Serious Citizenship

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

“Most of the time, we are grievously feeling that we’re not getting anywhere and that in the ongoing Afghan tragedy, ‘peace’ or ‘humanity’ is a rather impractical, ridiculous thought. But there’s a remnant of the human spirit left in the Afghan smile and that helps to keep me going.” — Hakim, a humanitarian aid worker in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan

Afghan boy smilingLet’s talk for a moment about serious citizenship and its opposite, the stagnant, seemingly intractable culture of war, which floats in hopelessness and cynicism and slowly (or not so slowly) eats our children’s future.

What percentage of the world’s population sees this as a personal — that is to say, a citizenship — matter, to be transmuted by their efforts? What is the number necessary to create a counter “critical mass,” sufficient to shift the political tide? What would this critical mass of human connection look like? Are we actually in the midst of it?

“Peace is not something which exists independently of us, any more than war does,” says the Dalai Lama at “Those who are responsible for creating and keeping the peace are members of our own human family.”

These words are deceptively simple, as is almost everything written about the complex, global social structure that we generically call “peace.” We’re in the midst of creating peace: a new human or trans-human structure, comparable in its complexity to the molecular complexity that suddenly mutated into cellular life nearly 4 billion years ago.

The Dalai Lama’s words were addressed to serious citizens indeed: the attendees and others interested in the 2009 Global Alliance Summit for Ministries and Departments for Peace, which will be held in Costa Rica Sept. 17-21. This is the global movement to demand that all governments recognize peace and nonviolent conflict resolution as not only legitimate but crucial processes, and actively encourage and pursue them by creating cabinet- or ministry-level offices at the highest level devoted to that end.

While there are movements in dozens of countries calling for the establishment of ministries or departments of peace, Costa Rica recently became only the third country that has actually done so. The others are Nepal and the Solomon Islands, nations tiny enough for the cynics not to notice, perhaps, but immense among the community of nations in their courage and vision. If we are searching for evidence that humanity has a future, this is part of it.

Some readers may recognize that the date the summit concludes, Sept. 21, is also the U.N.-designated International Day of Peace, established in 1981 to commemorate the yearning and the possibility of an end to the human self-mutilation process euphemistically called war. The day’s hope has been compressed like a diamond into the expression “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” which adorns the peace poles that symbolize the international peace movement.

Celebration of this day has slowly gained momentum over the decades. Last year, as many as 200 million people worldwide took part in organized festivities on this day, according to This year the day’s theme is nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

The organization called Voices for Creative Nonviolence is planning a different sort of citizen action in the coming weeks. Noting that universal health care and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bear similar price tags — the former fiercely debated and controversial to the point of political stalemate, the latter the beneficiary of craven bipartisan acquiescence — Voices co-coordinator Jeff Leys writes on Common Dreams: “The choice is clear: healthcare or warfare; the Common Good or Common Destruction.”

Leys points out that Congress will soon approve about $130 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for fiscal year 2010. To draw attention to this and other silent outrages that keep war the national default setting, Voices for Creative Nonviolence and a number of other groups will engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House on Oct. 5. This will be the beginning of “a renewed and revitalized effort to completely end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Leys writes.

All of which brings me back to Hakim, who recently e-mailed me from the other side of war — “Here in Afghanistan, I agonize with how the ordinary human being ALWAYS loses” — and reminded me that peace is at its heart something as common and simple and universal as a smile.

Hakim, otherwise known as Teck Young Wee, described himself as an M.D. born and trained in Singapore who began working with Afghan refugees in Quetta, Pakistan in 2002, then accompanied some of them back to their homeland in 2004.

He calls his website His aspirations may sound naïve anywhere but in war-torn Central Asia: “We are a group of volunteer youth and college students in Afghanistan who, together with international ‎volunteers, wish to recover humanity’s smile (peace, reconciliation, humane love, dignity) in Afghanistan and ‎beyond.‎”

This is the smile that comes from a deep place, indeed, and arrives unbidden when we gaze into the eyes of a newborn being: our future.