Fifteen years ago, I joined two dozen American college students and faculty on a Witness for Peace delegation in Guatemala. We traveled throughout the countryside where army death squads had tortured, raped and murdered thousands of indigenous Guatemalans during a grisly civil war.
Every day we heard tales of atrocity. We trooped to a grassy clearing on the edge of a village where soldiers had rounded up men and boys over the age of 15, stood them on the edge of a giant pit, shot them in the head and shoved them into the hole as family members watched. Later, we visited the home of a woman who had lost her husband and two sons in the massacre. On the walls of her tiny adobe home were pictures of Christ, crosses and little else.
We met a nun who had been abducted from her church, imprisoned for three months and raped daily. Scars from cigarette burns administered by her captors tattooed her arms and legs. Far from renouncing her religion, she seemed to have grown even closer to God as a result of her suffering. She exuded an aura of peacefulness.
In the evenings, the students gathered to discuss the day’s events. Having seen up close the results of numbing cruelty, they struggled to reconcile the victims’ fates with their unshaken faith. Traumatized by violence and guilty of no crime, how could these people believe in God so fervently?
The students came to the same conclusion: there was no way to understand the indigenous people of Guatemala without understanding their spiritual lives.
It would be hard to argue that faith—so often a restorative, healing agent—is an inherently negative force. Yet the collision of belief systems in various parts of the world has contributed to many of the international conflicts we face today.
The recent flap over cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in unflattering ways underscored how difficult it is to honor and respect different faiths while challenging religious tenets that seem at odds with cultural or social values.
At Stanford, there is little collision but more and more conversation. As our article on page 56 describes, faith plays an important role in many students’ lives but is not an instrument of division. Students seem genuinely interested in and respectful of faiths of many kinds without sacrificing the essential creed of their own. Is there something here we can learn and apply to the broader problems associated with religion, governance and human rights?
Whether any university campus could reliably claim to mimic the wider world is questionable; the tenor of debate is likely to be more civil when people aren’t threatening to harm you. But that caveat notwithstanding, the fact that students from many countries and many religions manage to live amicably side by side should tell us something. Faith can be inspiring and redemptive, or destructive and bigoted. But it is never more powerful than when it expresses the ancient ideal that binds all religions: peace.