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Drew ChristiansenMay 11, 2009

Though it has been nearly 20 years since I was a classroom teacher at the University of Notre Dame, I still believe in the engagement of the teacher with the minds of the students through Socratic dialogue, attentive reading and the practice of the written word. Here are four lessons from one who still loves teaching, who has worked for justice and peace in the international field and who is eager to help others share in that work.

Conative Education

I first stumbled on the term “conative education” in a Saturday Review profile of the educational psychologist Jerome Bruner. Conation refers not to willpower in the Victorian sense, but to a disposition for striving, a combination of aspiration, competitiveness and perseverance. It is the faculty Plato termed thumos, the spirited fighting character of “the guardians” of the Republic. Rollo May wrote about similar ideas in his Love and Will. “Will” he defined as the discipline to realize our desires. The development of disciplined desire is a necessary dimension of education for justice.

The challenge of conative education is captured in the transition from St. Thomas Aquinas’s notion that we must “avoid evil” to the contemporary notion that evil must be resisted. I have argued that the logical coherence of the church’s current teaching on peace and war, embracing both nonviolence and the just war, lies in the realization that everyone is obligated to oppose grave, public evil, whether by nonviolent or military means. In Catholic teaching, acquiescence in the face of grave evil is unacceptable; action is required.

Often teachers do not even know that they are teaching conative skills. One day I ate lunch with two Catholic Relief Service staffers who had just finished a workshop on leadership styles. They reported to me how they had characterized various personalities in the field of social ministry, and to my surprise one said, “Then there is Drew Christiansen: ‘casual relentlessness.’” I hardly knew Kate Moynihan; I had met her only once before in a hurried meeting when I was escorting a bevy of bishops in war-torn Croatia, but she had studied my working style from afar. Casual relentlessness—that’s how I work. Not with a lot of fuss, but steadily, thoroughly, doggedly. It has made a difference.

To illustrate education for struggle, perseverance and sacrifice, I will use a few examples from my own teaching. For a doctoral seminar on equality, I assigned Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice, a history of the fight against segregation from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education. I would allow students two weeks without class to read the enormous book, but it was always a success. The students got the point of the long and many-sided effort necessary to achieve racial justice.

Teaching undergraduates about nonviolence, I assigned Phillip Gallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, the story of the nonviolent witness of the Huguenot pastor Andre Trocmé and the townspeople of Chambon sur Lignon, France, who during World War II provided some 500 Jews asylum right under the eyes of German troops. Then we would view the film “Weapons of the Spirit,” based on Gallie’s book. We discussed the feasibility of nonviolence, as well as the spiritual qualities and practical stratagems necessary to make nonviolent resistance effective. Richard Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” fascinated even the most skeptical students, convincing them of the practicality of nonviolence.

An important reason for cultivation of the will is that we can easily become satisfied with a low level of goodness, what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “anesthesia.” From anesthesia it is only a short step to atrocity, for we have ceased to see the big moral choices before us. To illustrate how complacency with conventional goodness dulled the capacities for moral action, I used to assign undergraduates Langdon Gilkey’s memoir Shantung Compound, moral tales drawn from his internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in China during World War II. The moral contrast, Gilkey found, was between the majority of interned Christian missionaries, whose conventional morality prevented them from extending themselves to new inmates, and the prostitutes, monks and nuns who in very straitened circumstances found ways to share limited resources with newcomers.

Finally, education for justice requires freeing the imagination and stimulating inventiveness. What often inhibits people from taking moral responsibility is the thought that the practice of nonviolent resistance is impossible. A lack of feasibility and the size of the obstacles become excuses for not rousing oneself to action or for avoiding difficulty; but inhibition may also stem from a failure of moral imagination to see possibilities. History, biography and drama can free the imagination to visualize opportunities for doing good and for resisting evil. Role-playing, drafting model programs for action and sketching campaigns for social change, which bring the imagination into play, can help students visualize the practical steps that can be taken.

Organizational Skills

I harbor some suspicion of the solitary-prophet model of doing justice and making peace. The church does posthumously recognize heroic peacemakers like Franz Jägerstätter and, I would hope, one day Gordon Zahn. But by and large, the people who effect change are not singular prophets; rather they are leaders of movements and builders of institutions. Even Gordon Zahn, who was for many years a lonely voice and who suffered for his convictions at the hands of both church and state, helped organize Pax Christi USA and contributed to the acceptance of nonviolent witness by the Second Vatican Council.

Movements. Movements are the dynamic phase of any social change. Marvin Mich has shown how Catholic social teaching closely interacts with social movements. Movements generate ideas and transmit them. Movements possess a transformative power in relationships, first on their own followers and then on the wider society. Think of the influence that Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement or Jean Vanier and L’Arche have had on the social witness of our church and society.

For young people, the appeal of social movements is many-sided: they challenge the status quo and conventional thinking; they provide opportunity for new relationships and for the excitement of collective action in protests and rallies, in what Charles Taylor describes as a distinctive form of postmodern religiosity that he calls festivity. Movements call for sacrifice and discipline, what William James called “the moral equivalent of war,” and with it the development of alternative markers of identity, so attractive to the young today.

