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Educating Young People in Justice and Peace

| by Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR

(December 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the aftermath of a 30-year bloody spell of violence and terrorism, Sri Lanka is now pondering how to move forward in her plans for reconciliation as a nation. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report is certainly a constructive step in the right direction, provided the government takes seriously what it has recommended. Not only the LLRC report, but anyone with some common sense, would rightly say that the fundamental cause for the recent decades of violence and terrorism was a lack of justice in various strata of our society, especially from the point of view of minorities (both religious and ethnic) in our country. In fact, the LLRC recommendations are all oriented towards addressing such lacunae with regard to basic justice issues. However, any genuine effort to redress such lacunae cannot afford to forget the national imperative to educate our young in issues of justice and peace. For a genuine and lasting national reconciliation of our nation, there must also be a serious effort to conscientise our citizens, beginning with our youth, about their moral obligations towards each other as citizens. Justice and peace issues will surely top the agenda of any such project. It is in this sense that the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for the 45th World Day of Peace which falls on 1st January 2012, "Educating Young People in Justice and Peace" is very relevant for us, Sri Lankans.

Witnesses to values than teachers of values

Having described briefly how the present moment of world history has invoked on humanity various signs of doom, the Pope begins this year’s Peace Message by saying. In this shadow, however, human hearts continue to wait for the dawn of which the Psalmist speaks. Because this expectation is particularly powerful and evident in young people, my thoughts turn to them and to the contribution which they can and must make to society. I would like therefore to devote this message for the XLV World Day of Peace to the theme of education: "Educating Young People in Justice and Peace", in the conviction that the young, with their enthusiasm and idealism, can offer new hope to the world.

This year’s Message is a positive effort to link the natural idealism of young people with lived reality of the contemporary world. It is an effort to make sure that the good intentions and good dreams of the young people (who are locomotive of any dynamic society) would not remain in the dream level. The Pope immediately sets out to underline that in educating the youth in justice and peace, the first formation takes place in the family. This particular point has a lot of relevance in a country like Sri Lanka today, where there seems to be a popular but flawed mentality that just because the parents send their children to a school (and at times, to a so-called prestigious school or an "international school" for that matter!), and just because they give them an education in the academic sense, everything else would fall in line, automatically. They tend to forget that equally (if not more!) important is the value formation in the young, that is the moral formation of a child. The Message also hints at the vital necessity of example of "teachers" of today’s youth, and that would invariably include the example of parents:

Education is the most interesting and difficult adventure in life. Educating – from the Latin ‘educere’ – means leading young people to move beyond themselves and introducing them to reality, towards a fullness that leads to growth. This process is fostered by the encounter of two freedoms, that of adults and that of the young. It calls for responsibility on the part of the learners, who must be open to being led to the knowledge of reality, and on the part of educators, who must be ready to give of themselves. For this reason, today more than ever we need authentic witnesses, and not simply people who parcel out rules and facts; we need witnesses capable of seeing farther than others because their life is so much broader. A witness is someone who first lives the life that he proposes to others.

The last line is almost a repetition of what Pope Paul VI said in 1975 in his Evangelii Nuntiandi: "The world today, needs more of witnesses than teachers"! When it comes to teaching young people (and especially teaching them moral values), there is nothing truer than this because a good part of their learning is through imitation. As the Sinhalese saying goes: "the mother crab cannot expect the young crab to walk straight when she herself does not do so"! For example, how could a parent who is involved in telling lies and deception expect his son or daughter to be truthful?! Today’s young people are quick to see through spurious teachers who play Dr.Jekyl and Mr.Hyde. That is why they hate double standards of ‘gurus’, be they their school teachers, parents or religious leaders. Survey after survey has substantiated this point, especially, when one considers the reasons given by young people all over the world for not following seriously their parents and teachers, or whatever their religious leaders teach them. Hypocrisy is a vice courageously hated by the youth of any age. That is why good example in a family, especially by the parents, in being just, truthful and sincere, is so vital in educating our youth today. The Pope writes: It is in the family that they learn solidarity between the generations, respect for rules, forgiveness and how to welcome others. The family is the first school in which we are trained in justice and peace. The same holds good also with regard to teachers in a school/an educational institute, and more so, to religious leaders who preach about moral values, especially to the youth.

This year’s Message also challenges young people, themselves, calling them to aspire for the ideals that they expect of others, especially of elders: "Young people too need to have the courage to live by the same high standards that they set for others." The Pope goes on to give concrete advice in this regard when he says:

The right use of freedom, then, is central to the promotion of justice and peace, which requires respect for oneself and others, including those whose way of being and living differs greatly from one’s own. This attitude engenders the elements without which peace and justice remain merely words without content: mutual trust, the capacity to hold constructive dialogue, the possibility of forgiveness, which one constantly wishes to receive but finds hard to bestow, mutual charity, compassion towards the weakest, as well as readiness to make sacrifices.

