21 September is the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.
2 October is the United Nations’ International Day of Non-Violence.
Peace is something we all often long for. Even the idea of an International Day of Peace soothes and warms us. Our images of peace are various, but they are always happy. Perhaps of a sunlit valley with a stream running through green grass and flowering trees. Or of a family chatting quietly around the fire at night. Or of people walking down the street smiling at one another and exchanging greetings. Or of ourselves sitting quietly, happy with our own company and our thoughts, contented with ourselves and the world. All these images are touched by longing. We know that these moments are passing and that our lives are full also of conflict and anxiety.
St Augustine, a sharp observer of his world, said that in all we do we seek peace. That seems an extraordinary thought when we look at the world around us – full of war, violence, social media pile-ons. Augustine’s point was that even when nations went to war, they wanted peace – on their own terms. This is true also in domestic disputes and shouting matches in the media. We want the kind of peace that comes from winning the conflict. In reality, however, the peace that follows war is often a city burned to the ground. A Roman writer spoke of the Roman Empire when he said, “They make a desert and call it peace.”
For Augustine, this meant that peace was more than the absence of war and that the desire for peace was not enough. For peace, our hearts need to look beyond our own interests and beyond doing whatever it takes to look out for the good of all people, and especially the people who are most vulnerable. That leads us to renounce violence as a way to peace and to be prepared to yield to others. This is the way of non-violence, which we commemorate early in October.
Non-violence is both attractive and challenging. It is hard not to admire the Jains who avoid killing or mistreating any living being. Their consistency leads them to a vegan diet and also counsels against killing mosquitos and other insects. And yet they had to debate whether it would be right to resist people who tried to kill Jain nuns.
The faithfulness of such conscientious objectors in time of war as Franz Jagerstätter, who accepted death at the hands of the Nazi regime rather than fight, also awes us. It continues to inspire pacifism among Christian groups which oppose the possession and readiness to make use of nuclear weapons. And yet most people, including Christians, believe that it is better to fight people intent on doing us harm than to let them have their way with us.
Whether or not we believe that violence can never rightly be met with violence, the International Day of Non-Violence and the lives of people who practice non-violence in demanding ways do make us reflect on the place that violence has in our personal lives and in our society. We have become sensitive to the effect that violence has on people. We have learned how childhood beatings have continued to traumatise people in later life, and how often they have encouraged people to be similarly violent. We are also coming to recognise the extent of domestic violence directed against women and the damage it causes to body and to spirit. We now question, too, images of masculinity that identify strength and self-assertion with physical violence. At Jesuit Social Services, where we work with violent offenders, The Men’s Project helps young men live respectful lives free from violence.
Many Australians have mercifully been spared from war in our own land. Many, however, have come to Australia after fleeing the violence of war in their own lands. They and their families have experienced the indiscriminate violence caused by bombs, shells and mines, the personalised violence of rape and bullets, and the tearing apart of family, village, culture and future hopes. Such experience and its effects can affect their lives and those of their descendants, as they have affected the lives of Indigenous Australians after the colonial invasion. The suicides among Australians who have fought in war, too, testify to its destructive effects.
Whether or not we become pacifists, we can see that no one gains as a human being from war or from war. In a world in which technology has been developed to kill anonymously and on a great scale, we can deplore violence and recognise that the arms trade today is a trade in death.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.