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Theologies of Violence and Nonviolence

Theologies of Violence and Nonviolence
Days 1-3-5, 1:00-2:10 p.m.
Quad 261
Professor Dan McKanan
Office: Luke 223
[email protected]

This course will cover theological perspectives on violence and nonviolence as these appear in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, in the history of Christianity, and in the work of contemporary theologians, ethicists, and activists. We will begin by examining the ways in which the victims of violence make religious sense of their experience, and then consider three approaches to the justification of violent action by Christians: holy war, just war, and active nonviolence. We will seek to understand each position from the inside, as well as subjecting each to critical scrutiny. Students will have the opportunity to do “service-learning” in an organization related to violence and nonviolence.

Course Goals

1. Students will understand the biblical and cultural roots of various theological approaches to violence and nonviolence.

2. Students will be informed participants in the contemporary theological debate on violence and nonviolence. They will be able to articulate their own views on these issues, and will demonstrate a critical appreciation of views that differ from their own.

3. Students will understand how religious traditions affect the work of people involved in organizations related to violence and nonviolence.

Learning Contracts

In consultation with the instructor and peers, each student will prepare a learning contract. The learning contract is due January 28, and should include the following elements:

1. A list of at least three personal goals for the course. For example, one student might hope to improve her public speaking skills, another to gain a better understanding of the non-pacifist point of view, still another to think about career paths related to violence or nonviolence.

2. An individual list of commitments. If you fulfill all of the listed commitments, you will be guaranteed a particular grade of up to a B. To develop your list of commitments, you may choose items from the “menu” of assignments listed below. Feel free to adapt these to your own learning goals, or invent entirely new assignments of your own.

To guarantee a final grade of at least B, you should include commitments with a total point value of at least 150. To guarantee a final grade of at least BC (or S), you should include commitments with a total point value of at least 125. Students who fail to fulfill all contracted commitments will receive the grade corresponding to the total number of points earned. I recommend that all students include “community building,” “dialogue and evaluation,” and at least 30 points for reading reflections in their learning contracts.

Students are also expected to miss no more than two classes during the semester. Students who anticipate more than two absences may wish to include additional commitments (5 points per absence) in their learning contracts.


I will provide brief written feedback on discussion leadership, thesis papers, research papers, independent projects, and at least one quarter of all daily reflections. For each item, I will assign a grade of A, AB, B, C, or U. (Students may rewrite any assignment for an improved grade.) Assignments that receive a grade of C receive only half the usual point value, as do late assignments. A grade of AB entitles the student to a number of “merit points” equal to the point value of the assignment. A grade of A entitles the student to a number of “merit points” equal to double the point value of the assignment. Students will have their final letter grade adjusted up one half-letter for each twenty-five merit points earned.

Assignment Menu

Community Building 10 points

On the first day of class, students will form teams responsible for various community-building activities. These activities will occur during the first ten minutes of class time or, occasionally, outside of class time. Possible community-building activities include ice-breaker games, reports on campus events, or the sharing of insights gained during study abroad experiences. Community-building is one of the major ways in which students are invited to contribute to the success of the class.

Dialogue and Evaluation 15 points

Each student is responsible for reading and commenting on the work of two peers. To this end, students will be organized into “dialogue and evaluation circles” of three students each. Early in the semester, each circle will meet privately with the instructor to discuss and negotiate learning contracts. Students will submit all their written work to the other members of their circle, as well as to the instructor. Students will write one-paragraph evaluations of thesis papers, research papers, and independent projects completed by the other members of their circle. These evaluations should be submitted to both the instructor and the circle, and are due one week after receipt of the project being evaluated. At the end of the semester, each circle will meet again with the instructor. Following this conversation, each student will write a final self-evaluation, due May 6.

Discussion Leadership 2 @ 5 points each 10 points

Each dialogue and evaluation circle will be responsible for leading classroom discussion on two occasions during the semester. To plan for this, discussion leaders will meet with the instructor at least two class days before the discussion. Discussion formats may vary, but each should include the following three elements: at least ten minutes of presentation in which the discussion leaders highlight major themes from the reading; at least fifteen minutes of guided discussion in which the leaders invite their peers to look closely at key passages from the reading; and an interactive exercise in which students are able to apply insights from the text to concrete situations. Following the student-led discussion, the instructor will comment for fifteen minutes on whatever issues emerge.

