We’ve come through Advent, got past Christmas season, and launched into January overweight with get-togethers, eggnog, nostalgia, spiritual practices and cultural traditions that would probably seem downright weird if they weren’t already so familiar. Stockings, sacraments, stuffing. Turkey and tinsel and whatnot. The expected tussles over which holiday greetings to use. Families trying to feel out how to do the family thing over time. Cheesy music we wouldn’t entirely want to do without. Wreaths. Reindeer. Commercialism and one very holy night.
And through it all an exhortation many believe to have come from the mouths of angels: peace on earth, good will to men.
Gendered language notwithstanding, this is a phrase that’s had me thinking a lot during the holidays. It’s food for thought no matter the time of year, as peace tends to be an incredibly, staggeringly broad concept. There’s no obvious point to start from – you can think about inner peace, for example, or the kind you make with your family, friends or coworkers. Then there’s peace between cultural groups, religions, states, armies.
This last is one I’ve been processing quite a bit since going to Norway this past summer to study at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). The researchers there are dedicated, in their own words, to looking into “the conditions for peaceful relations between States, groups and people.” This includes producing and analyzing figures on everything from civil war, peace agreements, cultural conflict, religious diversity, wartime sexual violence and more. It’s a heavy set of topics to be parsing while everyone else is heading to the beach.
Founded by Johan Galtung in 1959, PRIO is one of the world’s oldest institutes dedicated to understanding conflict and peacemaking. While studying there, I was exposed to a number of different ways to approach even the idea of conflict resolution. For example, Galtung developed the concept of negative peace, defined as the mere absence of war, as compared to positive peace, which is the presence of a robust infrastructure that supports nonviolent conflict resolution in a country or society.
And there’s a very specific definition of war: a conflict between two sides (at least one being a government) where more than a thousand people die in a given year. Anything less, as tragic as it is, is only considered an armed conflict. Also, parties aiming for peace can engage in peacemaking (the resolution of ‘hot’ conflicts through ceasefires, treaties and other means), peacekeeping (a third party keeping two sides from restarting a conflict) or peacebuilding (the process of building the structures needed for positive peace). But these terms aren’t just there to make your head spin. By developing a robust and precise language we can turn peace into a science.
The data coming out of institutes like PRIO is alternately fascinating, comforting and alarming. Good news: the number of casualties (or “battle deaths”) in major wars has unmistakably and sharply declined. Wars between States (the really lethal kind) are rarer and rarer. Bad news: civil wars (less deadly but more complicated to solve) are on the rise. Good news: physical war is confined to fewer and fewer countries. Bad news: modern technology (such as drones) makes it easier (and thus more attractive) for rich countries to become involved in conflicts without having to do the dirty work.
So, is the world a better, safer place than 10, 50, or 100 years ago? Yes and no. Fewer people are dead. Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan societies have been demolished. Democratization makes it less likely for war to break out in a given country. Hybrid and information wars cross borders and create crises we’re painfully unready to deal with. But: fewer people are dead. Peace research is the kind of field where you take the silver lining where you find it.
Coming face to face with the data can be empowering. Equipped with the numbers and the ability to interpret them, governments and civil society can make decisions that matter. For example, the folks at PRIO have fed their data directly to Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which in turn helped facilitate 2016’s historical peace agreement in Colombia. This was an incredibly complicated conflict stretching well over half a century. There are also implications closer to home. Convivium readers might be interested in PRIO’s ongoing research into religious conflict, as well as the circumstances in which spiritual diversity can either degrade or support societal cohesion.
But, on the other hand, studying conflicts has a tendency of wearing you down. For all the many steps towards peace and healing, there are power structures or nations that find the business of war lucrative indeed. National interests often trump human solidarity. Varying parties try to make the world better yet end up at each other’s throats. Polarized elements in society are exacerbated. Lines drawn through culture wars start resembling trenches. As a result, sometimes peace facilitators find themselves in possession of very little inner peace.
Sometimes you can’t help looking at the manger and finding a cross instead.
Being a believer, or even having hope, in this kind of world sometimes requires monumental acts of faith. It can be difficult to take seriously the call to trust in a still, small voice in a world flooded with entirely demented noise. The legitimate concerns of our individual lives can leave us with little energy to think about problems even around the corner. Our imperfections make us poor ambassadors for peace. Sometimes being human means not knowing how to make something better without making something else a little worse. Or maybe our desire to find interior calm at times makes us seem unresponsive to cultural, political or structural concerns.
But again the call: peace on earth.
Pressing for a unity between these two seemingly different pulls, that of inner and outer peace, is a large part of what it means to be a person of faith in the world today. Sometimes it seems downright impossible, but it might be good to remind ourselves that this is a season based entirely on miracle.
Not all of us are in a place to help resolve world issues, but there are more than enough conflicts at home. We’re at an incredibly polarized point as a culture, and there’s a huge need for engaging people with civility and integrity. For people of faith, this means never forgetting the image of God in the other, no matter if they identify as liberal, conservative or whatever else. We can strive for a vision of a common humanity that makes room for our very different experiences of life, privilege, faith and history. Even the ways we use words can be completely different, so seeking to understand where other people are coming from is a powerful first step that shows a commitment to being present even in our divisions.
On top of all these humane paradoxes, there’s also the call to be kind to ourselves. To stay near our loved ones, to remember we can’t go it alone. To forgive ourselves for our failings. To keep close to what’s important, to what our values are. To a universal solidarity that starts at home. To a connectedness that acts as a fuel for inner peace, a connectedness that, at this time of year, might look an awful lot like a holiday. Like people gathering to share, to pray, to give thanks for another year. All in faith that maybe, maybe, this is an engine that ends up keeping the world from burning out.
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