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U. King: Reflections on Peace, Women, and the World’s Faiths

Humanity’s yearning for peace is greater than ever today, yet we seem to live in a permanent state of war and violence. The 20th century has been described as the most murderous century in history: 187 million people died in the numerous terrible wars since 1914. Yet of the 101 conflicts that occurred between 1989 and 1996, only six were interstate wars; all the others were territorial, tribal wars. When we add all the wars that have been fought since the year 2000, the statistics of suffering become almost unimaginable.

Women have long been associated with peacemaking, and countless women are active campaigners today. Peace was an important feminist issue right from the beginning of the modern women’s movement. The rise of a separate women’s peace movement, supported by women from religious and secular backgrounds, is directly rooted in women’s commitment to the values of life, in their capacity for compassion and care. Traditionally, women have often been peacemakers in the private family sphere, but now many women have decided to work publicly for peace together with other women and men. In their work for peace many women are deeply inspired and motivated by the teachings on peace at the heart of their faith.

More than ever before, the deep human yearning for peace must be translated into action today. Peace is no longer an option; it is an imperative. More urgently than ever, we need to create a new peace consciousness and culture in the contemporary world. The attainment of greater peace between the peoples of the world and conflict resolution in non-violent rather than violent ways will only be possible if we put our mind and heart to it to make it happen. And that will require tremendous effort and much work. Much rethinking, in fact, in order to develop both new ideas and practices.

To develop the art of peacemaking, we can find many resources in our faith traditions. Initially, it seems that the different religions divide humans more than they unite them, that they create more hatred, conflict, and violence than peace. How many battles, persecutions, and wars are not due to religious factors and fanaticism — not only the September 11 attacks in the US but throughout the last century and all of history? Think of the ethnic and religious antagonisms that fuel nationalism and breed violence — antagonisms rooted in rival claims to exclusive truth and to the superiority of one faith and culture over another. Not only today but throughout history, religions have helped people to conceive the very idea of war in their minds and to wage war; religious leaders throughout the ages have blessed and sanctified war, even though such warring is in blatant contradiction to a universalist ethic about the sisterhood and brotherhood of all people.

But what is peace? Too often our understanding of peace is too fragmentary and more defined by the absence of war than by any more positive content. Peace can be seen as external to the human being, but also as an inner state of the human spirit. We need a holistic vision of peace that embraces both our inner and outer life, the state we are personally in, and the state of the world we live in.

The human community possesses a rich religious heritage of peace that represents a tremendous resource for developing the art of peacemaking — if we only practiced what we preach. Religious visions of peace imply profound personal and social transformations that include questions of equity and justice. Seeking, finding, and making peace is connected with meditation and prayer practices. For example, since ancient times Hindu prayers have included the invocation "om, shanti, shanti, shanti," the thrice-repeated prayer for peace which invokes tranquility, quiet, calmness of mind, and absence of passions. In both Hinduism and Buddhism it is important for the individual to be at peace, but the practice of peace has social implications too.

The Buddhist tradition teaches an important meditation on loving-kindness (metta) which begins with kindness and concern for oneself, followed by developing loving-kindness first towards a friend, then towards a person one is indifferent to, then towards someone one feels an antipathy against; ultimately, one's feelings should expand slowly to include all persons in the world and all beings throughout the whole of space and time. This meditation practice is based on the belief in the interdependence of all sentient beings in the universe, a state of harmony that is not simply given, but has to be attained and worked for. To strive for loving-kindness implies that human beings transform their hate into love and abstain from any desire to commit acts of violence. To be truly non-violent is to adopt the mode of love over that of power and thereby live in the spirit of joy and light. There are numerous rules regulating social behavior in the Buddhist precepts and scriptures. The call for peace is nothing short of a call for the transformation of the world. Buddhism teaches that “if we desire peace to be realized in the world, we must first find it within.” It is indicative that a Thai journal published by Buddhist activists is called Seeds of Peace.

