Peacemaking: Public and Private

In addressing this topic, I turn to the theme of a workshop/retreat with Bennington (Vt.) Meeting in August 2002, as a way of asking Friends for help in understanding and clarifying the relationship between personal transformation and social change.

As Quakers our basic testimony, it seems to me, is not "peace," but "peacemaking." Although the differences in the two words may appear unimportant, for our language and present needs, they are fundamental. Why? Because the English word "peace" no longer conveys the essential weight and power once associated with that word.

Figuratively speaking, "peace" died on the Western Front in 1916, in what Ernest Hemingway called "that senseless slaughter." The implications of that tragedy were first recognized by Wilfred Owen, who died in battle there two years later, after writing several extraordinary lyrics, including "Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Futility." Almost a century later, his poems are still essential to our understanding of the horror and waste of modern warfare.

A few years later, T. S. Eliot, in The Waste Land (1922), used a Sanskrit word shantih rather than the English word "peace" to name the concept that surpasses all understanding. It was a fundamental insight into the corruption of the word, a casualty of war, and thus of our loss, linguistically speaking. Perhaps coincidentally, the year that T. S. Eliot published his epic poem was the same year that the word "nonviolence" entered our language.

This discussion may sound rather abstract, given the plight of the United States involved in war once again. But I think that it is an issue that must be dealt with by anyone trying to offer alternative ways of being in the world in a violent century. The language we speak, the words that we use, have consequences and implications beyond the mere naming of things.

"Peacemaking" is both clarifying and exact, whereas "peace" is ambiguous. The latter word implies that peace is something that just happens, usually between wars, not something that must be created or it will not exist. Kenneth Boulding, among others, tried to address this matter by talking about "negative" and "positive" peace, in a way that was helpful. But for the common reader—the ordinary person, including me—this alternative doesn’t fully meet a fundamental need to name our proper work.

Toward this goal, the writings of Adam Curle, British Quaker and peace researcher, provide some guidance, in a series of publications that deserve to be much better known in the United States than they are at present. I have in mind his pamphlet Peacemaking: Public and Private (1986) and a more recent book, Another Way: Positive Response to Contemporary Violence (1995). In the former, Adam Curle says, for example, that "Public peacemaking is what we do; private peacemaking is what we are, the two being interpenetrating." Drawing upon his long experience mediating violent and intractable conflicts in West Africa, Sri Lanka, and the former Yugoslavia, he concluded in the latter work, "It is an absurd illusion to consider that we can work for peace, which means to be actively involved with people who are behaving in an unpeaceful way, if we are inwardly in turmoil and ill-at-ease; or to help people change their lives for the better if our own experience is disordered and impoverished."

Although one may demur at the sweeping nature of Adam Curle’s conclusion, it is a useful reference point, particularly when set beside his resonant definition of peacemaking as "the science of perceiving that things which appear to be apart are one and the art of restoring love to a relationship from which it has been driven by fear and hatred."

An important implication of this line of reasoning, for me, is its stress on the intimate relationship between peacemaking and nonviolence and between personal transformation and social change. It suggests what nonviolent theorists from 19th century pacifist Adin Ballou to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King have implied about personal behavior and community building. The poet Muriel Rukeyser says, similarly, in "It is There":

Meditation, yes, but . . .
Generations holding to resistance, and within this resistance,
Fluid change that can respond, that can show the children
A long future of finding, of responsibility.

It is a truism in peace studies that strategies for resolving and transforming conflict within ourselves and our families are surprisingly similar to strategies at the international level. Both involve silence, listening, and being attentive to language and context, especially in distinguishing the conflicts from the persons involved. The goal is to restore equilibrium and harmony—to heal ourselves and the wider community, while recognizing the interdependence of the so-called spiritual and secular realms: to make peace, to act, to clear a space where peace might happen.

Michael True

Michael True, a member of Worcester (Mass.) Pleasant Street Meeting, is the author of An Energy Field More Intense than War: The Nonviolent Tradition in American Literature (Syracuse University Press, 1995), and writes for Peacework.