This morning I checked the news when I found a disturbing story in the news about a military recruitment center on Times Square being bombed by a small and ineffectual improvised explosive tossed from a bicycle.
The ‘comments’ beneath the article are predictable, including some anti-immigrant posturing, “I bet they’ll find out it was someone foreign!”; and one that said, “You liberals should be ashamed of yourselves!”
Reading that article reminded me of a recent conversation which helped me understand how often and how completely I am misunderstood as a peace activist.
About ten days ago I was in Sarasota, Florida, the city I grew up in (though it was more of a town than a city in those days). While there I led a workshop on “World Changing 101.”
At one point I was talking about the concept of calling, or vocation. As an illustration I told a story about a man I know who sees his calling as “To foster peace in the various relationships in which I find myself,” I mentioned off-handedly that since I know this man, I know that his definition of “peace” is a deep and nuanced one, not dumbed down to a definition like placidity, or simply lack of war, but a question of creating justice, of right relationship.
After the workshop was over a woman came up to me and said that she comes from a military family and that she had never understood peace work to be anything other than anti-war, and even anti-soldier, and that she appreciated having a new perspective on this.
I was dumbfounded. I had foolishly assumed a certain level of commonality of experience in the group, which consisted of about 75 people, and was, after all, a workshop on social and political activism and empowerment.
As I thought further about it, though, it occurred to me that one of the common questions I get when I tell people about how I’ll be spending 2009 and 2010 (pursuing a Masters in Peacemaking at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia as a Rotary World Peace Fellow) is “So… I mean, what will you study?”
A reasonable question, but the tone it’s often presented with betrays a bafflement at the very idea of studying peace and the creation of it. That bafflement might be rooted in a common misperception of what peace work is — that it’s about opposing war, demonstrating, etc. If that’s the case, then what, you take classes on chanting and sign-making?! (here’s what I’ll study, by the way)
I’m not denigrating the roll of public protest. In fact, I’m headed to DC this weekend to be part of an interfaith peace event that will include a big march among other things. I think that work is important, but it’s not the sum total of what peace work amounts to.
The most important work the peace movement does, according to long-time peace activist (and dear friend) Anne Welsh, happens before and after the actual violence.
I think a better, and broader description of what peace work is might be excerpted from a Quaker query: “to live so as to take away the occasion for war.” In other words, to work on the root injustices that have a tendency to escalate into violence, and to work toward healthier ways of dealing with conflict.
The goal is not placidity. Rather, the goal is to work through conflict more constructively and less destructively, and to work against injustice, which is the root cause of most violence. There are techniques for conflict management and transformation that are vetted and shown to be much more effective than our most prevalent models of militarism and punitive penal codes, but we cling to what we know, no matter how ineffective it has shown itself to be.
Responding to violence with violence is the antithesis of peacemaking, which brings me back to today’s story. Bombing a military recruitment center is not the action of a peace activist, but of a person who has bought into the lie of redemptive violence.
Peace is more than the absence of violence, but well-grounded peace work can’t condone violence either. The logic is so flawed as to be almost comical if it weren’t so serious: “I’m bombing this recruitment center because it’s perpetrating violence on the Iraqis, who the U.S. military says they had to be violent toward because of the violence they perpetrated on the Kurds, who the Iraqi government claimed to be justified in killing because of their violent uprisings, which the Kurds claimed were justified by the violence of…”
As Dr. King rightly said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
I’m glad that no one in New York was hurt, and as a U.S. citizen committed to peace, I also condemn the bombing. There is one significant thing left to say, though.
I can’t do much about the guy who made and threw that bomb. The authorities will catch him, or they won’t, and I don’t think I can have much effect on that process.
The meaningful question, then, is this: What violence or injustice can I have an effect on? What do I need to learn more about? What do I need to speak out on? What action must I take to work for justice and “live so as to take away the occasion for war?”