For the ancient Hebrews, peace was a social concept; it applied to harmonious relationships within the family, local society, and between nations. The greeting "shalom," used since the time of the Judges and King David, expresses the positive aim of encouraging cooperation. Shalom comes from a root meaning "wholeness"; it is richer than our word "peace" and refers to both spiritual and material conditions. In the Rabbinic tradition shalom stands for truth, justice, and peace. It is said that the Torah was given to make peace in the world, and one of God's names is peace: Shalom.

Related to the Hebrew "shalom” is the Arabic "salaam," the greeting “peace be with you" which has been used as a salutation and blessing among Muslims since the time of the Qur'an. "Salaam" again means more than our "peace"; it extends to contentment, good health, prosperity, security, and fullness of life. Contrary to the western view which associates Islam with military power, Muslims understand Islam to be the religion of peace, for the Qur'an sees peace as the will of Allah, whom it describes as “the King, the Holy, the Peaceable.” Peace is a transcendent gift, but it is also present in personal relations and is part of wise statesmanship. Historical examples, from the time of the Prophet and later, show that Islam has often been a considerable instrument of peace in different parts of the world.

Christians too, in spite of their violent history and theory of just war, have a strong tradition of peace grounded in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9) Jesus' parting message to John was, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you, not as the world gives it." (John 14:27) Christian pacifists have been inspired by Jesus' own example and what one might call the bias to peace in the Christian gospel. The church applied the title "Prince of Peace," first used for the Davidic king in the Hebrew Bible, to Jesus, and the Christian liturgy often repeats the phrase "The peace of the Lord be always with you."

The contemporary Christian peace movement uses the Bible as a teacher of peace, drawing particularly on Jesus' saying "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27) and on the Sermon on the Mount. Its insights have been directly applied to practical matters in the discussion of contemporary military politics by German peace campaigners, whose call for peace based on a new politics of the Sermon of the Mount raised widespread debate.[i] This debate was influential in the abolition of the communist regime in former East Germany and in the movement for the reunification of Germany. Here we have an example of using Christian religious ideas as a resource for contemporary peace thinking and action, just as Gandhi drew on the resources of the Indian tradition in developing his practice of nonviolent action in situations of conflict, or the Muslim Abdul Ghaffar Khan from Afghanistan practiced nonviolent resistance based on the Qur’an. In fact, we know of quite a few religiously inspired peacemakers: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Helder Camara, Oscar Romero, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar.

These pilgrims of peace who draw on the religious peace heritage of their own religious tradition show us that peace has to be willed and aimed for, that it can be attained through the transformation of one's mind and heart as well as one's actions. Working for peace can help us find contentment, equanimity, and wellbeing. At its fullest and richest, peace is linked to the idea of perfection, wholeness, divine presence, and the power of spirit — peace in that ultimate sense is considered a gift, a fruit of the spirit itself.

While most of us feel completely impotent with regard to international power politics, there is much we all can do to bring about a change of heart. The peace and ecological movement, the women's movement with its deep commitment toward acting and educating for peace, the many liberation movements to bring about social justice and eradicate debilitating poverty from our globe — all have a spiritual dimension and immense transformative potential for achieving “the art of living in peace” in the human community.

Education for peace is promoted at many levels, from schools and universities devoted to peace to prayers for peace. There has been a World Conference on Religion and Peace in existence for many years; there is an annual week of Prayer for World Peace supported by people from different faiths and groups; there is the Universal Peace Federation, which has been active for many years, not least through the publication of this journal, Dialogue &Alliance.

So much can be done to promote peace at local, regional, and international levels, and yet much more remains to be accomplished to eradicate violent conflicts from this earth. Peace is no longer simply an option or a quest; it has become an urgent necessity that impels us to transcend collective violence and war among societies, tribal groups, and states to create a new peace culture in the world.

We have to learn how to relate peacefully to diversity and pluralism with their inherent tensions. We have to learn how to cope with the tremendous complexity of ourselves and the human community at the threshold of a new age. If we search deeply enough within the past and within ourselves, we can find tremendous resources for change and renewal, resources for developing our interiority, awareness, sensibility, imagination, and vision. The seeds of wisdom, knowledge, and experience present in the great religious and philosophical traditions of our globe — which all contain deep patterns of wholeness and harmony — can help us to discover a new action-oriented spirituality that can find and forge a new way ahead, a new harmonious way of being for the whole of humankind. This way does not exist ready-made but has to be built now.

