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Peacebuilding in Violent Times

by Adam Bray on December 16, 2009

[The following remarks were offered in March 2003, during a mini-conference for the Association of Retired Ministers and Spouses for two UMC conferences, California-Hawaii and Desert Southwest.]

In 1957, Albert Camus began a lecture by describing a wise man who regularly asked the divinity “to be so kind as to spare him from living in an interesting era.”  Camus comments, “As we are not wise, the divinity has not spared us and we are living in an interesting era” (249).  In 2003, we too are living in an interesting era.  Our nation is grappling with vulnerability in a classic though unfortunate way.  We deny the real depth of our vulnerability and the ways in which our behaviors worsen it.  We focus on the threats that are visible and localized instead of those that are invisible and diffuse.  We simplify complexity, draw a distinct line between good and evil, and dehumanize the enemy.  We illustrate Reinhold Niebuhr’s assessment of the human condition as framed by anxiety and the vain attempts to overcome it.  We have become Niebuhr’s man who climbs the mast of a ship during a storm at sea, unable to do otherwise yet terrified of the growing chasm beneath him (185).  Interesting times, to put it mildly.

And, in the midst of this, many people of faith feel called to be peacemakers.  But what does peacemaking look like in this context?  Should we carry Reinhold Niebuhr into this paragraph as well and say that peace requires a certain amount of coercion, given political reality?  Or do we hold firm to the conviction that means and ends are organically related, such that one cannot achieve peace through violence?  If we believe God to be the creator and sustainer of life, then we know that the destruction of any life alienates us from God.  If we believe God to be the one creator of all life, then we cannot assume that some lives have more value than others.  And, if we believe that Jesus Christ reveals God’s will to us, then we must take his words with utmost seriousness.  “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you: ‘Resist not the evil doer.’”  Forgive.  Love.  Be charitable and kind.  And so, the Social Principles of our own denomination declare war to be “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ” and “reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy.”

These teachings seem so clear.  For a minute I feel as certain as Leo Tolstoy who insisted without wavering that one cannot be a Christian and support the use of violence.  We may envision all kinds of scenarios in which this teaching is impractical, Tolstoy said.  And we may devise more agreeable interpretations of Jesus’ hard sayings.  But we cannot deny that the law of nonresistance stands.  In Tolstoy’s words, “As a man cannot lift a mountain, and as a kindly man cannot kill an infant, so a man living the Christian life cannot take part in deeds of violence” (178).

Tolstoy felt the conflict between the law of God and the law of man so keenly that he believed that the Christian must withdraw from participation in society in order to live according to the teachings of Christ.  But he was not unique in his assessment or conclusion.  I moved to southern California from Lancaster County, PA.  I lived there for three years, surrounded by Amish and old order Brethren and Mennonite communities.  Like Tolstoy, my neighbors in Lancaster County believe that they are called to “come out from among them and be separate.”

Judging from your dress and from your presence here, I am assuming that most of you do not feel called to be separate.  Rather, I am guessing that in your ministry and in your personal lives, you have tried to live with God in the center of the village, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called us to do over fifty years ago now.  But I also assume that you have felt a pull between what God asks and what society requires.  I know that I have.  Let me give a recent example.

If we believe that God is the creator of all life, then we cannot assume that some lives have more value than others.  We cannot therefore assert with honesty that God has more love for some people than for others or that God would support violence against some members of creation in order to protect others.  And so, we might say with Nurse Edith Cavell, “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough.” (Gomes 23). In a conversation with friends over the weekend, I used this point as a way to criticize President Bush’s instrumental use of theology.  In my view, he is using talk of God to support a plan that has been truly devised with political, military, and economic considerations rather than theological ones.  One of my conversation partners this weekend is a college friend who is now a major in the U.S. Army.  In his response to my comments, he said that the role of the government is to ensure the survival of the nation and the safety of its people.  I see that, and being honest, I must say that I am glad someone is protecting us.  And yet, I am also keenly aware of these incompatible views.  As a person of faith, I believe that all people are inherently valuable and equal in God’s sight.  As a citizen of this country, as the wife of someone who worked next door to the World Trade Center, as someone with attachments to friends and family within these borders, I am glad that someone is trying to protect us from more violence.  And, as a citizen of the world who wants to ease the pain of the suffering and oppressed, I struggle to identify means for doing so without inflicting pain on the oppressors.

