Reflections on the 2015 PHS Conference “Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion”

As one of the program co-chairs of “Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion” I was delighted and relieved that our organization of panels among disparate topics frequently produced unexpected connections and lively conversations. Leilah Danielson’s keynote address, “Supernaturalism and Peace Activism: Expanding the Boundaries of Peace History,” raised key questions.   She suggested the need for historians to overcome the binary of natural and supernatural or secular and sacred in telling the stories of peace activists. Using her own research on A.J. Muste she explained how existing frameworks led her to see some information as relevant and some information as irrelevant. Danielson found her evidence of Muste’s non-rational/supernatural interest and experience as generally irrelevant to her framework for writing about his significance as the leader of the peace movement in the United States. The conference theme encouraged her to revisit the question of what evidence is relevant. There were numerous presenters who wrestled with this issue when they found that existing historical frameworks did not adequately support the complexity of the stories revealed by the evidence of their research. Peace activism, it seems, requires ongoing negotiation of spiritual values and the messy demands of faithfulness to relationships as revealed by life stories of activists from many religious traditions.

I also learned a lot about expanding our perspectives on spaces, places and sources for peace history.   The peaceful protest of injustice in public squares and religious buildings from 19th and 20th century Frankfurt Germany to 21st century Cairo Egypt raised my awareness of how places are themselves sources for peace history.   Other new approaches to sources included social media from Tahrir square in 2011 and letters to the NAACP in the 1930s and 1940s seeking help in challenging police brutality. I liked the fact that presentations throughout the conference demonstrated the value of the expanded definition of peace research that now includes not only direct violence in state foreign and domestic relations but also indirect violence in matters of economic and civil rights. The conference presenters demonstrated that “expanding the boundaries of peace history” is a work in progress. I hope to see more work on women as peace activists and more gender analysis of both women’s and men’s peace activism.

Prudence Moylan, Loyola University Chicago

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