Cook: Stop violence by teaching peace

Cook: Stop violence by teaching peace

April 4th, 2011 by David Cook in News

One cold evening last fall, Kimberly Bell and her family were worshipping at church when she looked over and saw her beloved son's heart break in half.

A text message had just appeared on his cell, telling him that his best friend had been shot in the face.

Bell, who has seen hard times before, shook her head in sorrow as she heard the rest of the story: Her 14-year-old son's friend had been shot after he would not stop teasing - what Bell called "jugging" - another boy.

Tired of the teasing, the boy shot her son's friend, who was in an emergency room fight for his life.

Hearing this, Bell, a tall woman with even more courage than height, knelt down and prayed a prayer we all in Chattanooga seem to be uttering: "God, what is really going on around here?"

From Jan. 16 to March 23, there were 25 reported incidents of people being shot in Chattanooga. Bell, who lives in East Lake public housing, claims the violence has become like a soundtrack to their lives.

"We hear gunshots and police sirens all the time," she said.

In that same 9 1/2 weeks, there have been 28 days of recorded rainfall, reminding me of the old Bob Dylan song.

A hard rain is falling on our city.

The great showers should end, yet Bell's haunting prayer still seems unanswered: How do we stop the violence?

Curfews, signs in Coolidge Park, increased police patrol - all of this helps, but only in the way a towel wipes up the blood but doesn't stop the bleeding.

I would like to suggest a different approach.

If we want to stop violence, we have to teach peace.

Each May, we graduate thousands of students from area schools and universities who have been required for years - if not decades - to study mathematics, English, history and science. They've read dozens of books, written hundreds of essays, solved thousands of problems and memorized millions of facts.

Yet these same students have never formally studied how to forgive an enemy, resolve a conflict without rage or fists, or build a peaceful community.

The result: We graduate students illiterate in the ways of making peace within themselves and with the world around them.

As another peace educator, Colman McCarthy, likes to say: "If we don't teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence."

Peace Studies, also known as Nonviolent Conflict Resolution, is a growing discipline worldwide. Its core methodology is centered on the idea that violence does not have to happen, and that by teaching alternatives to violence, we can introduce and encourage attitudes and behaviors that foster reconciliation, justice and a laying down of arms - as individuals, communities and nations.

It works like magic. In the years I've taught Peace Studies courses - to middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students and adults - I have seen classrooms come alive around the stories, ideas, questions and issues presented.

By teaching peace, we examine the ways in which the Nazis were defeated nonviolently (Denmark), how the Crips and Bloods made peace (Aqeela Sherrills in Watts), how dictators are overthrown (Otpor in Serbia) and how enemies are transformed into friends (theforgivenessproject.com).

By teaching peace, we examine the Freedom House study which asserts that in the last 30 years, nearly 70 countries shifted from authoritarian to democratic rule, and in the vast majority of cases, they have done so using nonviolent methods.

By teaching peace, we listen to the stories of those - like King, Gandhi and Christ - who refuse to have enemies, despite all the violence they encounter.

Last year, Bell was in the Peace Studies class I teach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Wanting to counteract the message of violence our society sometimes promotes, she and her classmates stenciled quotes from King, Christ and Gandhi onto signs and walked into a cold November night to stand along the sidewalk of M.L. King Boulevard.

As rush hour traffic passed by, they held their signs high into the air.

A hard rain was falling.

By the time they walked back to campus, the rain had stopped.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.