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Religiously Motivated Peacemaking – a Report Card

By Paul Chaffee

Children celebrate the International Day of Peace at the United Nations, 2007. Photo: Estizer Smith for the World Peace Prayer Society.

Children celebrate the International Day of Peace at the United Nations, 2007. Photo: Estizer Smith for the World Peace Prayer Society.

Millions of people this month, representing hundreds of religious traditions, are joining parades, festivals, sporting events, broadcasts, workshops, and all manner of activities championing peace in a broken world. Still, this hopeful global interfaith wave cannot silence the biblical rage, voiced centuries ago, when the prophet, pointing his finger at greed and deceit, cried,  “‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14)

Organizing for peace is not a new practice. Nor is it nearly as futile as cynics might suggest. Twenty-eight hundred years ago the warring city-states of Greece began forming amphictiony, associations of small states that shared their worship sites and rituals, kept peace with each other, and came to each other’s defense. Unhappily, this peaceful posture for insiders did not keep them from attacking neighboring associations.

Modest peace goals sometimes succeed. During Greece’s ancient Olympics, the games and their accompanying rituals came with a one-month treaty when bearing arms was forbidden and fighting ceased. The iron fist of Rome as an empire came in the velvet glove of the Pax Romana, a period of peace lasting more than 200 years. The early medieval church in Europe developed a custom called the Truce of God, forbidding fighting on certain days of the week.

In the seventeenth century writers like Maximilien de Bethuine and Hugo Grotius began studying peace more systematically. Grotius’ On the Law of War and Peace introduced the idea of international law. And in 1647 George Fox founded the Society of Friends, proposing that Jesus had prohibited violence and asked his followers to be peacemakers. This pacificism, as well as encouraging women to a more equal role with men, proved so radical that Quakers faced prosecution in Europe and the United States. Fined, beaten, branded, banished, and occasionally executed, they prevailed, and the deep roots of their spiritually motivated peacemaking provided a context for peacemaking that is vital to this day.

The failure to quell violence and a deep yearning for peace found grassroots expression in 1815 when David Low Dodge founded the New York Peace Society. It sponsored weekly meetings and published a newsletter arguing for peace from a Christian perspective. Similar societies popped up in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts, and in 1828 a coalition created the American Peace Society. Europe was not far behind, motivated in part through the founding of the Red Cross. By 1850 major peace conferences had been held in Paris, London, Geneva, Frankfurt, and Brussels. Still, though, we hear the prophet’s words – “…and there is no peace.”Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie, born in Scotland and raised in Pennsylvania, is best known as an industrial tycoon who built public libraries across the United States. Less well-known is that Carnegie was the most prominent peacenik of his time. In 1907, as president of a reorganizing New York Peace Society, he optimistically claimed that “Since the civilized world is now united by electric bonds into one body of constant and instant communication, it is largely interdependent and rapidly becoming more so. No nation can go to war now against another nation without going to war against all humanity. The world is becoming a family.”

Early in 1914, by now better acquainted with the difficulty of the quest, Carnegie invited a group of New York’s most prominent clergy and lay leaders to his home. He addressed them as spiritual guides who could organize world peace if only they had the means. He told them he was creating a $2 million endowment to support their peacemaking, more than enough, he suggested, to do the job.

The resulting Church Peace Union had its first meeting at Lake Constance, in Germany, August 15, 1914. Delegates arrived to hear news of World War I breaking out. After a prayer meeting they hurried back home. This disappointment and two world wars did not silence these leaders, though, and eventually CPU became a powerful voice generating religious support for peacemaking. It evolved into the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, one of the world’s leading voices promoting ethical leadership on issues of war, peace, and global social justice.

Since World War II

Two major developments since World War II have accelerated the quest for spiritually motivated peace. One of the four purposes of the United Nations, according to its Charter is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” This vision was buttressed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which asserts in Article 18 that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

To be sure, the United Nations is a secular venture organized around nation states, not religions. But its calls for universal peace and freedom of religion are major achievements supporting all peacemakers, secular and spiritual alike. In the last 30 years the UN has been an active collaborator with interfaith peacemakers and other nonprofit organizations working on behalf of the Earth and its peoples.

For instance, the World Prayer Peace Society, inspiring people to plant a quarter-million peace poles around the world, and United Religions Initiative, a network with more than 500 interfaith groups in 80 countries, work with other NGOs to tell the world about the UN’s most constructive programs. Religious communities around the world have joined the UN’s Millennium Development Goals campaign, designed to end poverty as we know it. In sum, nations and religious communities everywhere are learning to work together for the good of all.

