Peace: the absence of fear and the presence of justice

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The following is a guest post from Queen’s University’s Inter-faith Chaplain, Kate Johnson, who delivered this speech on November 11th at a Peacequest event called “The World Remembers.” 

In my early teens I made my first faulty commitment to pacifism. At 28, I met the soldier who would eventually become my husband. He had learned of my claim to pacifism previously but was still interested in meeting me. Had I known he was a soldier I would not likely have seen the date through. Immediately, I was forced to admire his open mind and willingness to challenge his own prejudices – although one of his first questions felt more like a challenge to me.

He asked how a person of conscience could be willing to “do nothing” when the world was crying out for justice. I was confused – what did he mean by “do nothing?” In the world he came from, the teaching was that pacifists “did nothing” in place of preparing to take up arms. I was glad to explain that my pacifist role models were very much people of action and that I did all that I could to live up to their examples. While his lot were (with varying degrees of reluctance) willing to do violence in the hope of creating peace, my lot were (with varying degrees of self awareness and integrity) using less coercive means to bring about greater peace. Each of us shattered the other’s illusions about who was “on the other side” of our differences. Since that night, I can say with certainty that loving and marrying a soldier has indeed been the most constructive thing I have ever done to strengthen my commitment to pacifism.

You have read Ursula Franklin’s beautiful words above me: “Peace is not the absence of war but the absence of fear and the presence of justice.” In our world, and in our homes where violence has been present as often as not and the dividing line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, peace is a state brought about by strongly held conviction, rigorous self-examination and as much action as our personal circumstances allow. As people who want peace for ourselves and others we can not shirk Margaret Meade’s perhaps cliche but still essential suggestion that we must “be the change we want to see in the world.”

The practice of pacifism is a life-time, moment-by-moment commitment – many splendored in its efforts. Those efforts are too numerous to describe tonight so instead I want to briefly talk about what I believe to be the primary pacifist practice – that of spiritually grounded self-examination.

Different traditions use different language but my own Quaker tradition advises that we “remove the seeds of war from our own lives.” This is a tall – if not impossible – order. It does not refer merely to holding political ideals or particular interpersonal practices but extends through the whole of our lives. It includes eliminating investments and patterns of consumption that lead to fear and conflict close to home or at a distance. Few of us have the integrity to even pretend to strive for such an ideal these days – I certainly cannot lay claim to it.

It is much easier to call out ideas we don’t like than it is to lay down the technology that contains conflict minerals or the many consumer goods produced in circumstances of oppression. Certainly we can not live in this society without participating in oppression unless we are willing to be thought terribly odd and take up a place far on the margins of society ourselves. We need to be honest with ourselves about that but we also should not let that reality stop us from doing what we can – including some of the hard stuff.

A famous prophet once challenged his followers: “what credit is there in loving those who love you” or already see you as allies? Love of allies is not meaningless – indeed this week in North America has made the ever-present need for solidarity even more urgent. We must speak our truth, wear our safety pins, and create safe havens for the marginalized but none of that is enough.

It sounds naive to some but I assure you it is not when I say with all certainty that if we want peace, we must refuse to be enemies.

We must oppose evil ideas and evil agendas – and to give that opposition integrity, we must not dehumanize those who tempt us into conflict. In 30 years of seeking to understand humans and our range of behaviour, I have arrived at this one unavoidable truth: from the roughest streets, to the darkest prison to the privileged environs of Queen’s University, I have yet to meet a person who did not make sense when I learned their whole story.

We can and must resist evil but we also can and must exercise that resistance in the most humane, compassionate way possible – constantly challenging ourselves, our allies and those we oppose to methods of living that transcend the perceived need for violence. It takes a life-time of training and discipline to achieve this – and never perfectly. Still, more often than we imagine, it can be done.

Audre Lorde is famously quoted as saying “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She goes on to point out that “they may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” She “urges each one of us to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself to touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all of our choices” and we can respond with the kind of compassion and humility that hurting children deserve – for who among us has ever left their hurting child entirely behind?

I heard it said this morning by Military Chaplain Captain Ryan Carter that no one has a monopoly on the meaning of Remembrance Day. It is right and good that we gather this evening to mourn the violence in our world and to long together for our vision of peace: an absence of fear and the presence of justice. Let us be sure as we leave this place that we do all that we can to remove the seeds of violence from our own lives, holding each other up so that we do not betray ourselves in fear but rather that we encourage each other to be sure that our actions speak our convictions.

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