The Need for a Civic Sense

The role expected of our younger generations in re-building reconciliation and trust among all religious and ethnic communities in our country today, is enormous. Learning lessons from the past mistakes of the by-gone generations, our young are today challenged to build bridges for national unity. For this, they are called to be promoters of justice and peace, as the gospel says: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Mt 5:6). And the Pope says such persons who hunger and thirst for justice shall be satisfied because they hunger and thirst for right relations with God, with themselves, with their brothers and sisters, and with the whole of creation. This is the need of the hour: to be inspired by our respective religions, by God (building a right relationship with God), and then, reaching out to our fellow citizens irrespective of their race, religion or caste. What is badly lacking in Sri Lanka today is a real civic sense, namely, the basic sense that we live with others in society. Our youth also need to realise that these "others" of our Sri Lankan society need not be thinking the same way, that they need not be having the same ethnic and religious identity, but that they need to have one national identity which can never be reduced to one single ethnicity or religion. This sort of an ‘other-centred’ pluralistic mentality is the nucleus of any civic sense, and that is what we as a nation need to inculcate in our youth, if we are really serious about a reconciled Sri Lankan society, in the near future.

In the aftermath of our 30-years of violence, there is also an erroneous but popular feeling that it is the government that has the entire responsibility to build reconciliation and peace among various communities in our country. As the LLRC very rightly pointed out, certainly the government has the prime duty in this regard, and one hopes and prays that the government would sincerely act on the recommendations of this commission which was appointed by themselves, rather than just doing nothing on them as it has happened with regard to many other commissions appointed by the same government in the past. But mere government efforts alone won’t suffice. Such a sense of reconciliation and peace also needs to spring forth from us, the ordinary citizens of the country, that is from the grassroots of our society. It is here that our major religions have a special role to play. Like most of the other Asian societies, we Sri Lankans, are still considered as a very religious nation, no matter to what religion we belong. Our young people need to be inspired by our common religious heritage that promotes reconciliation and brotherhood based on justice. In concrete terms, this would amount to educating them to not merely tolerate but also to respect the freedom of others to hold on to and practice their own ethnic and religious beliefs. Until this sense of being united in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Sri Lankan society gets rooted deeply in our youth, all our talk on reconciliation and peace would remain mere ideas.

Besides the prime initiative and the inspiration which the government ought to give in peace-building and reconciliation in our society, it is also our own task, as citizens. Recalling that peace is not the mere absence of war, this year’s Message of the Pope also highlights the task to build peace: Peace, however, is not merely a gift to be received: it is also a task to be undertaken. In order to be true peacemakers, we must educate ourselves in compassion, solidarity, working together, fraternity, in being active within the community and concerned to raise awareness about national and international issues and the importance of seeking adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution.

Thanks to decades of free education prevailing in our country, we Sri Lankans proudly boast of a literacy rate that is the highest in South Asian countries. But literacy does not necessarily mean education, in the sense that mere academic learning would not equip a person to be a human being with integrity nor would it make him/her a responsible citizen. One needs to have also basic moral values, especially a civic sense. This was precisely what the special Presidential commission appointed by President Premadasa in the aftermath of the youth uprising in the late 1980’s also stressed, i.e., the need to educate our youth with basic human values which are also called moral values. In a country that has four major vibrant religions and a vast majority of their adherents who claim to be religious, one wonders how in the last few decades we witnessed so much of violence not only in the north, but also in the south. Of course, while acknowledging that violence has many socio-political causes and factors, one also needs to recognize that a lack of moral values also largely contributes to it. This is where the oft-repeated cliché that there would be no peace without justice, is true in reality. The late Pope John Paul II while repeating this basic Catholic tenet of social doctrine also taught that where there is no forgiveness, there is no peace either, which in fact, has now become a major tenet of the same Catholic social teaching. This point, needless to say, has a lot of relevance in promoting reconciliation in Sri Lanka today for there are many fellow citizens in all our communities who were badly wounded by the decades of violence in our country.