Preliminary Paper 10 points

Drawing on what you remember from Theology 180, write a three-page paper on God and violence. Does God commit acts of violence? Does God approve of human violence? Under what circumstances? What explains the presence of violence in the world? These papers are due in class on January 18.

Reading Reflections up to 27 @ 2 points each up to 54 points

Students may complete a reading reflection for each class period when there is a reading assignment due. Each reading reflection must be at least 250 words (one page) long. Ordinarily, it will include the following three elements, in any order: a) at least one quotation from the reading which you found especially insightful or problematic, 2) at least one question designed to provoke dialogue on the reading, and 3) at least one response to an earlier reflection by a member of your dialogue circle. On occasion, however, you may feel free to write reflections on other issues related to the class. Please email your daily reflections to the instructor and the other members of your dialogue circle. If you are using your own email account, type “daily reflection” and the number in the topic box. If you are using someone else’s account, also type your name. Reading reflections are due by the beginning of each class.

Thesis Papers up to 4 @ 10 points each up to 40 points

A thesis paper develops a specific argument about an issue raised in one or more class readings. Each student will have the opportunity to write a thesis paper for each of the four major sections of the course. Thesis papers should be about five pages in length and are due on the following days: experiencing violence, February 19; holy war, March 18; just war, April 2; active nonviolence, April 30. Learning contracts should indicate how many thesis papers the student plans to complete, but need not specify the themes.

Research Paper 25 points

A research paper develops a specific argument about a topic of the student’s choosing—so long as it has something to do with violence and nonviolence! A research paper should be at least ten pages long, and must be based on some reading or research beyond the regular course assignments. If you do the research in the library, plan to read at least two books or six scholarly articles. You may choose, however, to base your paper on surveys, questionnaires, or some other form of original research. Research papers are due on Monday, May 6, but students planning to complete a research paper must submit a thesis sentence and rough outline by Tuesday, April 2.

Independent Project 1 point per hour spent up to 20 points

An independent project might be an artistic project, participation in a political demonstration, a student-initiated field trip, creation of a campus event, etc. Ideally, an independent project should have some intrinsic value for you or for others: no jumping through hoops! Each independent project should include some opportunity to reflect on the experience, whether through a journal, reflection paper, or discussion with peers. Independent projects may be completed individually or in small groups. If you combine an independent project with an assignment for another class, you may count only those hours above and beyond what you would ordinarily have spent on the other class assignment. Independent projects are due Tuesday, April 30, but students planning to complete an independent project must submit a detailed, one-paragraph description of the project by April 2. If possible, the learning contract itself should give a tentative description of the project.

Service-Learning 25 points

A service-learning placement entails twenty hours of service at a community organization involved in issues related to violence and nonviolence. Ordinarily, the service-learning office will match students with appropriate placements. If you are already working with an organization, however, you may choose to have that count as a service-learning site. Given the controversial character of the course topic, students should know that organizations of many different viewpoints are acceptable. You might, for example, arrange a placement with the National Rifle Association, if you believe strongly that protection of Second Amendment rights contributes to a more just society. However, the service-learning office will provide assistance in placing students only at organizations whose mission is consistent with that of CSB/SJU. Students who do service-learning should submit journal entries on each service experience to the service-learning open folder. Each entry should give the date and time of service, describe the work session, and identify at least one insight gained. Finally, each student will interview at least one individual they meet through their placement (staff, volunteer, or client), asking for that person’s views on faith and violence. This interview should be written up in a three-page paper, due on Friday, April 26.

Events & Speakers up to 5 @ 3 points each up to 15 points

Students may wish to supplement assigned course readings by attending public lectures, films, plays, and other events. For each event, the student must write a one-page reflection paper. Students who need to compensate for absences or missed assignments may earn these points even if they did not list them in their original contract. However, there is a strict maximum of 15 points that may be earned in this way.

Course Readings

All students should purchase the class packet and the following books: Richard B. Miller, War in the Twentieth Century; Elie Wiesel, Night; Karen Armstrong, Holy War; and Walter Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. One or two readings may be distributed as photocopies. Students should also have access to a Bible.