And so, I find myself torn between my convictions and my circumstance.  Let me be clear: I do not support the war in Iraq.  I am not that torn.  But I do see a world that is so broken that innocent people are in constant jeopardy.  And I wonder if we can responsibly participate in this world without turning again to Niebuhr who urged us to acknowledge the need for some violence in order to prevent our entire project from “issuing in complete disaster” (Moral 22).  What does it mean to be a peacemaker in this interesting era?  How can we be responsible to a faith tradition that calls us to this vocation and responsible to a world that is so fraught with violence that violence seems necessary?

Those of us who feel called to be peacemakers tend to enter the conversation on the war, much as I did last weekend, by describing the rules, principles, and laws that bind us to an authority beyond the state.  We cite Jesus’ text on nonresistance or we cite the Just War tradition.  Either way, our focus is on rules derived from a faith tradition and applied to this particular moment in history.  While I do not mean to jettison these guiding principles of the faith, I do want to suggest a different path this morning.  Instead of applying faith-based rules to this historical situation, can we think about infusing our personal activities with a religious sensibility?  Can we begin to see our every action as a habit that cultivates a certain disposition?  And can we try to identify and practice those habits that cultivate the disposition of peacemaker?

Let’s see what this might look like.  First, we need to deal with the word, peacemaker.

Peacemaking has a negative connotation for many people. Making peace sounds like a shallow and superficial effort to “make nice” or “keep the peace.”  The idea is that peacemaking involves shoving conflict under the rug or setting aside points of disagreement or even subduing calls for justice.  We are reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “You have healed the wounds of my people lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”  This kind of superficial calm is what we call “negative peace.”  It is the absence of conflict rather than the presence of justice.  The underlying causes of conflict remain unaddressed.  Surely, our call to labor for peace involves more than keeping the peace while injustice rages beneath the surface.

Peacemaking truly involves laboring for positive peace.  Johann Galtung, one of the grandfathers of peace and conflict studies, helped us with this definition.  He understood violence to be much more than physical abuse.  He described violence as anything that impedes one’s ability to flourish.  Violence is the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual – anything that prevents you from being who/what you could be.  Positive peace is a similarly rich concept.  Here, the underlying causes of violence and the persistent forms of injustice are addressed.  It is a just peace, to put it in language that is probably more familiar to you.

I do believe that the call to peacemaking is the call to this deeper, substantive effort.  But I think that the negative connotations are weighty enough to prevent those who hear it from envisioning the practice in this more athletic way.  So, I want to suggest that we substitute the word, peacebuilding.  I think that peacebuilding gets us away from the negative connotations of making peace as making nice.  There is nothing superficial about the task of building peace – we need to think about the foundation, which means that we must unearth all of those things that make the project unstable.  We have to deal with the hidden tensions, expose conflicts and address their causes.  I also like the word peacebuilding because it emphasizes the ongoing and cooperative nature of this process.    Peacebuilding requires the ethic of the cathedral builders, that Bill Shore described in his book, The Cathedral Within.  Here, we see people who are committed to labor for something that they know they will not realize.  Building peace is like that.  We build with and on the labor of others, contributing to a vision without the illusion of seeing it to completion.

Peacebuilding as a virtue

Now, what does it mean to speak of peacebuilding as a virtue?  First of all, let me be clear that I am not – at this point – quarreling with the tradition to have peacebuilding added to the list of Christian virtues.  Rather, what I am suggesting is that virtue-language will help us to better understanding the call to peacebuilding.

