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Peace Education in Asian Plural Context
the Context of Today’s Youth and Students

by Hope Antone,
Joint Executive Secretary of Faith, Mission and Unity of the Christian Conference of Asia, and a good supporter and friend of WSCF

What is the context of today’s Asian youth and students?

Writing about the “Ecclesia in Asia” (Boletin 2000, 13-14), Pope John Paul II listed several religious and cultural values that characterise the region of Asia. These values are love of silence and contemplation; simplicity; harmony; detachment; non-violence; spirit of hard work; discipline; frugal living; thirst for learning and philosophical enquiry; respect for life; compassion for all beings; closeness to nature; filial piety towards parents, elders and ancestors; highly developed sense of community and solidarity; a spirit of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence. These positive values are, according to the Pope, at the core of being Asian, indicating deep spiritual insight and moral wisdom which are innate to the Asian soul. If these values were really at the core of Asian life, would be more peace and less violence in Asia?

Unfortunately, such a beautiful list of Asian values can easily be contrasted to the glaring realities of violence, intolerance, hostility, violations of human rights, injustice, materialism, nihilism and individualism that seem to characterise life in Asia today. And unfortunately for youth, they live the prime of their lives in such a horrific context.

Many suicides that happen in Asia are committed by young people. These are often the result of too much pressure from different forces in society—e.g. demands from families, the school, religion, and culture. They could also be due to the loss of sense of meaning in life that many youth experience and, closely related to it, is the inability to deal with what seem to be overwhelming circumstances or situations.

The South China Morning Post, a newspaper daily in Hong Kong, featured a write-up in 2001 entitled, “Why teens and men in late 40s turn to murder.” It was based on a research done by the Research and Training Institute for Family Court Probation Officers to uncover what motivates juveniles to commit murder. According to the study, 10 juveniles who committed murder between 1997-1999 could be grouped into three: (a) those who had shown problem behavior while young; (b) those who had suffered a major setback during their formative years; and (c) those who appeared to be normal. But what the three groups had in common was “a narrow way of thinking that made them see only violent solutions to problems”. Such violence could be directed to themselves as in suicide or to others as a result of the desire to “protect oneself”, as in murder. Many lives that are lost at war and other conflicts in Asia are those of youth. After all, youth are among those who get victimised as innocent target of war/conflict or who get co-opted by perpetrators of war. Either way, young people become helpless victims of these forces of death. Young people caught in this situation very often end up rolling within a cycle of violence. As a friend from Sri Lanka shared, many if not all of suicide bombers are orphan children whose parents had been brutally killed during the conflict. Young people constitute the front-line fighters on both sides of a conflict.

Many lives that are wasted through abusive use of drugs and sex are also those of the youth. Youth tend to be curious and want to experiment with something new. Somehow there is the excitement to risk and to try out something! Youth also need to belong and can become vulnerable to peer groups and peer pressure, for good or bad.

Indeed, youth and students live in very difficult times. The impact of globalisation, both negative and positive, affects young people drastically. Consequently, the goals of education to which youth and students are subjected are also dictated by the global market. Many degree programmes offered in colleges and universities which lure the youth are those that will satisfy the demands of the market. Sadly, many young people end up just drifting by.

Closely related to globalisation is the age of terrorism that has elevated the ideology of war as the way to bring about peace. Once again, it is often the young people, with so much potential in their lives, who get co-opted to serve this ideology.

But youth are capable of dreaming dreams, of holding on to ideals about how things should be and how life should be. That is why the immemorial saying: “with youth lies the hope of a better future”. Yet the future is not simply something that is yet to be. The future is already now.

The ecumenical movement, not only in Asia-Pacific but worldwide, is a witness to the capacity of youth to dream an alternative life and to work towards the realisation of that dream. With that dream of peace and unity through justice, reconciliation and transformation, the ecumenical movement has tried to affirm, reclaim and proclaim the fullness of life that is meant for all. The World Student Christian Federation in general and the Student Christian Movement in particular has a massive crowd of witnesses to this fact. It has produced active and capable youth and student leaders who in their time inspired the birthing of the ecumenical movement. That is a noble history worth remembering and passing on—to keep that beacon of hope glimmering for the next generations of youth and students.

Education is for Life

Before going into peace education itself, which is the theme of this article for Praxis, it is important to affirm first of all that the goal of education is life, the sustenance and continuation of life in its fullness. If we trace the origin of education to the very beginning of human culture, we will see that education was whatever nurtured the younger generation for life, both in the family and the larger community. This naturally included basic training or orientation in survival skills, inculcation of community values, and handing down of culture (Antone 2003, 13). This is the broad and original meaning of education.

