An Urgency of Joy

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

The culture of war goes quietly about its business. Last week, Congress fed it another $162 billion, perhaps with some nostalgia: This was the final war-funding request of the Bush administration, the lame-duck, despised status of which making absolutely no difference in the dispatch with which the money was delivered.

Yes, there was some protest — 155 nay votes on the funding amendment, to 268 yea — and we can take a little wan heart in this trend, but the protest strikes me as largely symbolic. I fear that while the anti-war-funding contingent in Congress may want to be on record as morally correct, it understands that the war is inevitable and cannot be opposed in some structural and career-endangering way.

This was evinced a few weeks ago by the cryptic words of House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who, as reported on, said that he “opposes giving any more funding for the war but felt he had a professional obligation to produce a bill that can pass.”

Moral stands of this sort, which are not seriously meant to change or even challenge the status quo, are a dime a dozen, and do not serve the huge constituency of Americans who grasp the danger we’re in and want far more than a withdrawal from Iraq — who want a withdrawal of the culture of violence from every aspect of American life, especially from its unholy triumvirate: the economy, the government and popular culture.

The important message I have for this constituency, which I took away with renewed clarity and fervor from the conference I attended last weekend — “Building a Culture of Peace in the Heartland” — is that knowing what we’re against is not enough, and at best will generate the occasional symbolic “nay” vote on some inevitable piece of war legislation.

This was the Midwest regional gathering of an organization called the Peace Alliance, which was established four years ago to promote and lobby for what is currently known as HR 808, the House legislation that would establish a Cabinet-level Department of Peace and Nonviolence; it was first introduced by Dennis Kucinich in 2001 and currently has about 60 co-sponsors.

I whole-heartedly support this legislation, which among much else would establish a peace academy and coordinate and fund the best of the violence-prevention and restorative-justice/healing programs that are proliferating around the country, because it would bring a level of peace consciousness to our government that is currently absent. The legislation, I believe, would also help these disparate groups understand that each is part of a larger whole — a dawning global culture of peace.

Peace Alliance co-founder Marianne Williamson, who addressed the conference, illustrated the difference between being “against” (anti-war) and “for” (pro-peace) by talking about the two most significant documents of the nation’s founding. “The Declaration of Independence,” she noted, “states, ‘we are not that’ — a monarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few. The Constitution states, ‘We are this.’ You need both,” she said. “One is not enough.”

Furthermore, unlike the Declaration of Independence, which denotes a single historic stance, the Constitution has been evolving for 200 years, adjusting to the contours of current events but more importantly expanding its protective reach as the nation has grown in awareness.

A culture of peace may one day simply be called a culture of common sense, but right now it’s a radical leap in consciousness beyond the fear that continually fuels the culture of war and violence — the culture of us vs. them — which has exacted from the human race, over the last seven millennia or so, an ever-increasing share of its material and spiritual treasure and has set us on what Williamson called a “line of probability” that will culminate one day in environmental or nuclear catastrophe.

“It is the 11th hour, but it’s not 11:59 quite yet,” Williamson said. “There is still time.”

Such was the urgency of this conference — an urgency, you might say, of joy and creativity. This is “deep democracy,” she said. “Deep humanitarianism. Every time you teach a child to read you are a peace activist. The opposite of war is creation.”

HR 808, and the subsequent numbers by which it will be known as it is reintroduced in congressional session after congressional session for years if not decades to come, is a small but crucial component of this paradigm shift in human consciousness.

I’m positive that one day we’ll figure it out: Every dollar spent on human betterment and nonviolent conflict resolution yields returns that are almost incalculable. Every billion poured into the chasm of war is lost forever.