What Do We Mean By Peace?

Sometimes it seems like it's not worth using the word 'peace' when I talk about my work at a peace and dialogue center in Cambridge. The word conjures up notions of naivete and purism that can trigger a bit of skepticism. Yet, we persist in using the word, since it does signify a state of personal and social well being worth striving for. Some distinctions are in order though.

1. The work in pursuit of peace is not built on utopian, fairy tale scenarios but rather on the idea that "what exists is possible." That is to say, we have powerful examples of actual peace building and harmony everywhere we look. In fact, most of life is more expressive of peace and cooperation than it is of the opposite. If it were not the case, we wouldn't be here.

2. Similarly, our work toward peace is not powered by wishful thinking, optimism, or even hopefulness. Rather, it is powered by our faith in the possibility or potential for greater harmony and flourishing. It might not happen, but improvement in this direction is not impossible. And since that is the case, we have an obligation to move things in that direction, each of us, in our own way.

3. Peace doesn't mean homogeneity, the absence of conflict, or even in all cases the complete absence of violence. Picture the United States. We are fundamentally a peaceful society. Most violence falls under the category of crime and crime fighting. Despite the harsh divisions in our country, the divisions are mostly not manifested in violence, but rather in the form of what Andrew Sullivan calls a "cultural cold war." We must do more to heal our divisions, but we are a long way from the violence that characterizes the internal affairs of many countries. Could we envision a world that functions about as well as the U.S. does? I think so. Clearly religious fanaticism coupled with extreme economic inequality creates a volatile stew. But thinking about the issue this way helps us think about peace in non-purist tones.

4. Nonviolent action and dialogue are the surest ways to create improved social conditions that will actually last. But we acknowledge that some situations have gone so far that violence is needed to halt aggression and suffering. What we need to do is to keep expanding civil society and civil institutions to the point where they can preempt some conflicts, and squeeze out some others.

5. Many people don't use the word peace, preferring to speak instead of the actual conditions of human flourishing, such as the presence of justice, health, and economic viability for the vast majority of the world's peoples. I still like the word peace though; it gives us something to aspire to.


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