Today is declared the International Day of Peace by the United Nations. So it should be—today, and every day. It’s worth thinking about this word ‘peace’ and what a day of peace might mean, or even a year of peace, let alone a peaceful life.
There is of course the everyday sense in which so many of us long for just a little peace, by which we probably mean some quietness, a place or time to relax, to smell the roses, to enjoy the company of friends and family, or just read a book.
At our local church last Sunday, the pastor gave us some Homework! He even gave it a capital H. We were each asked to identify one of our own places of peace and to go there. Then we were asked to identify how we could provide a place of peace for another person and do it. Some of us will find the first one easier. Others will find it easier to help someone else rather than to care for ourselves. But what really do we mean by ‘a place of peace’? Mostly, we might define that in terms of what it is not: not a busy place, a noisy place, a place of demands, things to do … Yet all that is just one aspect of peace.
The concept of peace is all too easily defined in negative terms, what it is not. We actually need a must more robust and creative concept. This is one of the most important concepts in the Scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Peace is not just the absence of conflict, oppression, noise or demands—though an end to all those things is deeply desirable! Peace is a much more positive and enabling concept. Peace is about the well-being of life and therefore it is about the flourishing of community. Peace is about healthy living with ourselves, each other and with the earth and all its creatures.
On this basis, there are several fundamental things to affirm on this ‘International Day of Peace’:
- There is no peace without justice. Peace is only possible when there is no group of people who are suppressed, deprived, oppressed. Many rulers think that subjugating a group of people establishes peace. On this the great ‘pax Romana’ was based. Rome provided all the known world with peace, in the sense that they kept everyone in their place, subject to their domination. That is not peace, but tyranny. Peace in the sense of human community, a community of human flourishing, requires justice. And justice in the sense of distributive justice—where all have an opportunity to grow, learn, develop their potential.
- Therefore, peace requires peace-building. There are three important ideas here. One is peace-keeping; another is peace-making; the third is peace-building. Which comes first? Well, it depends on the situation and sometimes all three need to be addressed. In essence, where there is open conflict, war or tyranny, it may be that some priority has to be given to peace-making, in the sense of negotiating a cease-fire, or some agreement to talk rather than shoot at each other. Then, too, there may be a need for peace-keeping, which may take the form of a third party ensuring that the agreement or truce is kept. The UN has a significant role in such peace-keeping activities between nations. But the major work is the work of building the peace—working towards new ways of living together that prevent conflict or oppression and enable peaceful living. This is political, legal, economic and inter-cultural work. It involves all levels of society, and education is a major element in peace-building. It also takes a long time, and a shared effort. But when it starts to happen, when a society catches the vision of how life can be so much more positive and indeed life-enhancing, not just a matter of struggling to survive, exciting things start to happen.
- All of the above requires a vision of peace. To live in peace, to work for peace, to keep the peace, to build the peace, we need a vision of life together, community. If our vision of life is essentially individualist, looking after me first and more than anyone or anything else, then it is unlikely that I will do much towards building the justice that undergirds genuine peace. I may achieve some ‘peace’ for myself, but it will not last and it will not be genuine. The vision of peace, then, is the most significant thing for reflection on this day. What do our political leaders offer as a vision of peace? Sadly, almost nothing in this positive sense. What does our social philosophy offer? What does our theology or faith offer? These are the things we need to explore much more, and talk about, not just on one day of the year, but every day. We need an international conversation about the meaning and means of peace.