Book review: Perspectives on Peace

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Perspectives on Pacifism: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Views on Nonviolence and International Conflict, by David R. Smock, is a short publication by the United States Institute of Peace summarizing a symposium held in July 1993 on religious perspectives on pacifism. I checked it out from the library in the hopes that it would provide an alternative viewpoint to the one offered in Arguing About War. In fact, it did offer some direct compare and contrast between just war theory and pacifism, and in this sense I was more satisfied with it than A Strategy for Peace (which I had also hoped would provide this alternate perspective).

The book was a quick read (only 63 pages), and it left me wishing I could hear the full discussion that went on at the symposium, where various individuals had presented papers and then others responded to them. The book basically summarizes what was said in each of the papers (directly quoting at times) and highlights the main responses. I felt that because of this format and the fact that it was summarizing, the presentation in the book jumped around a bit. It perhaps would have been helpful to have sections within each chapter instead of just switching to the next paper with a new paragraph. It also, necessarily, only touched on each issue raised rather than exploring it in depth.

The discussion of how each religion views pacifism was interesting to me, as I am not especially familiar with the doctrine of any of the three Abrahamic faiths. I felt that the book did a good job of presenting and summarizing what the mainstream viewpoints within each religion are. I was most interested, however, in the two chapters addressing what sort of concrete non-violent actions all three religions could pursue together, especially in relation to contemporary conflicts (of the time, which was the early 1990s). One of the most compelling arguments to me in favor of nonviolence is that these conflicts are hundreds of years old, and we cannot expect to fix them in just a few months or years: “World leaders prefer quick and simple solutions to the world’s problems, and the nonviolent way is rarely quick and simple. The military approach is seductive because at first glance it seems quick and simple.” One attendee referred to a statement by Theodore Roszak that “people try nonviolence for a week and if it does not ‘work’ they go back to violence, which has not worked for centuries.”

Finally, I was particularly inspired by the vision of John Paul Lederach, who at the time the book was written was a professor of sociology at Eastern Mennonite College:

I would argue that contemporary conflict calls for the development of a framework for sustainable transformation that builds across the population and in many instances from the bottom-up or the middle-out. “Transformation” refers to movement and change. In the context of conflict it suggests movement away from relationships dominated by fear, animosity and threat and toward those dominated by understanding, cooperation and mutual respect. This includes the traditional concepts of ceasefires and top level negotiations, but goes beyond, encompassing the relational concept of reconciliation. “Sustainability” suggests the concern not only for how to initiate such movement but how to create a proactive process capable of regenerating itself over time. As a framework, sustainable transformation suggests the needs to establish an infrastructure for peace within a setting, the promotion of citizen-based initiatives as legitimate and necessary at various levels, a long term commitment to relationship building and a willingness to seek out and root peace activities in the cultural context of the conflict.

Reading this book helped me clarify further my own perspective on pacifism and just war. The question of whether there are some situations where war is in fact the best answer is not the one that draws my focus. I would like to believe that there is not, because at my core I do not believe living in peace with each other and using violence against each other are ever compatible, and therefore if violence is at times the best answer that implies that peace is never possible. I prefer to remain optimistic about the possibility of peace and the potential of humans. However, the question of whether a situation exists where violence is justified is too centered on violence. Our society as a whole is eager to use violence and eager to justify it, and therefore it is extremely difficult to answer this question with any degree of neutrality on the topic – most of us are much too biased towards violence; it is the norm. Thus, I think we need to change the focus to nonviolence. We should be working on finding creative, alternative approaches to violence, and opening up the realm of possibilities. Violence has been tried over and over; it is time to try something new.

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