A virtue is a habit by which one acts well, according to a suitable end.  We owe this definition to Aristotle although it was woven into the Christian tradition by St. Thomas Aquinas.  Aristotle and Aquinas disagreed about the ultimate end (or highest good) of human action.  By highest good, we mean that end desired for its own sake and not as a means to something else.  Aristotle understood this to be eudaimonia, translated imperfectly as happiness but really meaning well-being and well-doing.  The highest good of all human action and effort, as Aristotle understood it, is a sort of functional excellence, whereby the human being perfectly performs the function of being human.  Aquinas, however, was more influenced by Augustine than Aristotle on this point and thus understood the highest good of all human action to be something more than functional excellence.  The highest good for Aquinas and for the Christian faith more widely is union with God.  Aquinas acknowledged the natural happiness that Aristotle described, but he also taught that human beings have another end, supernatural happiness of union with God.  Thanks to the synthetic work of Aquinas, Christian virtues are understood to be habits by which one acts well toward neighbor and habits by which one is oriented toward God.  The virtues that orient us toward God are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.  Aquinas understood these virtues to be infused in us by God rather than learned through study (like intellectual virtues) or cultivated through practice alone (like moral virtues).  While I have no doubt that faith, hope, and love are intimately linked to the habit of peacebuilding, I am not bold enough to add peacebuilding to the triad of theological virtues!  But I do think we can speak of peacebuilding as a moral virtue with some integrity.

Theological virtues are infused in us by God.  Intellectual virtues depend on experience and time.  But moral virtues are, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, “formed by habit.” We are, by nature, “equipped with the ability to receive” the moral virtues, writes Aristotle, but “habit brings this ability to completion and fulfillment.” Therefore, he continues, “we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage” (2.1).  The opposite holds true also.  We acquire bad, unjust, fearful, indulgent habits by performing those kinds of actions.  In sum, “the actions determine what kind of characteristics are developed” (2.2.1103b.3).  This means that moral virtues are not acquired by performing any kind of action, but only by performing those actions which a virtuous person would perform.  Thus, learning the moral virtues involves a deliberative activity.  One must choose the virtuous act and thus cultivate the disposition to do so.

So, where are we?  We began with the experience of feeling called to and daunted by the task of peacebuilding in this interesting era.  What does this vocation entail exactly?  What does the calling require of us today?  How can we respond to it faithfully and still participate responsibly in the world?  My suggestion is that we respond to this call by practicing peace.  That is, we think of peacebuilding as a virtue in the classical sense, a habit that is reinforced through practice.  We become peacebuilders by doing those things a peacebuilder would do.

Examples of peacemaking practices

Let me name a few examples briefly and then elaborate on one in particular. (And I invite you to think about other ways in which you practice peace.)  My colleague, Kathleen Greider, reminds us that violence takes place not only out there in the world, but also in our personal lives, in our work relationships, and in our daily comings and goings.  For her peacebuilding practices include, among other things, attention to the damage we do to one another, the conflicts in our personal lives that go unaddressed, and the needs we have for repairing breaches at home as well as abroad.  Another one of my colleagues is Elizabeth Conde-Frazier.  Elizabeth frequently works with congregations located in neighborhoods with changing demographics.  Members of the congregation fear the changes in their neighborhood and are sometimes ill equipped to interact comfortably in their new multicultural environment.  Elizabeth helps the church people to see the other as neighbor by practicing hospitality, compassion, and shalom-building.  Carol Lakey Hess just joined the Claremont faculty with me in August.  One of her main concerns is creating spaces for just discourse.  She suggests that “an important part of justice and peacemaking involves creating communities where a diverse gathering of people can grapple deeply and critically with the traditions to which they belong.”  Carol practices peace by establishing classroom and other settings where this kind of conversation can take place.  When I hear her describe her work, I am reminded of an interfaith group that was started after September 11, 2001.  The purpose was to enable Christian and Muslim students to talk openly with one another, to connect on a personal level, and to dismantle the barriers that our world seemed to construct between them so quickly.

