When I was younger, I thought the best way to live peacefully was to never disagree with anyone. Disagreement could lead to conflict and conflict could be uncomfortable and messy. As I grew older, I realized that never disagreeing wasn’t the best path. Voicing my concern (for myself or others) was sometimes the only path that led to change. Sometimes, to be a peacemaker, I had to make my disagreements known. Negative peace (the absence of conflict or violence) had defined my approach to problem-solving. I needed to start striving for human flourishing in the presence of justice and equity: positive peace.
To be clear, not all conflict is good. This morning, police closed the streets outside of my office, searching for a suspicious package. Discord and fear characterize our national dialogue. Last weekend, shootings in Pittsburgh and Louisville rattled the country after a terrorist unsuccessfully mailed bombs to several prominent figures. This is just in the United States over the course of one week. Consider the Syrian Civil War, violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the persecution of the Yazidis by ISIS.
It’s tempting to feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of such strife, particularly because the reasons for violence are many and the root causes deep. Some of the violence stems from people buying into myths and conspiracies about people they don’t understand. Some emerges from a sense of threat to a way of life. Often, violence comes from the belief that there’s not enough to go around and there’s no way to ensure our safety and well-being besides eliminating the competition.
When we’re in need, it can be tempting to view others as means to an end, instead of people worth protecting. We can’t buy peace. But we can help make people feel more secure and ready to engage in peacebuilding by meeting their nutritional, medical, economic, and even spiritual needs. To this end, Food for the Hungry (FH) is working with communities to see all forms of poverty ended worldwide. But meeting need alone won’t build peace.
We also need to understand and recognize the inherent dignity and value of man that comes from God, and is central to his eternal mission of bringing shalom. Genesis 1:27 tells us: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” As FH’s God’s Story says, “this is the foundation of the intrinsic value of every life irrespective of sex, race, age, abilities, or social condition. Every person on Earth is precious and uniquely created and loved by God.”
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly echoed this truth, by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Disagreement can turn violent when we dehumanize the other and think of them as less than us. To build a culture of peace, we need to see each other not as competition, but as made in the image of God, with inherent dignity and value equal to our own.
Development and dignity are key to achieving positive peace, but we still need to dig in deeper to build a peaceful culture. One critical component of building a culture of peace is open dialogue. If you’ve ever had to confront someone over a slight or a sin, you know the fear and apprehension this can lead to. It requires both sides to be willing to share their hurt and vulnerability, and to be willing to ask for and receive forgiveness.
Open dialogue involves discussing past pain, and it involves sharing your hopes for the future. It’s a messy, ongoing process. It requires community buy-in so grievances can be expressed and heard. A willingness to listen can build a powerful bond, even before all the root causes of a conflict are addressed. Listening can also help expose common concerns and find new solutions. Through dialogue done well, groups can craft a sense of togetherness that transforms entire communities.
It can be easy to keep pain private. It’s much harder to build peace by meeting needs, establishing respect, and sharing our hurt. To be a peacebuilder means embracing that challenge —and it means doing it in our offices, homes, and communities. In this hurting world, may we all devote ourselves to the hard work of peacebuilding.