Being Peace (part 1)

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Water lily at Longwood Gardens

During the buildup to the Iraq war, many of us put lots of energy into a group effort to persuade our government to not invade Iraq. We took out advertisements opposing the war in our local newspaper, we organized public forums at the town library, and we recruited several busloads of people to come to Washington DC to participate in a huge anti-war demonstration.

Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in that demonstration. I can still feel the energy of the crowd. We were pumped up and shouting call-and-response anti-war slogans, along with pounding drums and any other things that made noise as we marched through the streets. “One, two, three, four—we don’t want your bloody war. Drop Bush—not bombs; drop Bush—not bombs!”

We were ordinary Americans—students, grandparents, and even mothers with babies. Different faith communities and church groups marched along holding signs identifying who they were. There were also a few sketchy groups threatening resort to violence if provoked. And there were groups of hecklers at several locations shouting disparaging remarks at us from behind police lines. In stark contrast to all that, there was a group of about a dozen Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-colored robes silently, peacefully marching along with folded hands as if in meditation. That caught my attention.

It’s not that what most of the rest of us were doing was wrong. Showing our frustration and anger can be a legitimate way to express our humanity in response to a great evil or injustice. However, one of the hazards of being a peace activist is becoming habitually angry. It’s easy to start lashing out, not only at the evils we deplore, but at others in the movement who we disagree with. We soon have a long list of grievances and people we don’t like. Becoming a hate filled peace activist is an oxymoron to say the least.

It’s not only peace activists who have this problem. We experienced some ugly conflicts and broken relationships in the Bible and Religion department where I used to teach. I have also known church leaders who thought it was their duty to fight other church leaders, along with all the other evils they imagined creeping into the church. There’s usually lots of ego involved in such fights.

We don’t always know ourselves. Buddhist peace activists have a saying that we need to be peace in order to make peace. Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese, Buddhist peace activist whose work I have become familiar with through my time in Asia and my involvement in the peace movement. He writes:

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.’ Those who work for peace must have a peaceful heart. When you have a peaceful heart, you are the child of God. But many who work for peace are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work is not really peaceful. We cannot say they belong to the Kingdom of God” (Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, p. 73).

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