What does peace look like? It has to be more than working to end war even though that’s important. Peace is built from the bottom up and includes many different peacebuilding skills. Peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we can’t “build” peace without “being” peace. Recognizing our gifts and limitations, learning how to work with others in team efforts, and becoming emotionally mature are all part of being peace. Underlying this is a faith that leads us from anxious self-seeking to generous sharing.
Our Mennonite congregation in Fairfax is part of an ancient peace tradition that goes back as far at the prophet Jeremiah who instructed the Jewish exiles in Babylon to seek the shalom or peace of their city. We look to Jesus who paved the way for peace and reconciliation with God and all others. We can trace this vision through the early church and then the monastic orders such as the Franciscans and the Benedictines. It was later embraced by our sixteenth century Anabaptist spiritual ancestors like Menno Simons.
Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren are known as the historic peace churches but we didn’t invent peacemaking or nonviolence. Furthermore, it spills beyond the borders of our churches. There is a continuing active peace movement within Catholicism and in various Protestant denominations. And there are peace traditions in other religions including Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
At a recent Faith Communities in Action meeting at the Fairfax County Government Center, we reviewed the results of the most recent youth survey. The data show a correlation between the absence of supportive adult mentors and risky teenage behavior. Even one adult mentor can make a significant difference and as many as five makes a huge difference.
We learned about the bullying intervention taught to students in Fairfax County public schools called Stop-Walk-Talk. Students learn to put up their hands indicating “stop” in a bullying situation. Kindergartens love putting up their hands but older students think that’s not cool and choose to instead cross their arms. If the bullying persists, they “walk” away. If those doing the bullying follow them they “talk” to an adult authority. It’s a secular version of the conflict mediation rooted in our faith traditions.
I saw more evidence of this at the at the Fairfax County Student Peace Awards reception where twenty-three students from Fairfax County high schools received awards for all kinds of peacebuilding activities including peer mediation, anti-bullying efforts, interfaith relations, victim-offender reconciliation, support for homeless people, advocacy for civil rights, campaigning against the death penalty, and supporting students with special needs. It was so encouraging to support these young peacemakers and later talk with them and their proud families and friends.
This is what grassroots peacebuilding looks like.