What Would Peace Look Like?

In PeaceAble on August 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I have on occasion heard people singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and wondered if they had actually ever listened to the lyrics.  Lennon imagines a peace that requires the end of individual possessions, the end of religion, a singular universal belief that excludes heaven and hell, and nothing at all that is important enough for people to consider killing or dying for it.  This is not the way I would imagine peace, nor would I particularly wish for it.  For me, peace is not about the elimination of all those things which might disturb the peace, but about finding peaceable ways to deal with those things.

Conflict is not only inevitable for humans, it is also necessary.  Conflict exists whenever there is more than one possibility and a choice needs to be made.  Interpersonal conflict exists whenever two or more persons share the possibilities and the choices.  Choosing between alternatives is a fundamental human activity.  Without it we are not fully human.

All conflicts exist in the context of our attempts to get our needs met.  All choices are attempts to find the best possible solutions to the conflicts created by our needs.  All relationships are attempts at engaging each other in the meeting of our individual and shared needs.  All human activity involves conflict and the making of choices that attempt to resolve conflict.  Without conflict and the choices we make about it, there is no art, no science, no literature, no altruism, no basis for morality or ethics.  When we confront conflict and make a choice, we give expression to our knowledge and our beliefs; we tell ourselves and others who we are.  It is within this context that we need to begin to imagine what peace would look like.

To begin with, any realistic look at the possibility of peace also needs to recognize that, because our own needs will always be different from the needs of others and our shared needs will be perceived differently, peace will look different to each of us.  So what we need to craft is a way of being PeaceAble that allows us be assertive of our needs for peace while being sensitive to others’ very different needs.  For this we need a language of peace that we can use collectively.  Notice that this is what keeps our “war-ability” in place.  So much of our language is the language of war.  And even those who claim to oppose war regularly use that language to describe what they want.  “Wage Peace” proclaims a bumper sticker.

One part of the problem is that we conflate war and competition.  They are not necessarily the same.  Wars are always about control of or access to resources (physical, intellectual, ideological); they are based on a sense of “scarcity consciousness” (resources are limited and anything the other has reduces how much is available to me); the language of war is violent, self-centered, dehumanizing, divisive, and rigidly categorical; the goal of war is to win, and to cause the other to lose.  The winners in war are granted broad physical and moral superiority.  Competition, on the other hand can be (and occasionally is) peaceable.  Competition can be about personal and collective improvement (again physical, intellectual and ideological); the language of competition can be non-violent, supportive, humanizing, inclusive rather than divisive, and open and flexible; the goal of competition can be to advance the common interest of everyone involved and to celebrate achievement over victory.  In competition there is the possibility of seeing equal value in the contributions of all the competitors and to assign superiority  more narrowly: one may have been stronger, but another had greater determination, another a unique strategy, and still another an especially clear focus, for instance.

Another part of the problem is that we have enormous amounts of cultural language – in our official doctrines and practices, in our media, in our rituals and celebrations – that reinforce the value of war and the meme of the warrior; but very little to reinforce the value of peace or the cultural place of the peacemaker. The term “peacemaker” has even been applied to weapons large and small, and we regularly refer to armed troops as peacekeepers.  When we send men and women to war, when we train them to kill, and then ask them to be ready to die for us, we rightly recognize the enormity of that sacrifice.  As soon as they put on the uniform of military service, we call them heroes.  We regularly celebrate their service with holidays, parades, glowing testimonials, educational and medical benefits, special recognition at public events and in public forums. Because service requires membership in specific organizations, we have easy access to names that identify the warriors and make them visible to us.  We have no such things for peacemakers. Which of our holidays celebrate our peacemakers?  Martin Luther King’s birthday is, even now, a controversial commemoration, and he is recognized primarily for his work on civil rights for African Americans, while his broader advocacy for peace is often criticized, rather than celebrated.  And the message of peace that is so often expressed around the Christian holiday of Christmas is undermined by the crass commercialism of the season and the many ways in which our religions have been used to foster hatred and division.  There are hundreds of medals for warriors, few for peacemakers.  In thousands of ways, both small and large, our culture reminds us daily that the central metaphor of our lives is war, and that peace is at best a very minor part of who we are or how we should behave.

So as I consider what a PeaceAble society would look like, and as I develop these ideas further in these essays, I ask you to first take an honest look at what a “war-able” society looks like – what we look like now.

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