Saturday, November 29, 2008


Gari Melchers, Mural of Peace, 1896.
Peace may be defined positively or negatively. Considered positively peace may refer to healthy, healed or honest inter-personal relationships, safety or prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare or the acknowledgment of equality and fairness in political relationships. These different senses of the term are related to the word contentment. Negatively, peace sometimes means merely the absence of hostility - either at a social or political level (war). Peace is usually regarded as transient in human life; skeptics regard it as a merely ideal state that cannot be practically achieved. Thus, reflection on the nature of peace is also bound up with considerations of the causes for its absence or loss. Among these potential causes are: insecurity, social injustice, economic inequality.
The above was lifted wholesale from wikipedia. Call this whatever kind of attribution or citation you need it to be.
So I miscounted the days left in November back before that holiday with the turkey and now I have an extra day before the 30th with no planned topic. Not one to find an easy thing for the next-to-the-last-day, I will forgo detailed instructions for making Jell-0 or how to plant marigold seeds in a Dixie cup and tackle the formidable subject of peace. (h/t to E. over at phigmint)

Peace has different meanings in different contexts. Peace at the family dinner table is a different thing than peace in the middle east. Peace in one's soul is different from peace between unhappy factions.

Jimmy Carter works for peace, and when he did that as president, it cost him politically. Carter understood that for there to be peace internationally, there must be peace internally within nations. For there to be peace within a nation, there must be peace among the different groups who make up that nation. For there to be peace among those groups, they all must feel that they are both giving and receiving no more or less than they deserve, and neither are any of the other groups. So long as there is enormous economic disparity within a nation, there will be no peace within that nation. Congresswoman Maxine Waters said it best (paraphrasing here) "When there is justice, there will be peace. And not until there is justice, will there be peace."

There are some who see peace as being directly linked to a supreme being. That bumper sticker says "no Jesus? No peace. Know Jesus. know peace." Nice thought, but where does that leave the Muslims, Hindus, Pagans, Wiccans, Jews, and goodness-knows how many other non-christian faiths? I suppose you could change it to "know god, know peace," but that still smacks of "here's my opinion, it's better than yours." I don't like that.

Peace to me means a lot of things. At the personal level, it is a calm inside that is undisturbed by the conflicts of emotions, agendas, or stress. This does not mean that those things do not exist in a person who is at peace, merely that the person has learned how to rise above those distractions and has made a decision to be peaceful, even in the midst of life that is not always peaceful.

Next is peace within a family. Growing up as I did in a dysfunctional sort of place, my concept of what makes for a peaceful family is a bit suspect. But here is what I think it might look like: A peaceful family is one in which none fears for their personal safety, particularly at the hands of another family member. A peaceful family means that everyone has enough to eat, clothes to stay warm, and the support and kindness of others in the unit. The needs of each of the members is being met and nobody feels less than any of the other members. Peace is not without activity, but it is a security of sorts, and a sense of cohesion.

Peace within a community gets more complicated still. Karl Marx visualized a Utopian society with "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his need." That sounds really nice, but few in my experience are willing to give up their individualism to live in a communist society, even at the most local of levels. Socialism we seem to support, but communism still gives us all the creeps, and for legitimate reasons.

I think Marx may have had something in that oversimplified quote. In any society there are different levels of participation. There are different levels of skill and ability and education and training. A ditch digger cannot be expected to have the same financial and intellectual goals as a brain surgeon. So there is a sliding scale of sorts.

Some parts of the community have more resources than others, some parts have more power than others, and some parts seem to have more time than others. The key to maintaining peace in a complex community, I think, is to make sure that everyone feels that he or she is a vital and valued part of that community. If the brain surgeon treats the plumber badly when he comes to fix the surgeon's sink, it will upset the peace of the community. No matter how important and high-tech the surgeon's work might be, he still needs the specific skills of the plumber when his sink backs up in the kitchen. Same goes for the gardeners and the domestic staff. If the workers are not treated well and respected for the vital role they play in the community, they go home with resentments that fester. They might be mad at the surgeon, but won't say so for fear of losing their job and the security it brings.

