Is Peace Inevitable?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 26, 2002
The great Roman historian Plutarch, author of the famous Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, once wrote of those ancient geographers who knew, in fact, nothing whatsoever of the world beyond their homelands. When these geographers were called upon to draw maps of the “whole world”, Plutarch said, they would “crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they did not know about, adding notes in the margins to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts, full of wild beasts and unapproachable bogs.”
Those ancient geographers weren’t able to imagine a world beyond the boundaries of their own limited experience. How, then, could they ever be expected to chart “the whole world”? They couldn’t. So instead, they just wrote it off; they said it wasn’t worth knowing about anyway; no one would ever want to explore there; that it was impossible to reach, too dangerous, forbidden, beyond the pale of “civilization” as they knew it…
“Why are Americans so afraid of dragons?” the feminist author Ursula LeGuin asks. Then, she answers her own question: because we tend to look at the world of fantasy and imagination as suspect, as trivial, even as contemptible. But, LeGuin concludes, with a word of warning, “Those who do not listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the dreary nightmares of politicians.”
LeGuin is saying that if we refuse to pay attention to our inner dragons—to the forces of imagination and creativity and possibility and transformation that are all around us, and within us-- even though they my be hidden from ready site, and may be a mystery even to ourselves—then we, too, will be like those ancient mapmakers: We will summarily dismiss that which we are not able to understand. We will cling to the expected and the mundane. We will cling to the ways we have “always” done things.
We will be like that Yugoslav peasant accosted by Rebecca West in the marketplace in our reading earlier: “Have you ever known peace?” she will ask us, and we, too, will respond: “No, there was fear; there were our enemies without, our rulers within; there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death.”
“When all the time,” as LeGuin writes, “dark and beautiful dragons stalk the edges of our dismal, ordered lives.”
By refusing to pay attention to the possibilities of the world that can be, we damn ourselves to go on living in the same old world as it has always been.
But perhaps it is time at last to draw a new map of the world—a new map of politics and relationships among people—a new map of the possibilities that might yet await our beautiful planet Earth.
Now, I know that all this talk of re-mapping the politics of our times—of moving our planet from war to peace—of building a common planetary home based upon mutually assured interdependence rather than mutually assured destruction—of this talk may strike some of you as hopelessly naïve. “There he goes again,” you might be saying to yourselves, “sounding so much like an idealist—so much like a minister!”
History would certainly forgive any of us being cynical about the possibilities for “peace in our time”. We’ve heard those words before. “Peace, peace, the voices cry, but there is no peace.” Wars still rage around the world. The Middle East seems set to explode again. India and Pakistan face off against each other. Former-Yugoslavia seems to sit on the back burner of the world’s attention now; but we know that it’s a simmering kettle, that could reach full boil again at any time. After all those years of “unparalleled economic expansion”, we are in the midst of lean years once again, and politicians speak of cutting student loans, housing subsidies, school lunches, anti-smoking programs, nutritional programs for children. But, as always, our obscenely inflated “Defense” budget remains a sacred cow, which no one can dare question.
We may be forgiven if we despair of the possibilities of peace in our time—or any time, for that matter. “The years we have gone through have killed something in us,” Albert Camus wrote in the early years of our nuclear age. “Today no one speaks [of peace] any more (except those who repeat themselves [and to whom no one is listening] because history seems to be in the grip of blind and deaf forces of ideology which will heed neither warning, nor advice, nor entreaties.”
And in her classic study Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Joanna Rogers Macy writes:
“Until now, every generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that other generations would follow. Each assumed, without questioning, that its children and its children’s children and those yet unborn would carry on—to walk the same earth, under the same sky. Hardships, failure, and personal death were encompassed in the vaster assurance of continuity. That certainty is now lost to us, whether we work in the Pentagon or in the peace movement. That loss, unmeasured and immeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
We have been born or who have grown to maturity in the years since the dawn of the Nuclear Age feel numb in the face of a faceless terror which has not gone away. In spite of the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, this world is as dangerous a place as ever. Who knows when some renegade Russian—American—or British—or French—or Chinese-- or Ukrainian—or Belorussian—or Kazakh—of Pakistani—or Indian—or Egyptian—or Israeli—political leader might decide to become the first to use nuclear weapons against an enemy since 1945, unleashing God-only-knows what kind of response. Who knows when a rogue scientist might choose to sell his country’s nuclear secrets to this-or-that terrorist organization for 40 pieces of silver? And can we really ever really rest secure at the thought of some “enlightened” country like Iran or Iraq or North Korea finally managing to get the Bomb—something they’ve all worked at for years? If we think about it (and it is much more comforting just not to), this world is still a numbingly dangerous place, and “The years we have gone through have killed something in us,” to be sure.
Do we have any choice, then? Is there any reason to hope for peace? Is there still a more excellent way?
I am not a pacifist, even thought I have the deepest respect for those who are. I would agree with Gandhi, the modern world’s greatest disciple of non-violence, who once reminded us that sometimes, when the choice is between violence and cowardice, we must choose to fight. Sometimes, in m opinion, there are human creations so irrational and evil that they need to be confronted. I hate the thought of going to war (and I hate even more the thought of my children going to war—or your children) but I am thankful that the generation before mine acted as they did to eliminate the Nazi scourge from the face of the Earth and responded as they did when our country was attacked at Pearl Harbor. I have also said before that I believe that, in the main, the response of our armed forces to the attack of September 11th was entirely justified.
