University of Southern California

“What’s Next?” War Teach-In at the School of Social Work

Opening Remarks by Nicholas Stein, April 8, 2003

I would first of all like to thank the School of Social Work and Dean Mondros for putting on this event and for inviting me to participate. I was in the audience at the last Teach-In held here and it is a privilege to be speaking to such a dedicated and interested group.

I am the Associate Director at the USC Catholic Center, a lay person in charge of student programming and outreach. But today I am here on behalf of the Office of Religious Life and Dean Rabbi Susan Laemmle.

I was asked to speak to the issue of the ramifications of war, and in particular the current war, on spirituality and on an individual’s relationship with their particular religious tradition.

Much has been written in the past few months about the role of religion in this war. From a vetting of Mr. Bush’s personal religious beliefs, to Saddam Hussein’s secularism; from talk of this being a continuation of the crusades to the calls throughout the Middle East for Jihad, or Holy War; from the courting of the Pope by the President to the role of Jewish/Muslim relations in Israel and Palestine, discussions of religion have permeated our entire war dialogue.

But I am not here to talk about those aspects. At a teach-in on campus recently that discussion was held and very good notes have been put up on the ONEUSC web page that I would encourage you to check out.

We have all in the past few weeks experienced in varying degrees a wide range of emotions. We have been sad, angry, fearful, relieved, shell-shocked, awed, tearful, happy, and confused. Against the backdrop of war, in our personal lives we have experienced successes and failures, anxieties and moments of joy. In my experience this has caused a magnification of emotions that many of us are experiencing for the first time, or for a repeat time as the case may be.

And this magnification of emotions has serious effects on our spiritual life. A person’s spirituality is as individual as they are, but no matter where a person is in their own spiritual journey wartime has an effect.

What I have found, and many of the other religious directors on campus have as well, is that students are turning to their faith, or to faith in general as a way to cope and come to grips with life during a time of war. Even more than after September 11th, students approached me on the Sunday that Spring Break came to a close, the Sunday after bombing started, with a need for time with God. Many people came to me with a look of anxiousness, a searching for consolation, that is not at all typical of the look of students coming off a week without classes. “I really need church today,” they said.

And the need has continued.

But even prior to the outbreak of war students across campus turned to their spirituality and religion. One of the most consistent and largest anti-war groups on campus has been a coalition of student religious groups on campus calling for peace. I helped to facilitate this movement of my students as they tapped into the peace and non-violent traditions of the faith.

In conversations with many of the anti-war students across campus it does not take long to arrive at religious and spiritual reasons for opposing the war. While most of them can talk for hours about the political, international, economic and historical reasons for opposing the war, at some point it boils down to something very guttural, very deep and something very basic that is usually inexpressible in words, and comes out in a plea about the inhumanity of war.

The theme of today’s panel is “What’s next?” In all of the thinking that I did about how to answer that question in terms of spirituality and religion I kept coming back to one thing. And for it I need everyone to get comfortable and close your eyes for a moment.

I need you to go to that personal place of solace within you. And I want you to spend a moment in conversation with your god, whoever or whatever that may be; or if you don’t believe in a god just go to that place of solace within you and relax. Take a deep breath and breathe out the anxieties of today, of the week, of the past month.

[Pause for 30-45 seconds]

And come back to the room slowly. I believe that what needs to happen next in our spiritual lives as the war goes on, and even more importantly, when the war ends is to keep the connection that may have grown during this time of war alive and to spend time in prayer, in that personal place of consolation, and to not be afraid of asking our clients and students and friends about their spiritual lives in a very non-threatening way to guage how the war is having an effect on the whole person.

We are a country at prayer. We pray for peace, we pray for our service men and women, we pray for the Iraqi service men and the Iraqi civilians and we need to continue to pray that we have the strength and grace to grow in our own spiritual lives during this crisis.

This site is sponsored by the Office of Religious Life
Copyright 2003, University of Southern California

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