By Deacon Charlie deGravelles
BATON ROGUE — Scholars in the still young but expanding field of peace and conflict studies distinguish between two kinds of peace. “Negative peace” is the term for those relatively rare periods when there is no declared war but during which all sides are planning and preparing what will inevitably be the next armed conflict. In his book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, American journalist and war correspondent Chris Hedges notes an astounding fact — discovered through the calculations of the historian, Will Durant: In 3,300 years of recorded human history, only 29 of those years have been without a war somewhere on the planet.
To reduce the scale to my own lifetime, in all of my 63 years, there has been one or more wars raging somewhere on the planet. Even in my own country, there have been only a few scant years — mainly between the end of the Korean War and the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam — when we haven’t been engaged in open armed conflict somewhere.
I’ve heard this kind of peace, negative peace, described as “perpetual pre-hostility,” and Jesus alludes to such a peace in the Gospel of Luke. “What king,” Jesus asks, “going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”
The point of Jesus’ illustration is not necessarily about war (though military tacticians should certainly take note); it’s about the importance of careful consideration, of “counting the cost,” of understanding possible consequences before you make an important decision. And wouldn’t you know it, we, as a country, are in just such a period of “pre-hostility” as I write this, carefully calculating how to react to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. (May God help us in those calculations.)
Jesus is always a realist, as his illustration suggests: Don’t be stupid and get your soldiers slaughtered if you know you can’t win. Make the best deal you can, buy some time, and when you can muster thirty or forty thousand to their twenty thousand, then you can think about war or at least better terms of peace.
But, as always, Jesus’ realism extends well beyond our own. Jesus was not a military tactician; he was a tactician of peace, the kind of peace scholars today call “positive peace.” A good definition of positive peace is “the existence of peaceful social and cultural beliefs and norms; the presence of justice at all levels (economic, social, and political); the shared democratic use of power; and non-violence.” Positive peace implies more than the absence of war. It suggests creating social relationships that contribute to mutual well-being and human flourishing.
Those of us who are Christians might call this “Kingdom peace.” It’s what we ask for when we pray, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The twentieth century has seen some remarkable achievements in positive peace: Gandhi’s eviction of the British Empire from India, the American civil rights movement, the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, the Solidarity uprising in Poland, the peaceful ouster of General Augusto Pinochet from Chile.
This is the kind of peace I’ve strived to practice in my own life, and to learn and teach in more than 20 years of prison ministry. It is the kind of peace I have begun to teach and collaborate with students in a new high school course at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge. The name of the course is “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence” and I will be reporting to you on how this course is developing in a periodic blog on the At the Threshold website.
I began my first semester in August with 17 juniors and seniors, all of whom elected to take the class, all of whom convinced me they had the idealism and creativity to tackle an impossible goal. Together, we will probe the age-old questions, seemingly simple but incredibly difficult: What are the roots of the human aptitudes for violence and peace, and how can we manage conflicts to produce justice and creative development rather than injustice and destruction?
The course will approach these questions from a series of academic perspectives: psychology, sociology, government, criminology, anthropology, history, religion, and the arts. We will study suicide, domestic violence, interpersonal violence (individuals against individuals outside of the family), organized crime, and violence at national and international scales. We will study strategies for peace that correspond to all of these scales, from personal transformation to interpersonal and international conflict resolution.
The course will find its ultimate focus in the study of our own community, Baton Rouge, and its disproportionately high murder rate. In our studies, we will leave the classroom to see the places and meet the “players” in our community most involved in pursuing solutions to this timely and important community issue. As we pursue an in-depth study of the issue, we will be working together to develop and implement a contribution to a solution.
I joked with my students as we began the course that I was Don Quixote and they were Sancho Panza. As I continue to update you on our progress, my hope and expectation is that you will see my students taking on the role of Don Quixote and I their Sancho Panza.
Charlie deGravelles lives and works in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is an Episcopal deacon, serving at Trinity Church and as a chaplain at Episcopal High School where, among other things, he teaches a course in “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence.” In this first installment of a series for At the Threshold, deGravelles tells a little about the course and what inspired it.