Drew Christiansen: Teacher, Mentor, Friend

By: David A. Koplow

November 30, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., was a guest speaker in a seminar I teach each year at Georgetown Law on disarmament and proliferation. In that role, he helped us understand the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for which he had served as a substantive expert for the Holy See delegation to the negotiations and the subsequent United Nations proceedings.

In due course, he invited me, by reciprocity, to be a guest speaker in his course at the Georgetown Main Campus, on Just War, Nonviolence, and Peacebuilding, to address the law of armed conflict.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with Drew’s class, but I am certain that my students got the better end of that bargain.

What I observed in those pedagogical exchanges was one of Drew’s great gifts: his talent for respectful, patient, encouraging dialogue with the class. He listened more than he spoke; he probed with insightful, provocative (and sometimes, unanswerable) questions; and he never rushed, never pushed the analysis faster than it would naturally proceed. He certainly never made himself the focus of attention. Instead, the dialogue was intensely student-driven, helping the class achieve deeper levels of insight through introspection, reflection, and the parrying of clashing ideas.

Particularly impressive was Drew’s calmness and equanimity, even while addressing the most distressing facts of our era: the burdens and dangers of a nuclear arms race, the gruesome doomsday consequences of nuclear warfare, and the international and domestic political chaos that has impeded efforts to address those perils in a reasonably productive fashion. He brought to the classroom both the idealism of his lofty goals and the realism borne of his experiences in international diplomacy. He even flashed the occasional sense of humor, bringing an additional human dimension to the too-often sterile analyses of hardware and lawfare.

Observing him in action also served to remind me that there are multiple pathways–diverse intellectual and emotional sources–that can lead a person to find and express a deeper concern about nuclear disarmament. For some, the entry point into the debate is international strategy and politics, featuring the jagged gamesmanship of international security affairs. For others, the origin lies in macroeconomics and the contemplation of inequality and the misallocation of scarce global resources. For me, it was international law and the obligation to faithfully implement binding treaty commitments, as well as the opportunity to forge valuable new relationships. For others, the source of the engagement springs from ethics and the deep contemplation of humans’ moral commitments to others of our species and to nature itself.

Drew, unusually, pulled on all those traditions. He deeply understood–in the vocabulary of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, he “grokked”–each of those strands, and he was able to weave them seamlessly into a unique worldview. Few people are as conversant with all these disciplines, and fewer still can meld them in practice or in a classroom. It was a great treat to watch him in action: a self-effacing virtuoso, who created an environment in which the students thought that they themselves were inventing the great ideas and the deep insights that he had planted within the classroom.

In doing and in expressing all this, Drew embodied the Jesuit concept of cura personalis, the care for the entire person. He was not content solely with advancing his students’ intellectual growth or promoting their analytical and cognitive rigor about international relations. He strove, in addition, to attend to their emotional, spiritual, psychic, and social development and to guide them to contemplate the human side of the sometimes abstract discussions. The class could not escape the hard ethical questions about right and wrong; about sustainable, human solutions to the problems of nuclear weapons; and about the awful consequences that failure could carry for the entire human family.

Drew Christiansen was a marvelous teacher–of the class and of his colleagues. I learned a lot from him, and I hope to incorporate some of those lessons in my future classes. Every time I do, I will miss him.

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