Coping with Crisis at an Institution for Religion and Peace

Hartford International University

The stock in trade of Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, formerly Hartford Seminary, is interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding. “Peace” is right in the new name we adopted in 2021 to better align with our mission.

On our campus and through our online classes, students from around the world and different religious traditions – mostly Muslim, Jewish and Christian – learn how to communicate effectively with their fellow students and with our diverse faculty about issues large and small. So it should have been in our wheelhouse to respond to the war in Israel and Palestine, right? The answer is complicated.

Over the last few months, we have been asked to make statements by people representing different voices in the conflict, some of them very close to us. A policy we deliberately adopted several years ago, however, means we don’t make public statements about current events. Here’s part of what our policy says:

We are a listening institution that nurtures relationships, scholarship, dialogue, and reconciliation on the road
toward a more peaceful and just world. HIU’s statements are embodied in our work.

The policy also has something to say about the values associated with our mission, including these words:

We affirm the common humanity and dignity of all people. We abhor injustice, oppression and violence
expressed in current events and ongoing, deeply rooted practices of dehumanization.

So how do we address what’s happening right now?

We believe that educational institutions like ours, indeed all institutions of higher education, need to foster free inquiry and hold space for dialogue and a multiplicity of viewpoints so that extremely difficult problems can be examined, addressed, and hopefully resolved. Our role is to offer that space and to teach the skills necessary to have those dialogues in a civil way. We also believe the key to peacebuilding is relationships, and if relationships are destroyed, the chance for understanding and reconciliation evaporates.

An important element of our educational work at HIU is to bring diverse people to the table, especially those with whom we might disagree; we can only engage in dialogue with someone who is sitting at the table with us. To make a meaningful statement often means aligning ourselves with one perspective, one we may hold deeply but one that will tell those who differ that our minds are made up. All too often that can send an unintended message: We don’t want you at our table. The more statements we make the emptier our table gets, and there is no chance for dialogue when you’re sitting alone at a table. At the same time, a fundamentally important life lesson is also at stake in all of this, one our current culture seems to have lost: even if you think you’re absolutely right, you need to interact reasonably with people who think they are just as right as you but hold an opposing conclusion.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we are sitting quietly at the table waiting for participation. Since Oct. 7, HIU has created and promoted numerous learning and dialogue opportunities.

  • One of the first things we did was hold a dialogue session with our peacebuilding students and another with staff and faculty, many of whom were distraught. We used a method called Reflective Structured Dialogue, where participants commit to follow clear principles about listening and responding to each other. This type of dialogue takes hours to prepare for and can be painstaking to do. It’s not always comfortable, but it offers an opportunity for people on differing sides of an issue to express themselves without fear of reprisal or condemnation.

  • On an ongoing basis, faculty members task themselves with modeling multipartiality—some might prefer to think of this as attempted neutrality, or the withholding of personal judgment to foster learning—by keeping their own focus on the process of respectful and caring engagement among divergent views rather than advocating for any one position themselves. Time is given for check-ins and sharing.

  • In October, we held a prayer vigil focusing on the deaths of innocent children with representatives from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths reading prayers of lament, many of which were derived from these groups’ respective scriptures.

  • In November, we produced a well-attended webinar on “Active Listening in Divisive Times” that addressed the difficulty of having conversations about world events that can strain relationships. We gave practical information about what active listening entails and why it’s worth the effort.

  • Another well-attended webinar we organized in November was titled “A Trauma-Informed Approach to Conversations about World Events.” This webinar addressed how trauma can be a factor in our reaction to news of violence in the world around us. We discussed what trauma actually is, how to recognize it, and how to respond appropriately.

  • In February, we co-sponsored a program with the organization Sharing Sacred Spaces called “Peacebuilding Amid Polarization.” This four-week “toolkit for constructive engagement” drew on the experience and expertise of leading scholar-practitioners on both sides of the conflict, some of whom are connected to HIU.

  • In March, we are hosting a four-part webinar series on antisemitism and Islamophobia with prominent speakers looking at both the roots and the current manifestations of hatred and bigotry toward Jews and Muslims.

In addition to HIU events, our faculty members and President have been asked to speak to religious communities, civic organizations, the media, and other institutions of higher education, and they actively engage their own networks.

While taking these actions, we, like everyone, can still struggle with what to say and how to help. Killing and violence against innocent civilians is never justified, and at times it’s difficult to escape a feeling of despair. Even an institution structured around interreligious understanding and dialogue faces challenges in coping with a crisis of monumental proportions. Ultimately, our role is to educate and to offer as many opportunities as possible to nurture constructive dialogue. These things are not magic or achieved overnight. They are also not easy.

Learning how to work together – the actual step-by-step, sometimes painstaking, skill-oriented work of building relationships that can weather even the worst conflicts – is what we do at Hartford International University and what our students then share with the world after they graduate. It’s imperfect, and it’s difficult. It may also be the best hope we have.