Throughout his Christmas message and in keeping with the hymn of the time, Pope Francis repeatedly called for Peace in our World. “Not merely the word, but a real and concrete peace” brought about by changing those attitudes, patterns of behavior and socio-economic systems that bring about conflict. Peace not simply in relationship to armed conflict, but peace for all people in a range of situations.
“Peace to our abandoned and excluded brothers and sisters, to those who suffer hunger and to all the victims of violence. Peace to exiles, migrants and refugees, to all those who in our day are subject to human trafficking. Peace to the peoples who suffer because of the economic ambitions of the few…. [and] peace to those affected by social and economic unrest.”
If we are to find answers to the many crises facing humanity, we must first end conflict and establish peace, – within ourselves, our communities, between groups and nations. It sounds like a platitude but it’s the simple and urgent truth – we must learn to live peacefully together.
Since the ‘Cold War’ ended in 1989 violent conflict had been decreasing, but according to the Global Peace Index (based on: ‘the level of safety and security in society; extent of domestic or international conflict; and the degree of militarization’), in 2016 this trend was reversed, albeit marginally.
Terrorism, they found, is at an all time high, battle deaths are at a 25-year high, and the number of displaced people is greater than it’s been for sixty years. The ‘impact of terrorism and political instability’ measure was the area with the most severe levels of deterioration: Deaths from terrorism increased by 80% compared to 2015, with 94 of the 163 countries surveyed recording at least one terrorist incident, and 11 countries suffering over 500 deaths, compared with five the previous year.
In addition to the heightened terrorist threat, of significant concern is the US military build up in the South Asia Sea, where China is being encircled (see, ‘The Coming War On China’ by John Pilger). As well as the concentration of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, where Russia is being contained – or threatened depending on your point of view. Whilst American and allied nations paint China and Russia as the aggressors, such US sabre rattling is provocative and increases, rather than defuses tensions.
The Roots of Conflict
So in the midst of a world in turmoil and transition, what do we need to do to create peace? What are the causes of conflict and the obstacles to peace? In order to approach these questions it is essential to understand the relationship between society, in all its forms, and the individuals that make up society.
Is society and all that takes place within it, something separate from us, or, as the great Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti repeatedly said, we are the world and the world is us; “our problems are the world’s problems.” It is a statement of fact that in many ways is self-evident; there is violence and intolerance within society e.g., because we ourselves are violent and intolerant.
Any change within the world is therefore dependent upon there being a change within us; “to put an end to outward war, you must begin to put an end to war in yourself.” One follows, and flows from the other.
Recognizing the inter-relationship of the individual and society opens up other enquiries, chief amongst them what we might term agitation, or elicitation.
A multitude of qualities and tendencies rest within all human beings – some good, some not so good, and whilst we accept the logic of Krishnamurti’s assertion, it must also be true that the nature of the society within which people are living, its values, beliefs and methods, encourage certain attitudes and types of behavior. Therefore the ‘question of peace’, and how it can be realized, needs to be approached both from the perspective of the individual and his/her role and responsibility in bringing it about, and from an understanding of the collective atmosphere within which we are living, and how one impacts on the other.
Injustice and tension
We live within a world fashioned by certain structural constraints, political, economic and social systems (including religious), ideologically rooted, promoting certain values. Ideals, many of which, feed selfish attitudes of ambition, and self-aggrandizement that in turn strengthen divisions and engender separation. And is peace possible in a world where such attitudes are encouraged?
These systems have been designed in an attempt to order society, to exert and maintain control, and, so the models proponents maintain, to establish practical methods of meeting humanity’s needs. These needs are universal: Food and water, shelter, clothing, health care and education, all of which are decreed to be, not simply needs, but rights – Human Rights, and are enshrined as such (articles 25 and 26 UDHR). But, much like peace, these dedicated ‘Rights’ remain little more than pretty words upon a dusty page of exploitation and apathy.
In every country in the world such Rights are dependent upon the size of a person’s bank account. If you happen to be born into a poor family in either a developed or developing country, and/or are part of a ‘minority’ group, your rights will be denied or restricted; if fate decrees you live in Sub-Saharan Africa or rural India e.g., the chances are food will be scarce, housing basic, health care and education poor or non-existent. In contrast, if you are born into an affluent family, why the world and all that is in it, is yours. The wealthy live in complacent bubbles, and have little or no idea or indeed interest in how the majority of people exist.
The prevailing economic system has allowed for the concentration of wealth and with it political power, into the hands of a hideously wealthy elite, whilst condemning billions to lives of poverty and suffering. Income and wealth inequality is greater than it has ever been, a recent report by Oxfam revealed that “ the world’s eight richest billionaires control the same wealth between them as the poorest half of the globe’s population [3.6 billion people].” Can there possibly be peace in a world where such inequality exists?
This division of men, women and children based on money, privilege and social standing is totally unjust. There seems to be an assumption amongst the privileged that those living in the developed nations are entitled to be as greedy, selfish, rich and powerful as they like, whilst billions live in crushing poverty. Such inherent injustice is a cause of tension, resentment and conflict – all of which run contrary to the cultivation of peace.
These feelings of hostility have been suppressed for years, for generations, but are now beginning to surface as anger and frustration directed towards systemic injustice, and governments that have constructed policies for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.
Neo-liberalism is the inherently unjust and blind system – devoid of compassion. It promotes the decrepit idea that some are more deserving than others; some are entitled to live lives of excess whilst hundreds of millions literally have nothing. It pollutes democracy and relies on voracious consumption, which is poisoning the planet, for its survival.
Social injustice promotes separation and works in opposition to humanity’s underlying unity. It is one of the principle causes of conflict, and if we are to inculcate peace it is a poison that must be driven out of our world. This means we need to design new, just systems, which work for everyone; economic and political models that hold as their principle aim the goal of meeting the needs – addressing the Rights, of every human being.
To achieve this requires nothing more than the principle of sharing being firmly planted at the heart of human affairs; sharing of the world resources, including food and water, as well as the skills, knowledge and technologies, amongst the people of the world – based on need. Making sharing the guiding ideal of systemic change will allow trust to flower, and where there is trust peace becomes possible.
Change of Heart
In order for sharing, along with cooperation, tolerance and understanding, to fashion the political, economic and social systems and thereby create the conditions in which peace becomes possible, a major change in attitudes is required. A shift in consciousness that allows social responsibility and a new imagination to flower, because as Krishnamurti states, “to bring about peace in the world, to stop all wars, there must be a revolution in the individual, in you and me.”
A revolt against ingrained, selfish ways of thinking and acting is needed to bring about such a movement, and fundamental to such a change is the recognition that humanity is one.
We are brothers and sisters of one humanity, and when this underlying unity is sensed the focus on the individual self, with its various self-centered constructs, begins to fade. Harmlessness and responsibility for the group, which is humanity, is fostered, allowing peace within to grow. As the Dalai-Lama states, “what leads to inner peace is cultivating a compassionate heart.”
New systems that take the fear and uncertainty out of life, and unite people instead of dividing, will aid such a shift, but as Krishnamurti made plain, an economic revolution, “without this inward revolution is meaningless,” and would probably not take place. “For hunger is the result of the maladjustment of economic conditions produced by our psychological states: greed, envy, ill-will and possessiveness.”
An ‘inward revolution’ that recognizes our essential unity, dissipates selfishness and allows for peace of mind to quietly settle, will lead to a revolution in how life is organized, and will quite naturally lead to peaceful relationships within individuals, amongst communities and between nations.