Each generation seems to find ways to perpetuate war in our world, leading us to wonder if true peace will ever be possible. In this discourse, I will explore the factors and conditions that might bring us to an experience of a more peaceful and just world. What will it take to move in the direction of perpetual peace rather than perpetual war?
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn believed that peace in the world begins with each of us being peace in the world. This entails finding ways to be at peace with ourselves and learning to be as fully present to ourselves and each other in the moment and letting go of those appetites and desires that can easily lead to conflict, not only with other humans, but also with non human life as well. Meditation, mindfulness, compassion, and a commitment in our personal lives to socially engaged non-violence and simple living are the beginning of cultivating peace in the world.
Along with so many other champions of peace like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Wangari Maathai and others; Thich Nhat Hahn understood that peace in the world begins with peace in ourselves, but these prophets of peace also understood that peace requires a transformation of the world, a transformation of the systems that perpetuate the injustices that are at the core of conflict and violence.
It is critically important to speak out against and protest unnecessary and unjust wars in the world, but protests are most often reactions to war and violence that have either already begun or for which the conditions have been building so as to make violence nearly inevitable. In addition to protests to current violence, an effective peace movement grounded in a commitment to nonviolence will learn from the past and work to prevent the conditions that lead to the perpetuation of war and violence both in the present and the future.
During the time of the war in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to the triple evils of racism, economic injustice, and militarism as being the three great enemies of creating a beloved community in our nation and our world. If we cannot find ways to see ourselves as all being of equal value and dignity, true peace will never be possible. If we cannot find ways to correct gross inequities in income and wealth, true peace will never be possible. And if we cannot regulate, control, and diminish the power of the military industrial complex that profits trillions of dollars from the preparation and implementation of war, true peace will never be possible.
When we realize that we are currently seeing yet another expression of white backlash here in our society with attacks on integrated public education and attacks on honest discussions about racism in our past and present; when we see that the gap between the rich and the poor and income inequality are as bad if not worse than they were in the Gilded Age; and when we continue to spend trillions of dollars on the weapons and ways of war while spending a pittance on perpetuating peace or on eradicating poverty; it is no wonder that we are still so far from a culture of peace. It is no wonder that we are so ready to turn to war and violence when the triple evils of racism, economic injustice, and militarism are waxing rather than waning in strength due to our inaction to address their dangerous and violent power in our world.
It should come as no surprise that in the midst of so much racism, inequality, and militarism in the world that autocratic political leaders find fertile ground for their seeds of propaganda and that they find millions of followers who are ready to accept false solutions that actually fan the flames of racism, inequality, and militarism rather than extinguish them. And autocrats who come to power are much more willing to use military force and violence to maintain and expand their power as they use force to bend others to their will rather than working for the well being of all of the people. If autocracy wins the day over democracy in the world, we will experience a much more violent and war filled future.
In addition to the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism, we now face a fourth evil that exacerbates the other three and that not only threatens peace but also the very existence of human civilization as we have known it. The evil of environmental degradation and the climate crisis it has created exacerbates our tendency toward racist nationalism, widens the gap between the rich and the poor even more as those in poverty are affected most detrimentally by the climate crisis, and increases the likelihood of ongoing and worsening military conflict as we compete with each other in a dystopic war of survival of our own making. Without climate justice that preserves a stable and livable climate for all, any future peace will be fragile and fleeting.
A future of justice and peace in beloved community can only be won through the intentional cultivation of peace within ourselves combined with the transformation of racist, economically unjust, militaristic, and environmentally destructive systems that perpetuate war and violence in our world. Without the intentional cultivation for peace within ourselves, we will be unlikely to maintain the commitment necessary to transform our unjust systems, and without transforming our unjust systems, our attempts to make war no more become futile.
But the good news is that there is hope for a more peaceful future, and that hope is being lived out even in the midst of a war-torn world, and it provides a model for the possibility of peace. The evidence is overwhelming that the more fully democratic a society becomes, the more adequately and effectively it addresses the underlying evils and injustices that contribute to war and violence. For a variety of reasons, vibrant full democracies are less racist, less sexist, more economically just, less militaristic, and more ecologically sustainable. The evidence seems clear that the path to peace is the path of democracy and not the path of autocracy.
When we hear this, one major objection may come to mind. If the path to peace is through democracy, how is that our society in the United States which sees itself as the world’s champion of democracy is also one of the most militaristic, spending more money on its military than the next nine countries combined? Some might answer that this is the cost of making the world safe for democracy, but I would suggest that the more accurate answer is that we are so militaristic because we are actually a flawed democracy and not a full democracy, and those who benefit from the deep flaws in our democracy continue to perpetuate those flaws in order to maintain and expand their economic power both in the United States and around the world, and they use military power to protect their economic interests, with the result that the United States functions more as global economic empire rather than as a model of a full and vibrant democracy.
Perhaps the most important thing that those of us in the United States can do to work for a more peaceful world is to do all we can to protect and improve our democracy here at home because as the rest of the world is teaching us, the more fully democratic societies become, the less violent and militaristic they become. Happy, healthy, and well educated people in democratic societies who enjoy greater equality of opportunity are much less likely to engage in the use of war and violence to solve their problems because they know through experience that nonviolent democratic processes are much more fruitful and effective. The path to peace, though challenging, is clear. It is the path of anti-racist, economically just, anti-militaristic, and ecologically sustainable democracy; and this path is only possible if we ward off the clear and present threats to democracy we are currently experiencing. Unless democracy overcomes autocracy, peace for both people and the planet will continue to be in peril.
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