The Role of Religion and Peace Education in Cultivating the Heart That Welcomes the Other

The minds of the leaders of the world are still set in thinking that national security is about being equipped with military arms and strength, that violence can be prevented by violence, and that violence can be resolved by violence. But is that so? . . . How can we change the mind-set of our leaders and our society from the culture of war to the culture of peace?

In the past as well as in our present world, going to war has been glorified as a noble and heroic act, and war movies are glamorized. But what is the truth about war? War dehumanizes us and the presumed enemy. It sets us to think that the “other” is the enemy. Our differences are exaggerated, and that allows prejudice, xenophobia, and scapegoating. Real or invented threats and brainwashing make us willing to sacrifice everything in war, even to the extent of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing. This is the true face of war that has been repeated in history countless of times at the expense of so many lives.

Deaths caused by war are appalling. The death toll of people who were killed in violence in the Iraq war was 176,000 to 189,000, including 134,000 civilians (figures are from the Iraq Body Count project, a Web-based effort to record civilian deaths). The United Nations reported on August 22, 2014, that the death toll from three years of Syria’s civil war had risen to more than 191,000 people. In most cases, more than 90 percent of all casualties are civilians. Millions are displaced, and women’s percentage is higher both as refugees and as victims of war crimes. Children are exposed to fear and cannot live normal lives. Wars also destroy the natural environment.

And yet the minds of the leaders of the world are still set in thinking that national security is about being equipped with military arms and strength, that violence can be prevented by violence, and that violence can be resolved by violence. But is that so? Does it really work that way? I believe that violence cannot be resolved by violence, as it brings more violence. That is what happened on September 11, 2001. Approximately 3,000 people (including nineteen hijackers) were killed that day, and more than 6,000 were injured. Following the 9/11 attack, it is said that more than 19,600 people have been killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. How can we change the mind-set of our leaders and our society from the culture of war to the culture of peace?

The Role of Religion

One answer is the role of religion. Religion guides us in what we need to do and should do with the words of wisdom found in the spiritual teachings. As Dr. M. H. Qureshi mentioned in his keynote address at Commission 2 on Human Rights and Well-Being during the Eighth Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace (ACRP), held in Incheon, South Korea, in August 2014: “The most important aspect of all the religions is that they have developed certain common values in spite of their so many differences in their practices. Truth, love, compassion, nonviolence, accommodation and charity are the value systems which are common across the religions.”

There are various sacred writings of the religions on earth that provide universal value systems. To mention a few, Buddhism has the Lotus Sutra; Christianity has the Bible; Hinduism has the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita; Judaism has the Torah (mentioned in alphabetical order). They offer very valuable insights and examples as to what we can do to face our sufferings and attain peace, harmony, and happiness.

Religion maintains the spiritual and physical health of the person. Religion tells us to deal with our problems with love and benevolence, tolerance, caring, and empathy. The Christian golden rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or the Islam version would be “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.” Buddhism mentions the importance of transforming the pain inflicted by others and embracing anger and suffering.

The Role of Peace Education

Peace educators pursue a vision of society in which people commit themselves to caring for others instead of exploiting them. People who support this vision believe that it can become a reality through peace education. The leaders and participants of the Eighth Assembly of the ACRP added the importance of peace education in the Recommendations of the Incheon Declaration: “National chapters work with their ducational authorities to ensure that peace education is incorporated at all levels of the curriculum.”

Betty Reardon, former director of Peace Education Center at Columbia University in New York, noted the following in her book Comprehensive Peace Education: Educating for Global Responsibility:

The value of citizenship calls on us to educate people to be capable of creating a nonviolent, just social order on this planet, a global civic order offering equity to all Earth’s people, offering protection for universal human rights, providing for the resolution of conflict by nonviolent means, and assuring respect for the planet that produces the life and the well-being of its people. ([Teachers College Press, 1988], 59)

Conflict has both negative and positive aspects. If the attempt to resolve conflict is done in a violent way that disrespects the dignity of others, it promotes destruction and hatred. If a constructive and collaborative method such as dialogue and negotiation is conducted, it promotes caring and good relationships as well as a healthy social development among individuals, communities, and countries.