The American Quaker and peacemaker Elise Boulding (1920-2010) worked for many years toward creating a new culture of peace to replace the violent culture of war. She promoted workshops on alternative visions of the future where participants learned to imagine a world without war or weapons, a world that is peaceful, so as to become empowered to change the situation around them. Only if we take the peace imperative absolutely seriously can we survive as a global community. Since the violent destructive events of September 11 that shook the world, this is clearer than ever.

The world’s religions possess many resources for peacemaking, many seeds that we can make grow and flourish if we tend them with love and care and learn about each other’s faiths and traditions. The soteriological vision of all religions, the promise of final salvation and release, implies a transcendent vision of unity, harmony, wellbeing, and profound peace which should empower us not only to desire and seek peace as an eschatological hope but to work ardently for and achieve genuine peace in our global world of today.

But what is peace? Too often our understanding of peace is too fragmentary, more defined by the absence of war than by a more positive content. This is too meager and uninspiring a vision, for most religions know of the fullness of peace as something that permeates all of life and transforms it in a profound sense. Peace can be seen as external to the human being, as something created by socio-economic and political conditions, by human groups and institutions. Yet, most importantly, peace is also an inner state of the human spirit that can be cultivated and nurtured; here especially the spiritual teachings of different faiths have much to contribute. For contemporary peace work and peace education, we need a holistic vision of peace that embraces both our inner and outer life, the state we are personally in, and the state of the world we live in.

In the development of peace studies and peace education, perhaps not enough attention is given to these spiritual resources of the world faiths for learning how to work for more peace. The religious and spiritual resources for peacemaking are so large and varied that they deserve the closest study, but much of this still remains to be undertaken.[ii] The human community is extraordinarily rich in spiritual resources that include a vast religious heritage of peace that represents a tremendous reservoir for the art of peacemaking—if we only practiced what we preach.

Religious visions of peace imply profound personal and social transformations that include questions of equity and justice as well as inner harmony and compassion. The striving for peace is today strongly associated with the notion of nonviolence, a term which only came into general English usage in the early 20th century through its association with Gandhi and his approach to resolving conflicts.[iii] The idea of nonviolence — ahimsa —is primarily central to the religious traditions of India, although injunctions against taking human life can be found in virtually every religious tradition. Like nonviolence, pacifism is also a modern word and an idea defined as "the advocacy of peace at any price."[iv] But the idea of peace can be documented from ancient times, and many examples of peacemaking by different individuals and groups of the past could be cited.

Women’s work for peace did not begin with modern feminism but has a long history. The first Women’s Peace League in Europe was founded in 1854, but it is less well known than the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, started in 1915 with the American sociologist and leader of women’s suffrage, Jane Addams, as one of its founders. She was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931. This movement still exists today and is the oldest women’s peace organization.

Much later, from 1981 onwards, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp became internationally known for its protest of the siting of nuclear weapons at a Royal Air Force base in the south of England. The women remained at the site from 1981 until 2000; at the height of their campaign more than 30,000 women were present, and their vigorous campaign caught the imagination of people around the globe.

Peace is truly the major issue today. Since the September 11 attacks, the search for peace and the overcoming of violent military attacks are primarily associated with combating world terrorism, whereas in the second half of the 20th century working for peace mainly meant fighting communism and averting the danger of nuclear war. While the fear of the latter may have receded for some time, the immense threat of nuclear contamination has now come to the fore again since the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan with its impact on a major nuclear power station.

Today, at a crucial turning point in history, women feel a very special responsibility for the continuity of life on earth, for the lives of their children and all future generations to come, and for the life of the whole Earth. This is visible in many women’s movements, and especially in the contemporary eco-feminist movement. In their demonstrations for peace, women often use innovative visionary action such as threading webs, lighting candles, planting tombstones, and making puppets of mourning and rage. Such symbolic gestures based on hope and faith are meant to indicate a change of orientation and values. But how effective will they be in solving the world’s troubles? Are they merely the dreams of powerless passive resisters, or are they potent signs of prophets whose vision will shape a different world for tomorrow?

