Peace and Disarmament

Back to listFeb 24, 2009

Veteran Peace Educator and Journalist Colman McCarthy Speaks at SGI-USA's Culture of Peace Distinguished Speakers Series

On February 24, 2009, veteran peace educator and journalist Colman McCarthy enlivened a gathering of some 200 SGI-USA members and guests at the second Culture of Peace Distinguished Speakers Series lecture held at an SGI-USA center in Washington, D.C., USA.

090224x_usa_cult_pc2.jpg American journalist and educator Colman McCarthy speaks at an SGI-USA peace lecture series

For more than 40 years, Mr. McCarthy has written for influential publications, including The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, covering topics ranging from poverty and religion to politics and peace. He is known for using humor and hard facts to challenge long-held assumptions, particularly the conventional beliefs that war is justifiable and that violence must be met with more of the same. His recent book is titled Strength Through Peace.

In introducing Mr. McCarthy, SGI-USA Mid-Atlantic Zone Vice Women's Leader Jo Reed shared his words: "It's too easy only to blame the militarists, racists, sexists and other pushers of violence for the mess we're in. What is harder is self-examination, moving beyond caring by looking inward to ask the personal question: What more should I be doing?"

Since 2004, SGI-USA has opened five Culture of Peace Resource Centers: in New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Chicago and Washington D.C.

During his lecture, Mr. McCarthy quipped that he regularly hears from readers who call him a "fool, jerk, know-nothing, ignoramus, idiot--and then I read my negative mail." He said he welcomes a lively debate. "Even though we may not see eye to eye on the issues, we can always speak heart to heart, and that's really what good education is about."

090224x_usa_cult_pc1.jpg Colman McCarthy

When Mr. McCarthy asked the audience how many attended high schools that offered peace studies, one hand went up--a former student of his. "If this were a peace-loving, peace-seeking, peace-affirming society," he said, "every hand would have gone up."

Mr. McCarthy began teaching courses on nonviolence and peace literature in 1982 after interviewing Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Muhammad Yunus, Desmond Tutu, Seán MacBride, Mother Teresa and Rigoberta Menchú Tum. When asked how they went about increasing peace and decreasing violence, their answers were almost always the same. "You need to go where people are," Mr. McCarthy recalled.

In response, he went to a Washington, D.C. public high school and asked the principal whether he could teach a course on the philosophy of pacifism and the methods of conflict resolution. She said he was welcome to give it a try, but they couldn't pay him. "I didn't come for the dollar," he told her. "I came to find out: Can you teach peace?"

The course was successful, and he went on in 1985 to found the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit that helps schools start or augment peace studies programs. Mr. McCarthy said that in 1970, only Manchester College in Indiana offered a degree in peace studies, but today about 70 peace programs exist, including master's programs at several American universities, and in Ireland and Spain. He currently gives more than 20 lectures a year and teaches at the University of Maryland, American University, Georgetown Law School and two area high schools. To date, he has had more than 7,000 students in his classes.

Mr. McCarthy shared the impact peace studies have had on his students, recalling the time he took his Georgetown Law class to a D.C. women's shelter run by Carmelite nuns.

"I told a sister we'd like to donate food and clothing, and she said, 'If you really want to help, see that lady in the corner?' She pointed to a bedraggled, toothless, wrinkled woman who had the agony of the earth in her eyes.

"I said, 'Just talk to her?' The nun said, 'Yes, and you'll be doing plenty. Sit down and talk to the women.' Many of the law students did and were forever changed. It woke them up and shook them up."

Before his lecture, Mr. McCarthy sat down to talk with SGI-USA youth, asking each person to introduce themselves and which elementary school he or she attended, because, he said, "Our personalities are formed in elementary school, but people only ask what college you went to."

"He spoke about the importance of each individual and demonstrated it in his dialogue," one participant said, "acting as an example of the effectiveness of compassion coupled with a sense of humor."

About the evening lecture, Meng Meng Yu, a visitor from Shanghai, said that through Mr. McCarthy's passion, everyone could perceive the importance of a culture of peace, starting from the family and the people around them. "His message is very important for every human being on earth."

The SGI-USA Culture of Peace Distinguished Speakers Series commenced in 2007, with lecturers focusing on one or more of the eight action areas defined by the 1999 UN Declaration and Program of Action on a Culture of Peace. The series' aim is to foster a culture that rejects violence and addresses the root causes of conflict through the power of dialogue.

[Adapted from an article in the March 20, 2009 issue of the World Tribune, SGI-USA; photos courtesy of Rob Hendry]