Educating the young to negotiate constructively fosters the kind of spiritual health and social competence that is important to improving quality of life. Learning these skills would encourage the development of characteristics such as empathy, sincerity, justice, and caring. Empathy is defined as an active effort to understand another person’s interpersonal event as if one were that other person rather than judging the other person’s behavior from one’s own perspective.

Peace education is education for change. It serves as a means to empower children and adults alike to become active participants in the transformation of their societies. Changing the mind-sets that cause war to one that is more humane and caring is a challenging mission. Loreta Navarro-Castro and Jasmin Nario-Galace explained in Peace Education: A Pathway to a Culture of Peace:

Peace education, or an education that promotes a culture of peace, is essentially transformative. It cultivates the knowledge base, skills, attitudes and values that seek to transform people’s mindsets, attitudes and behaviors that, in the first place, have either created or exacerbated violent conflicts. It seeks this transformation by building awareness and understanding, developing concern and challenging personal and social action that will enable people to live, relate and create conditions and systems that actualize nonviolence, justice, environmental care and other peace values. ([Miriam College Center for Peace Education, 2008], 21)

Learning focuses on the values and behaviors that enable individuals to learn to live together in a world characterized by diversity and pluralism. The foremost goal of peace education is preservation of this beautiful planet Earth and all the living beings. So in order to preserve this earth, it is important to work for peace, to nurture peace within ourselves, to bring peace to the environment. The pedagogy of peace education includes the knowledge, skills, and attitude needed to develop appropriate characteristics to conduct reconciliation and peace-building processes.

Practice and Hope

One of the purposes of the United Nations is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” (Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations).

The scourge and the horrors of war are what I saw and heard about in Nanjing, China, when I was there this past summer to conduct a peace-building training program at the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute (NARPI) as a facilitator of the course “The Theory and Practice of Peace Education.” This program was launched in 2011 in Seoul, South Korea, “to promote peace in the region by creating space for learning peace building and building networks among peace-loving people in Northeast Asia.

“Every year, NARPI hosts Summer Training in August and provides a selection of six different courses and a field trip. We offer training programs to practitioners, professionals, activists, students and staff of non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups” (from the NARPI Web site).

We have met four times since the launching of NARPI: in 2011 in Seoul and Inje, South Korea; 2012 in Hiroshima, Japan; 2013 in Inje, South Korea; and 2014 in Nanjing, China. What I am going to introduce here is not meant to shame my country, Japan. My intentions are to share how peace education has helped the peace-building participants process the terrible incident of the Nanjing Massacre and envision a positive way forward to propose what they can do to change this cycle of violence and hatred.

We heard the lived story of a Nanjing Massacre survivor. The massacre happened in 1937 when the Japanese military committed genocide against fifty thousand to three hundred thousand victims (the lower estimate is according to scholarly research, and the higher estimate is that given by the Chinese government). The survivor was eight years old at the time. She and her four-year-old sister were the only survivors of her family. Japanese soldiers killed her parents, grandparents, and two older sisters. The younger sister was taken to an orphanage. The older sister was brought up by her uncle and aunt. Both sisters lived a hard life. The older sister withstood all hardship and lived to this day to tell the story.

After hearing her story, some of the Japanese participants broke into tears, especially when they heard the survivor say that it was no fault of the young Japanese people who were there in the room. In fact, when she visited Japan to protest against the Japanese government officials who said that her testimony was a hoax, many Japanese people were kind to her. The Chinese participants stayed close to the Japanese participants and comforted them in as many ways as they could. Some came to me and asked, “What can I do or say to our Japanese friends?” or said, “I don’t know what to do.”

The following day we saw the records of the gruesome history at the Nanjing Massacre Museum. I couldn’t help but pray and bow with respect before the walls with three hundred thousand names to commemorate the victims. I felt sad that my country committed such inhumane atrocities in Nanjing.