Today, dictionary definitions of education include “the act or process of acquiring knowledge, especially systematically during childhood and adolescence”; “the knowledge or training acquired by this process”; “the act or process of imparting knowledge, especially at a school, college or university”; “the theory of teaching and learning”; and “a particular kind of instruction or training”. These definitions indicate more focus on the process and content but not so much on the goal of education. And these reflect the trends in general education today.

This is not to say that general education in pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary school levels does not have any goals. But the fact is that goals can be dictated by other agendas, instead of life’s agendas for peace, justice and social transformation. For example, in some places, the educational goal of some degree programs is to simply prepare students to meet and satisfy the demands of the market for cheap labor and other services from people of the developing countries. Every year, schools, colleges and universities produce graduates who are competitive enough for this global market economy. Even pre-school education has become so rigid and tough as parents demand more and more for nursery and kindergarten to prepare very young children for this competitive kind of education and the competitive life in the world.

With this shift in focus, education has become a tool to serve the global market as well as a commodity in the global market.

Dr. Kim Yong Bock, Korean theologian who is chancellor of the Advanced Institute for the Study of Life, re-defines education as a kind of cultural action for the sharing of life-wisdom in community (CCA News, December 2001, 10). It means the sharing of wisdom about life passed through the generations through the family, religious community, and society as a whole. If education is cultural action, then the people should be the subjects of their life, not objects that those with power and money can control, manipulate, suppress and oppress. If education is cultural action, then people should be enabled to appropriate and create wisdom for life through and out of their experiences. This may include resisting powers of domination and suppression, overcoming silence and passivity, and taking action for genuine transformation.

Youth and students need to affirm this right to education as education for life. They must be critical of what is offered in schools, colleges and universities based on this important criterion of education for life.

The Need for Peace Education

Under the overall goal of reclaiming education for life is the call of the times for peace education.

This paper will focus on “Peace Education in Asian Plural Context” with the hope of contributing to the ongoing global discourse on overcoming violence through building a culture of peace. With education being a cultural action, peace education involves the evolving of a culture of peace as an alternative to the culture of war and violence prevalent in Asian societies. In this sense, peace education is more than a matter of subject to add to a school curriculum. Rather, it has to do with envisioning and actualizing peace as an alternative way of living, thinking and being.

There are different ways of approaching peace education—depending on the realities of a given context. As for this paper, I will focus on the context of Asian plurality and what its implications are for peace education.

Asian Context of Plurality

The region of Asia is a region of plurality or diversity. No other continent in the world do you see so many people of different colors, races, languages, cultures, and religions. This reality of plurality is probably the most striking characteristic of Asia—which has become both a source of pride as well as a source of many of its problems. At the root of the problem is the inability to deal with difference positively and creatively.

There are three basic approaches to difference. One is exclusivism—which is an attitude that regards one or one’s group as against the others. It therefore makes others one’s enemies who should be avoided if not annihilated, or, if possible, transformed (converted, in the language of Christian religion) into something like me or us. Many ethnic groups in Asia have exclusive attitudes towards other ethnic groups. Those in higher castes and classes also have exclusive attitudes towards those of other usually lower castes and classes. Religions and religious communities also have exclusive attitudes to those of other religions. Even differences in sexual orientation and ideological persuasion are used against the others. While exclusivism may have been a way of self-protection and self-propagation for a particular group to survive in the midst of other groups around them, it has definitely contributed to the intolerance and animosity among people of different groups. It puts oneself or one’s group against all others.

Another approach to difference is inclusivisim—which is an attitude that embraces the others as part of one’s bigger, all-encompassing group. At the outset this may sound very positive. But a closer look at this attitude will reveal a certain kind of triumphalistic thinking. For example, how can a Christian claim that good Hindus, good Buddhists and good Muslims, etc., are the “unknown Christians” who are unknown even to themselves? What would the Christians say if the reverse were said about them by these people of other faith? While inclusivism, especially in matters of religion, may seem positive, it carries a tendency to ignore and negate the uniqueness of the other. It tends to put oneself or one’s group up and above the others. The third approach to difference is pluralism—which is an attitude that puts oneself or one’s group as one with and among others. Together they are co-sojourners in the world, co-sharers of life’s struggles, joys and pains, and co-searchers for truth and freedom. I like the way Diana Eck (Encountering God) defines pluralism as involving a commitment to one’s faith community as well as an openness to learning from and with other religious groups. Pluralism therefore is not relativism… A pluralist attitude is grounded in one’s faith traditions but is open to learning from and with other traditions. It therefore includes a sense of confidence about one’s faith as well as a sense of humility in the presence of other faiths.

