.  

"We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in history, when violent conflict is taking a tragic and unacceptable toll on individuals, families, and communities around the world, and humanity is facing problems on an unprecedented scale that will require an extraordinary level of human cooperation to surmount," said HDS Dean David N. Hempton.

"Since religion remains a vital and integral force in the lives of most societies across the globe, it is absolutely crucial that we better understand the powerful roles that religious communities have played and can play, not only in fomenting violence, but also in healing and reconciliation. Here at HDS, given our faculty's deep expertise in the study of religion, theology, and ministry, we are looking to serve, through the RPP Initiative, as a hub for cross-disciplinary, University-wide engagement, scholarship, and practice in peacebuilding."

In less than two years, the RPP Initiative has grown from an idea to a robust effort that has hosted more than a dozen insightful programs and convenes a working group of more than 50 students, scholars, and practitioners from across Harvard and beyond in an effort to find ways to encourage peacebuilding around the world.

This semester, the program has offered a course for Harvard graduate students taught by Jeff Seul, MTS '97, HLS '01, and chairman of the Peace Appeal Foundation, and it has so far hosted three colloquium series events, all with capacity crowds.

"This series highlights how we are drawing upon Harvard's internal cross-disciplinary expertise by bringing together experts from different Harvard Schools, and how we are reaching out to connect the Harvard community, our students, and local members of the public with religious peacebuilders doing important and inspiring work out in the field," said Liz Lee-Hood, research associate for the RPP Initiative. "This is a manifestation of what HDS more broadly is doing, in part through initiatives like RPP, that is, serving as a hub for the wider University on key issues pertaining to religion."

The 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.

On November 19, Daniel L. Shapiro, director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, and the Rev. Septemmy Lakawa, Women's Studies in Religion Program Research Associate, discussed transforming conflict when emotions and religion are at play

Through his research and consultation in global hotspots including in the Middle East, Shapiro has come to realize that emotions play a crucial role in the process of conflict resolution, especially when deeply held beliefs and values are implicated.

"Disputants tend to focus on the substance of their conflict, yet often overlook the powerful emotional concerns driving each side to action. Yet how can you resolve a conflict—particularly one implicating religious beliefs—if people's core concerns go unmet? It is only when people feel heard and valued in these conflicts that they tend to open up to the possibility of problem solving," Shapiro said. 

Shapiro, who is a member of the RPP Working Group, said that a deeper understanding of religion can greatly inform the way conflict is understood.

"Religious scholarship can teach the field of conflict resolution a lot about how to help people connect more deeply," he said. "People often approach conflict from an egoistic perspective: It is me versus you, my beliefs versus yours. Religious scholarship offers powerful insights into how to transcend these differences and find that place of common humanity. HDS and RPP have a unique opportunity to become a global resource for helping conflicting groups better understand each other's belief systems and how to come together and bridge religious divides."

Pastor Dr. James Movel Wuye and Imam Dr. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, who were former rival youth militia leaders engaged in violent conflict between Christians and Muslims, will discuss in December how they were inspired by the teachings of their respective faith traditions to pursue the path of peace. Next semester, the program will host five other colloquium series events that will examine topics including: Buddhism and the practice of peace, new directions in religion, development and strategic peacebuilding, and the African-European American experience.

Not only is RPP growing, but it is also earning recognition on an international level. While testifying before the United Nation's First Ladies High Level Forum on Education in September, Jonathan Granoff, president of Global Security Institute, praised RPP as a model for programs that should be "part of the curriculum of all our great universities."

The aspirations for the program are high. In February, Hempton announced that the School is seeking an endowed faculty chair and program for the RPP Initiative.

"We believe we have a unique opportunity—and along with it, a responsibility—to leverage Harvard's unparalleled intellectual resources and global reach to make a real, practical difference in fostering sustainable peace for our own and future generations," said Hempton.

To learn more about the program, please join the RPP Initiative mailing list. More information can also be found on the RPP Initiative's website.

–by Michael Naughton