This brings me to another example that I would like to elaborate on more fully.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who was exiled from his home country of Vietnam because he refused to side with either the communist or the anti-communist efforts.  He is most known for his teachings on engaged Buddhism, a set of meditative practices that prepare one to engage the world more fully.  One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s principal concerns is dualism – the way we all tend to divide the world between us and them, good and bad, right and wrong, friend and enemy.  So, many of his meditation exercises aim for non-duality, meaning an understanding of the other and an awareness of the relationship rather than the distance between us.  This kind of non-duality practice helps us to address conflict in our personal lives and to take an essential step toward reconciliation between peoples and nations more generally.  He explains:

“The situation of the world is still like this.  People completely identify with one side, one ideology.  To understand the suffering and the fear of a citizen of the Soviet Union, we have to become one with him or her.  To do so is dangerous – we will be suspected by both sides.  But if we don’t do it, if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace.  Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then to go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side” (70).

In order to overcome duality, Thich Nhat Hanh calls us to practice imagining ourselves as the other.  This does not mean that I will agree with everything the other person has done.  But it does mean that I will see the humanity in that person and the connection between us.  Indeed, for Thich Nhat Hanh, there is no such thing as an individual.  My identity, my being, is thoroughly wrapped up with yours.  In his language, “we inter-are.”  Meditation makes us mindful of these connections.  It aims to teach us to see the other as related to ourselves; indeed to see ourselves as the other.  I understand this meditative exercise to be a peacebuilding practice because we are so prone to perceive duality.  And this perception is only exacerbated in an interesting era.  Today, we see conflict not only on the global scale, but also within communities and churches torn by the question of war.  How can we strive for peace in the world when we cannot achieve peace in our own congregation and community?  We need practices that force us to do “internal work” as well as social work – to realize that even our peacebuilding efforts may intensify a gap between ourselves and others.  Such meditative practices force us to see the connections between ourselves and the other, to recognize our own capacity for harm, and to perhaps see ourselves from the others’ perspective as well.  The basic assumption behind this approach is stated nicely by Thich Nhat Hanh: “one affects world peace first and foremost by the way one lives” (14).


This proposal for practicing peace does not address all of the concerns I raised in my introductory comments.  I still have moments when I struggle with the demands of conscience and society, faith and context.  And I still feel daunted by the call to peacebuilding in these interesting times.  But a focus on practices does a couple of helpful things for me.  Primarily, this emphasis on practice is empowering.  That is important because I have been feeling particularly powerless these days.  Last fall, I listened to members of congress explain that, although they opposed the idea of war, they needed to give the President the necessary authority to threaten war.  And now, I hear my friends and others say that if we do not follow up on these threats of military action, we will set an even more dangerous precedent for the future.  Congress voted for war because we needed the threat.  Now, we allow the war because we made the threat?!  Although I understand the pragmatic points here, I am stunned by the ways in which we make such a grave decision as this.  And I feel powerless to stop that line of thinking.  Is it possible to be a peacebuilder in a world that so easily convinces us of the necessity for violence?  Of course it is.  We become peacebuilders by practicing peace.  These are practices that I can do even as I sort out the larger questions of foreign policy and alternatives to violence in this age of terrorism.

The emphasis on practices is also helpful, I think, because it reminds us that the problems are not out there, apart from ourselves.  Peacebuilding practices are more than social activism.  These are exercises that prompt us to reflect on our own contribution to the violence and to find small steps in our private lives to minimize that violence and create space for peace.

Most fundamentally, the emphasis on practices reminds me that I become what I do.  Character is formed, not implanted.  This is surely an idea that is familiar to us in the Methodist tradition.  As my Anabaptist friends in Lancaster County like to remind me, John Wesley was profoundly impressed by the pietism of the Moravians he met while crossing the ocean for Georgia.  We abide by the teachings of Christ, as best we can, not because we have to – but because we see this life as a striving toward Christ-like behavior.  And we practice these disciplines because we feel called toward a certain vision of ourselves and the world – we labor on behalf of the basileia vision, a time when no one will hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain.  As Gandhi so succinctly taught us, we must be the change we want to see.

