Everyone Wants Peace, but What Is It?

I’m not sure I know what peace is. Here and there are hints of what it might be. Psalm 133, for instance, proclaims living with one another in harmony is like precious oil poured over the head of Aaron, like the dew of Mt. Hermon that announces God’s blessings. Isaiah’s imagery of the peaceable kingdom (Isa 11) has inspired whole catalogues of paintings and uncounted sermons. Wonderful as these hints promise to be, have they ever been experienced?

I expect each of us has experienced them in moments when we have been harmoniously at peace with our surroundings, but they come and go in a world that is not. Peace may be more than the absence of war, but the absence of war is a necessary precedent. I was thinking about that when I got involved in extended conversations with acquaintances who adamantly argued that we owe our American way of life to soldiers willing to put their lives on the line defending our freedom. It’s a popular theme among many, so I decided to take a look at the wars and major armed conflicts we have engaged in, starting with the War of Independence. The result was an article published last year on Country Parson.

Scanning the record, I came up with 97 named American wars and major armed conflicts. Don’t hold me to the exact number. I could be off by a few. Of these, 39 (40%) were named wars of Indian eradication, clearing the way for (white) settlers to live in peace. They were wars of conquest and subjugation that, in a sense, could be considered in defense of freedoms for certain Americans at the expense of other Americans. Of the remainder, I could name only five that most would consider to be in defense of American freedom. The obvious point is that, as a nation, we have seldom been free of a time of armed conflict, nor can we claim the moral high ground as virtuous defenders of the God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was not an article well received by my patriotically conservative friends.

It’s hard to understand how we can talk about peace, the peace of nations living in harmony within themselves and with one another, when, as best I can tell, we’ve never experienced it. As bleak as that may sound, it’s not without an answer. As individuals, we have opportunity and means to live in harmony with those about us, as best we can. As best we can recognizes our limitations and weaknesses, but even giving them full consideration, we do know how to live in harmony with those about us. It’s a place to start. The ancient formula: loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves, and respecting the dignity of every human being, has never been improved on. Sadly, those of us who know it best observe it not well enough to inspire others. Nevertheless, we can try, and we can start with those who are closest to us, our families, immediate neighbors, friends, coworkers, and the other people with whom we engage in daily life. We cannot lobby for a world at peace if we’re unwilling to do the hard work of trying to live in harmony with those closest to us.

Individual efforts to live in harmony with those who are near is only one part of working toward peace. There are systemic issues built into the social and political fabric of the nations that cannot be addressed by good people behaving with good intentions. To the extent we are able, we must also create conditions under which entire communities can be successful in life (I don’t mean Joel Osteen success, I mean Isaiah success). It requires that we be agents doing the best we can to influence private and public policies that remove barriers to fullness of life for all persons, and to see that each person is equipped to take advantage of opportunities that are present.

It means a turn from theology and philosophy to economics and organization theory. In the mid 1970s, the economist John W. Kendrick said that assuring conditions for that kind of success required public and private investment in intangible capital: R&D, education, health, and job safety. He called it Total Factor Productivity. It never got much traction, yet each new study about opportunity gained and lost comes to the same conclusion. They are the very investments ill favored by political interests determined to reduce government to the smallest size possible, and others for whom stock price is the ultimate measure of value. They believe anything less is the destruction of the ideal of American self reliance and entrepreneurial spirit. That their own future depends on their repentance eludes them.

W. Edwards Deming, another mid 20th century scholar whose work involved helping organizations succeed by empowering employees to succeed, was adamant that a person could not be held accountable for poor performance if they were denied the tools necessary for good performance: education, skills training, high quality resources with which to work, and an environment giving both freedom to exercise full one’s potential and clear explanations of goals and standards. What is true for corporations is true for every form of human organization, including cities, states and nations. Peace, defined as living in harmony with one another, cannot exist unless every person is afforded the opportunity to have and use the tools necessary for good performance. Whether each takes advantage of the opportunity is another matter.

Kendrick and Deming may have been known for their work on productivity, but they were driven by the knowledge that organizations (companies, cities, states, nations) could not succeed if they failed to function harmoniously for the well being of all their members, whether employees or customers. Peace is what it was about, but not peace without conflict. Harmony is not without conflict.

Harmony makes conflict resolution possible. They understood, as do we all, that conflict is unavoidable. We are diverse in who we are, what we believe, and how we approach life’s challenges. From a theologian’s point of view, we’re also fallen: we’re greedy, selfish, needy, and egotistical. We live in tension with ourselves and one another, but it’s not all bad. It’s only through tension and conflict that creative new ways are discovered to solve previously intractable problems. Conservative tendencies resist. Liberal tendencies can push to excess. Competitive egos try to dominate. That’s life. Harmony makes room for it by crafting processes to resolve differences, and standards to set appropriate limits.

Those unwilling to live with others in harmonious tension, according to agreed upon limits, make dangerous leaders and troublesome community members. To be sure, there are disruptive, rebellious types whose intellectual gifts and willingness to take risks are generators of great advances in human knowledge and technology. They often pay an enormous price for being social outliers. Room needs to be made for them, but there are other disruptive, rebellious types, social outliers, intent on destroying the fabric of society. It’s not always easy to tell one from the other, but there are obvious examples: white (or other ethnic) supremacists, determined insurrectionists, anarchists, and the like. They are not unrelated to interpersonal psychologies that rely on bullying, intimidation, and various forms of sociopathic manipulation for control. Standards and limits have to be set so that everyone has an understanding of how to succeed in harmonious cooperation with others. It doesn’t mean regimented sameness. It means making room for individual strengths and weaknesses to work out on their own how best to proceed, feeling it’s safe to do so. Harmony is not homogenization.

Making peace is a political balancing act. It demands political action. It requires a philosophical commitment to peace, and a pragmatic plan to create the processes and institutions to achieve it. A university peace studies program may be a part of it. A well funded community college may be a more important part of it. Both need those who can organize effective lobbying efforts in the halls of government. It should go without saying that a solid grounding in basic civics for everyone, and broadly available education in the liberal arts is essential to it all.

1 thought on “Everyone Wants Peace, but What Is It?”

  1. Steve, thanks for the food for thought in your January 19 article/sermon on Peace. It certainly captures the present situation and needs.

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