This post is part of a Patheos Public Square on best practices for peace.
You can’t make peace if you don’t know what peace is. That much is clear from the daily headlines. I can’t think of a better “best practice for peace” than to reframe our lives around a more accurate view of what peace really is: not the absence of conflict, but the presence of right relationships.
As Augustine once observed, everyone is for “peace” but everyone wants a different kind of peace. For the Stoic and the Buddhist, peace is the death of our desires. For Confucius and Aristotle, peace is living in accordance with nature. For any number of dictators and madmen, peace is all the rest of us bowing down to them.
Even the cruel, greedy dragon in C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress, consumed day and night with the miserable burden of guarding his hoard,prayed to God for peace:
Oh, Lord, that made the dragon, grant me thy peace!
But ask not that I should give up the gold,
Nor move, nor die: others would get the gold.
Kill, rather, Lord, the men and the other dragons
That I may sleep, go when I will to drink.
There you have the rock bottom – the most ambitious and comprehensive plan for peace possible. Permanent, too.
This horrible view of “peace” is more relevant to our practical problems than you may think. A suppressed version of this view has come to dominate much of our public life in the western world. If we want to build other approaches to peace, we must become aware of what we are really fighting.
What the dragon really wants is not the death of all other living things as such. He wants the absence of conflict without the submission of his own desires to a higher standard of good. The death of all other living things is merely the means implicit in the desire for this end.
And the chilling thing to realize is that striving after “the absence of conflict without the submission of our desires to a higher standard of good” is precisely the goal of much of our political, economic and social activity today. Like the dragon, we do not actually strive to exterminate all life. What we want is a sort of bartered compromise in which we each get as much as we can for ourselves without going to war with one another.
In politics, we often vote for leaders who will deliver more swag (whether in the form of money and patronage, or symbolic culture-war victories) to our groups. In economics, we often use the market system as a tool to extract economic value from others rather than for what it was made for – to provide us with opportunities to create value for others through our work. In the home, we often treat marriage as a source of individual emotional fulfillment rather than a permanent metaphysical union within which the self-interest of each member disappears.
These approaches, over time, teach us to view one another as rivals for status and resources. They set citizen against citizen, worker against worker, spouse against spouse. The dragon’s desire for the death of all others takes up residence in our hearts. Our vision of peace teaches us to hate our neighbors.
And this selfishness ultimately undermines whatever complex system of compromises we try to build. Dragon-hearted people can’t build systems that last. That’s why T.S. Eliot used the word “dreaming” when he described us as people trying “to escape from the darkness, outside and within, by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
In the Bible, “peace” means not the absence of conflict but the presence of right relationships. Supremely this means love, although much else is required. And “love” in the biblical sense is not primarily about feelings. Our feelings are important, but the real heart of love is a firm and disciplined will to pursue the good of others regardless of how we feel about it.
It is important to realize that the presence of right relationship does not necessarily imply the absence of conflict. Peter was in wrong relationship with the crowd in the palace courtyard when he denied his lord in order to avoid conflict with them. By contrast, Paul was in right relationship with Peter when he rebuked Peter for leadership practices that compromised the integrity of the gospel.
We get peace not by avoiding conflict but by pursuing the good of others. Of course, over time and in the long run, a firm resolve to pursue the good of others will dramatically reduce the occurrence of conflict. But when we make an idol out of the absence of conflict, we get isolation from one another and – ultimately – dragonish hearts that lead to more conflict.
If you ask me for one “best practice for peace” in 2015 it would be: Create peace through your conflicts. Each month, make a list of the three most important conflicts going on in your life and think about how you can seek the good of others in those conflicts. Pray for the light to see new ways of being in right relationship with others when it’s hardest, and for the strength to do so.
And a second “best practice” is like it: Over the year, build ongoing relationships between your own household and two households in which core relationships are broken. If possible, try for one Christian and one non-Christian household. The biggest challenge facing the poor in our midst is not a lack of money but the breakdown of work and family relationships. If every Christian household built relationships of mutual care and strengthening with two other households, we’d have this “peace” thing licked in time for 2016.