Now, perhaps it could be argued that, both in the case of World War II and September 11th, many of the same goals we achieved could have been accomplished without going to war. But my own study of history leads me to doubt it. I also know that when placed face-to-face with evil in the context of one’s own historical moment, one does not always have the luxury to reflect as deeply as those who arrive 40 or 50 years later on the scene.
Yet, still, in spite of the fact that I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist, my faith continues to cry out to me—almost in desperation at time, perhaps—that the human spirit is more powerful than any force which can be mustered against it. It is more powerful than the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It is more powerful than the inferno of the World Trade Center. It is more powerful than the blood-soaked hills of Bosnia or the carnage at Ramallah. It is even more powerful than the living hells of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which our own nation unleashed upon the world.
The human spirit is more powerful than any human-made hells because the human spirit is part and parcel of the indestructible spirit at the heart of the universe, the indestructible power of the Creation. We are limited only by the boundaries we place upon ourselves and upon our consciousness. My faith tells me that we can draw a new map of this world of ours—if we but dare to break free of the patterns of domination and control of the past, and see the world in new ways, and live the world in new ways.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The call to be peacemakers is found in all of the world’s holy scriptures, Jewish and Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. We approach closest to the Divine, closest to God, closest to the true Source of our Being, when we put aside the man-made weapons of war, and take up the soul-inspired tools of peace. We are human; we are not gods. We will not always realize the full potential that dwells in our souls. We do make war upon one another; at times, perhaps, unavoidably. But let our faith proclaim that we can make peace as well!
Let our faith proclaim it not just in words, but in deeds as well. “We have assumed the name of peacemakers,” Daniel Berrigan has written, “but we have been unwilling, by and large, to pay any significant price. And because we want peace with half and heart and half a will, war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total—but the waging of peace, by our cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the [half-heartedness] of peace.”
As Jewel Kilcher sings:
“There are so many people who pray for peace,
But if praying were enough, it would have come to be.”
If peace is to have a chance, we must do more than talk about peace, or pray for peace. We must wage peace and live peace:
The first step on the road to peace is self-understanding. We must stop blaming all those enemies “out there” for all of our failures. We have to come to grips, first of all, with the demons within—with those addictions and afflictions and diseases and prejudices in our own beings—which make us less than we can be. Unless we are dealing with these, then our relationships with other people can never be built on the basis of true peace. There is much wisdom in that little song which goes, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
The second step is to adopt a lifestyle based upon peace, and not upon oppression or exploitation of others. We can only hope to live as peacemakers if our relationships to others are based upon non-violence, in every sense of the term: non-violence toward their spirits and beings, as well as toward their physical bodies. That means treating everyone around us with profound reverence, and recognizing how genuinely sacred each moment is. A non-violent attitude is one of actively living life, and loving life, and nurturing it toward its fullest possibilities, in ourselves and in others.
And the third step on the road to peace is actively to translate who we are as personal beings into who we are as public citizens. Opportunities for our human race, however golden they might at first appear, have this way of slipping away in the face of unimaginative, uninspired, unprophetic leadership. (Nowhere is this more true than in the current situation in the Middle East, where narrow-minded, myopic, recalcitrant leaders on both sides have brought the world to the verge of nightmare.)
Now, the ways in which the voice of God (or, if you prefer, the voice of Truth) can manifest itself in the lives of any of us can differ widely, from person to person. But we are obligated as religious men and women, to try—each in our own way—to do something to make this world a more peaceful place, a safer place for future generations call their home.
None of us is President or Prime Minister. None of us sits on the councils of state, or at summit negotiating tables.
But some of us are gardeners. And some of us are artists. And some of us are weavers.
We can be gardeners of a peace-filled planet. We can nurture those around us, as we would delicate plants and seedlings. We can be good, peace-loving parents, and grandparents, and adopted grandparents. We can instill within our children a respect for people everywhere, a love for this, our Mother Earth, and a deep longing for peace and justice.
We can be artists of inspired talent. We can paint for all to see our visions of the world that can yet be—a world at peace. We can tell tales of a world without nuclear weapons and without nuclear nightmares. We can present a vision—and explore ways together to make that vision become true.
And we can be weavers. Weavers of a tapestry of peace: a tapestry so large and so universal that it can warm even the coldest and most barren spots of Earth, even the darkest, coldest corners of our own souls.
This is a sad old world in many ways, and the events of the past year have but deepened our sadness. But let the hope prevail that our human race will finally emerge on day from under the dark, gray cloud of “politics as usual”. We may awake one day from out of the “nightmares of politicians”. We may finally be starting to recognize and embrace again those dragons of possibility which have haunted the edge of our worldviews for so long—dragons of wonder, dragons of enchantment, dragons of justice, dragons of peace. And these spirits, alive within our consciousness, alive within our creativity, will help us redraw the maps of the world as it is; they will help us draw at last a new map of a new world community.
It is up to us—so small, so weak—but with so much still to live for. “We are tired, we are weary, but we are not worn out.”
For as J.R. R. Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings:
“The quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong… such is oft the course of deeds which move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
It is not we, the Americans, who will bring peace. It is not we, the Democrats or we, the Republicans. It is we, the mothers and fathers-- sons and daughter-- brothers and sisters of the Earth— who will bring peace.
We are the weavers of the tapestry of peace. The things we do—the ways we act—the choices we make—determine how far our tapestry will extend, and how vivid and alive its colors will be. We determine whether or not there will be peace among the children of Mother Earth.
Fill us grace o’er flowing. Teach us how to live in peace.”