This article is part one of a three-part series called How We Get Peace Wrong.
Having just come through the holiday season and launched a new year here in the United States, we have heard the word ‘peace’ a great deal lately. We have wished it to each other on greeting cards and sung it in carols. Nearly everyone wants peace, at least in the abstract, but when we start talking about ‘working for peace,’ ‘peacemaking,’ or even ‘pacifism’, the conversation quickly becomes… well, a little less peaceful.
We use the word broadly and mean many different things when we say it. That leads to all sorts of misunderstanding about what it means to work for peace, and a bit of clarity might inform the larger conversation.
Peace is perhaps most often understood as ‘the lack of violence,’ but most people who have studied peace work even cursorily quickly realize that this is a fairly shallow definition. Decades ago, Johan Galtung outlined the difference between negative peace and positive peace. The former is a suppression of overt violence through the threat of greater violence or other coercion. I visited Bosnia not many years after the bullets stopped flying, and though the end of direct violence was a step in the right direction, it was still hard to describe the situation as peaceful. Bombed out buildings, UN troops stationed in the cities… there was a palpable tension. That’s negative peace.
Positive peace, on the other hand, has to do with addressing the root injustices and conflicts that often lead to violence, rather than just tamping that conflict down. While in Sarajevo I visited a choir practice of the Pontamina Choir, which is composed of Muslims and Christians who sing each other’s sacred music together. They are working toward positive peace—re-establishing deeply wounded relationships and gradually breaking down the barriers between groups.
There is a difference between peacekeeping (stopping the overt violence and establishing negative peace), peacemaking (negotiating a workable agreement) and peacebuilding (creating a more just and sustainable society). All three can be steps toward nourishing and sustaining positive peace, but peacekeeping by itself is unlikely to achieve it.
But even ‘lack of conflict’ is a poor definition for peace. In a conversation with civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis in 2009, he said two things to me that I will never forget. “Dr. King used to say to me,” Lewis said, already raising the hairs on my arms, “‘sometimes you have to turn the world upside down in order to set it right.’” Peace is not placidity, and conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. As Rep. Lewis put it, “conflict is often necessary on the way to justice.”
So the lack of overt conflict is not only an insufficient definition for peace, it can stand in direct opposition to it. Real peace, positive peace, sometimes means bringing a conflict that is simmering and repressed out into the light so that it is revealed and we can work on it. Failing to understand that leads to a common criticism of activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis: “These guys aren’t peacemakers!”, that narrative says, “Everywhere they go, violence breaks out!”
On the surface, that is arguably true, but the violence that we often saw in response to the nonviolent civil rights movement they led was just a revealing of violence that was already present in the injustice of the system they were challenging.
That is not to say that everyone who challenges injustice is a peacemaker, however. King and Lewis had high standards for their own behavior and strategy, and while part of their purpose was to provoke the enforcers of an unjust system, and those enforcers often responded with violence, they never participated in violence themselves. Quite radically, they came to their work in a spirit of what can only be accurately called love.
Peace and justice are often mentioned in the same breath, and that is as it should be. Peace without justice runs the risk of only being negative peace. King, Lewis, and countless others who have embraced nonviolence have also argued that work for justice is most effective if it is pursued in the context of peaceful means. To be effective peacemakers, those who work for justice must avoid many of the tools that their opposition are quick to turn to, including violence. So the best justice work is seen through the lens of peace, and the best peace work is seen through the lens of justice.
Of course, ‘love’ is itself a staggeringly ambiguous word. I use that word to describe how I feel about my wife, how I feel about my son, and how I feel about french fries. In this context, though, I think it’s not a feeling at all. Rather, it’s a policy or an ethic.
In fact, love, in this context, often means how we treat each other in spite of how we feel, rather than because of it. It has to do with choosing actions that build dignity and acknowledge a person’s value. When we get into serious peace work, the proverbial rubber meets the road, because we are called upon to apply that kind of approach to people who are actively seeking to hurt us.
King, Lewis and their compatriots took that seriously. They often refused to prosecute individuals who abused them in court, arguing that their persecutors were also victims of an unjust system. Their goal wasn’t to challenge individuals, but to challenge an entire system.
Lewis writes in his memoir Walking With the Wind that in the moment that they were being beaten at a march, he would try to look his attacker in the eye, acknowledging the attacker’s humanity while insisting on his own. He said he would try to picture that person as a child at Christmas, working to perceive their humanity and to feel love for them, even as they were beating him.
That’s not the strategy of a starry-eyed dreamer, but the deeply convicted approach of a man who truly believes what he is preaching: that the struggle for justice is not a struggle of one group against another. When justice and peace win, everyone wins. The oppressors are liberated from a damaging system along with the oppressed. That’s radical strategy, and it doesn’t have much to do with placidity.
Real peacemaking is not about avoiding conflict. Peacemaking means approaching conflict in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. Note the word ‘approaching’ in that last sentence. That’s one way we largely get it wrong as a society. At an impressively divisive time, we are mostly dealing with our various conflicts either by avoiding them (confusing that with peace) or by open aggression that seeks to defeat the people we disagree with.
There is another way, though—we can acknowledge our common humanity, try to hear each other’s ideas (and the powerful hopes and fears that lie under each other’s positions), and look for a way forward together. That latter path is anything but easy, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not knowing how to do it. There are specific and teachable techniques, and there are more ambiguous skills that are developed through years of practice.
Sadly, though, we don’t teach peacemaking much, and we do have to study it in order to do it well. Like most worthwhile endeavors, it is difficult, but not impossible, and it’s success or failure rests largely on whether or not we think it is worthy of pursuit.
In the United States, we are currently embroiled in conversations about how best to move forward in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria, not to mention various efforts to curb violence domestically. It is hard to have those conversations meaningfully, however, if we don’t actually understand what the options are. So let’s be clear on a few basic points—peacemaking is not passive, and has no relationship to conflict avoidance. The real work of peacemaking is the most pragmatic of pursuits, and, like violence, involves real risk and loss. It is not born out of a denial or inexperience of humanity’s potential for cruelty and hatred (were King and Gandhi and Lewis and Mandela less familiar with cruelty and oppression than we are?). The work of peacemaking is simply predicated on our common humanity, and the idea that, as Rev. King famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
More practical words were never spoken.