Each Peace Paradox can be read as a discussion starter for your Peace Circle. Use the following questions to prompt conversation:
- What paradox is being described?
- What is the conventional understanding of the character trait as it relates to peace?
- What reversal of that understanding is being suggested?
- How has the conventional understanding undermined peace building efforts?
- How does reversing or inverting the conventional understanding contribute to peace building efforts?
Exploring Peace Paradoxes
The first paradox is that peace takes courage. Rather than the option of the weak or frightened, it requires strength of character and heroism in the face of danger. The Peace Paradoxes reveal the truth that the more we pursue peace by violent means, the further we get from our goal.
When the planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we all felt a terrible loss of safety. Our belief that we were secure here at home was shattered and we set off immediately to recover it. We even went so far as to have a color coded scale to let us know just how insecure we were at any given moment. When security is the goal, however, it becomes an excuse to justify aggression against anyone who might be standing in the way, even our fellow citizens. In the last ten years, we have not only turned our military machine lose against foreign nations, we have turned our security apparatus lose against ourselves.
It is hard to know if all these security measures have made us more secure, but we can certainly be clear about what it has cost us in financial terms, in lost and shattered lives, and in reduced freedoms at home and growing anti-Americanism abroad. Rather than seek to achieve security, we are better served by learning to live with insecurity. If we can find the courage to tolerate fear and insecurity, we are less likely to do harm to ourselves and others. Authentic peace requires the courage to live with fear and the heroism to include others in our vision of peace.
It is true that evil exists and that good people have a responsibility to identify evil and protect the innocent. But it is also true that evil is often where we least expect to find it, which is in ourselves, and that the ones we think are the most wicked of all too often turn out to be innocent victims of righteous violence. The only sure way to avoid using violence at the wrong time against the wrong people is to make our judgments about good and evil with a healthy dose of self-doubt. We can’t retreat into moral relativism nor can we self-identify as paragons of virtue. It’s necessary and right to take a stand, as long as keep asking ourselves, “What if we are wrong?” Humility is one of those paradoxical virtues of heroism that is absolutely essential for peace building.
Violence is reciprocal and prone to escalation. That means that we return violence for violence, but always with a little something extra. So we respond to a slap with a fist, to a stab with a bullet, to a terrorist attack with a war. You see how it goes – we do to others as it has been done to us and our great act of originality is to come up with new and better ways to hurt each other. Combatants are thus trapped in a self-defeating hall of mirrors. When both sides of a conflict are all behaving the same way, no true difference remains between them. Violence erases differences even as it continues to assert them.
In the cycle of violence, true originality is found in a refusal to retaliate. When we do refuse to return hate for hate, we are opening up the possibility for something new and creative to emerge. To be original, one must be courageous enough to take the blow and refuse to respond in kind. That is the only way to avoid becoming the mirror image of the thing you claim to despise.
On 9/11 all Americans felt as if we had been personally attacked. We all felt like victims, wounded and afraid, and we were overcome with grief at the senseless loss of life. Some of us instinctively asked, “Why?” and some were brave enough to wonder what we might have done to have triggered such an act of hatred and revenge. Now this is dangerous territory. Asking a victim to shoulder some blame for their trauma is to risk blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator. But it is a risk we need to take in this case, because the United States is not a defenseless or random victim. Honestly assessing our actions in the world does not in any way diminish the culpability of the suicide bombers or their supporters and is the only pathway to national integrity.
If we don’t question ourselves we risk falling into a trap that is the favorite friend of violence. We will give ourselves permission to divide the world up into good and evil and we, of course, will always be the good ones. We will become blind to the truth that no one person or nation or cause is completely good or evil. All of us, victims and terrorists, Christians and Muslims, powerful and powerless, are made up of both good and evil and to think otherwise is simply another justification for violence. In that case good people find themselves committing terrible acts of violence that they would condemn if perpetrated by their enemies. Personal and national integrity requires that if we use violence to achieve our ends, as our enemy has done, then we must give up our claim to being good. Goodness and violence negate each other and the truly good nation is one that holds itself to that highest of standards.
It’s truly a paradox that the biggest obstacle to peace is believing that there are obstacles to peace. Failing to believe that peace is a real possibility prevents us from making the creative and sustained effort that peace will require. And believing that obstacles exist, and that they are not our own failure of imagination, is once again an excuse to continue violent campaigns against whom or what we decide those obstacles to be. Taking full responsibility for the work of peace building requires that we recognize that it is the obstacles that are the illusion and peace the concrete reality. A reversal of conventional thinking to be sure, but one that we must embrace for peace to have a chance.