Words of Peace are everywhere. Yet their bright promise seems eclipsed in a vale of shadows that rob them of traction. Perhaps it would be helpful to look directly at the shadows in an attempt to discern what obstructions are blocking the light. On reflection, I can think of three shadows that dim the brightness of peaceful words.
The Shadow of idealism
The first is this: The devastation and human suffering visited upon so many innocent people make sweet and inspiring words seem nothing more than the sentimental idealism of a “bleeding heart liberal.” I am indeed a liberal, and my heart bleeds at the sight of the blind aggression and social injustice that inflicts pain on ordinary men, women and children. Too often, however, the words of Peace are in fact merely sentimental, serving to ameliorate the guilt of the privileged class or of the intellectual left, while having little impact upon the course of one’s life or the betterment of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most disappointed in white liberals who consoled themselves with the right words, but had little follow through. How sad it is that words of love are so often anemic, while words drenched in hatred fairly burst upon the world in violent action.
It should be noted that idealism is not restricted to liberals. A few years ago, in a New York Times op-ed column, Bill Keller worried about the idealism of the Right, the Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz variety, which led us charging into Iraq to annihilate the evildoers. Idealism on either extreme tends to espouse beliefs that are global, righteous, and sure. Both tend to be rigid, clinging to a worldview that hovers in some sort of Platonic heaven. The Left, however, often speaks moving yet impotent words, often dithering under the circumspection of a watered-down version of post-modern epistemology. The Extreme Right plows ahead, applying its visions to the real world like a carpenter with his ruler.
I find myself on the Left, wanting to use words like “grace” and “transformation” and “Love,” but sometimes feeling effete and ineffective. Thich Nhat Hahn has said that “words sometimes get sick, and we have to heal them…we have to use language more carefully.” Those of us who are dedicated to peace need to find a way to add vigor to our words and grit to our dreams, so that our beliefs do not evaporate in the mists of self-justifying Idealism.
The Shadow of Verbal Inundation
This leads to the second shadow that seems to be leaching the brightness from inspiring words: we seem to be drowning in them. The academic field of conflict resolution has performed impressively over the past fifty years in analyzing the causes of conflict, the various points of intervention, and the techniques of mediation and negotiation most likely to de-escalate tensions before violence erupts. Beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have been examined. The dynamics of intercultural communication, the varieties of conflict of interest, and the depth of identity needs have all been schematized. I am sure that all who hear or read these words are quite familiar with this literature. But for all the ink that has flowed into our books, the flow of blood continues at flood tide.
Albert Camus called the 20th century the “century of fear.” So far, the 21st century seems equally mired in the destructive loop of fear that engenders hatred that engenders violence that engenders fear, ad infinitum. War has one end, and only one end: and that is to kill people. Since World War II over 130 million people have died in over 150 wars. Violence seeks to end conflict by breaking the bodies and spirits of those on the other side. It is always a failure of imagination, a failure of intelligence, a failure of love. Camus longs for the day when words will be found more powerful than munitions. I believe in Camus’ dream, and to serve it, I believe we must do our very best to find the words today which will empower the actions of tomorrow.
The Shadow of the Known
The third shadow is this: everybody already knows all the important stuff. Teachers from Moses to Plato, from Jesus to Rumi—hundreds of enlightened women and men—all have taught love and wisdom as opposed to hatred and violence. Lord knows this is nothing new, and I wonder what I can possibly add. Lao Tzu says in verse 70 of the Tao Te Ching: “My teachings are very easy to understand, and very easy to practice, yet so few in this world understand, and so few are able to practice.”
I have always thought that the Ten Commandments were not all that astounding a revelation: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t kill each other: all common sense behaviors for a viable society, and all incredibly rare, even today. Pope John Paul II uttered clear words against the war between the US and Iraq, yet a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that a full 66% of American Catholics supported the war, only 14% of US Catholic priests spoke out against the war, and that support for the war was highest among those who are most regular in church attendance. These are the some of the same folks who nod approvingly at the inspiring words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hurt you; turn the other cheek; love your enemies,” but of course these words would sound ludicrous delivered from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Or would they? Would it not be wonderful to hear a President read these words of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:
Weapons are the tools of violence;
All decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
A decent man will avoid them
Except in the direst necessity.
And, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
How can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
And delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
With sorrow and with great compassion,
As if he were attending a funeral.
Let me give one further example of clear words of perennial Wisdom: in the Dhammapada, the Buddha says: “in this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is appeased by love. This is an ancient law.”
Tomorrow I will reflect upon these ancient laws, and humbly add more words in an attempt to understand the elusive enigma of Peace.