Dialogue and Subversion

Inside the Global Ethics Classroom

By Mitch Bogen

In 2007, the Center published (in collaboration with Orbis Books) a tenth anniversary edition of Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. Like its companion volume Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy, Subverting Hatred has proved a popular resource in college classrooms. This 2008 article looks at ways these books contribute to dialogue in college classrooms and the quest for greater harmony in our world.

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Like most visitors to the Center's booth at the 2007 American Academy of Religion conference, the man with the regulation overstuffed tote bag picked up our featured book and flipped right to the Table of Contents. What came next was a surprise, though. “How can Islam be in a book on nonviolence?” he demanded. “Isn’t Islam a violent religion?”

The book in question was the tenth anniversary edition of Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions, and we were more used to positive responses given the pluralistic atmosphere of the conference. Taking a breath, we said, well, the book shows that each religion contains positive and negative aspects—but that each has a core tradition of nonviolence that we as humans can build on if we choose.

The exchange was a bit jarring, but it validated the book’s pedagogical value and potential to initiate dialogue. Upon our return from the conference, we decided to investigate the contribution of Subverting Hatred and its companion volume, Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy, to teaching and learning, especially in the religion and global ethics classroom.

Both Center-developed books are part of Orbis Books’ Faith Meets Faith series on interreligious dialogue. The series, says general editor Paul Knitter, is predicated on the idea that the “challenge of bringing about a world of justice, compassion, and flourishing is simply too big for any one religion.” This insight resonates with the BRC’s mission, says Executive Director Virginia Benson. “This was one of the big messages from Daisaku Ikeda’s founding lecture – that we needed to find a core of common values that can lead to what he calls a creative symbiosis among cultures and religions.”

But many scholars question whether it is even possible to find this core, says Knitter—who is also co-editor of Subverting Greed with Malaysian scholar Chandra Muzaffar—since each religion springs from a “particular cultural context.” Knitter’s answer, and the driving force behind the books, is the belief that “if the religions don’t share any common cultural ground, they still can identify common ethical problems.” The collected essays in the books, which are written by scholar-practitioners from the major religious traditions, create, says Knitter, a kind of “polyphonic harmonizing” on the ways that we can “subvert hatred with love and greed with compassion.” (See our full interview with Dr. Knitter here.)

For some students, it can actually be disconcerting to learn about commonalities among religions.For many of us, this may sound like a pretty positive contribution. However, for some students, says Tom Parker, lecturer in Religious Studies at California State University, Chico, where numerous faculty regularly use Subverting Hatred and/or Subverting Greed in the course World Religions and Global Issues, it can actually be disconcerting to learn about commonalities among religions. “At this historical moment,” observes Parker, some students are “very attached to certain misperceptions”—for example, Islam being exceptionally violent—“because it clarifies a complex world into an ‘us versus them’ picture.”

Compassionate teaching means meeting students where they are, Parker and his colleagues believe. Jim Anderson, also in the Religious Studies department at Chico State, frames it this way: “The limits of American experience and imagination are costly in their effects on the rest of the world.” He sees a course like World Religions and Global Issues as part of a bigger “effort to awaken students to a clearer and more responsible relationship to the larger community.”

Subverting Hatred and Subverting Greed assist by providing a historical and theoretical grounding for students as they engage with ideas that can indeed be seen—and felt—as subversive of conventional wisdom regarding war, peace, and global economics. Nancy Martin, professor of Religious Studies and Ethics at Chapman University, finds the essays in Subverting Hatred informative, readable, and accessible for students in her course Global Ethics and Religion. Echoing Knitter’s polyphony, she notes that they illuminate “subtleties of difference” in the context of common ethical concern. For example, she says, “Christians, when thinking about how to act in relationship to the environment could benefit from an understanding of the Buddhist notion of interrelatedness.”

She also appreciates how each essay reveals that every religion has struggled with violence and nonviolence. This keeps students from idealizing a tradition or feeling unduly guilty or resistant when encountering the roots of violence in their own traditions, as is often the case with her Judeo-Christian students. The real question she tells them, is whether the “voices of fundamentalist passion and violence will dominate” or those “of love and compassion and care for all creatures.”

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