While the classroom is not a place to recruit for movements, the study of Catholic social teaching alongside the movements and personalities that have contributed to it and carried it can bring the bare ideas to life. In classrooms students can become acquainted with movements and local social justice organizations.

Institutions. Sociologists claim it takes seven years for a charismatic movement to become an institution. Sometimes we speak disparagingly of “the routinization of charisma.” We might instead speak of the success of a movement as it enters into the fabric of a society through a variety of institutional adaptations. Especially for older students, who desire expertise and a career, an experience of the church’s justice institutions (like Catholic Charities, diocesan social action offices and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network) should be a goal of justice education. As young people consider careers in service, they ought to look at the opportunities in such agencies.

A few students, especially older ones, should be weaned from the attraction of direct service in favor of more organized efforts. Our service will be stronger if young people understand the importance of institutions, appreciate the complexity of their operations and acquire the skills for institutional development. Lacking today is a willingness to meet the challenges of spreading the good through institutions, which many find less engaging than face-to-face ministry. Such training includes running chapters in schools or parishes of Bread for the World or Pax Christi, or internships with Catholic Relief Services or the Holy See Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations through its Paths to Peace Foundation, or in study with the Catholic Peacebuilding Network.


In the digital age students need little encouragement to learn networking. As a form of solidarity, this can have a multiplier effect in work for justice and peace. Despite the noise out there, the Internet and the Web can provide extraordinary national and cross-border ties in the struggle for justice. The justice curriculum ought to include exploration of how to link with church and other advocacy groups in faraway places. Mapping the way appeals from zones of conflict are received, passed on, reported and acted on, for example, would provide a lesson on solidarity in action. The U.S.C.C.B. Office of International Justice and Peace and Catholic Relief Services would be two nodes that students could use to map in both directions—back to the source and out to the field in dioceses, parishes and social action networks. With shrinking staffs and budgets, networking also could strengthen the church’s social ministry. The comparative analysis it provides of concerns and efforts in different regions may educate students as to the variety of work the church is doing. Awareness of what others are doing elsewhere could be an incentive for institutions, parishes and dioceses to engage or re-engage in work at the heart of the Gospel.

Just as letting students follow their own interests has a place in education, so does steering them to less popular topics: causes and conflicts like the plight of Christians in Iraq, Catholic peacemaking in Colombia, the work of Caritas Internationalis for the Millennium Development Goals or the U.S. role in nuclear proliferation. Each year demonstrations take place at the School of the Americas in Columbus, Ga. While protesting the teaching of torture has its place, there is much more suffering that students need to learn about. Their entry points into social responsibility should be as diverse as the world’s suffering. The Web can help students discover ways to begin social involvement.

Command the Text

The point that justice and peace educators should command the text is a very personal one, for two reasons. First, following the development of Catholic teaching on nonviolence led me to participate in the International Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue and then to help draft Called Together to Be Peacemakers, the dialogue’s final report, a breakthrough document both for ecumenism and for peacemaking. Second, I have been very active in defending Christians in the Holy Land. Having followed various waves of physical assaults on Christians there, I have several times warded off false propaganda efforts to blame Muslim authorities for the attacks. Following issues and knowing the facts are essential when doing justice and making peace.

Educators for justice should know the primary sources of Catholic social teaching, watch their development, be ready to pick up changes in their formulation and execution, and be prepared to steer students and audiences around misrepresentations, even those that have some official standing.

Spinning goes on outside and inside the church. In the United States, a particular temptation is to try to fit Catholic social teaching into the categories of American politics. Here are five examples. First, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, neoconservatives spent much energy trying to make preventive war acceptable under the just war tradition. Second, upon the release of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, no one commented on the passages endorsing nonviolence. Third, the same encyclical was widely misconstrued as an endorsement of the unfettered free market. Fourth, readers of the early edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church might be forgiven for thinking the only thing that mattered in the church’s environmental ethic was the status of animals; it was, I think, the only topic treated. Fifth, the growing stature of nonviolence in the church’s teaching on war and peace still does not sit well with many, who limit it exclusively to the just war tradition.

Only if you have read the primary texts closely, and only if you follow the statements proceeding from them, especially the annual World Day of Peace Message and the pope’s yearly address to the diplomatic corps, will you be able to help students see beyond the vigorous statements of the special pleaders and the certainties of the self-appointed defenders of orthodoxy. It is necessary to be up to date. That means reading beyond The Challenge of Peace to Centesimus Annus, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace and a succession of U.S.C.C.B. statements on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Challenge of Peace was a landmark document. It still has important things to say about nuclear weapons and remains a good tool for teaching about the just war; but it is 25 years old, and the church’s teaching and the problems of peacemaking have evolved. The progress of the church’s social mission depends on the accuracy of teachers’ knowledge of Catholic social teaching. Accurate and advancing knowledge is a precision tool in the service of justice and the promotion of peace.

