This idea of peace has been close to my heart for a long time now. Recently, while teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, I decided to begin practicing a holiday that I hope will be widely practiced one day. I finally contacted a variety of politicians regarding establishing this holiday [which will be outlined later]. Many who know of my efforts said that I was being too naive, idealistic, and too much of a Pollyanna.
Hearing their words, I began to wonder if they had a point. Was I being naive to think we could live in peace? Maybe my idea of a peace holiday was unrealistic. With that in mind I began to re-evaluate what peace means. In this article I will take you on my journey and search. Through questions, scriptural references, and honest self-evaluations I hope to illuminate the path towards peace.
Definition of Peace According to Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary
Etymology: Middle English pees, from Old French pais, from Latin pac-, pax; akin to Latin pacisci to agree — more at PACT
Date: 12th century
1 : a state of tranquility or quiet: as a : freedom from civil disturbance b : a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom (a breach of the peace)
2 : freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions
3 : harmony in personal relations
4 a : a state or period of mutual concord between governments b : a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity
5 — used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell – at peace : in a state of concord or tranquility
So the essence of peace is a sense of calm, harmony, and quiet. Is it so impossible or unrealistic to achieve these things? I remembered in one of my earlier articles (Cultivating a Mind of Love) I briefly touched upon something that directly applies to this dilemma of peace as well. Much of what we experience (hostility, aggression, dislike, fear, pride) is taught. Taught by our parents, by siblings and other family members, our community, society, culture, and the church (for those church goers).
Us versus Them
Everything we do is a direct result of what we think and our thought processes and reactions to those thoughts are in many ways a direct result of what we learn. Consider the following questions:
- Why is it easier to criticize than to compliment?
- Why is it easier to tear down than to build up?
- Why is it easier to be pessimistic than optimistic?
- Why is it easier to berate than praise?
- Why is it easier to make fun of differences?
From an early age we are taught the “Us” vs. “Them” idea. Everything is set up where you are either one of “us” or one of “them.” From the school sports and neighborhood team games to the cliques formed in the cafeteria and on the playground between boys and girls. This clique behavior does not stop there. We continue these segregated behaviors (and thoughts) through to adulthood. Perhaps this is most evident when we speak of the U.S. as the ultimate “US” and anyone or anything that is even slightly contrary is “THEM” and there is no middle ground.
The need for separation
Sociologically speaking there seems to be a need for us to form these bonds between community and culture. We find a sense of self, support, strength, and affirmation from these groups we form and identify with. From the obvious race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation to the lesser thought of fraternities, sororities, clubs, and bowling teams and churches we are a people in need of connections to those who are like us. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is normal, natural, and necessary. However, when we develop the US vs. THEM way of thinking and behaving the problems arise.
Is it necessary for one group to hate or have negative feelings or thoughts against another group? Do Blacks and Whites have to be at odds? Pause for a moment. Ever consider the words “Black” and “White” in and of themselves set us up for segregation rather than unity? (Maybe Ill address that in a separate article on Race, Ethnicity, and Unity in the Church and Beyond.) But do you see my point that even some of the language we use sets up the division of “US” and “Them”? The labels we use to identify the groups have become a barrier of separation.
- One side is Gay the other Straight
- One side is Black the other White
- One side is Male the other Female
- One side is Christian the other Muslim (or any other non-Christian religion)
- Believers / Non-believers
- Baptist / Catholics
Like I said there is nothing wrong with having groups. There will always be Gay people in a group and straight people in a group BUT do we need to be against one another?
There will always be issues related to men and women but does there need to be a battle of the sexes? Can men and women not see eye to eye? Are they that different?
Can Jews and Christians sit a table together and rationally and calmly talk despite differing faiths?
Can Muslims and Christians do the same?
Can Americans and Afghani or Iraqis do the same?
Many would say no. There are too many things different between these separate groups to be united. But, in reality, are there?
