Peacemakers’ Day

As the months passed by, a new life grew and developed in warmth, in darkness, in water. He was aware of sounds and activities from beyond, but these only rarely disturbed his dreams. Sometimes he explored the tiny bounds of his floating world.

Then things started to change. One thing led to another, and all of a sudden the water was gone and he was being compressed. A squeezing motion urged him along, until he emerged into a tumultuous world of light, of sensory stimulation, of new experience. Something happened and he started to breathe for the first time. Nothing ever returned him to that state of bliss, ever. Nursing and sleeping were pretty good, and he became interested in these kaleidoscopic new events, but it would never be quite like that again.

Something like this has a profound influence on a person. Not always traumatic, of course, but definitely not designed to make one think of the world as a place of peace and plenty. Many people, experiencing birth as a deprivation, spend the rest of their lives grasping for every kind of gratification they can, fearful that there will never be enough. Some of us are fortunate enough to have learned to be happy,

I imagine some part of that experience remains; more than a memory, perhaps a kind of primal urge. I imagine some part of us would like to go back there. I imagine …

Imagine gently floating
There’s nothing much to do
Nothing but warmth and darkness
and gentle motion too.

I imagine that many utopias have been built on those ancient, ancient memories. All of our needs met. No conflict.

This is not what peacemaking is about. True peacemaking sees the world as it is, not as some far-off misty dream of what it might be if everything were different from the way it is. True peacemaking makes sense of this wild world we are born into.

I have been fortunate to have known some of the movers and shakers of our times. Dr. Benjamin Spock slept in a room in my house when he campaigned for President on the People’s Party ticket in 1972. Cesar Chavez slept in that same room, a year later. I’ve met and worked with people as disparate as Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine. As I detailed in a sermon a few years ago, I was fortunate that my life was touched by Philip Berrigan on a couple of occasions.

Peacemaking is an approach to situations of conflict. A peacemaker does not presume that, as a result of her activities, there will be no more conflict. Many of Gandhi’s best plans were based on the knowledge that they would be met with harsh conflict. Not to deliberately provoke violence, just the simple knowledge that violence would naturally ensue, and that the immorality of conditions would be thereby revealed for all of good will to see, and respond to.

The American Friends Service Committee was originally founded to provide alternate service for Quaker conscientious objectors during World War I. Seeing the misery and displacement the war had caused, they started to work with refugees. Eventually, as it evolved, its mission became to address the conditions which are the mother and father of war: ignorance, injustice, prejudice, and greed. There are those who have worked in the AFSC who believed that someday such efforts might eliminate war. There are many, many others –  in virtually all cases, those who were its most effective operatives – who believed that it was worth doing because it was worth doing, not because it might usher in some utopia. I have known some of them, too, such as John Looney of the Akron AFSC office in the late 60s and early 70s. John was one of the most peaceful people I’ve ever known, the very model of the modern Quaker. He rarely gave offense, and while he did not meekly accept offense, his approach to it was to resolve rather than to conquer it.

Phil Berrigan was cut from this same cloth. You never sensed that he despised the people who planned the wars or built the bombs. He was deeply afflicted by the tragic cost of violent conflict, but I never saw him cross the line into hatred.

This stood out in stark contrast to many others in the movement. I remember particularly well, at a founding meeting of the US Anti-Imperialism League, a young female communist who said “we are not the lovey-dovey peaceniks of our parents’ generation. We hate the injustice and violence and exploitation we see, and all of our plans are based on hate.” Well, there was more than a little truth in  what she said about the lovey-dovey peaceniks, who were all very nice to know but generally ineffectual in their protests. However, her answer to that is no less effective. Hatred does not replace Pollyannaism, if peacemaking is what you are after. A peacemaker has to know his opponents. He has to know that he has opponents. He has to understand that there is something entirely human which motivates them. He has to comprehend that unless those human needs are addressed, no resolution will be found.

I am so glad to have known men and women like this: real peacemakers, with clear eyes and strong minds and loving hearts, a will to action and a delight in recreation. Peacemakers who knew that they were not ushering in the Millenium, that the dawning of the age of Aquarius did not mean rainbows and unicorns and wandering gently over the meadow with Mao and Stalin or the guy who crunches an old lady’s skull on the sidewalk for her social security check. People who knew conflict, and met it time and again, without abandoning principle or purpose, even knowing that they would meet conflict again. This is bravery of the highest order, when there are no medals or uniforms or flags, no 21 gun salutes over the grave of the fallen or monuments on the courthouse square.

