The topic of peace has been on my mind a lot lately.
The Olympic Torch is in Hong Kong today. The news media here has
photos of the runners progressing on their eight hour run through the
city, surrounded by additional runners dressed in blue uniforms and
lines of police cordoning off streets that have a few protesters here
and there. Many of the flags being waved are the red flag of China.
It appears that pro-democracy protesters are not being tolerated. All
this protesting is resulting from two different world views. Is there
a middle ground for peace, when there is such a clash of viewpoint? Indeed, what does it mean to have peace, to be
peaceful? How can nations achieve
peace? More generally (and not related to current world events) my mind wanders to the question of how can peaceful people lobby for
peaceful change in the face of a violent aggressor?
I just saw video footage of a political prisoner who had been held by
the USA at Guantanamo being carried on a stretcher as he was being
returned to his home country of Sudan. The USA has certainly lost
whatever ground it had, if it every had any, in the claim that it is a
nation of peace. But world events are not the purpose of this story.
They merely provide a backdrop, and explanation for why I’ve been
pondering this idea. The idea of PEACE. What is it? Why does our
world still have so much conflict and hate?
I confess, I’ve developed an unfortunate theory that the side of peacefulness
will never fully win, in the long run. It’s
a powerful impulse, but it can’t win the day because it is constantly being
eliminated from the gene pool of ideas. With
each person, it has to start over and begin a new beginning. Violence, on the other hand, has no qualms
about snuffing out the candle of peace. In
support of my notion, I’ll recount a story that I’ve since tried to research
and have been unable to verify.
Before we went to England
one time, I decided it would be nice to try and visit some places in England
particularly associated with my family name of Broughton. There
is some family oral history, completely undocumented, that one branch
of my ancestors came to the New World as a result of having taken the
"wrong side" in the War of the Roses. On the internet, I found a Bed
that was called Broughton Inn, on the border between Wales
and England. The original manor house, Broughton, had been
burned down during the War of the Roses.
Hmm. Raises an interesting flag in terms of the family oral history, so I read some more. The B&B was run out of the former carriage house.
I read some more, even though the location was nowhere near our planned
itinerary. (I also am no longer to locate this web page.)
The web page said that this area of Wales had been
subject to border skirmishes throughout its history. The website said that during one of those
conquests, there had been a monastery at a nearby site that had 5,000 monks
living at it. The monks were committed
to nonviolence. As the aggressor and his
army approached, the Monks prayed to God for deliverance. Imagine that:
5,000 able bodied, grown men praying for deliverance. If they had taken up a call to arms, they
could have been quite a formidable force!
But instead, they prayed. When the
aggressor arrived, the Monks were slaughtered wholesale. (While the story as I remember it was Henry VI and
War of the Roses, I did find one page recounting a force of 2100 Monks
in Wales marching out unarmed to confront the Saxons, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northeast/guides/weird/ghosts/pages/bridge_screams.shtml
That’s a pretty graphic image, and it’s what I mean when I
say use the term, “eliminated from the gene pool of ideas”. To put it in colloquial English, "Those Monks ain’t no mo’!" Their ideals, their pacifism, their way of
life, did not survive to be passed down to the next generation of recruits. Instead, the ideals and viewpoint of the
conquerors is what survived to be passed down in the annals of history, to
stand the test of time of winning ideas.
Killing people is so much more expedient than listening to them and
accommodating them. Guess who wins?
My notion that ideas can be lost from the “gene pool of
ideas” isn’t limited to pacifism versus aggression. Extinction of ideas is happening every day. Languages are the means by which humans
communicate ideas. As such, languages
represent the best window into understanding the brain science of how the mind works. Many languages contain concepts that are unavailable to people who don’t
speak that language. Yet, linguists
lament, languages are becoming extinct at an alarming rate as a result of
globalization and mass media. The
U.S.A. National Science Foundation estimates that about half of the world’s
6,000 – 7,000 languages are in danger of being lost. (Language and Linguistics: A Special Report, http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/linguistics/endangered.jsp.)
Valuable knowledge and irreplaceable cultural heritage is being lost
every day as the last native speakers of nearly extinct languages die
Another example of extinction of ideas comes from what happened when the Europeans
migrated into North America and thereby
displaced the native peoples there. The
Europeans were largely unaware that they were committing cultural
genocide. I’ll use an example of
strawberry fields that they found there. The term “strawberry
fields forever” wasn’t actually coined by the Beatles. It’s a quote from a primary source I once
read, in a letter from an early explorer of North America
written back to his benefactor (I did not find the original source in a google search). In his letter,
the explorer described a land that was so verdant and rich with resources that there were “strawberry fields forever” in the Mississippi Valley
area. According to what I have read, the early explorers didn’t realize the strawberry fields
had been cultivated. Because they didn’t see an “owner”
of the land, the Europeans assumed the strawberries that grew through the Mississippi wetlands
were wild. To the contrary, these berries,
and many native grains as well, were cultivated by Native Americans through a
loose, non structured cooperative agricultural endeavor.
The Native Americans simply thought of land in a different
way, using a different conceptual system.
Their conceptual system didn’t include the idea of “private property” as
devised by the Europeans. They didn’t think
of land as something to be bought and sold, but rather as something to be used
and shared with others in one’s tribe.
Hence, the whole idea of “selling” the land and then being “excluded”
from use of the land as a result were alien to them. A clash of cultures and a very nasty surprise,
certainly, when the Europeans “bought” their land and then evicted them from it!