While I hear and understand the rationale behind the statements of separation, I whole-heartedly disagree!
Fear as the cause
It is because we have fear in our hearts that we have to make and defend our divisions. We are taught that “WE” or “US” is always better than “THEM.” Our football team is better, our church is better, our house, our country . . . and we fear losing this. We fear not being better than name the group. If it were not for this fear (pride), we would not have many of the problems we face — not only globally but in our own homes as well. We are threatened by anyone who looks different, thinks different, feels different. We then take those feelings and become hostile, aggressive and develop some misguided superiority complexes. Homogeneous attitudes support our ideas of superiority and anything that does not support this is a threat to our security — a threat to our pride.
Homogeny vs. diversity
What are we so afraid of? Losing our identity? Losing our culture? Think about it. What is it that scares each of these groups? Dont jump right to the larger global issues. Im not talking about issues as large as thermonuclear war and terrorist activities.
Lets first look at the local neighborhood issues of a black family just moved into the house across the street and why that is perceived as a bad thing when a white family moving into a black neighborhood is not perceived the same way. Why is that gay couple holding hands such a disgusting thing? What is there to fear from the gay community? So what happens if they are given the right to marry, have spousal benefits at their job, kiss and hold hands in public… what does that mean? What is so bad about that? What is there to fear? Why were so many Christians holding signs outside of Matthew Shepherds funeral that said things like “The Fag is burning in Hell!” “God hates Fags!”? Things to make you go “Hmmmmmm???”
The Bible as source of segregation and hate
All too often people pull in biblical references to point out what is wrong with certain issues like homosexuality, etc. Similarly the KKK has used the Bible to give them authority over blacks even as they were lighting the naked, castrated, and hanging body on fire!!
(Reverend Peter Gomes said, “Scripture sanctioned racial segregation, and that the most religious, most churched, most piously populated parts of the country not coincidentally happen to be those places in which racism and slavery and segregation long have flourished. The most pious people found the Bible their easiest ally in maintaining the advantageous social status quo, and saw no conflict in their consciousness between their religious profession on one hand, and their heinous social practices on the other.)
People to this day continue to use the Bible to support war, death, oppression, and destruction and it has possibly been since Paul (thinking he was doing Gods will) was seeking out followers of Christ and persecuting them. Is that what the Bible is for? Is that what the Bible is about? Is that the way to love and to peace?
Do you think that Christs words, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34 NIV), really means for us to wage war and kill our fellow human beings over ideological ideas, religious faiths, sexual orientation, or skin color? I hope you agree with me when I answer, No. So what did He mean? After taking in the entire context I have found that He simply meant that we cannot place anything above our union with Him and the sword He was referring to is the sword that separates us from tradition and teaches us that we must value Him over mother, over father, over our children, and our very life must not come before Him. That was a radical thought for His day and remains one today. He did not however mean to literally hate your parents, your children or your life. However if you are struggling between something and Him, it is better for you to hate that something in order to clear your way to Him.
From the inside out
We can all agree that there are separate groups of people based on class, sex, religion, socio-economics, color, age, political affiliation, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. With so many groups, is it possible to attain peace? Why not?
The reason we are not at peace with our neighbors – first and foremost – is we lack peace within ourselves. We focus more on the dissimilar than the similar. We focus more on whats wrong with others as a way to keep us on top. Why worry about your neighbors house needing a new paint job if your paint is chipping and peeling. Is your garden being tended to or are you more concerned with theirs?
Having such discontent inside, we project it onto others. And because of that discontent, within us rages a war. The fires of frustration, hostility, jealousy, hatred, insecurity, fear, pride, envy, and greed reside within us and there is no way to give to another what you do not have inside yourself to give. Time for another analogy: Suppose I have an apple and you want or need orange juice. Can I give you what you want or need? No matter how I squeeze that apple, orange juice will NEVER flow from it. Likewise, if you need comfort and support but I have insecurity, fear, and envy inside me no matter what I do you will only get from me what I have to give. So if peace is the goal then each of us must look inside and critically and honestly ask, “What do I have inside of me?”
