The Learning and Labor of Peacemaking

John ElderOberlin College welcomes hundreds of alumni for reunion over Memorial Day weekend. This year, the 55th Reunion group sponsored a panel discussion about “The Learning and Labor of Peacemaking, ” moderated by Al Carroll, with John Elder on the panel of speakers. Both are residents of Kendal at Oberlin. Following is the transcript of John’s remarks to the alumni group. 

The Learning and Labor of Peacemaking

10 a.m., Saturday, May 24 – Craig Auditorium

Thank you, Al, for your introduction, for taking the lead in organizing this forum, and for your vision and persistence in bringing into being Oberlin’s Peace and Conflict Studies Concentration and continuing to nurture its growth, year after year.  Without you, the Concentration would not exist.

I want to talk about three quite disparate things.  I hope by the end of my remarks you will see the connection of all three to peace and conflict studies.  The first is Kendal at Oberlin.  The second is Charles Grandison Finney’s doctrine of perfectionism.  The third is environmental sustainability.

Kendal at Oberlin.  In 1987, as a member of the newly-formed Oberlin Retirement Community Committee, I traveled with the other Committee members to the original Quaker-based Kendal communities near Philadelphia to see if theirs was the kind of continuing care retirement community we wanted to establish here.  We quickly agreed that it was, and with the help of the Kendal organization, our own Kendal at Oberlin opened in 1993.  Although several of the present dozen Kendal communities are located near college campuses, ours is the only one within easy walking and biking distance of the campus – and our campus is the only one that includes a world-class Conservatory of Music and Art Museum.

When prospective residents ask me if Kendal at Oberlin lives up to the hopes we had back in 1987, I say, “Yes… and more!”  The “and more” is the way Kendal residents enrich the life of the College, Conservatory and Art Museum.  We attend lectures and sometimes present them; we provide the audiences for concerts and recitals and sometimes perform in them; we audit classes and sometimes, through Exco or as associate scholars, offer them; we volunteer as docents and as assistants in the libraries and archives.  (Last year our 325 residents – a number that includes those in the Care Center – volunteered over 40,000 hours at Kendal and in the wider community.)   Al Carroll is a prime example.   He audits at least one course a semester, shares in class discussions, does all the reading and writes the term papers – I think he usually doesn’t take exams.  Just a couple of weeks ago he co-presented with Prof. Jafar Mahallati a program at Kendal on the “Islamic Awakening.”

Al is just one of many Kendal residents with interests and expertise relevant to peace and conflict studies.  We have a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Afghanistan just before the Soviet occupation began; a founder of the peace studies program at another college; an early member of the World Peace Council; a historian of race who is a member of Veterans for Peace; a former executive of the Friends Committee on National Legislation; many who served in the Foreign Service or NGOs concerned with peace and justice issues.

One of our most active residents is 90-year-old Ed Long, former professor of religion at Oberlin and author of a dozen books with titles such as The Role of the Self in Conflicts and Struggles, Conscience and Compromise, Facing Terrorism, War and Conscience in America, and Peace Thinking in a Warring World.  Ed’s most recent book, fresh off the press, is The Nature and Future of Christianity.  I might add that this year Ed has been mentoring a Peace and Conflict Studies concentrator.  I could go on, but you see my point:  Kendal residents offer extraordinary resources of learning that can greatly enhance peace and conflict studies at Oberlin.

My next topic:  Charles Grandison Finney’s ideas of holiness, which came to be known as “Oberlin perfectionism.”  Finney argued – all of his sermons were argued like legal briefs – “Christianity is perfect obedience to the law of God… It requires perfect… benevolence… [L]eave self out of the question… Nothing short of this is Christian perfection.”  Although “Oberlin perfectionism” was primarily concerned with personal revival, Finney expected that individual conversion would result in social reform. Obviously this “perfectionist” impulse has changed almost beyond recognition as its religious roots have been forgotten.  But it survives in the intensity with which Oberlin students and alumni try to live out the motto “Think one person can change the world?  So do we!”  “Oberlin: Fearless” has never succeeded in replacing that earlier motto, with its reformist urgency!

Oberlin perfectionism lived on in the decade-long controversy on the Oberlin campus on how most effectively to aid in the ending of South African apartheid.  One could even hear echoes of a verse from Oberlin’s 1854 Social and Sabbath School Hymn-Book:

            Those in bonds we would remember

            As if we with them were bound;

            For each crushed, each suffering member

            Let our sympathies abound,

            Till our labors

            Spread the smiles of freedom round.

From the beginning some in the Oberlin community were committed to direct social action.  And a major concern was how the College itself should be involved.  This issue of institutional involvement in influencing society continues to be debated at Oberlin, as at other colleges and universities, with the focus now on the fossil fuel industry and Israel-Palestine.  “Oberlin Anti-Frack” was probably the largest campus organization this past year.  Oberlin students were at the forefront of protests against mountain-top removal, the Keystone Xcel pipeline, and here in Ohio, earthquake-producing frack waste injection wells.  The Administration and Trustees have also been the target of protests.  Here again, we might turn to Ed Long for wisdom.  His book from two decades ago, Higher Education as a Moral Enterprise, provides a nuanced exposition of “Learning and Social Responsibility” in academia.

Finally, environmental sustainability.  The Peace and Conflict Studies curriculum overview states;  “You will explore the potential connections between issues of social and environmental justice and violent conflict, including the relationship between different forms of violence – structural versus episodic violence, for example – and perceptions of injustice.”  Among the courses one of our younger instructors, Swapna Pathak, teaches are 300-level seminars on “Natural Resources and Conflict” and “Global Environmental Politics.”  Swapna is an expert on “how natural resources can be deeply enmeshed in engendering conflicts and how natural resources are affected by conflicts.”  Just a couple of days ago I listened to an analyst on NPR who pointed out that one origin of the terrible civil war in Syria is the years of drought that drove Syrian farmers off their land and into the cities.  From the Ukraine to Nigeria, from the China Sea to the Arctic Circle, natural resources and conflict are enmeshed.

There are more than 400 peace studies programs in American colleges and universities, many of them of long standing and high repute.  What might make our concentration stand out?  As I think we are all aware, Oberlin’s Environmental Studies Program is tops.  Why not build on that strength by endowing a new professorship in “Peace, Conflict and Environmental Studies”?  This may be the niche that Oberlin is uniquely equipped to fill.  David Orr, his successor Oberlin alum John Petersen, and their colleagues in the Environmental Studies Program have built a department that is sending out world-changing alumni.  Although Oberlin College has never had a Peace Studies Program, I would guess that few if any of our peer institutions have had more graduates actually engaged in the practical work of peace-making and conflict resolution as well as academic work that relates to peace and conflict studies.  If we, given the intensity of our secularized Oberlin perfectionism, were to combine these strengths and support them with an endowed professorship, think what we could accomplish in changing or even, it may not be too much to say, saving our world.