Why Study Peace and Justice?

The P&J Program isn’t just about sandwiches

By Robin Happel

Copy editor

Almost forty years ago, a Fordham professor was arrested for breaking into a nuclear weapons plant. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. was already famous for his demonstration burning draft records with homemade napalm, and even in memory he remains one of Fordham’s most famed educators, eulogized in the New York Times and elsewhere around the world.

Father Berrigan was ardently opposed to the war in Vietnam – in his words, “our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.” While he has passed on, parts of Fordham still retain his deep commitment to faith in action. In the words of Peace and Justice program director Dr. van Buren, “Peace and Justice Studies might seem similar to other interdisciplinary programs at Fordham – but what makes it unique is its focus on issues of justice.”

berrigan-bootsImage from the Ignatian Solidarity Network

Peace and Justice Studies may not be the most well-known program at Fordham, but throughout my four years here I’ve found its faculty to be some of the most dedicated and diverse voices on campus. Some of my professors are retired military, and some are ardent pacifists. Some have devoted their lives to New York City, and some hail from half a world away. They tend to teach not just from a textbook, but from their own experience. Professor Asha Castleberry knows how important it is to have female UN peacekeepers because she was one. Dr. Erick Rengifo’s lectures on climate change aren’t just graphs or charts, but a heartfelt account of mountain snow melting around his hometown in Peru.

For Dr. van Buren and past directors, the program draws its inspiration directly from the Catholic social justice and peace activism movement. More than almost any other department at Fordham, its students are required to perform service work, both for local charities and international NGO’s. Every lecture and every semester is designed to prepare you for the type of work that will give you more than just enough money to live. Freshman year I took a class on land rights in the Amazon, and this past fall, that class was the first thing on my mind when I interviewed indigenous activists from the Amazon at a UN climate summit. I think about Professor Castleberry’s class every time I see a story on the news about UN peacekeepers. While other classes ask me what I want to do with my life, the Peace and Justice program asks me who I want to be. It challenges me to ask if I can do more for the causes I claim to care about, in a time when many of us should be asking ourselves the same question.

Most professors in the program carry their work far beyond the classroom. Dr. Rengifo helped found Spes Nova, an innovative fair trade initiative that helps lift impoverished communities around the world out of poverty, in addition to his work as a consultant. Professor Peleg, who teaches the intro and internship classes, is an expert on peace negotiations in his home country of Israel, and has spent much of his life building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. And, after tragically losing his son in 9/11, Professor Orlando Rodriguez used his expertise in Peace and Justice Studies to help organize September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Fordham likes to talk about faith and mission, and for many of us the occasional sticker or “Let’s Get JesuLit” t-shirt is enough to demonstrate our devotion. But in the teaching of Father Berrigan, faith isn’t about where your head is at, or even where your heart is at. Faith is about where you are. And you don’t necessarily have to handcuff yourself to anything to be an activist. If you want to work on Wall Street, consider a corporate social responsibility division that works for reform, and invest in start-ups like Spes Nova. If you want to be a lawyer, make your pro bono service something meaningful to you, more than just another box to check for the bar. Whatever path you take in life, I promise there is something in Peace and Justice Studies for you.

It hasn’t always been easy to fit Peace and Justice classes into my schedule, but it has always been worth it. As Professor Rodriguez told me recently, “Community Service and Social Action is a difficult course, for the students and for me. It’s not that the subject matter or the readings are complicated. But the students, and I as well, have to learn how to apply ideas to the messy reality of life.” The people I’ve met through the Peace and Justice program and the communities we serve – from artisans in rural Kenya, to women fighting for clean cookstoves and a safer future for their families – are something I’ll carry with me always, in all of my own messy realities.

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