I want to close with some thoughts from Marian Wright Edelman.  She ended an address this way in the summer of 2000, but I find the words to be apt and comforting today as well.  She has been speaking about the challenges facing those who work to make this world safe for children.  And she closes first by thanking those in attendance for their work and concern and then by offering a prayer.  I want to echo her words of thanks for your attendance and your lives of ministry and service to God’s people.  And I want to share her prayer of dedication to a struggle that is both necessary and oh so difficult.

“So let me just end with a prayer that I say a lot this year, to reaffirm what each of you knows, that we can remake this world, we must remake this world for our children.  And I’m so grateful for all of your presence, because so many people are waiting for Gandhi to come back, or Dr. King to come back.  They’re not.  We’re it!  And we have the capacity and the power to build a different world in a new era.  Your presence here is a very important witness of that fact.

“But I feel inadequate most hours and days, and say: Lord, I can’t preach like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jesse Jackson or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou, but I care, and I’m willing to serve, and to use what talents I have to build a world of peace.  I don’t have Fred Shuttlesworth’s and Harriet Tubman’s courage or Andy Young’s political skills, but I care, and I’m willing to serve.  I can’t sing like Fannie Lou Hamer or organize like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, or John Dear, but I care, and I’m willing to serve.  I’m not holy like Archbishop Tutu, forgiving like Mandela, or disciplined like Gandhi, but I care and I’m willing to serve and to fight in a nonviolent manner.  I’m not brilliant like Dr. Du Bois or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or as eloquent as Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington, but I care, and I’m willing to serve.  I don’t have Mother Teresa’s saintliness, Dorothy Day’s love or Cesar Chavez’s gentle, taught spirit, but I care and I’m willing to serve.  God it’s not as easy as the Sixties to frame an issue and forge a solution, but I care, and I’m willing to serve.  My mind and body are not as swift as in youth, and my energy comes in spurts but I care, and I’m willing to serve.  I’m so young nobody will listen, I’m not sure what to say or do, but I care and am willing to serve.  I can’t see or hear well, speak good English, stutter sometimes, and get real scared, and I really hate risking criticism, but I care, and I’m willing to serve.  Use me as Thou wilt to save Thy children today and tomorrow, and to build a nation and a world where no child is left behind, and every child is loved, and every child is safe.”  (Fellowship Jan/Feb 2001)

She concludes by saying, “Thank you for caring.”  And I conclude by saying, “Thank you for your lives of ministry to God’s people.”

Works Cited

Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics.  Translated by Martin Ostwald.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1962.

Aquinas, Thomas.  Treatise on the Virtues.  Translated by John A. Oesterle.  Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

Camus, Albert.  Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Edelman, Marian Wright.  “Caring Enough to Build a World of Peace,” Fellowship. Jan-Feb. 2001: 4-5.

Galtung, Johann.  “Violence and Peace.” A Reader in Peace Studies. Eds. Paul Smoker, Ruth Davies, Barbara Munske.  Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1990. (pp. 9-14)

Gomes, Peter J. “‘Patriotism is Not Enough’: Christian conscience in time of war,” Sojourners. Jan-Feb. 2003: 20-25.

Hanh, Thich Nhat.  Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax, 1987.

Niebuhr, Reinhold.  Moral Man, Immoral Society.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.

Niebuhr, Reinhold.  Nature and Destiny of Man: Volume I: Human Nature. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Tolstoy, Leo. “Letter to Ernest Howard Crosby.” Approaches to Peace: A Reader in Peace Studies. Ed. David Barash. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ellen Ott Marshall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA.   Dr. Marshall focuses on contemporary Christian ethics. She is particularly interested in issues of violence and peacemaking, ethical questions in literature and film, and the dynamic relationship between faith, history, and ethics. She is the author of “Liberation from the Welfare Trap?” included in Welfare Policy: Feminist Critiques (Pilgrim Press 1999) and “Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom” (Abingdon Press, 2006) which addresses the virtue of hope in the Christian Tradition.  Dr. Marshall has also worked with the refugee resettlement programs of Church World Service and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

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