Colman McCarthy on Teaching Nonviolence

Touting the Literature of Peace

Colman McCarthy

Morally ambiguous? Intellectually dubious? Realistically utopian? Colman McCarthy’s cause celbre-peace, of the absolute, change-the-world kind-is natural fodder for derision, but he doesn’t mind. A one-time Trappist monk, McCarthy became a columnist at the Washington Post in 1969, where he covered the civil rights movement and interviewed, among others, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Mother Theresa. In 1997 he left the Post and dedicated himself full-time to bringing young people into the orbit of, as he likes to put it, the “vast literature of peace.” Now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law School, he runs the Center for Peace in Washington (which he founded in 1985), teaches courses on nonviolent reconciliation at a number of D.C.-area high schools, and lectures on peace around the country. On Friday, February 15, McCarthy will speak at Santa Barbara City College. I spoke to him by phone recently.

I would imagine it’s not a very good career move in Washington to be for peace and love. Every member of Congress was in first grade someplace. Maybe if we taught them a little bit about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, [etc.] the first day, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

Of course, if you’re going to teach kids about Gandhi, you’ll have to teach them about the Partition [of India] too. Ridding the world of war and violence seems about as likely as abolishing hunger and disease. Sam, you’re obviously in desperate need of some information. War is not inevitable. Violence is a learned behavior. We have this extraordinary faith in violence, and at the same time this extraordinary skepticism about nonviolence. All I’m trying to do, when I teach peace studies courses in school, is to give people another choice on how to solve their conflicts, whether at home across the living room or across the ocean with another nation. It’s not magic. It’s not foolproof. Violence has failed, but so has nonviolence, so pick which one you want to put your trust in.

But what does nonviolence mean? What motivates someone to commit child abuse is not the same as what motivates someone to fight in a war. That’s right. There are many types of nonviolence. There are many types of ice cream, but it’s still ice cream. No matter whether nonviolence is organized strikes, boycotts, noncooperation, or just persuasion-nonviolence is not monolithic-any more than violence is. It takes many different forms, and those forms are teachable. To say that violence is inevitable is like saying ignorance is inevitable.

But given that violence occurs, can’t it be morally necessary to meet violence with violence? Take the Civil War. It was a horrific slaughter, but at the same time, it was also noble. What was noble about the Civil War?

It helped bring about the end of slavery. No, that wasn’t the intention of the Civil War. Lincoln’s intention was to keep the Union together. That was an unnecessary war, as all wars are unnecessary. That’s the pacifist argument, which I agree with.

Okay, forget the Civil War. What about World War II? There’s a war where there was a horrific genocide occurring, and it was stopped. Hitler could have been waited out. He might have been overthrown by his own government. Who knows? To have 50 million people killed : Hitler would have died within 10 years no matter what he did. That’s an argument you rarely hear.

I’ll say. The time to stop Hitler was in 1926, when he first ran for office. And we ended up bombing civilians at Dresden, Pembroke, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. : Hannah Arendt, the great Jewish philosopher, once said, “Violence, like all action, changes the world. But the most probable change is toward a more violent world.”

Part of the vast literature of peace. Yes.

Do you ever get discouraged? In this country we have about 32,000 high schools, about 78,000 elementary schools, and about 3,500 colleges and universities. If all of those would take on the study of peace, the study of conflict resolution and mediation, I do believe that in a couple of hundred thousand years we might get somewhere. So it’s a long shot, and people keep telling me, “Oh, you’re not getting anywhere, you’re just another old ’60s lefty dreamer coming back for another round.” I hear that all the time. I don’t mind what people say. But I have seen students’ lives changed. We’re not helpless.


Colman McCarthy will be presenting the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 7th Annual Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Friday, February 15, at 7:30 p.m. at SBCC’s Fe Bland Forum. Admission is free. For more information, call 965-3443 or visit


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