• • •

I have discussed some missing components of education for justice and skills students need to help them advance the church’s social mission in the 21st century and to build solidarity around the world. If you prepare students with the discipline for a long struggle, equip them with movement and organizational skills, guide their explorations on the Web in the interest of human solidarity and present them with models of justice and with educators in command of the church’s teaching and of the facts, then the church’s social ministry will be greatly strengthened in the decades ahead.

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14 years 9 months ago
Father Drew, On the whole, I find this a very worthwhile article. The fact that you are offering specific ideas about the education (and training) of our students makes it a handy guide for all teachers. Perhaps you covered this in your unedited address, but I would like to understand two things in greater detail. The first is the idea of justice. From my parochial school days we understood justice as giving to each that which is due. I was never really satisfied with that definition and wonder if you had a better way to convey the meaning of justice. The meaning of justice has to inform actions we take or do not take in the name of justice. Second, unless one is opposed, completely, to violent or military action against grave, public evil, how does one assess the morality of choices at hand: do nothing, nonviolence, and the just war? I ask, but not rhetorically, can history really guide us in deciding to call for a just war, or nonviolent action, or letting evil 'play out' and leave it to divine justice to settle matters in a realm outside this material world? Thanks.
14 years 9 months ago
Norman, thanks for your question. What the Church regards as justice is defined in a body of modern texts called collectively Catholic Social Teaching. Traditionally, there are three sorts of justice: commutative justice, distributive justice and social justice. (Retributive justice is a fourth category.) Commutative justice is the commercial justice of contracts, where a person gets rewarded or is burdened with a debt according to agreement of business law. Distributive justice concerns the allocation of resources in the whole society. Generally, the Catholic position holds that everyone is entitled to a share in the welfare of society, and that means there should be no radical inequality. Recent teaching has given the last point more emphasis with warrant from scripture and speaks about the preferential option for the poor. Social Justice is the justice of institutions. It requires thatthe institutional arrangements in society be fair, e.g., education open to all or equal justice under the law, As I understand it, contemporary Catholic teaching tends not to allow people to sit on the side lines in the face of a grave public evil, like genocide. It expects people to resist such evils, by repeatd nonviolence as par as possible, but by governments'strictly limited use of force when nonviolent means fail. To this end, it encourages action by the international community rather than individual states and the creation of international capacity to carry out this policing activity. I hope this helps, Norman.
Norman Costa
14 years 9 months ago
It was very helpful. Thanks.
Christopher Mulcahy
14 years 9 months ago
"Generally, the Catholic position holds that everyone is entitled to a share in the welfare of society." As is almost universally the case in liberal American commentary, there is no reference here to individual responsibility, i.e. learning to lay bricks or paint a house or sell insurance. Have we forgotten envy and sloth? It would seem that we must discard this thinking--thinking so dismissive of individual worth and capacity that it is therefore not essentially Christian. Paul says (II Thess) "If any will not work, neither let him eat." "Catholic Social teaching" that is not balanced must be rejected as not Catholic after all, no?
14 years 9 months ago
Dear Editor: In "Four Lessons for Teaching Justice," Fr. Christiansen raises some very valuable points about how web-based networking and organizational skills contribute to a "conative" understanding of justice. Added to this, I would emphasize the role of experiential education in understanding Catholic Social Teaching and its documentary tradition. Whether it takes the form of cross-cultural immersions - as so many Catholic institutions have embraced - or internships and workshops with Catholic NGO's there is no question that such intentional experiential learning has the potential to whet the appetite for a richer understanding of the quest for justice. This type of learning gives important context to the principles discussed in the encyclicals. Here is an example. Over the past three years the Lower Hudson Valley Catholic Colleges and Universities Consortium, in collaboration with several NGO's of Women's Religious Communities has hosted some 500 college students for day long workshops at the United Nations. The focus has been the progress towards the achievement of the Millennial Development Goals. As a result, many of the nine participating institutions (College of New Rochelle, Fordham, Iona, Manhattan, St. John's, Mt. St. Vincent's, Mt. St. Mary's, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominican) have increased the numbers of internships at Catholic sponsored NGO's and organizations. Also, more and more lectures and educational programming at each of these institutions have highlighted the inter-relationship of the Millennial Development Goals and Catholic Social Teaching. The on-site experience has made a very positive impact. Sincerely, Carl Procario-Foley Director, Center for Campus Ministries Iona College
14 years 9 months ago
While reading the excellent issue of May11, I was taken back by the quote from William James "the moral equivalent of war" in the article by Drew Christiansen. "The moral equivalent of war" is often sin, not a popular word today. I spent the 60s in college during a time when war was on most minds. I remember many aspects of that time vividly. I wonder today if the imaging of a program against poverty as a war was a result of a mindset that saw all serious endevours as "war". I wonder if continuing that paradigm, war, today, with the same usage, is a thing we should examine our consciences about. It seems that I have learned from the article by Alicia Lincoln that the lesson of Montserrat is not that we should "study war no more", but that our experiences of war lead us to treat war with great caution, entered into with timidity not alacrity. It is something we should leap not into but from, (parphrasing the author) using faith and study to find a way of service. Power not service is said to flow from the barrel of a gun.
14 years 6 months ago
Don't mind it please.
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