But the participants in the peace-building training––young Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians, and Japanese––having taken peace-education and peace-building courses beforehand for five days, all thought deeply on the matter, and the following are some of the questions and comments that resulted. One Mongolian participant explained: “Every horrifying photograph and artifact had an explanation that said ‘the Japanese military did this’ or ‘the Japanese government did that.’ Can’t we change the subject of the sentences to ‘war did this’ or ‘war brought about this horrifying situation? War changed normal people into beasts and heartless beings?’”

One Korean participant said: “No matter what ethnic background we come from, don’t we need to know and predict the possibility that in times of war, we ourselves might build that evil in us and do the beastly things that were done in Nanjing?”

One Chinese participant said: “I feel we have to think what we can do from here. What can we do to make this world a better and safer place to live? What can we do to learn from history and prevent any inhumane activities from happening again? We should never again violate the dignity of others.”

One Japanese participant said, “Such horrifying events still happen to this day. We still hear in the news of one country killing people of another country, of one ethnic group killing another ethnic group or military men raping women of the so-called enemy country or ethnic groups. I want to find ways to stop these frightening things from happening again, and that is why I am here to participate in the NARPI program.”

The Northeast Asian participants posed such questions and shared their thoughts. They responded in solidarity: “What we need to do is to design peace education and peace-building programs that would enable present and future generations to find nonviolent ways to resolve conflict and change the structure of the world from the culture of war to the culture of peace, just as we have taken the peace-building and education sessions, we feel that our attitudes have changed.”

Some Chinese participants said that they had heard many times as they were growing up about the horrible things that the Japanese military had done. Some said that they were a bit nervous in the beginning to meet the Japanese participants. But through the five-day training, all the participants gradually got to know each other, and as they learned about peace building, they were able to change their mind-set to a more cooperative and accepting attitude. Their change of attitude gave me hope that our young generation can learn how to make decisions and find positive ways to go forward.

In his book Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, Yuki Tanaka explains that the study of Japanese war crimes offers an opportunity

to learn how easily a person, regardless of nationality, can be trapped by the psychology of brutality when involved in war. Such brutality is often caused by hatred of others, as is clearly illustrated in acts of racism. The most fundamental problem we must address when dealing with any war crime is the profound fear of death that soldiers experience. In order to overcome fear during war, people tend to rely upon violence, which in turn degrades their morals and manifests itself as an outbreak of brutality. ([Westview, 1996], 9–10.)

If war causes atrocities that manifest brutality in human beings, then practice of religion and an education to prevent war or even to abolish war would be of significant importance to avoid recurring crimes against human dignity. The Seville Statement, a statement about violence signed by scientists in May 1986 at Seville, Spain, proved that violent behaviors associated with war are not inborn but something humans have learned. The statement provided scientific evidence that humans are not doomed to perpetual violence; humans have the potential to build peace, and this potential can be educated and nourished.


With widespread teaching of the sacred writings and with comprehensive peace education, individuals would know how to release their bitterness to prevent them from building conditions that would attract violence. Nurturing peaceful characteristics within all humans could eventually lead to the development of a culture of peace. In his article “Forgiveness, Education, Public Policy: The Road Not Yet Taken,” John Rodden notes: “Educators committed to what has become known as ‘character education’ have repeatedly asked: How can we develop people who are more considerate and compassionate, citizens who strive to bring out the best in others and not use or exploit them?” (Modern Age [Fall 2004]: 333). The answer is, cultivating the hearts that welcome the other through religious teachings and peace education. So be it.


Kathy R. Matsui, PhD, is Professor of Global Citizenship Studies at Seisen University, Tokyo. She has worked with peace researchers and educators internationally at the International Institute on Peace Education, the Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, and the Global Campaign for Peace Education of Hague Appeal for Peace. She is also active in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation for world peace as a member of the Women’s Executive Committee, Peace Research Institute and the Peace Education Task Force of World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP). Kathy is a member of the Steering Committee of NARPI (Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute).

This article was originally published in  Dharma World 2015 January-March Vol. 42. It is reposted here with permission.

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