What would He notice?
Think seriously about what I am about to propose. Each of us can say we are not hostile, prejudiced, or aggressive individuals but what if Jesus were to travel with us for a day or two, what would He notice?
Would He notice you sticking up that middle finger and screaming out or mumbling a few choice profanities as you express road rage on the freeway?
Would He notice you at work complaining about how much you hate (notice the words we use, “hate”) your boss or co-workers?
Would He notice how often we say someone does not deserve something that should have been yours?
Would He notice the way you clutch your purse or move to the wall in an elevator when a black person walks on?
Or how many times you thought or said aloud, “We should just bomb them. They’re all terrorists anyway.”
What would He find if He were he to listen to your inner most thoughts?
So again I ask, “What do you have inside to give?” Do you like yourself? You cannot like another if not yourself first. Do you love yourself? You cannot love another if you do not have love for yourself first. Do you have respect and honor for yourself? Do you appreciate the differences that make you special and unique?
See where I am going with this? My questions could go on and on but I think you get the point.
Peace starts with you
That brings me back to peace and where it all begins. Do you have peace inside of yourself to give to others? A good way to find out is to practice or contemplate this exercise I conducted with my students.
When I was teaching public speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University I had an exercise that my students engaged in called “Controversial Issues.” The point of this exercise as I explained, was to encourage people to express their beliefs, opinions, and feelings on a variety of controversial issues -abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, use of the word “nigga,” interracial dating- without the fear of being criticized or judged. No one was permitted to criticize, name call, or judge another classmate regardless of what that person says. If a student said they believe that Jesus and the Buddha are brothers from the planet Olympus and that they traveled here in a magic teapot two thousand years ago, no one was to make any negative comments. Students could ask questions but ultimately I wanted to instill a sense of respect. Respect for each other even though there are contrary beliefs.
It is amazing how quickly people want to defend “THEIR” beliefs and from that desire to defend comes their aggression. If you are defending your belief then it means you perceive an attack of some sort. Why does a different belief have to be an attack against your beliefs? Why cant you accept it simply as a different idea; one you dont subscribe to but none the less accept another persons right to have it.
I eat sugar on my rice and you use pepper. Do you need to be defensive over my preference for sugar? Do you need to attack me for my likes? Of course not! Do we really need to pass a judgment on someones tastes? If we dont need to do it, why do we?
Many people I have met are not able to have a conversations where different opinions are raised. We can talk about the major extremes like how many parents refuse to even discuss abortion in their house. We can talk about the fights (often physical fist fights) that break out over whose NFL team should be playing in the super bowl. Why cant we talk calmly and agree to disagree? Again, I point you to the fact that you give what you have inside to give.
Just BE it
Consider the scriptural reference: “Be careful how you think for your life is shaped by your thoughts” (Proverbs 4:23 Good News Translation). In other words as James Allen said, “As you think … you are.” So what do you think about most? Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and philosopher, has said that we must be more than supporters of peace; we must BE Peace!
I think this is a profound statement. Are we merely giving lip service? Are we embodying what we desire to create? Are we being Sunday Christians only? If I am for a healthy lifestyle but am still smoking, consuming too much fatty foods, and having sex without a condom, am I really for a healthy lifestyle? I must BE that healthy lifestyle and every action I take should reflect this mental attitude.
So no matter if it is peace between countries, peace within our own nation, or peace within our own household, it all begins with having peace within our minds.
A mind of love
In my article about love I gave some examples of things we can do like practicing non-violence, practicing patience, practice giving and sharing, and practicing walking in love as things we can do to shift our minds towards love. If you do the very same things, peace will occur as well. Ultimately having love means having peace.
