It has proven nearly impossible to establish long-lasting peace between nations and between the world’s varied ethnic and religious groups. The much heralded “peace accords” that have punctuated the last few decades of humanity’s conflict-filled history have not produced the kind of peace most people so desperately seek.
All of us are familiar with the thousands of well-intentioned people who march through the streets of our capital cities calling for peace. Some may march for a peace that demands no military intervention by one country in the affairs of another, while at the same time others are equally fervent in the belief that peace sometimes requires international military intervention. Unfortunately the desire for peace often puts governments and citizens at odds with each other.
A catalogue of places where people are involved in conflict would fill many pages. In recent years as many as 30 to 40 wars have raged simultaneously across the planet. During the recent war in Iraq, a report that 1,000 people had been killed in conflict in the Ivory Coast raised only enough interest to be recorded in the less-read sections of newspapers.
Why is it that “peace” seems to be often at our fingertips yet rarely within our grasp? What is missing in human relations that causes peace plans to fail? Let’s review peace as it is pursued generally by nations and individuals, and then examine the subject from a biblical perspective. There is a surprising difference between the two.
Walter Truett Anderson is a fellow of the Meridian Institute and current president of the American division of the World Academy of Art and Science. In his book The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World (1995), which includes contributions by Václav Havel, Isaiah Berlin, Maureen O’Hara, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Jacques Derrida and others, Anderson makes a telling statement. He concludes that “we don’t know precisely where we are or where we are going”—an accurate if unintentionally disparaging observation about the present state of society. It illustrates well the current confusion in the search for peace.
Peace is first a concept before it becomes a reality. And our approaches to it are varied. The search for peace must therefore begin by addressing the conceptual origins of each approach. Against the backdrop of war as a means to peace, we would do well to consider appeasement, compromise, pacifism and tolerance.
Many people still have a personal memory of the transition between World War I and World War II. In the aftermath of the 1914–18 war, the world was hungry for peace. Thousands of young men were lying in graves in Europe, but before families could fully cope with their losses, the next massive catastrophe loomed. At the time, British leadership could hardly be blamed for focusing on anything that would prevent a recurrence of the earlier tragedy. In the desperate interests of peace, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain adopted a policy of appeasement on behalf of the British government.
This approach to peace was founded on the idea that calm or quiet could be established by making concessions to a potential aggressor. Military historian Sir John Keegan notes that neither France nor England wanted or was ready for war: “Both responded to Hitler by seeking to placate rather than confront him, and more ignobly as his demands grew more extortionate.” While appeasement took shape only in 1936, Keegan notes that “its outlines were detectable much earlier” (Winston Churchill, 2002).
The peace obtained by such concessions proved to be a façade. The 1938 Munich Agreement between Germany, Italy, France and Britain, and the infamous piece of paper signed immediately afterward by Hitler and Chamberlain, certainly created a feeling of peace, but for whom and for how long? While consultations were promised to avoid war, once part of Czechoslovakia fell into Hitler’s hands, he soon marched into the country and took the rest, and the world descended rapidly into global war once more.
“Do not suppose that this is the end,” Churchill warned. “This is only the first sip, the bitter foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year. . . .”
Winston Churchill understood the problem with appeasement, as he demonstrated in his speech to the House of Commons during the debate that followed the signing of the agreement. “Do not suppose that this is the end,” he warned. “This is only the first sip, the bitter foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” There is a great difference between desiring peace and participating in the events that lead to its establishment.
Similarly, the biblical prophet Jeremiah addressed a time when national leadership would be promising “peace, peace,” but the reality would be a failure to understand the true substance of peace. And so he stated that in actuality, there would be “no peace.” About 20 years later, around 600 B.C., the people to whom he addressed these remarks were taken into captivity, confirming the accuracy of his statements. Can we confine Jeremiah’s statement to a particular point in humanity’s past, with no relevance to our world? Or is there something in the prophet’s words that would be beneficial for us to consider?
Peace by All Means
Another concept underlying the kind of peace we see pursued in the world of global politics is the finding of common ground or the settling of differences by mutual concession. Such compromise is the basis of many attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East, for example. Outside diplomatic sources require that both Israel and the PLO give some ground. Of course, each side hopes that the other may be forced to make greater concessions, because the real desire is to get more than is given. In addition, this approach to peace has yet to find a way to overcome the powerful forces of religion and nationalism, individually or in combination.
If peace could be established by compromise, then the United Nations should have a good track record. But given the tally of wars fought around the world since the formation of that body, we can only conclude that attempting to achieve peace through compromise has not worked very well.
The failure of multiple peace initiatives has led succeeding generations to be more inclined toward pacifism as the way to peace. The proponents of this approach are opposed to war or violence in any form as a means to resolve conflict. But will nations voluntarily dismantle their war machines and make themselves vulnerable to aggressors who will not do likewise? For pacifism to succeed as a means to peace, it would require a system of global governance with the power to enforce disarmament. The United Nations has proven unequal to the task, as did the earlier League of Nations.
The World Bank’s vice president for Europe, J.F. Rischard, citing the challenges currently faced by the EU, argues that world government is unrealistic in the short term: “The EU’s dilemma shows how hard it would be to achieve a world government in the next twenty years. Today, the EU still has only fifteen members [25 in 2004]. A world government would have close to 190. . . . Using a plausible rule of thumb, we may expect the degree of complication . . . to grow with the square of the number of members.” (High Noon, 2002).
Pacifism may be a fine ideal, but the mechanics for its implementation are yet to be found.
