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Seul, Lykes offer experience, advice on living lives of "Vision, Values, Action"
Jeff Seul, MTS '97, was restless. In 1995 he left a career as a successful corporate lawyer to study the contemplative practices of different religions at HDS. Midway through his first semester, though, Seul realized that an academic life was not for him.
Then he saw a story in The New York Times about the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia. The article included a photo of a Muslim woman who hanged herself to avoid being murdered by Serbian forces. Seul was moved to tears.
"I realized that religion was intertwined with this conflict and so many conflicts in ways I hadn't thought about deeply before…I started to explore the intersections between religion and conflict, and the ways in which religion could be a positive force. [HDS] turned out to be the perfect place to do that."
Seul, now president of the Peace Appeal Foundation, and alumna M. Brinton Lykes, MDiv '73, recently visited campus to talk about the ways that HDS helped them embark on careers of meaning and activism.
The talk, "Values, Vision, Action," was moderated by Alumni/Alumnae Council chair Julia Whitcavitch-DeVoy, MTS '94, and was the first of this year's "Divinity Dialogues" series with prominent HDS graduates.
Lykes, associate director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice and professor of Community-Cultural Psychology at Boston College, said that her view of the world was heavily influenced by the struggle to desegregate New Orleans, where she grew up in the 1950s.
She was inspired by the religious leadership of people like the Archbishop John Francis Rummel, who desegregated his diocese in the face of strong resistance from Catholics and Protestants alike. Lykes' desire to study and emulate the courage of the members of the civil rights movement eventually led her to HDS.
"I sought to fuse my intellectual curiosities with the kind of activist involvement that I had seen around me since I was a very young child," she said. "[At HDS] I also encountered liberation theology, and that nurtured a restlessness and put me into contact again with the international community. Now, as a university professor, I use my power and leverage to continue the paths that I had during my days at the Divinity School."
Today, Lykes works with the victims of war and torture to enable them to "claim their power, name their strength, and embrace languages and rituals that have often been repressed."
She said the ongoing challenge for her, both as an academic and as an activist, is to listen deeply and "to announce the arrival of new voices."
Change is slow, Lykes lamented, but future generations will reap the benefits of the work that activists do now and "be able to nurture themselves in a world that is less unjust and more equitable."
At the Peace Appeal Foundation, Seul works with national stakeholders to build the processes that bring violent conflict to an end. At the same time, he is a partner at Holland & Knight, a global law firm whose clients include both businesses and governments.
The potential for goodness that comes from situations where deeply held values and identities collide is what drives Seul's interest in negotiation and peace work. The richness and diversity of the HDS environment, which draws people from many different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives, taught him to listen to others and appreciate difference.
"HDS was a very interesting place to listen to and learn with people who came from all over the world," he said. "You'd also have students from the Boston Theological Institute coming here. We'd have a chance to go out to those institutions and to encounter more conservative perspectives and paths."
Lykes engaged Seul in a conversation about the meaning of action and activism, saying that it included listening to people "living on the margins," thinking outside the box, and facilitating those processes for others. Seul said that, in conflict resolution, action often means trying to alter the dynamics in which two sides are stuck so that something new emerges. That process often involves contemplation and reflection.
"We often think of action with an agenda or a goal in mind," he explained. "But there's almost a passive dimension to this work."
To current students looking to make a difference in the world, Lykes offered one piece of advice: "Follow your passion."
"We all share a belief that all or part of humankind can be called into some sort of transformative struggle toward a more just and equitable world," she said. "We need to engage each day and have the energy to stick with it….That requires a deep curiosity, a constant interest in wanting to know more, and also having a passion about something."
Seul encouraged students to trust their own restlessness and to break out of binary thinking. You can't follow every path life offers, he said, but you can often bring disparate interests—corporate law, meditation, conflict resolution—together to make the world better in unexpected ways.
"That intersection is the place where one can discover what one's original contribution may be," he said. "Leaning into that struggle, that uneasiness, is a really generative thing."