Restorative Justice not Retributive

Today, on the one hand, there are those self-appointed, hypocritical foreign governments and some NGO’s who have labelled themselves with the respectable term "international community" who are calling for vindictive justice with regard to what they themselves have selectively called the "war crimes" in our fight against brutal terrorism while forgetting not only the atrocities committed by the LTTE terrorists themselves here in Sri Lanka (with the tacit approval of the same hypocrites), but also conveniently ignoring their own "war crimes" in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. On the other hand, there are indeed real victims of both terrorism and war in our country today, who are still struggling to stand on their own feet in every sense of the word. What sort of education on justice are we to impart on our youth in this regard? Is it a sense of raw vindictive justice or is it a sense of restorative justice? The former is a contemporary version of tribal revenge that would divide ourselves further while the latter is a realistic effort to restore and reconcile in our efforts towards becoming one nation where each and every citizen will live in peace based on justice. The Catholic social doctrine clearly teaches that it has to be the latter, that is justice that restores what was destroyed, justice that re-builds where destruction has taken place. In his classic autobiography, "No Future without Forgiveness", Archbishop Desmond Tutu narrates how in the aftermath of the Apartheid in South Africa, with the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President in the early 1990’s, they faced with a similar dilemma, namely, whether to execute strict mathematical retributive justice on the culprits of Apartheid or to extend by new legislation a general amnesty for all those who admitted politically motivated crimes during the period 1960 to 1994, before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how they opted for the latter. Tutu points out that the Commission was not to do with extreme justice or extreme non-execution of justice, neither Nuremberg nor National Amnesia:

Our country’s negotiators opted for a ‘third way’ that avoided the two extremes of Nuremberg trials and blanket amnesty (or national amnesia). This third way was the granting of amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought. It was the carrot of possible freedom in exchange for truth, and the stick was the prospect of lengthy prison sentences for those already in gaol, and the probability of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for those still free.

This was a very realistic effort to acknowledge the crimes committed and then to reconcile with the bitter memories inflicted on each other by the two communities, the minority Whites and the majority Blacks. An acknowledgment of any guilt deliberately inflicted on others is a must for any forgiveness and reconciliation. Outright denials that there was any sort of violence and terrorism is not only not realistic but an added insult to those who suffered brutal violence in the past three decades. This is where most of the recommendations of the recently released LLRC become the minimum realistic steps towards a lasting reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka, provided of course, that the government of Sri Lanka takes them seriously and makes a sincere effort to implement them for the sake of the country. The onus to take such a noble initiative rests totally on the government, if they are serious about the common good of Sri Lanka. The grassroots of our society, will also then be activated and re-invigorated accordingly, in promoting reconciliation and peace initiatives. Tomorrow’s citizenry of our country, namely, the youth need to be trained in this sort of restorative justice. Thus, it is imperative on all parents, teachers, religious leaders and others who impart value education on our youth to do so by emphasizing restorative justice that re-builds the nation, not vindictive justice that divides our nation further apart by inflicting bitter wounds on our already wounded communities. South Africa was fortunate to have able leaders (political and religious) in the persons of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others. Let us hope that our political and religious leaders, too, would now rise to the occasion here in Sri Lanka.


Catholic Social teaching is hailed by those inside and outside the Church as a good guide towards building justice and peace in the world. This corpus of social teachings, especially of Popes, began in 1891 with the Encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII in the wake of terrible social ills which ordinary people (especially the poor labourers) had to suffer, as a result of Capitalism which was creating havoc in Europe in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Ever since, Popes have not hesitated at various periods of history to write such Encyclical letters that address various social issues of a given time, and proposing guidelines based on Christian teachings. The World Peace Day messages on 1st of January every year, inaugurated by Pope Paul VI in 1967, also belong to this body of Catholic Social teaching. They are crucially important in the sense that they are not only creative Christian responses to the "signs of the times" but they are also clear concretizing of the teachings of the gospels in a given time and space, in a given context. But unfortunately, this rich body of Catholic teachings is not that publicised, not that well-known, and in a way kept quite hidden by media and also by Church personnel themselves, so much so, they are also called "the Church’s best kept secret"! Consequently, when it comes to talking about the Church’s moral teachings, unfortunately, only her rather strict teachings on sexual morals are highlighted, ignoring completely, the other aspects of her moral teachings. Her teachings on justice and peace, certainly need to occupy a central place in the Catholic corpus of moral teachings, as the late Pope John Paul II so often stressed.

In educating the youth in values of justice and peace, there can be no better systematic guideline than the Catholic social teaching. This is very true in our present Sri Lankan context within which we are struggling right now to find a way towards genuine reconciliation based on justice that would lead us to a lasting peace! After all, at the end of a brutal spell of violence, in the form of terrorism and war, all of us Sri Lankans, deserve a durable peace based on justice, but then, as the Pope says at the end of his Message: "Peace is not a blessing already attained, but rather a goal to which each and all of us must aspire"! Educating the youth in justice and peace is certainly a right move towards that goal.

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