I’ve just read an article by Carter Phipps in What Is Enlightenment? that has me rethinking my long-cherished assumptions about peace. Many of us who are preoccupied with becoming more ‘enlightened’ or ‘spiritual’ believe that we should be cultivating extreme equanimity or serenity within ourselves and spreading peace throughout the rest of the world. And we can point to great sages and sacred texts that reinforce this view and inspire us to act accordingly. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called the children of God.” “Be peace,” urges Thich Nhat Hanh. “One day,” said Martin Luther King, “we must come to see that peace is not only a distant good but a means by which we arrive at that good.”
Yet, many of the same sacred texts and wisdom traditions that exhort us to make peace also defend violence and war under certain conditions. The Jewish Talmud says, “If a man comes to kill you, forestall it by killing him.” Saint Thomas Aquinas writes: [In order] “for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign. . . . Secondly, a just cause. . . . Thirdly . . . a rightful intention.” The Hindu Bhagavad Gita has the divine Krishna admonishing the great warrior Arjuna, anguished over the prospect of shedding blood in the cataclysmic battle shaping up before them, to “Arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy.” And when we look at the real world where nations invade and plunder other nations for wealth and power; of rape, torture, and forced labor camps; and of genocidal holocausts, it seems pitifully naive to think that we could end this horrendous violence, suffering, and death with a peaceful response. It’s true that Gandhi eventually gained India’s independence with nonviolent resistance to British colonial rule, but does anyone seriously believe that he would have had the same success with the Nazis or Khmer Rouge?
No, it seems that even the most steadfastly moral or loftily spiritual person or nation must have might behind their being right and be willing to exercise it when there is no other recourse for defending against immoral or unspiritual violence. As Robert Cooper, former advisor to Tony Blair, once said: “Force without legitimacy brings chaos: legitimacy without force will be overthrown.”
Yet, Phipps argues that the desirability of peace is an even broader issue than one of just defending against aggression. Carl Sagan wrote that “We are star stuff, contemplating the stars.” And when we look at the unfathomably vast universe from which we arose as well as the natural world around us, we see the apocalyptic violence of the Big Bang, colliding galaxies, and exploding suns in the cosmos and the redness of tooth and claw on Earth. It seems that we are born out of cosmic and natural violence and sustained by it, and, furthermore, many physical and biological scientists contend that the physical universe, the biological world, and we human beings are dynamic processes whose “Evolution proceeds by the greatest amount of conflict or tension that the organism or living system can creatively bear,” says former environmental activist turned Christian minister Michael Dowd. In other words, without the peace-defying stresses of tension, conflict, and even violence, there is physical and biological stagnation. And if this is true, is it any great stretch to think that utter peace throughout the world and serenity within the individual might stifle psychological, cultural, and spiritual growth within people and nations?
I’m not sure what to think, except that I need to reflect and learn more about the nature, strengths, and limitations of peace even as I continue striving to engender it in myself and the world. Perhaps I should begin by understanding and pursuing genuine peace not in the simplistic terms of a complete absence of psychological, social, or military conflict but as Spinoza sagely defined it: “Peace is not an absence of war. It is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, trust, and justice.”