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Podcast of Stanford course offers religious perspectives on war and peace

Through a survey of the world's major religions, Stanford lecture series gives students the tools to recognize and resist arguments that foster intolerance, hatred and violence.

L.A. Cicero Senior Lecturer Linda Hess teaching her course on religious perspectives on war and peace.

Senior Lecturer Linda Hess teaching a course on religious perspectives on war and peace.

Though Hinduism is widely thought of as a peaceful religion, one of its core texts shows God advising his devotee to go to war.

The Bhagavad Gita, part of a larger epic poem, opens on the brink of a terrible war. The hero of the tale, Arjuna, faces a dilemma – whether to withdraw from a bloody war or to fight.  Krishna, a Hindu form of the Supreme Being, instructs Arjuna to do his duty and fight.  

In a recent lecture, religious studies Senior Lecturer Linda Hess said that despite the clear framing narrative of war, some Hindus have interpreted the text as a lesson in spiritual nonviolence, while others have seen it as a justification of large-scale war. 

Hess pointed out that every religion seems to start out prohibiting killing, yet religious realists observe that you cannot live in this world without killing.  Everything we do involves some form of destruction, from clearing forests for agriculture to stepping on insects by simply walking down the street.

"The ways in which religion bears on violence, nonviolence, war and peace, on all levels from the personal to the political, are seen again and again to depend on how people pick up religious texts and traditions and interpret them in particular historical circumstances, " said Hess.

After stating unequivocally that killing is wrong, religious writers often spend more time discussing when killing is OK.  "Every religious tradition has had to figure out how to deal with the apparent inevitability of killing," said Hess.       

Hess's lecture was the first in her course "Religious Perspectives on Violence and Nonviolence, War and Peace."  The 10-lecture series is dedicated to studying how religious texts, traditions, believers and interpreters argue and act with regard to violence, nonviolence, war and peace. Podcasts of the lectures are available on Stanford iTunes U.

Across all religions, the interpretation of texts is done not only by authority figures, but by the general public as well.  Hess encouraged students to be agents in this process, learning how arguments are produced, evidence is marshaled, authority is wielded, persuasive tactics are used and socio-political factors are brought into the picture.  With this kind of understanding, she emphasized, everyone can take responsibility for religious interpretations and their consequences in the world.

From Quakerism to the Crusades

Subjects such as war and peace are typically taught in political science or international relations programs.  While approaches emphasizing politics and economics are obviously important, Hess said they are likely to leave out other important matters typically taken up in the humanities – for example, ethics, rhetoric, literature, the arts and performances. Those subjects convey the subtleties of human experience and psychology; the relations between inner and outer, personal and political; and of course religious texts and practices.  

From a discussion of the pacifist traditions of Quakerism given by computer science Professor Eric Roberts to a look at religious perspectives on capital punishment given by Lawrence Marshall of the Stanford Law School and Scotty McLennan, the dean of religious life, the diverse subjects of the lectures are connected by a number of unifying threads. 

Professor Paul Harrison, a scholar of Buddhist literature and history, discussed how, despite its serene public image, Buddhism can in some instances promote peace and in others exacerbate conflict.   

Harrison likened religion to language: "Language can be used to do all sorts of hateful, injurious and destructive things, but no one would ever say, 'Let's do away with language altogether.' " Similarly, humans have an inherent drive toward religion.  The solution to destructive and injurious uses of religion is not to get rid of religion, but to learn to understand and control those uses.

Religious studies Professor Emeritus Robert Gregg took a multi-religious approach to the topic, speaking about the story of Cain and Abel across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. Despite differences, each tradition has taken this violent story of the first murder to reflect on questions of brotherhood and community. 

Hester Gelber, a religious studies professor and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies, approached the topic historically through a discussion of the Crusades, demonstrating how violence became sanctified and romanticized in those religiously based wars. The notion of the dashing soldier ennobled by holy purpose "has remained a part of our cultural repertoire ever since," said Gelber. 

Speaking on the American Civil War, Religious Studies Professor Kathryn Gin Lum pointed out that both North and South believed God was on their side and both cited the Bible to support their pro- and anti-slavery views. 

Students' role in a religious world

Hess was inspired to frame new courses on violence and nonviolence two years ago when some of her students came to an eye-opening realization.  Seeing that horrendous acts of violence were carried out not just by psychopaths or evil political leaders but by ordinary people caught in conditions conducive to such acts, her students began to ask what they would need to do to prepare themselves to act differently in those circumstances. 

When a student responded, "One thing's for sure, academic study is useless for that," Hess challenged herself to find out how useful academic study might be.  Since then she has developed three courses related to this topic, including one that combines academic and experiential methods.

"I became committed to exploring this question:  What do we have to learn in order to understand violence and non-violence, war and peace in ways that would be consequential at all levels of life, from intellectual to emotional to behavioral?"

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Hess said she hopes that the course will inspire students "to wake up to aspects of religion that they have never thought about, to engage with what they have learned and possibly play a role in creating a less hateful and violent world."

Just as Krishna told Arjuna to get up, go out and fight, Hess has told her students to "get up, go out and interpret."

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu