The Learning Curve of Peace

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

By Robert C. Koehler

“Why are we violent, but not illiterate?”

This question, originally posed by writer Colman McCarthy, was asked at the Midwest Regional Department of Peace conference, which was held last weekend outside Detroit. It cuts to the core of our troubles. The answer is agonizingly obvious: “We’re taught to read!” Could it be we also need to be taught, let us say, calmness, breath and impulse control, practical applications of the Golden Rule? But until we know enough to ask these questions, violence, like ignorance, is just a fact of life.

Oh, humanity. In Russian, the word “mir” means “earth”; it also means “peace.” We know the answers. They’re hidden in our language. We long for peace with every fiber of our being, yet we spend countless trillions annually pursuing its opposite, as though determined in our perversity to be the worst we can be, to squander our enormous intelligence chasing fear and rage to their logical conclusion and annihilating ourselves.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to H.R. 808, the bill to create a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace. It was first introduced by Dennis Kucinich in 2001, and reintroduced in every session of Congress thereafter. It has some 70 co-sponsors in the House right now — thanks to the tireless grassroots lobbying efforts of members of the nationwide Peace Alliance — but remains a long way from passage, or even congressional debate. That’s almost beside the point, however. At this stage, the legislation is a focal point for spreading awareness and getting people (members of Congress and everyone else) to start asking the right questions.

“From the growing rate of domestic incarceration to increasing problems of international violence, the United States has no more serious problem in our midst than the problem of violence itself.”

So cries the Peace Alliance website, going on to point out that, while we pursue incarceration, punishment and war with enormous gusto, economically, emotionally and spiritually, “there is within the workings of the U.S. government, no platform from which to seriously wage peace.

“We place no institutional heft behind an effort to address the causal issues of violence, diminishing its psychological force before it erupts into material conflict. From child abuse to genocide, from the murder of one to the slaughter of thousands, it is increasingly senseless to merely wait until violence has erupted before addressing the deeper well from which it springs.”

This begins to get at it. There’s an enormous amount of data, scholarship and technology available on the root causes of violence and the waging of peace, but the fact of this has yet to be embraced politically. To a large extent, government and its attendant industries (especially the media) remain part of the problem — a huge part of the problem — rather than part of the solution.

To know this, ironically, is to know no peace. Building peace is a lot of work, and the work never stops, nor does the awareness that, if we fail to do so, we’re headed, as a nation and a species, along an arc of self-obliteration. It’s far more “peaceful” to remain in denial, to shut down awareness, to numb ourselves with “the comforts of pessimism” (in the words of Paul Williams, in his poem “Common Sense”).

The irony, of course, is linguistic, not real, because working for peace is a process of connecting and bonding with others in deep and joyous ways, which I learned again and again during the conference weekend. Indeed, creating peace means creating connections with one another and pushing past our isolation. Doing so sometimes feels risky (“the luxury of enemies, the sweetness of helplessness,” Williams writes), but is satisfying beyond measure.

The establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Peace, while it would hardly solve all our problems — and while it may not be the mechanism for challenging the rampant militarism of the American empire — is to my mind a crucial step in the de-escalation of American violence.

The department would recognize and fund a myriad of programs already in place, in our schools and courtrooms and on our streets, and signal that government itself recognizes the value of nonviolent conflict resolution. The legislation would also fund a peace academy, advancing our awareness that peace education and the presence of peacemakers in our society are crucial parts of the future we hope to build.

“We have to take the lead on peace,” said Detroit’s Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the longtime peace activist who gave the keynote address at the conference. He also made a heartfelt plea for the abolition of war, and described in vivid detail the human cost of war in the modern era, mostly as it is waged by the United States.

Right now, and throughout my lifetime, we have been the planet’s primary purveyor of violence. For too many, this remains a source of pride — though I doubt those who feel that way would feel a sense of righteousness if we chose, instead, to spread illiteracy in the name of God and country.