Peace Now: Not the Absence of Tension but the Presence of Justice; Not the Presence of War but the Absence of Weapons
By Reverend Matilda Cantwell, CRSL Director and College Chaplain
When I was seventeen, I had a purple T-shirt; it said PEACE NOW. My best friend Annie had a green one – we got them at a protest against nuclear weapons. Later on, in the 90’s, we protested the first war in Iraq, and a few years later, the second one. Our activism was inspired by, or even part of, what had come to be called the anti-war movement, which inspired slogans such as “Negotiation Not Annihilation,” “Make Love Not War,” and “Anything War Can Do, Peace Can Do Better.”
Peace would seem to be a universally acceptable concept, but during some of those years, wearing a “peace now” T-shirt would have been controversial. The anti-war movement began in protest of the war in Vietnam, for which young men between 18-26 were getting drafted. Thus, the cause was urgent for young people and their loved ones, and they were on the front lines of the protest against the war and the increasing militarism in U.S. society. It is often said that Martin Luther King’s role in the Peace Movement/opposition to the Vietnam War was the “last straw” between him and his detractors, and that his assassination in 1967 in Memphis, Tennessee, resulted from his insistence on the inextricability of poverty, racism and militarism. It was one thing to gain civil rights for Black people from whom they had been denied, it was another thing to speak out against the very forces upon which this country had been built.
Militarism is defined as the belief or the desire of a government or a people that a state should maintain a strong military capability and to use it aggressively to expand national interests and/or values. It may also imply the glorification of the military and of the ideals of a professional military class and the predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state.
But militarism manifests in many ways other than warfare in the traditional sense.
The manufacturing and availability of guns is one of the starkest manifestations. Since the beginning of the semester, there have been countless gun deaths in the United States, and while there is not an agreed upon definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, it is generally considered an instance in which over four people are killed in one location by one actor; and there have been at least nine of these. In January, there were four mass shootings in California in under two weeks.
While police brutality results from a confluence of factors, including policing’s origins in slave patrolling, it is also a fruit of militarism. U.S. law enforcement has become increasingly militarized post 9-11, as has the percentage, already high, of the economy spent on weaponry. Weapons manufactured en masse for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been sold with taxpayer money at dramatically reduced rates to law enforcement, and it has increasingly drawn upon military tactics. These aggressive methods of law enforcement have been developing since the 1980’s when infrastructures weakened and crime increased in poor neighborhoods. The 1994 Crime Bill incentivized arrests and, in turn, helped create the mass incarceration crisis. Criminal justice professor Peter Kraska has defined militarization of police as “the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model” (sometimes referred to as the Military-Industrial Complex”).
We are living in an increasingly militaristic time.
So where is the peace movement now?
While most of our organizing for social and global justice (BLM, environmental justice, etc.) operate according to principles of nonviolence, the Peace Movement itself has receded, its work is focused mostly on nuclear weapons.
I believe we think of peace as a concept as being the purview of the comfortable, a luxury afforded only to those with cultural and financial privilege who are not involved in social causes. We associate peace with tranquility, even complicity, as if to allow ourselves to be motivated by peace would be to abandon our deeply held convictions, to abandon the fight. Given that mainstream society is waking up to the truths of centuries, and this waking up creates backlash, perhaps we are on the defensive. But adrienne maree brown says, “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
In the meantime, policies that have supported human rights are being rolled back, education and ideas are being censored, and as was the case during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, society is deeply divided.
In wartime, Martin Luther King said peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice. Peace is not resignation; it is not denial; it is not a quiet tranquility. If we don’t operate with peace as our modality, we are still complicit in maintaining a culture of retribution, rather than a society of transformative justice.
So, King’s description of peace as allowing for the presence of tension, would suggest that one way we can interrupt violence is by some level of acceptance of the things that can create tension: disagreements, divergence of options, polarized perspectives. I liken this capacity to the “zones of regulation” wherein we have a spectrum of green to red, and—green is relaxed and familiar, red is danger, and research shows it is in the middle, other orange and purple zones, that learning, and hence real organizing, real activism, and real change happen.
There is so much talk among us—in classrooms, journals, meetings and forums of all sorts about how hard it is these days to agree to disagree, have a free and civil exchange of ideas without assaults on identity and the perpetration of harm. But I agree that peace, a true peace, not a surface tranquility, is a crucial concept for us to embrace. In Hebrew the word for peace, Shalom, means “restoration to wholeness” In Arabic, Salaam, means peace and refers to an invocation of blessings; a communication of respect to the other. During the Civil Rights Movement, organizers were committed to the principles of nonviolence, congruent with transformative/restorative justice, wherein the life, even the inherent worth and dignity of an enemy, was never sacrificed.
This is not to say that there are no arenas in which violence is necessary. The “just war” theory has been an important part of U.S. history, and Malcolm X believed in the right of Black citizens to defend themselves, just to name two examples.
But if we think of peace as not being an absence of something but the presence of something else, we see that far from being a demonstration of passivity, working toward peace is a struggle, it requires courage. Violence, by contrast, as poet William Stafford says, “A failure of the imagination” Making peace can even involve fiction, it can be gritty and loud and as this parable illustrates:
There once was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The king looked at all the pictures. But there were only two he really liked, and he had to choose between them. One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace. The other picture had mountains, too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest — in perfect peace. Which picture do you think won the prize? The king chose the second picture. Do you know why? “Because,” explained the king, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.” (-Anon Published Dec 24, 2015 in Inside CentraCare, For the Health of CentraCare)
We are here at Smith to find, identify, and name the cracks from which the tiny birds’ nests emerge. This environment of a progressive and high quality incision invites us to tolerate and even embrace tension. As it says in Smith College’s strategic plan:
The challenges today are complex, urgent and seemingly intractable. They include global climate change; education access; the status of women; infectious diseases; and the path toward racial inclusion, diversity, and equity. but… A spirit of progressivism has animated Smith College from its earliest days. The birthplace of considerable social change, Smith prepares students through active learning and societal engagement to foster and lead sustainable, just communities and to make significant and lasting contributions to address the critical issues of the times.
We cannot afford to continue on this trajectory of violence. We have made so many social gains- the environmental justice movement, the disability justice and racial justice, trans rights, reparations and abolition are no longer abstract concepts—yet each is threatened, and precious; now more than ever. We must do the hard work to welcome the tension which paves the road to peace. I’m not sure if I still have that Peace Now t-shirt, but I am going to see if I can find it, and look forward to a day when wearing it would not be controversial.