Current levels of violence and wars of destruction may easily feed a profound pessimism. But there exist also many signs of hope that encourage changes of direction and new ventures, giving us grounds for believing that it is still possible to make our world a more peaceful place. Elise Boulding has argued that peacemaking is an evolutionary capacity in the human species, that we possess the capacity to develop a peaceful social order, but that it will only be created with great effort. She describes this transformation as

consisting of a growing awareness that we live on a tiny planet, and that technology and power alone cannot ensure peace and justice on that planet, nor control or eliminate violence and war. The dimension of human caring has entered the public domain, and the need to understand the Other, the different, is beginning to be acknowledged as a condition for human problem-solving.[v]

A new vision of peace is integral to many contemporary statements and documents, some of which draw explicitly on religious ideas. Robert Muller (1923-2010), Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations for 40 years, called already long ago for a “new genesis” within humanity, based on a “global spirituality.”[vi] He suggested that we need to develop a new set of commandments that must include “You shall never kill a human brother or sister, not even in the name of a nation”; in fact, he speaks of “the right not to kill and not to be killed, not even in the name of a nation.”[vii]

Some perceptive contemporaries are wondering whether humans as a species can really evolve the capacity for true peacemaking, not the kind of peace achieved at the end of a war or as an intermittent period between wars, but peace as a new form of life. That would be a new wholeness whereby peace would become an imperative that would make all war immoral. As long ago as 1982, Muller argued that

there is even more reason to eradicate armaments from this planet than there was to eradicate smallpox. All conceivable files and proposals for disarmament are ready. They have been painstakingly worked out over the last three decades. All depends on the will of peoples and nations, especially the big nations who bear the main responsibility in this matter.[viii]

Another powerful testimony to the search for greater peace are the worldwide efforts of the German theologian Hans Küng. In 1991 he published his book Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic,[ix] concluding with a powerful appeal to peace, often quoted since: “No human life together without a world ethic for the nations; no peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.”[x] Küng’s efforts were decisive in creating the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic[xi] promulgated by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993. This document expresses a strong commitment to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life, summed up in the categorical statement “There is no survival for humanity without global peace!”[xii]

This commitment is reiterated in the principles of The Earth Charter, developed through an international consultation process and approved at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in March 2000. It is a declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century, drawing its inspiration among others from “the wisdom of the world’s great religions and philosophical traditions.” Again, its call for action includes the promotion of “a culture of tolerance, nonviolence and peace” (IV.16) and it underlines the need for “sustainability education” (IV.14b) and “the importance of moral and spirituality education for sustainable living” (IV.14d).

The Earth Charter calls all people to “Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part” (IV.16f). This is a profoundly spiritual statement which could provide an inspiring motto for peace education, drawing on all religious and secular sources available to us to meet the greatest challenge humankind has ever met: to create a new peace culture on earth.[xiii]

Many different religious groups have commented on The Earth Charter, as has a group of women brought together in Boston in 1997 to comment on one of its drafts.[xiv] Elise Boulding was one of its leading participants. She called the Charter “a new kind of peace proclamation,” requiring a staggering amount of consciousness change, a “new tool” in working “for a more inclusive kind of peace” (p. 32). She also referred to “the spiritually grounded ecofeminist movement” that articulated “new visions of the planet as a community of interconnected species and new awareness of the evolutionary potential of this community” (p. 8).

To create such an earth community with a new peace consciousness and culture represents one of the greatest priorities and hopes for our future. To achieve these goals, interreligious encounter and dialogue are essential. It is through such encounter that we can learn to meet each other honestly, openly, with sensitivity and respect. It is in such encounter that we learn to listen to each other and experience both the pain of difference, the different histories, the different identities, the different beliefs and practices that divide us, but we can also learn where there are points of contact and agreement, and the possibility of common tasks.