You have to examine what you need to do in order to make this a reality for yourself but I assure you that if you remain trapped in thoughts of separation rather than togetherness you will forever be separate and without peace. Some of you say, “So what? I dont want to be at peace with those damn terrorists anyway! You can kill them all and I wont miss them!” I ask you, is that something Jesus would say?
Do you enjoy living each day not knowing if another 9-11 type of attack will occur? Do you enjoy sending people into wars? Do you accept the rationale that if it is OK to kill them, because you hate them, it is equally OK for others who hate Americans to kill us as well? Are you being blind to the benefits of peace?
More than tolerance
No one said we have to like everything about another country, another religion, another culture, but until we can at least discuss these feelings calmly there cannot be any hope for peace. I am not merely talking about tolerance. What I am proposing is about genuine understanding and open-hearted compassion for another human. Having an attitude of love that says, “I may not believe what you believe and I may not agree with you on these things but I can sit and talk to you, I can be your friend, and I can live peacefully and compassionately with you.”
Be the change
Is it really being Pollyanna to believe in or to strive for peace? Do you think peace is possible?
Gandhi said, “Be the change you would see in the world.” which brings me back to the concept of “YOU” must first be the light and then let others become illuminated from your example.
Below is an outline of the holiday I still seek to have honored yearly. Start today and begin to put each thing into practice and peace will become a natural by product of your efforts.
THE NATIONAL/GLOBAL DAY OF PEACE
This week long celebration will commemorate the efforts of the peace makers around the world, both past and present, as well as encouraging each of us to take the necessary steps towards peace in our lives, in our communities, in our country, and in our world.
This holiday will focus on a set of principles each day of the week allowing each of us to, as Gandhi said, “Be the change we would see in the world” — one person at a time.
All of these acts are the seeds we plant for tomorrow.
Sunday: Day of Remembrance – A day to reflect on the peacemakers of the past and the present as encouragement for each of us to take up the torch for peace. Does anyone really want war, death and destruction? No healthy person wants this. Find the place within you and search for peace, so that you speak peace, live peace, share peace, and are peace!
Monday: Day of Being “For” – One of the most challenging days in the week, this day is about changing your thoughts from what you are against to what you are for. Do not be against war — rather be for peace. Do not be against abortion — be for life. Not against poverty — but for abundance and prosperity. Take this time and stop thinking of the glass as half empty, but as half full. Think of all you have to be thankful for, not what you have to be depressed about. As I said this is the most difficult challenge. If you can begin to take the first steps towards changing your thoughts, “you” can change the world!!
Tuesday: Day of Random Acts of Kindness – Do random kind acts for friends, family, and most importantly strangers.
Wednesday: Day of Forgiveness – Let go of the grudges and hostility you are holding – towards other people or yourself. Begin to let in the healing rays of forgiveness.
Thursday: Day of Laughter – Celebrate the healing power of laughter. Tell jokes (not racist or sexist lest they defeat the purpose of togetherness), rent funny movies, tell funny stories with friends. Let go and laugh!
Friday: Day of Love – Reflect on the true meaning of love and tell those you love how much they mean to you. Too often we hold our tongues for fear of rejection, embarrassment, and pride. For once, let go and, no matter the response, tell others you love them. Expect nothing in return – it is not done so you can hear it. It is done so you can say it and express it to others.
Saturday: Day of Diversity – A day to celebrate the beauty of diversity regardless of color, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, culture, ability, etc. Celebrate and embrace your differences and the differences of your neighbors, whether in the house beside yours or the country across the ocean. Celebrate what we are as humans and embrace all people. United we stand and succeed, while divided we fall and fail.
Senior minister at the Center for Spiritual Living Greater Baltimore, Rev. Dr. Raymont L. Anderson is an author, visual artist and ASL performing artist. He earned doctorates in metaphysics and theology from the American Institute of Holistic Theology, a master of fine arts in theatre pedagogy from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a bachelors in education from Carlow College.