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Peace is not the absence of war

from the archives, 2016

Today we begin a fresh blog series on the theme of peace.

It is important to remember that all the inner work of meditation and workshopping bears a relationship to a wider political and social context. Spirituality may begin as a private pursuit, but it inevitably opens us to engaging with the world and assuming responsibility for its condition.

The starting point for thinking about peace is asking what it is. If we mistake its nature, we will lack it. By identifying it, we can have it. Peace is not the absence of war - not an absence at all. It is a presence.

A cessation of hostilities may be - and usually is - merely an interval between two bouts of fighting. This applies both to our interpersonal conflicts as well as to political and military conflicts around the globe.

Peace is a positive thing, a living presence, not a dead exhaustion. In its positive presence are held all the virtuous accompaniments of peace - justice, forgiveness, inclusiveness, etc. A relevant symbol is white light in which all the colours of the rainbow are present. If a single colour is missing, there could be no clarity of white.

That is the first point and the root of everything else.

The second point is that inner peace and outer peace are not disconnected.

Individuals who cultivate an inner peaceful disposition will affect everybody and everything around them. Perhaps not so obvious is that these peacemakers look upon a torn world crying out for healing and see a reflection of the yet-to-be-healed parts of themselves. For the peacemaker, conflict resolution takes place on four levels concurrently: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intrafaith and interfaith. That is, within oneself; between oneself and other individuals; within one's group; and between one's group and other groups in the world.

The safety of peace cannot be enjoyed if the world is perceived as a threatening, alien place. Peacemakers therefore opt not to be alienated. They consciously, deliberately build bridges to the many factions comprising humanity and its societies.

Then they do not need to feel threatened by that which is one with themselves. What makes this possible, and not some bizarre act of self-deception, is a model they carry around in their mind.

A hologram is a special kind of a picture, whose parts contain the image of the whole within themselves. It is a metaphor for our scientific times of the relationship between self and the world, the individual and society. It is also a metaphor that can describe the relationship between a human being and the whole of creation. This kind of thinking is not new by any means; but thinking of these matters in terms of the hologram has an advantage of being contemporary.

If our mental model is such that the whole contains the part and the part the whole, when we look out at the world, with its sufferings and conflicts alongside its beauty, we should see ourselves. Healing oneself and the world then become the same occupation.

As inner peace and outer peace are ultimately inseparable, so too are peace in this world and peace in another. This is an important aspect to the philosophy of peacemaking. If only transcendental, heavenly peace were possible, we must resign ourselves to life in this world necessarily being one damn conflict after another. Yet our efforts at peacemaking belie this.

Why would anyone encourage those quarrelling family members to love each other better; or why would diplomats attempt to negotiate a non-military solution to a problem, if it were futile to ameliorate conflict down here on earth?

There is an almost universal desire and hope for peace in our communities and amongst the family of nations. This wouldn’t make sense if there were “no hope” for a peace here and now, only transcendentally.

On the other hand, to forget that there is something akin to grace about peace, something that surpasses all our efforts and planning, could be to court destruction. When people get pressured into a short-sighted “law and order” agenda that is meant to silence dissent, authentic peace is nullified. Pushing and intimidating “troublemakers” for a quick peace and order fix on a particular patch of earth leaves a legacy of unhealed problems.

There is many a “strong man” around who thinks he can make peace happen by his own exceptional genius for discipline, and promises to solve a society’s problems in one fell swoop.

Many want to believe in the “strong man” because it is easier than doing the diligent work to prepare for real peace; and in the process they will turn a blind eye to the infringement of human rights. For the “strong man” can be substituted the “strong” faction or movement or party. The ideology associated with the will to force a solution onto society becomes a false god or idol, promising peace and prosperity but delivering woe. In these scenarios, it is wise to remember that peace is an ideal which we must be patient in realising; that peacemaking is an unfinished business, a work in progress, and shall continue to be as long as some people are excluded from the settlement.

Expecting our leaders, the political and religious elite, to be solely responsible for peacemaking is again fraught with disillusionment. They have their work to do, and ordinary people have their own work to do. Like ordinary people, the elite may get things wrong or right in any given instance. It is another sign of our times that the masses are getting increasingly disgruntled with leaders.

Chronic scepticism leads many to think that an evil conspiracy is being perpetrated by those in power. This stresses society and threatens to fracture it along the lines of the governed and the governors. Class warfare is one of the faces that this menacing fault line can take, made worse by lingering injustices that never seem to get addressed. Every role that people can take, whether lofty or lowly, has its advantages and disadvantages. What we do in our roles is more important than the role themselves.

To hate the ruling elite is self-defeating because it confirms discontent with one’s own role, believed to be in a disempowered relationship with the elite.

A would-be peacemaker must continually put personal discontent on trial.

Is the indulgence of discontent the necessary fuel of revolutionary change? Or is the practice of contentment the proper concern for the peacemaker? If revolution involves brutality and bloodshed, how is it essentially different from the oppression that occasioned it? Peaceful revolution is a non-violent taking back of power that was misguidedly given away in the first place.

Finally, what about “holy wars”? Is there anything holy about them? Or should we reserve ‘holy’ for the peacemaking not war-making? The deepest values that adherents passionately cherish are enshrined in their religious creeds - or, more broadly, belief systems. Because people are prepared to die for these values, competing creeds may be regarded as the cause of all wars. But this is only a half-truth. They can also be the cause of all peace.

The peacemaker must seriously consider what lies ahead on the road of interfaith conflict resolution.

Putting it simply, Good Religion promotes peace and Bad Religion promotes war. Real Religion promotes peace and False Religion promotes war. The good, real religion can find a way out of interfaith conflict on its own terms (which is why it is so important for every religion to have an interfaith dimension). Bad, false religion leaves no option but eternal conflict between adherents of different creeds in this world and the next.

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