Peace is a Verb, not a Noun
This past August I had a wonderful experience speaking to a high school history class at Burris Lab School in Muncie, Indiana. Their teacher, Karen Avery, is having her students read my book, The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future without War, and work through the study guide I prepared.
Her students were very well prepared for my “Meet the Author” visit. We had a meaningful discussion on many complex topics related to peace and nonviolence.
One point I always emphasize in my efforts to change people’s minds about nonviolence, is that peace is not a static state or condition. We must stop thinking dualistically about peace VS violence and instead, understand that building peace is an unfolding process.
As I said to the students, “Peace should be thought of as a verb, not a noun.” Or as Mahatma Gandhi explained, peace is the path as well as the goal. This has been demonstrated over the past year by developments in the Middle East.
In March of 2013, concern was growing over Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during Obama’s visit to Jerusalem, urged President Obama to support military strikes against Iran to cripple its nuclear program. Additional pressure to do the same came from congressional Republicans. Wisely, Obama saw how U.S. military action would actually strengthen hard line Iranian politicians and provide justification for Iran to further its nuclear program for its own self-defense.
Obama also argued that the sanctions that had been set in place against Iran should be given a chance to work. And apparently they have, as indicated by the election of a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and his recent overtures to thaw U.S. – Iranian relations.
This past month, Russian President Vladimir Putin stole the title of peacemaker from President Obama after brokering an agreement for Syria to reveal the whereabouts of its chemical weapons. A resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles was passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council.
Finally, thanks to the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are now sitting around the negotiating table.
Many people argue that it was the threat of military action that made these opportunities for avoiding war possible. This may be true, but that is the sad state of affairs when countries are co-existing in a state of negative peace. Amidst hostilities, negative peace is defined as the absence of war, whereas positive peace is a condition where two parties, be they individuals or nations, have developed a cooperative, collaborative relationship. The Untied States’ relationship with Iran and Syria over the past several decades has been one of negative peace. In such an estrangement, the only leverage either side has comes in the form of military threats. A similar condition exists between Israelis and Palestinians.
Compare this with the cooperative relationship that has been developing between the United States and China. Cultural and educational exchange, along with trade and economic investment, is making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. and China to wage war with each other. The loss of investment opportunities if a military conflict would break out, and the cost resulting from damage to high tech infrastructure would be staggering.
Cultural and economic cooperation has given both nations plenty of options they can use as bargaining chips to avert violent confrontation, as neither country wants to jeopardize the collaboration that is taking place on many levels. It even makes possible political intervention to avert war as occurred last year when Chinese leaders played a modest role in cooling tensions between North and South Korea.
The next “war” will likely be an economic one, with the United States the major casualty if it ever defaults on its debt.
Peace should be thought of as a verb, not a noun. It is the path as well as the goal. Keeping our fingers off the trigger while pursuing diplomacy and political activism gives the unfolding process of peace a change to work. Building positive peace culturally, educationally and economically is vital to creating a future without war.
George Wolfe is the Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also a trained mediator, an ordained interfaith minister, and the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.