Founded in 2014 by Dean David N. Hempton, the Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) Initiative seeks to advance engagement, scholarship, and practice on the roles of religion in fostering sustainable peace. The RPP Initiative brings together a diverse range of faculty from a wide array of disciplines and fields from across Harvard’s Schools, focusing on how the positive role of religion has worked to prevent violence and pursue social change and social justice by nonviolent means. Students at the Divinity School have an opportunity to participate in the initiative in a variety of ways, through the public colloquiums held once a month, a year-long course that is offered, and by working with the RPP as Graduate Assistants.
At the RPP Keynote Address this fall, which featured Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, Graduate Assistant Brittany Landorf spoke with current RPP Graduate Assistants Benjamin Crockett (MTS, 2018), Johnna Loreen (MTS, 2018), Alizeh Ahmed (MTS, 2018) and photographer Laura Krueger (MTS, 2017) about their work with the RPP and how it impacts their studies.
Religion and the Practice of Peace Graduate Assistants at the RPP Keynote Address October 6, 2016. From Right to Left: Christina Desert, Alizeh Ahmed, Johnna Loreen, Benjamin Crockett, and Dan Hornsby (Not pictured: Laura Kreuger). Photo Credit: Brittany Landorf
What are you studying (focus area/degree program)?
Alizeh Ahmed: I am an MTS with a concentration in Islamic Studies. Broadly speaking, I am interested in the politics of authority surrounding the establishment and application of contemporary Islamic Law in postcolonial societies in Asia, its effects on culture and pluralism in these contexts, and contemporary reform movements.
Benjamin Crockett: I am a first year Master of Theological Studies candidate studying religious conflicts and the role of the media at Harvard University.
Laura Kreuger: MTS, concentrating in Religion, Literature, and Culture
Johnna Loreen: I’m an MTS candidate with a focus in Religion, Ethics, and Politics.
What brought you to HDS?
Johnna: HDS was recommended to me by the head of the Religious Studies department of my undergraduate institution. I was drawn in especially by the focus on religious pluralism unique to HDS, the ability to expand my studies and classes beyond the Divinity School, and the financial aid that HDS can offer their students.
Alizeh: In HDS, I liked both the multi-religious, interdisciplinary context of learning and the opportunity to engage with students interested in academia as well as ministry. I also feel like HDS is an ever-evolving and changing experiment in higher ed–I like that the school continues to ask itself what divinity school means, who it exists for, and what its responsibilities are to its students and the world.
How would you define the RPP?
Johnna: I would describe RPP as a people-based initiative that strives to employ cross-cultural dialogue and self-reflection to promote peace among different groups of people. The organization is small but brings in people from across Harvard University who see that the practice of peace is not solely the job of HDS to bring about, but an opportunity to connect across campus and differences for the sake of laying the groundwork for cooperative relationships and peace-building.
Ben: A group of like-minded individuals from all over the university and beyond actively engaging in the practice of peace with a firm commitment to exploring the spiritual resources available to us within our different communities and faith traditions.
What motivated you to apply to the RPP and what do you do there?
Alizeh: I am interested in conflicts or political contestations charged by religious identity politics or issues of interpretative authority. I wanted to apply to the RPP because I hope to learn more about the contributive power of language or behavior steeped in religious tradition, as well as interfaith communication, in mending these types of conflicts.
In what ways does working for the RPP enrich/complement your studies? How does it enhance your study of religion?
Johnna: I plan to focus my studies on religious pluralism in the United States with the hopes of one day contributing to community-based problem solving in religiously diverse environments. Being a part of RPP, I’m able to see some of these ideals in practice and gain further exposure and experience in what it means to employ religious pluralism and community dialogue as a practice of peace in a diverse world.
Ben: RPP is a wonderfully practical and necessary supplement to my academic studies. I love the Colloquium course because it is discussion based and we are so fortunate to have some incredible speakers come and share their wisdom and experiences with us. As someone who is interested in studying conflict and the different ways communities have been able to find peace, this course is an absolute must!
What Practice of Peace topic has been of particular interest to you?
Laura: I am interested in the larger, underlying discussion that permeates RPP events: peace is an action, peace is a practice and a distinct way of operating and existing in the world as a whole.
Johnna: I have been fascinated by the idea of art and the sharing of art to be a contributing factor to peace-building and cross-cultural dialogue. At our first public colloquium of the year, we got to experience how visual and performance art can be a part of this dialogue and lead to a deep sense of empathy for others.
Ben: I am interested in how we can use social media and emerging mobile technology to mobilize social movements while holding on to our humanity and keeping a firm spiritual commitment.
What has been your favorite part of the experience so far?
Laura: As a photographer, I often make an attempt to be as invisible as possible at these events. That’s not always practical (people often want photos together, which is great), but it means that I get to step back and observe what’s happening, watch people’s reactions and responses, and experience the event in a way that’s not necessarily typical. That’s to say, I enjoy photographing events for RPP for many of the same reasons that I enjoy photography in general, but I also get to learn something about the world and the people in it when I photograph for RPP.
Johnna: In my short time thus far at RPP, I have enjoyed being part of a group that is passionate about the intersection of religion and practices of peace. It’s a small working group, and the opportunity to work closely with and learn from them has been inspiring. We each have different skills and ideas to bring to the table, but we’re connected by the larger theme of why we came to work for RPP in the first place.