A second transformational contribution to religiously motivated peacemaking is the emergence of the interfaith movement, a powerful development we can measure different ways. Institutionally, the World Congress of Faiths, Temple of Understanding, Religions for Peace International, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, and United Religions Initiative, to name a few, are major players – interfaith peacemaking establishments  doing constructive work with hundreds of millions of religiously motivated peacemakers. Their stories will be told here. This issue of TIO reports on major interfaith gatherings in Azerbaijan, London, Montreal, and Phoenix, Arizona.

The biggest changes, however, are not institutional but grassroots grown, fed by a tectonic shift in neighborhood demographics everywhere, an unparalleled racial, religious, and cultural diversity. In response, towns, cities, regions, and nations are spontaneously generating interfaith groups, cultivating new friendships, identifying shared values, and engaging in collaborative service, including peacemaking. No central plan, no big budget – it is just happening. As many have observed, demonizing a community is much tougher after you’ve become good friends with a few of its members. A host of interreligious activities are multiplying in a movement that is much bigger and quite different from the liberal ‘wine & cheese’ programming the press sometimes condescends to discern. Tens of thousands of spiritually grounded peacemakers are being educated and prepared to go the next step in the quest we share.

Avon Mattison

Avon Mattison

Pathways to Peace

Avon Mattison worked at the U.S. State Department and at United Nations before joining John McDonald and Robert Muller in the successful campaign to get the United Nations to declare an annual international day of peace, first celebrated in 1982. A year later Avon founded Pathways to Peace, which grew into one of the world’s premier peace promoters. In 2001 an English actor named Jeremy Gilley, founder of Peace One Day, managed to convince the UN to change the international celebration from a ‘floating’ day (depending on the General Assembly’s start-date each year) to a date certain – September 21 every year. On that day now people all over the world know peace is being celebrated universally.

The International Day of Peace began modestly. A single group, the United Nations General Assembly, rang a peace bell and fell silent for one minute. This year, by contrast, September 21 is being celebrated in more than 4000 programs around the world. One of those, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, by itself engages 360 million people. Never have so many joined in a single spirit to shift human history away from war and violence. Pathways to Peace continues as a multi-faceted international, interfaith organization dedicated to peacebuilding, peace education, and consulting, including a consultative status with the United Nations.

The ten-year-old tragedy of 9/11 was the most dramatic example in our lifetime of the need for world peace, and it has bred an army of aspiring peacemakers. Dozens of constructive projects have emerged. Women Transcending Boundaries, conceived in the days following that tragedy, provides a grassroots service-model impressive enough for the New York Times to profile last Sunday, September 11, 2011, in its special section on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Mosques in dozens of communities across America now regularly invite non-Muslims to join them in a breaking-the-fast feast during Ramadan, with the favor often returned by other traditions – almost all of it post-9/11. 

In 2004, We, the World started promoting 11 Days-11 Ways for activities between September 11, a day of tragedy, and September 21, a day of peace. Hundreds of communities in dozens of countries have responded. All the while, scholar-practitioners like Mohammed Abu-Nimer, David Cooperrider, Louise Diamond, and John Paul Lederach are providing new, deeper insights for transforming conflict into accord.

A Better Report Card

Members of the 1815 New York Peace Society would be speechless at the tsunami of grassroots peacemaking activity their weekly meetings helped initiate. Nearly 200 years later, of course, we confess there still is no universal peace. But the people who measure such things suggest that serious progress is being made.

A month ago the Christian Science Monitor Editorial Board made the case that “The peace industry can win its war.” (August 16, 2011) The editors, citing research at the Institute for Economics and Peace in Australia and Canada’s Simon Fraser University, contend that “Over the last 15 years, the world community has not only learned more about preventing conflicts but the success rate for peacemaking has also gone up.” Negotiated peace settlements succeeded only 55 percent of the time in the nineties, but the rate grew to 85 percent in the opening years of the twenty-first century. “The massive increase in international activism – across the whole spectrum of … peace building activity” – has meant fewer civil wars and wars between countries.

In short, the religiously motivated peacemaking report card is doing better. Twenty-five percent of the human family remains highly vulnerable to war and criminal violence, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. The quest is far from over and as imposing as ever. But don’t let anyone suggest that it is futile, never to succeed. The evidence clearly suggests otherwise.

TIO advisers Deborah Moldow, Rick Ulfick, Alison Van Dyk, Sandy Westin, Monica Willard and Betsy Wiggins contributed to this story.