The promotion of tolerance is yet another approach to achieving peace. Globalization has caused more people of different origins to rub shoulders than perhaps ever before. Peaceful coexistence between various cultures, peoples, races and religions requires a great deal of tolerance. Areas of the world with large multicultural populations and varied religious cultures do benefit from mutual understanding of differences. Yet, as is well known in the clash between Western culture and certain branches of Islam, differences in the ethics and standards upon which each culture is built mean that as they come into contact, the result is more often friction than tolerance. It is difficult to require people to divest themselves of their cultural or national identity when others are taking steps to reaffirm theirs. Tolerance can progress only on a two-way street.
It is difficult to require people to divest themselves of their cultural or national identity when others are taking steps to reaffirm theirs.
The human desire is clearly to live in peace. We strive for peaceful conditions by many means, but none so dramatic or pervasive as war. How many wars have been fought in the name of peace? Unashamedly the recent war in Iraq was dubbed a “war of peace.” By subduing an evil regime, people were liberated from oppression to go forward with their collective lives in peace. But is Iraq a nation at peace? Are the northern Kurds, the Sunni Moslem minority and the Shiite Moslem majority living peacefully with each other? Is there greater peace in the international community as a result of this war? Historically we see that war can bring about a period when there is an absence of strife. However, these periods do not last for long, because the true elements of peace are missing. A peace that is nothing more than an interval between two wars is not a real peace.
The concepts of peace outlined here have a common element. Peace is seen as an absence of strife, an end to hostilities, freedom from oppression, the gaining of tranquility. These are all noble goals, and understandably they drive people to employ the various processes available in hopes of realizing the end of conflict. However, the results are inevitably disappointing and indicative of missing components of peace. In spite of advanced communication techniques, education and political skills, vast differences still exist between nations and peoples.
Václav Havel, philosopher and former president of Czechoslovakia, invites us to consider one of the missing elements in the search for peace. He writes, “Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.”
To achieve what he later calls “peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation” in “today’s multicultural world,” it is clear that Havel believes that an acknowledgment of humanity’s common origin and an obligation to our Creator are key. To reach this understanding, Havel says, a kind of self-transcendence is required. We must find the ability to reach out, to extend ourselves beyond the limits of ordinary experience and history.
The Bible affirms that true peace requires such thinking. The Hebrew word shalom is translated “peace.” In many instances it means exactly what we have discussed so far: the absence of strife. The nation of ancient Israel, whose progress is closely followed in Scripture, was said to be at peace when it was not attacking or being attacked by neighboring nations. Peace was also associated with health and completeness. This is perhaps a more personal form of peace, but people today have the same goals when they speak of peace. We desire the absence of war at the national and family level, and the absence of serious illness and poverty at the personal level. Certainly these are aspects of peace that people throughout time have sought to enjoy. But as the Bible and international relations testify, peace at this level has rarely endured.
Real peace is beyond the reach of the normal human mind. But it is not impossible.
Havel is correct to suggest that we need self-transcendence. Real peace is beyond the reach of the normal human mind. But it is not impossible. It is difficult, and it requires a determined mindset, but it is obtainable. The word shalom, like the Arabic equivalent salaam, has more than one meaning in English. At the level where we extend ourselves beyond the ordinary areas of experience, it denotes completeness, wholeness, harmony and fulfillment. Now we enter the area that Havel denotes as genuinely valuing our neighbors and ourselves.
New Testament usage of the Greek eirene closely follows the Hebrew shalom rather than the narrow Homeric idea of the absence of war. Hence it describes harmonious and whole relationships, not only between people and nations, but ultimately with God—the latter being the only way in which a person can be truly whole.
At one level, peace is the result of active reconciliation of people and nations, which can be achieved by such devices as appeasement and compromise. For true peace, however, people need to be reconciled (achieve completeness or wholeness) with their total environment, which concerns, as Havel points out, Being, universe, nature and our own existence. Of course, Havel does not mean to imply that he knows the true nature of these things, but that he can see that something is missing in our relationships. He attempts to identify the missing elements, which are beyond the average person’s common concerns.
The components for lasting peace are simply not within man. They are not a part of the natural self. We desire to be self-sufficient units within the universal order and therefore do not cling to the “miracle of Being” from the standpoint of recognizing that we are created subjects who need to identify the Creator in order to harmonize our lives with Him. Thus, everyone strives for his or her own “peace.” The world will never have true peace under these conditions.
Only through self-transcendence will we ask how we can contribute to the harmony of the universal order.
Only through self-transcendence will we ask how we can contribute to the harmony of the universal order. When we stop taking and begin to give, we will be approaching the condition known as reconciliation, completeness or wholeness. True peace is not based on creating, out of self-interest, conditions that are favorable only to ourselves, but on seeking the well-being of others—giving of self to create conditions favorable to their interests. When we begin to value others from the perspective of what is best for them rather than what they can do for us, then we will be on the path to peace. The Creator values our neighbor, and if we can attach that same value to him or her, then we will begin to divest ourselves of self-interest and look for ways to promote peace and harmony.
When Jeremiah spoke to the national leadership of his day and declared that their proclamations of peace were false and hollow because they were based on wrong concepts, he was speaking prophetically. His words are as much for our time as they were for the peoples and nations of 2,600 years ago. Most leaders are deeply desirous of peace, but until we all accept the need to reach beyond normal methods and change our way of thinking, peace will continue to elude us. Our current approaches to peace can achieve small gains, but they hold only transitory benefits. The only process that leads to permanent peace involves the changing of our thinking processes from inward and self-serving to an outgoing and genuine love for other people.