I’m sure there are many opinions about the morality of the expansion of
Europeans into North America at the expense of the native peoples
People who want to oversimplify will vilify me for saying this,
but I personally rather doubt that the European newcomers fully
thought of themselves as committing “cultural genocide” when they
land from the American natives and then enforced their removal from it. Like ordinary people everywhere in most parts
of the world today, certainly some Europeans did know what they were doing and didn’t
care; others felt powerless to stop it; while many probably didn’t care so long
as they could raise food for their own families. What
I’m saying is, I doubt if the purpose was to do harm, but rather it was
more simply to provide for one’s own. (Just as we are doing every time
we use gasoline to go to the grocery store or insist on speaking
English in our schools. We don’t intend harm to the environment or to
a language about to go extinct, but these may be consequences or our
The Europeans, ethnocentrically, thought that they were delivering
and enforcing the values and mores of a superior, stronger culture. They thought that everyone should be
converted to and adopt the views and systems of the European culture. (A very interesting movie along this line is
the flick, “The Education of Little Tree” about a boy who is sent to “Indian School”
as part of the White Man’s effort to inculcate him into the dominant
culture.) And it did happen,
mostly. Native Americans in the “Indian
Schools” were prohibited from learning or speaking in their native tongues
(just as Tibetans today are taught classes that use Chinese language in Chinese
sponsored schools and which impart a Chinese view of the world). The strategy does work.
Nowadays, does anyone in the USA make any
pretense of applying the Native American view regarding property rights? Nope!*(note below). The Native American view of property as a
common resource has been lost, disappearing down into the swirling vortex of
In a similar sense, we must acknowledge that life expectancy in Tibet
has doubled in the last sixty years (in what part of the world has it
not?) but we ought also to recognize that Tibetans don’t want to lose
their culture and have their land turned into the next Epcot Center (as
has figuratively been done here:
As I mentioned the other day in a blog entry, whenever there is
a clash among cultures, the dominant culture “wins” the day. I don’t think we can change this fact. The fact is that there are tremendous
population pressures on world resources. Dominant cultures are going to
migrate in and displace people. Guns speak louder than roses. Dominant
cultures are also going to displace wild populations of non-humans, as well,
driving animals to extinction. As Jane
Goodall pointed out in a TED talk I watched recently, we can’t really change this tide. Ordinary people simply
want to live and feed their families.
(cf. Jane Goodall, "What Separates Us From the
.) The challenge of modern history is how to do this, how to meet this
need, without desecrating the natural or human landscape. The human landscape includes many
cultures and topographies. How can we meet
our own, legitmate needs in a way that still fosters peace and accommodates others?
Wow, that’s one big problem!
Too big for me to solve, in fact!
In fact, if I were only to dwell on the seemingly insurmountable
problems of the world, I might become terribly discouraged. But that’s where the slogan “Think Globally,
Act Locally” comes in handy. While you
and I can be cognizant of greater world problems, each of us can also maintain
our optimism (and do our part) by participating in whatever means are available
to us locally.
What can you and I do,
today? What can I do at a local
level? I propose that one specific thing each of us can do is to attempt
to step outside our own culture and to assess what is really being said by
another culture, by another language. To
do this, we must make the effort. We
must be open minded about developing empathy and compassion enough to be able
to step inside that culture and view the world through its eyes.
We must listen. Of course we will disagree. I don’t agree to eat dog,
for example, even though my Chinese friends think it’s okay to do so.
But if I am open minded enough to communicate, then we can converse
about our various rationales and try to accommodate each other as much
as we are able.
So, what does this have to do with the idea of peace, not
only in a collective sense but in an individual sense as well? Only that peace takes effort. Specifically, it requires effort aimed at understanding others and reaching out to them.
Compromise and mediation are not new
concepts. Ultimately, these skills are
rooted in compassion, in the ability to see
another human, another viewpoint, and they are developed by practice. We learn compassion and altruism in our
mother’s arms, as we form our first experiences of how to care for an Other and
how to accept being cared for by an Other.
(I use this term in the same sense that Martin Buber uses it in his book Ich Und Du.**)
Thus, it is incumbent on each of us to reach out to the extent we are
able. Is there a language corner in your
home town? Is there someone sitting on
your pew in church whom you haven’t spoken to in awhile? Have you been thinking about volunteering for
a position in your organization where you might be able to make a
We can make a difference even in the smallest of ways. One of my
friends in the USA volunteers simply by rocking premature babies in
the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of a hospital in our city. His small
action is the action of everyman to make the world a better place. I believe this is the way that points
toward peace: small steps that ultimately lead us the
"How can rocking a baby promote world peace," you ask? It’s because
rocking a baby makes the world a better place. It’s one more small,
shining light that points the way. I hope that
this way of taking small footsteps for peace will not be lost in the swirling
vortex of radical ideas or in the shed blood of innocents. For
no large mountain has ever been scaled
without lots of very small footsteps, and when we combine our
cumulative small lights we might end up with enough of a glow to make a
*If they did, this view which acknowledges the common interest in keeping
the land renewable and sustainable might have resulted in much less ecological
devastation! (See also the children’s book Brother
Eagle, Sister Sky or the adult book Bury
My Heart at Wounded Knee.)
** For Amazon.com links to books cited, see book list on my blog, currently items 21 – 23. The movie "The Education of Little Tree" can also be found on Amazon.