Ten Steps to Peace

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

    International Interfaith Peace Forum
    "New vision for World Peace"
    Bangkok, Thailand, 13 December 2003

I congratulate the Asian Muslim Action Network on convening this International Interfaith Peace Forum. No one would deny that this topic is the central concern of people around the world at this moment in history. People of all nations and religions are thirsting for peace, and all of us are searching for effective ways to transform the destructive phenomena of polarization, conflict, violence, and war into productive ways of living together on this planet.

We are gathered not only at a Peace Forum, but at an Interfaith Peace Forum, which means that it is an encounter of people of faith. We are people for whom religion is important, whose religious faith guides the way that we approach questions of peace. We meet in this interfaith setting to share with each other how we believe that the followers of various religions can make a contribution to that peace that we all desire.

I am a Christian, that is, one who believes that I have encountered God in the human person of Jesus Christ, and it is through his example and teaching that I find the guidance, motivation, and inspiration to search for peace. I appreciate this opportunity to share with you my views on what I see to be involved in seeking peace and also to learn from you how you understand, from the teaching of your own religion, the path to world peace.

In my talk, I would like to focus on what I see as ten preconditions for peace, ten areas where we must devote our attention if we are ever going achieve real peace in the world. I want to concentrate on those points which we of various religions hold in common. It goes without saying that these ten steps or preconditions for peace are equally necessary for nations and governments, for specific groups, and for individuals.

1. Dialogue. We have to be ready to discuss, to negotiate, to speak and listen to each other. Violence is attractive to many because it seems like a short-cut. It is a translating of feelings of anger and resentment into immediate action, of taking matters into one's own hands, of demonizing the enemy who is seen as deserving whatever consequences might befall him. It is far more difficult and requires much patience, forbearance and self-discipline to hold one's anger in check, to listen, to try to see all sides, to search for long-term solutions, rather than to give in to the impulse of the moment and engage in a violent reaction. Our religions must teach that violence is short-sighted and, in the end, ineffective. It only shows which party is stronger, never which is right.

2. Development. Peace will never be achieved so long as great masses of people are living in misery, while others have more than they need. Desperation drives people to destructive acts, in that they feel they have nothing to lose. When people have hope, when they expect that the future might be better than the past, they are more ready to accept that injustice is just one part of life, not the whole of it. The religions should focus on effective programs of sustainable development - jobs, education, housing, health - that give people reason to hope. They must stress how war is a colossal waste of human resources. Think of how the $5 billion a day, that the U.S. government acknowledged was spent during the combat period of the Iraq War, could have been used for education and health programs for the world's poor.

3. Democratization. People on all continents want governments that express and respond to their basic needs and desires. They want their voice heard by those who govern, and they want legal, non-violent ways to expel corrupt officials who use political power to enrich themselves and ignore the needs of the people. We will not have peace without governments that are representative of the people and responsive to their demands. I call this "democratization," which is different from "democracy," because representative governments can take many forms. Religious groups can make a contribution to peace by favoring the process of democratization and honest government for all the world's peoples.

4. Human dignity. Wars and violent actions affect first and foremost ordinary people who basically want to get on with their lives, raise their children, and enjoy the basic pleasures of family, home, and friendship. Wartime propaganda focuses on "the enemy," by which is meant individual leaders or ruling cliques, but the religions must continually put the emphasis where it belongs, on the innocent people who suffer most the consequences of any violent conflict. Even religions that permit war in some circumstances stress the inviolability of civilian populations. They must ask themselves seriously whether techniques of modern warfare that mainly affect civilians, such as aerial bombing, rockets and heat-seeking missiles, land mines and economic sanctions, can ever be justified.

5. Justice. Will we ever achieve peace without justice? Is it realistic even to speak of peace without justice? It would be like a doctor seeking to heal a patient while ignoring a festering wound. Although perfect justice will never be achieved in this world, the religions must strive together to defend the victims of injustice and oppression and to build structures that bring greater justice to more people. This commitment must be universal, not simply defending our own group when it is victimized, but advocating and working for justice for all.

6. Forgiveness. By itself, justice is not enough to bring peace, because we all carry a burden of wrongs from the past. So long as the wrongs and injustices suffered are remembered but not forgiven, the resentment remains and forms the basis of continuing judgments against the other, and at even the slightest provocation can ignite into anger and hatred. How many wrongs committed in the course of the last World War or other wars of the past, in the colonial period, even in medieval times, are still vividly remembered? All our religions teach us to forgive, although there is probably no human act more difficult to perform. The followers of religion must see forgiveness, not as weakness or indifference, but as the only way to move beyond the past and constructively build a future. The alternative, refusing to forgive, makes us prisoners of our previous history condemned to forever relive and dwell upon our grievances.

7. Acknowledging guilt. This is the other side of forgiveness. The burden is not only on the wronged party, whether it be national, ethnic, or religious group. Those of the group who did the wrongs can make the process of forgiveness less difficult by acknowledging their deeds of violence and oppression. We know from our personal experience it is never easy to be self-critical, to admit that we have harmed others, to ask forgiveness. It is the same with nations and religious groups. The natural tendency is to engage in self-justification, to point out how the other has been also at fault. But if peace is ever to be achieved, our religious convictions must lead us to an honest admission of our own misdeeds.

8. Simplicity of life. This is an element of peace often overlooked. Every religion I have studied exhorts people to a simple life-style, permitting enjoyment in moderation of the good things of creation but warning of the dangers of greed, excess, and selfishness. We must be aware, however, that in the consumerist and materialist ideology that is dominant in the modern world, powerful economic forces and a whole advertising industry are at work to promote the idea that a person's worth is determined by what one owns. In today's globalized culture, religious ideals of moderation, generosity, and solidarity have become counter-cultural. It does not take much imagination to see how greed, competition for markets and control of resources, and aggressive economic rivalry all lead to conflict and war. The religions must counter this tendency by reaffirming without embarrassment the important value of simplicity; "the bottom line" is ultimately not the bottom line. There is more to life than pleasure and possessions.

9. Solidarity with the human family. Where do we find our basic identity? To whom do we owe support and allegiance? For whom do we have responsibility? Is it only to our family or clan, to our religious co-believers, to our nation? Our religions must insist that our deepest allegiance is to the welfare of the human family. We must be ready to take up the just causes of peoples and nations elsewhere, to be genuinely concerned about their welfare, to defend their rights. Indifference and rugged individualism allows suffering, victimization, and violence to occur on the world scene. Our religious beliefs must lead us to an active solidarity with all our sisters and brothers, not just those of our "group."

10. Education for peace. Most of our nations have War Colleges where students can learn the art and techniques of warfare, but very few government ministries and universities have centers for the study of peace. The study of peace seems like a "soft" subject lacking in scientific and academic discipline. However, if one is not to fall into superficial generalities, it takes serious investigation and research to be able to analyze the root causes of conflict, the unique interplay of political, historical, economic, social, psychological and religious factors that underlie any given conflict or war. Just as important as an area of study are the techniques of conflict transformation and peace-building. Peace is not easy to build, and it does not come about without human initiative, creative thinking, and conscious effort. Our religions can contribute to peace-building by drawing up peace curricula for our schools and by establishing centers for the study of peace. By working together to make our religiously-based universities and schools "laboratories for peace" and by sharing human and financial resources for peace education, our religious groups would give a credible witness to our commitment towards world peace.

I don't claim that these ten steps to peace are an exhaustive list, nor are they particularly original insights. However, I hope that they point towards some of the facets of peace to which we must give serious attention if we want to be effective as peace-builders in today's world.



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