The words of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to some shepherds, quoted in the gospel of Luke, have permanently linked the celebration of this season with the hope for peace. Many of the meditations on peace that litter the news media in late December are little more than hopeful statements that will not have much effect. People get back to normal business the next day.
A few such statements, however, do resonate. Paul Lacey, Presiding Clerk at the American Friends Service Committee, a major Quaker organization, provides some nuggets of wisdom during his interview on the NPR Weekend Edition program of December 24th.
Mr. Lacey’s interviewer, Andrea Seabrook, asks him “what is peace?”
Soft-spoken and precise in his answer, he explains, briefly of course for a radio audience, that there is a difference between personal peace and the peace that sometimes takes hold between nation states. “The word [peace] is vibrant precisely because it has so many possibilities,” he says.
After discussing the negative meaning of peace described by the Roman historian Tacitus—the depopulated wastes created by the Roman Legions, where there are no people who can fight—he gets to the heart of his statement. He says, “it seems to me, that peace is a dynamic, peace is something that is built day by day by day. It’s also something then that can break down day by day.”
The study of peaceful societies fosters this same kind of thinking. In most of these groups, where people not only believe in peace but have effective strategies for achieving it, striving for nonviolence is a regular feature of daily life. These people seem to understand that they can never take peacefulness, even at the most intimate level, for granted.
It is clear from the literature about the peaceful societies that, while each group is different, most of them are aware that harmony is often fragile. The Ju/’hoansi frequently hold trance dances to repair the physical, mental, and social breakdowns that often occur. The dances restore health and their sense of community. The Semai periodically have bcaraa’s to resolve conflicts and reaffirm the unity that is so essential to their villages. The Hutterites hold their worship services almost daily to recommit themselves, through their treasured rituals, to the faith and peacefulness that binds their communes together.
This dynamic view of peace has a corollary, however: constant work is also necessary. Mr. Lacey addresses this issue in his NPR interview when Ms. Seabrook asks him if he is at all hopeful about the possibility of peace on earth.
He answers by describing a former official of the AFSC, Raymond Wilson, who frequently commented, during his 50 years of working for peace, that there often seemed to be less of it than when he had begun. “And then he would always add,” Lacey said, “this is no time to quit. That kind of jaunty affirmation seems to me to be what one hopes for, as a way of sustaining not just the longing for peace, but the determination to be a peace-builder.”
The Ladakhi villagers have a similar jaunty determination to work hard for their peaceful society, to judge by three recent articles about rural Ladakh by the British anthropologist Fernanda Pirie (reviewed here on April 20, June 29, and September 28 this year). The Ladakhis frequently take the time to convene their village yulpas so they can meet as a community and resolve disputes whenever they appear. The people do not want to lose control of their villages, so working to resolve problems before violence ever develops is essential.
The religious beliefs advanced by Jesus are probably not too familiar in rural Ladakh, but the story of the angels with their message of peace on earth might well resonate with the villagers, much as it has inspired people like Paul Lacey.