When asked – What is Peace? – one of the students in our pilot program answered: “A dark night with stars.”
One of the goals of the Peace Heroes Curriculum is to teach history through the lens of peace, not war. Recently someone asked me if that means we skip over the darker parts of history. And the answer is, quite simply, no. The students still learn about World War II; they learn about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the many faces of apartheid; they are exposed to the horrors of the North American slave trade or the devastating effects of the Vietnam War.
In fact, there are darker facets of history in this Curriculum that the students would probably not be exposed to otherwise – at least not in the academic setting: Like the ongoing exploitation of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda; or the genocide of Mayan Indians in Guatemala less than forty years ago. The Peace Heroes Curriculum does not try to cover up the ugly realities of history. Rather, it aims to find points of light in those dark places – moments of redemption that transform history into something infused with hope. Students discover that there was (is) someone, in that terrible situation, who overcame the temptation to hate, to succumb, to degrade, or to stay silent – a person who found a way, against all odds, to uphold human dignity and bring some good out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Students learn that there can be a light in the darkness. Or, perhaps, that there are stars in the dark night of history.
This is what we mean when we say that the Peace Heroes Curriculum teaches history through the lens of peace, not war. It is Corrie ten Boom having the courage to take into her home anyone who was being persecuted by the Nazis; it is Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams taking a stand against the heart-rending violence that was tearing their country apart; it is Desmond Tutu daring to condemn – and then forgive – his white South African bothers and sisters; it is John Woolman choosing to walk barefoot for the rest of his life in solidarity with the slaves he worked so hard to set free; it is Thich Nhat Hanh risking death and then expulsion by reaching out to the many victims of the war that decimated his country. These remarkable men and women are history’s points of light. They are our guiding stars, the ones who give us all something to hold on to, and strive for, in a suffering and pain-filled world. It is this aspect that we explore in the Curriculum: History through the lens of hope, rather than despair.
I am reminded of a passage from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in the final book, The Return of the King, when Frodo and Sam are nearing the end of their quest to bring the Ring into the heart of darkness in order to destroy it. The two hobbits are nearly at the end of their rope. They know that they are walking into a darkness that they will, most likely, never emerge from. They know that all the odds are stacked against them, and that they will probably fail in their task. They carry the weight of the impossible on their shoulders. And yet, as Sam lies awake one night (or is it day? The darkness around them never changes with the hours), he looks up, and his hopelessness is momentarily suspended, for
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.¹
History is a way of seeing. We choose to see the light, not the darkness, in our past and our present world – even if it is the light of a single star in the pitch-black sky.
¹ Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. London: HarperCollins, 1993. 901.