The first two attitudes are obviously prevalent among Asians. The third attitude is not something new at all but is just not readily and properly understood by people.

Peace Education in Plural Context

So what does peace education entail in a plural context such as Asia? I would like to suggest some practical ways for peace education that helps to build a culture of peace.

First of all, it begins with affirming the reality of Asian plurality and the need to deal with it positively and creatively. This involves knowing the layers of plurality that characterise Asia—by virtue of the many races, ethnic groups, cultures and sub-cultures, religions, philosophies and spirituality, languages and dialects, ideologies and theologies, that are all part of and thriving in Asia. When we speak of Asia, we cannot and we should not think of a region that is monolithic. Rather, we should think and affirm that it is a region that is so diverse and colorful. Think for a moment about Asian food or cuisine and you can already imagine the different unique Asian ingredients that give colors and fragrances and create a variety of exotic dishes. That is exactly what being Asian is about. Asia does not consist of one community but a community of communities. With such a diversity exclusivism in thinking and attitudes will surely create problems and difficulties. The challenge then is how these different communities can live together in peace and harmony while respecting and affirming their uniqueness and differences.

In the life of the Student Christian Movement affirming the reality of Asian plurality means accepting the fact that there are many other youth and students who belong to other religious groups and social movements. And indeed there are many such groups in universities and schools, and many of them seem to respond to the needs of youth and students. Should the SCM see these groups as competition, some kind of enemy in need of conversion? Or should the SCM see them as potential partners for the common task of ministering to youth and students of Asia? Second, we need to have an awareness-raising on our exclusivist attitudes and tendencies to others around us. This takes an honest self-assessment because people can be easily blinded by their rationalisations of why others are and should be excluded from one’s in-group. Exclusivism has been the way for many of our ethnic groups in Asia—so much so that cross-cultural marriages were shunned and discouraged. Exclusivism is reinforced by peculiar languages or dialects and sub-cultures that are unique to particular groups. Exclusivism is expressed more blatantly when those of other groups are deprived of certain rights simply because they do not belong to the in-group.

Perhaps in the life of the Student Christian Movement in Asia today, there is a growing openness to youth and students of other denominations, even those of other religions. But in many places, the exclusive attitudes and tendencies still prevail. Also in many places, more still needs to be done in terms of dealing with those of different sexual orientation, ideological persuasion, and those of different castes. Youth and students need to be able to answer themselves honestly why the allergy or aversion to certain groups of people, what are those stereotypes they hold about people, where did they learn to have such thinking and attitude, etc. Dealing with the root of our exclusivism is a great step forward to dealing creatively with plurality.

Third, we need to critique those inherited traditions that support our exclusivist attitudes and tendencies. These traditions may be cultural or religious and they usually are very deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people. Many of them have simply been inherited and passed on to the next generation without question. In order to critique those inherited traditions that support exclusivist attitudes and tendencies, we need to re-read sacred texts and revisit teachings that have been handed down to us without question. For example, the few references in the Bible to same-sex acts do not refer to homosexuality as it is understood today. The incident described in Judges 19:22 is about gang rape rather than the loving relationship of a couple who happens to be of the same sex. On the matter of caste, it is important to understand when and why the caste system got introduced into the religious and cultural system of a people, and who got it introduced anyway? Another important question to ask is how the caste system is also present in other religions/cultures although it is not named that way.

The Student Christian Movement has been, historically speaking, the critical eye or arm of churches and universities. As such, it can and it should help in unearthing some of those inherited traditions that continue to promote exclusivism. This of course is better done together with other groups, which is an exercise in affirming plurality.

Finally, genuine peace education happens, when after the earlier points have been well taken we become partners with other groups in the advocacy for peace and reconciliation. Recognising that Asia is big and wide enough to accommodate the many communities that are thriving in it, there is no need for the different groups to be against each other; or for any one group to be above or better than all the others. The way to live in Asia is for peaceful co-existence of neighbors and friends, not strangers and enemies. This is possible through building just relationships and enabling just sharing of the rich resources of Asia.