Those of you who know me, know how I respect and honor our military veterans. I often make use of casual contact with a soldier, sailor or Marine to thank them for their service. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Jack Nicholson may have portrayed an unsavory character in the movie “A Few Good Men,” but he was exactly right when he proclaimed that “deep down in the places you don’t talk about, you want me on that wall.” Yes, I do. I have been to those places. I know the depravity of which the human heart is capable, and I want warriors willing to give their all to protect us from it. I admire them for it.

But there are other dark places in the human heart, too. Dark places which use words like honor, and freedom, and country, to perpetrate horrors which even today’s movie directors would flinch from depicting. And it is the peacemaker, not the warrior, who stands up against those. Not against the people; against the dark places that make people do terrible things. We know those dark places lurk in all people, and under the wrong circumstances, we are all capable of horror. It is for themselves, as much as those others, that the peacemaker does her duty.

I believe, just as surely as there should be days like Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day when we honor those who have served, and in some cases given life and limb, in our nation’s armed forces, there should be a day for the peacemakers, when we honor those who have served in these other ways. Many of them gave no less. We can start with the better-known, like Gandhi and King, who gave the last full measure of their devotion in service of the principles for which they lived. But what of the many unknowns? Unknowns such as my brother, who went into an uncertain and difficult exile rather than fight in a war which he believed to be wrong? Do they deserve no remembrance? When someone asks, did my brother serve in the Vietnam war, I reply, he sure did. He served the cause of humanity, and at such a cost to himself.

There is nothing that says that a member of the armed forces cannot be a peacemaker. Many of our greatest soldiers, sailors and Marines, having seen war first-hand, have been staunch advocates for peace. Likewise, there is nothing to prevent a peacemaker from being a warrior. When someone like the Quaker social worker Jane Addams goes into the most desperate neighborhoods of Chicago to help its residents lift themselves out of poverty, degradation and despair, there is a battle of a different sort being fought, but a battle nonetheless.

The first Mother’s Day, as we know it today, was celebrated in a church in Grafton, WV, in1908. Something similar had been proposed before, but it was on that day that our modern holiday became a reality. News of this occurrence spread across the nation, and by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the 2nd Sunday in May to be a day to remember all mothers, alive or deceased.

Could not the same thing be done for a Peacemaker’s Day? Those brave and hardy souls, men and women alike, who have given so much for the cause of human understanding, deserve a day on which their sacrifices can be honored. Their bravery, sacrifice, and dedication are fully as worthy of recognition, for while our military forces serve to keep us free, our peacemakers serve to keep us human.

“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” (John F. Kennedy, Letter to Navy friend)

(The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Bern, NC, chose the 3rd Sunday in December to celebrate Peacemakers’ Day. Advent seemed appropriate, because Jesus is the Prince of Peace.)

3 thoughts on “Peacemakers’ Day

  1. If we are to be strictly accurate about this… Our military services serve to keep the poor of other nations down. That certainly is not what they sign up for, but that is how they’re used.

    1. The military services are used, in large part, to keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful. They don’t really care if the poor are kept poor or powerless, so long as they keep their own privilege. It happens that one of the outcomes of this is that the poor are kept down, but this in itself is not the purpose, but a means to an end.

      For the kind of Christian I aspire to be, that does not make it less important, that our country (and other developed nations) exploit and enthrall subservient populations, both inside and outside of our borders. Whether it is a means to an end or the end itself, either way it’s wrong.

      There are also other purposes for the military. One of them is to maintain, not just the privileges of the rich and powerful, but also yours, and mine. Like it or not, we benefit every day in ways over which we have little or no control from the policies of those who direct the military. We are complicit, in uniform or out of it.

      And that only scratches the surface of a complex issue.

      In my post, originally delivered as a sermon, I was not addressing military or foreign policy, but the honor we pay to veterans themselves, comparing the sacrifices they have made and hardships they have undergone with those met by peacemakers among us.

      I’m genuinely glad you raised this important issue, but it is off-topic. There will no doubt be plenty of opportunity to make similar comments, which will be on topic, as I will address these issues more directly as time goes by.

      Thanks, Friend.

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