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?”
PJ Harris says
I am so pleased to see that you are studying more about peace. You have always been an example of peace to me whenever I have seen you (in Dallas). I believe that the more people that see the abundance that is bestowed upon the peaceful, the more impact you can make in the world.
What a wonderful place to study also!! Leave it to you to find a school that is in the middle of a place most of us would like to be. **smile**
I currently live in Seattle after a brief stint in Las Vegas and will be going to South Carolina in May. Hopefully I too can spread some peace in this small area I travel in.
I so miss the ability to see you more often.
Blessings on this new venture,
Ruth Dunn says
David – At the age of 74 minus a month, I sometimes get very discouraged and even depressed about the prospect of moving this world away from violence, greed, and the”lust for power” and desire for control that in some ways grows worse every day. I have worked in both the civil rights movement and in the peace movement for a long time, especially when I was younger. My youthful optimism is gone forever. It seems that every step forward towards peace is met by two steps backwards in the opposite direction.
Yet while my optimism may be over, hope remains and lies with people like you who continue to look for new ways to help us bring a nonviolent, loving, just peace to a very broken world. Thanks you for going on this journey on our behalf! Please keep up the blog – it will help me keep my head above water.
Sid – Thanks for checking in, and for the good work you’re doing. The small changes matter, and you never know what far reaching effects they may have. Thanks, too, for your kudos and encouragement.
Susan – I agree with you about organized violence often coming from greed (often unorganized violence too, for that matter), but I guess I would count the actions you mention among the injustices that I’m talking about.
Resisting those actions and others like them, actively and non-violently, is a significant part of peacemaking. Living in a democracy as we do (yes, a broken one, but one where we still have a voice), it still comes down to us to demand that things be different, and to work to make them different, yes?
I think responding with violence is the route to self-destruction. I condemn the bombing of the recruitment center also, and sure hope it is not repeated.
But I was thinking about “to work on the root injustices that have a tendency to escalate into violence” – this is true, but it seems to me that a lot of organized violence comes from greed, the greed of the rich, who want to control and have more. I think the war on Iraq came from a group of rich oil men who wanted to control the oil and the area – not from any injustice.
The Barber of Civility (Sid from Atlanta)) says
Wow, David, what a wonderful definition of living for peace.
I work in other people’s homes every day. I run across people who are mean and unhappy every once in a while, and I understand that they are comfortable with that behavior (they get something for being that way, like left alone, or attention – who knows what causes people to live an unhappy existence.)
The hardest thing for me to do is be an interruption in their lives. To show them somehow that being civil gets me so much more of everything! I sometimes leave feeling a little that I am not enough for them (my own issue.)
I love it when I interrupt someone and they then notice the world, even if it is not for more than a few minutes before they go back to their consumed lives.
Anyway, I think it’s great that you are going to study peacemaking. You are already a great gift to the world. Now your going to ramp it up even more!
Thanks for blogging. I look forward to following your adventures.