This comes down to the people with the power being just and generous with it. And it comes from respecting each other within the community. If people feel respected, and if their basic needs are met, they are far less likely to go to war. Occasionally they will for theological or political reasons, but that is rare.

On an international level, the scenario is much the same. If people are fed, cared for, sheltered, employed in dignified work, respected and valued, they are basically peaceful. If one nation believes that another nation has some kind of unfair economic advantage, be it trade routes, resources, technology, or what have you, it is often much easier to convince the "disadvantaged" nation to pick a fight. Or if a powerful country (say the US) sees something it wants that another country has (say oil), and that other country wants to demand a higher price than the first country wants to pay, one can reasonably expect the first country to find a way to attack the second country and seize its resources. Not that the US would ever do such a thing, of course. Not us. Just the bad guys do that.

Peace is dependent upon security and economic justice, then. Tada! I have reached a conclusion! Finally, after all these miserably tough topics. Only it is a palindrome of a conclusion. It works the same frontwards as backwards:

There will be peace when there is justice. There will be justice when there is peace.

And perhaps more harshly accurate: Until there is peace, there will be no justice. Until there is justice, there will be no peace. Again, thanks to Ms. Waters.

That is huge. I wonder if the minds that run the nations of this world can grasp this idea. I think Barack Obama can. I think Gordon Browne might have a clue. Mad King George couldn't grasp his dick with his hands if given a flashlight and a map, never mind concepts so high as peace and justice. Kim Jong Ill might know and understand, but is using strife and injustice to keep tensions high and himself in charge. The rest of the world's leaders? I don't know. We'll have to see what happens after January 20, 2009.

I forget who it was, but I heard a guy speaking on a program broadcast on National Public Radio. He was talking about economic injustice, entrenched behaviors, and the caste system in India. Hundreds of thousands of people in India work every day carrying away human excrement from non-flushing toilets and latrines all over the nation. Lacking adequate indoor plumbing and waste water treatment facilities, many people in India still rely on untouchables to carry away their waste. The untouchables are doomed to a life of ostracism and filth because of the status of their birth and the work they are forced to perform. With proper plumbing, the guy argued, there would be no need for the caste of untouchables, who could then be educated and allowed to participate fully in Indian culture and society. With education, he said, comes dignity and opportunity. How many brilliant minds are born each year into this doomed group? How many potential Nobel scientists never learned to read because of the status of their birth? It is shameful to consider.

To find peace, at least on a large scale, we must work carefully toward the mutual goals of peace and justice. Like the yin and the yan, they revolve around each other. Peace and justice on a large scale will happen when there is peace and justice on a national level, and peace and justice on a national level will happen when there is peace and justice at the regional level, the community level, the family level and the individual level. And unlike that palindromic example above, peace at the personal level does not require that there is peace at the global level. Peace at the personal level can be a decision made by a person - you or me - to be at peace, to not take the bait when it is offered, to share and live peace every day. If each of us makes a small effort to be more peaceful within our selves, our families and our communities, imagine how quickly we might affect change at the regional, national and global levels.



A Spot of T said...

I was thinking about 'peace' not too long ago. I turn 45 in the next few weeks and I was thinking that this has been the first year in my life I have been at peace with myself. I still have work of course. What can I say, I'm a constant work in progress. But for the first time in my life I really do feel at peace with myself. It doesn't fix the world and the lack of peace within it, but I'll tell you gives me hope. Hope that if "I" can find it, others in the world can too.

Robin said...

Peace to me is the absence of war, but at the same time it is so much more, so much deeper.

There will never be peace as long as there are downtrodden underprivileged societies being kept away from a fair slice of the pie. A content, employed, well-fed population doesn't rebel.

Th' Rev said...

I came up in a war zone and found my peace with my friends in jr. and high school,the core of which is still intact after all these long years.And while what we all went through with each other is rarely spoken aloud,it's there and we know what we mean to each other.
And after trying three times and failing I finally got my family peace 15 years ago when Ann and I got together.We are equals in our home,and while there have been harsh words at times-times we can count on one hand the prevalent vibe has been harmony.My son is on the same path.Over the last 8 months or so I have made peace with those first attempts at family and that feels really good.
On the other hand,I'm all about war (just kidding!:)).
You should write a book.