Thoughts on the Peace Testimony

I have been struggling with what to say about the Peace Testimony for several weeks now. Every time I think about the problems they become more complex and seemingly insolvable. For example, consider the following biological reality. In naturalistic studies of primates in groups in the wild, revenge and similar violent acting out is advantageous. There are hormonal, biochemical alterations that occur in male nonhuman primates in response to the stress of being "bested" by another male. But if the victimized male then goes and attacks another animal, that in turn relieves his stress. This is the biological equivalent of the old adage "S— rolls downhill." Violence in response to violence resolves the distressed state of the victim. Without that "resolution" the animal is at risk for many negative consequences from abnormally high stress hormones. Similar findings in the field of social psychology confirm this basic principal in humans. It is an inescapable reality of our biological inheritance as human organisms on this planet.

This is a difficult and painful challenge to have to transcend. What it means, essentially, is that every stressor inflicted upon a person predisposes that person to act out violently, unless the person has learned how to manage differently. I think this is fairly easy to confirm if one looks at one’s own feelings and reactions as well as those of others. I can certainly see it every time I drive in rush hour in the metropolitan D.C. area. But as something other than a complete pessimist and nihilist, I need to believe that there is a better way to resolve this biochemical and neuropsychological predicament than violence. Predisposing someone to a type of action is not the same as unconditionally "causing" that type of action. That is, provided we stop and think and choose our reactions and responses rather than act on "reflex."

Consider for a moment what it would really mean to not create reasons for interpersonal violence—to not cause others distress. It would mean not taking things at the expense of others. It would mean not tolerating other people being hurt or hungry. On September 11, I am told, about 35,000 people around the globe died of starvation—as they do every other day of the year as well. What would it mean to not tolerate that? What does not causing others distress mean about the 7 percent of all the world’s oil reserves that go to U.S. automobiles while people around the world don’t have fuel to cook a meal or heat a home? What does it mean about buying the SUV that gets 18 miles to the gallon but is big so that "we" can be safe in an accident (never mind the people in the small cars)? What does it mean about our assertion that we have a right to defend our lifestyle by bombing one of the poorest countries in the world? To choose a side, to take a stance against another, causes distress. There is no way around that.

In the aftermath of September 11 I thought quite a bit about the story of Christ that involved his injunction to "turn the other cheek" if struck on one cheek. I wondered what that would look like in the particular instance with which we were all faced. At first it struck me as insane. If we did that then the whole world would be overtaken by "bad people" who would destroy us and wreak havoc. After my two days of rage and thoughts of revenge, my Peace Corps mentality concluded that the solution might be to take every sixth (or so) household in this country and exchange them with a family in Afghanistan and other Arab countries for 8-12-month stays. What an interesting exercise that would be! So many of us would learn so much and so many of them would also. In fact, maybe we’d each stop being a "we" and a "they."

It didn’t happen that way, of course. Our collective response was much closer to our biological roots. And now there are other nations defending their violent self-defense with the same rationale we used only a few months ago. And there is mounting violence from us towards other nations in self-defense.

In the months after September 11 I came to the realization that a "self" is not worth defending. It is only the current of Love (or God) running through each of us that is worth defending. Being alive is not an end unto itself; loving one another is. In a culture that measures success by the amount of personal possessions, money, longevity, and power over others one has, it is hard to remember that we are judged not by these measures, but by the amount of love and compassion we have been able to freely give. And not just to one’s own family and friends, but to one’s self and one’s enemies equally. To one’s worst enemies. To the people who hurt us.

If these principles were easy to live by then the peoples of the world would have already begun doing so in large numbers. We have not. Yet they are the principles of every major world religion. Spiritual disciplines struggle desperately to challenge our innate biological drives to discharge distress by using violence.

I’m willing to keep trying, failing, and trying again. I have no idea what else to do.

Elizabeth A. Osuch

Elizabeth A. Osuch, from Baltimore Yearly Meeting, is currently sojourning at Coldstream Meeting in Ilderton, Ont., where she read this essay to the meeting.