Genuine dialogue is an exercise in communication and mediation; it is the process whereby we can discover and weave together our differences in a more meaningful way. We then become enriched by the dynamics of diversity, for dialogue based on the respect for differences, not the search for syncretism, a dialogue that recognizes our spiritual interdependence and creates a wider sense of “we” — a larger circle of community[xv] whose strongest bonds are those of fellowship and love.

Love is relational in creating bonds between people. It brings forth strong connections between individuals, groups, and communities. Reflecting on the transformative power of love, Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “Love is the free and imaginative outpouring of the spirit over all unexplored paths.” This statement anchors love in the dynamic action of the Spirit while implying that there still exist many unexplored paths of love that human beings can discover and follow. This is our great task today — a task that many women are deeply involved with at a practical level.

We need to awaken more of these love energies to stir and transform the people on our planet. For this, the old ways of understanding and practicing love are no longer enough. While making use of all the resources of knowledge and wisdom available to us, we have to push the boundaries of our understanding of love.

To develop and strengthen the bonds of human fellowship requires the powers of reconciliation, compassion, and love, for which all religions have tremendous resources, if they but put them into practice. To create a just and peaceful coexistence beyond discrimination and violence in the pluralistic world we live in, we have to harness the powers of love and cooperation. That also requires education, dialogue, awareness, and transformation.

For many faiths, one of the highest ideals to live up to — an ideal that can inspire, empower, transform, and heal us — is the extraordinary power of love whose wonders have been praised by mystics and saints, poets and bards, and ordinary people in all parts of the globe.

I would like to end with a few passages from a song by Miriam Therese Winter, entitled “Circle of Love.” Her words praise the remarkable power of love that can unite us into a larger circle of community, into a greater “we.” They also express the profound truth that we humans must not only bear this hope as a large vision but take on the responsibility for making this great ideal come true:

The circle of love
is repeatedly broken
because of the sin
of exclusion.

We create separate circles:
The inner circle
and the outer circle,
the circle of power
and the circle of despair,
the circle of privilege
and the circle of deprivation.

We carefully define our circles,
at work
or at worship,
with family
and with friends...

Before we can pray,
before we can dream,
before we can witness
to justice and peace,
we must be a single circle,
a single, unbroken circle.
Let us build this circle of love. [xvi]

If we have the real strength of faith and the will to unite as one human family, we can hope to find all the spiritual power and help needed to respond to the great challenge of creating peace and justice on earth. To weave strong connections between women, faith, and peace provides conditions of empowerment to transform ourselves and the world.

[i] One example of this is the influential book by Franz Alt, Frieden ist möglich: Die Politik der Bergpredigt 1983, of which well over 100,000 copies were sold in Germany.

[ii] A useful starting point is provided by Harrison Gordon and Leonard Grob, eds., Education for Peace: Testimonies from World Religions, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988. A helpful collection drawn from just one religious tradition is David W. Chappell, ed., Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999. Many other examples exist, but a comprehensive survey goes beyond the scope of this article.

[iii] The Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (OED) has no entry on nonviolence, but lists the first usage of "non-violent" in 1924 in a book associated with Gandhi.

[iv] The OED Supplement lists its first usage in a French speech in 1901.

[v] Elise Boulding, “Peace Making as an Evolutionary Capacity: Reflections on the Work of Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Buber and Jane Addams.” Cyclostyled lecture: Dartmouth College, 1981.

[vi] Robert Muller, New Genesis: Shaping a Global Spirituality, New York: Doubleday, 1982.

[vii] Robert Muller, The Birth of a Global Civilization, Anacortes, Washington, 1991; p. 136, 78.

[viii] R. Muller, p. 104.

[ix] London: SCM Press, 1991.

[x] Ibid., p. 138.

[xi] Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds., A Global Ethic. The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, London: SCM Press, 1993.

[xii] Ibid., p. 25.

[xiv] See Women’s Views on the Earth Charter. Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, November 1997.

[xv] See Diana L. Eck, Encountering God. A Spiritual Journey from Bozemann to Benares. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

[xvi] Miriam Therese Winter, Woman Prayer, Woman Song. Resources for Ritual. Oak Park, Ill.: Meyer Stone Books, 1987, pp. 185-7.