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Thursday, 23 July 2015

Dr. Tom Pynn - Remembrance Day: Challenging Us to Build a Culture of Peace

In Honor of the first Students’ Peace and Leadership Conference
Papua New Guinea University of Technology, July 23, 2015

(video here)

Dr. Tom Pynn
Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies
Peace Studies Program, Coordinator
Religious Studies Program, Interim Coordinator
Kennesaw University, Atlanta Georgia, USA

Dr. Tom Pynn by video

Good morning.

It is a privilege being invited by all of you to say a few words in honor of your first Student Peace Leadership Conference. I am humbled to join you and to be included among the speakers for this day: Ms. Lucy Kopana, Ms. Margaret Tongia and Mr. Bernard Nulai. I hope that these few words are a thoughtful and hopeful contribution to your conference and that they add value to the day’s proceedings and future activities in the service of all living things in peace and reconciliation.

The theme of your conference is “Advancing Societies through Peace and Stability”, but it is also a student peace leadership conference on a day remembering the event of war and the participation in war. Holding a peace conference on such a day is a challenge to all of us both to bear in mind and recall to mind the suffering, destruction, and despair caused to all living beings—human and non-human--that war always entails. Indeed, war and the willfully ignorant destruction of life is a monument to human beings at their very worst.

Since Remembrance Day is also an exalted rite in which we honor an event and all persons who participated in the event, we bear in mind and recall to mind the distinction and respect we imagine that the event and persons deserve. Furthermore, such a day is not an isolated event, but an occasion that may set the tone for and resonate through the entire year. As a rite, it also bears the distinctive characteristics of a spiritual event thereby signaling us of its function to aid us in transcending the limitations of a materialistic and instrumentalist attitude toward life. An attitude that entails a quest for wealth rather than well-being, for dominance and power rather than mutually responsive caring and compassion, for fame and reputation rather than a meaningful life.

As William Penn once observed in his “Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe”, “If we look over the Stories of all Times, we shall find the Aggressors generally moved by ambition, the Pride of Conquest and Greatness of Dominion more than Right”.

In remembering this day we also act in deference to the enormity of the event and the still unfolding effects from the event in all of our lives. An act of deference also entails that we in some way put ourselves in the place of those whom we remember. What do we find out about ourselves and our society when we do so?

Yet, we are remiss as human beings living in a more than human world if we do not ask these questions: what will and how do we remember? What will we bear in mind and recall to mind as those who are living in the wake of such a terrible event?

What do we remember? Do we emphasize the violence and/or the heroism? Do we remember the shattered human relationships? And what of the destruction to and of our relationship to the non-human world? Do we remember some of the values that make us human such as honor, service and sacrifice? If so, shouldn’t we ask if we can embody these same values in any other way? Are these only martial values or are they human values?

How do we remember? Do we remember with a parade of weapons and nationalistic symbols that recall past wars and ceremoniously call forth the next war? Or do we remember the willingness to be a part of something greater than ourselves? The willingness to sacrifice ourselves for others? If so, shouldn’t we ask if we can embody these same values in any other way? Are these only martial values or are they human values?

What will we bear in mind and recall to mind as those who are living in the wake of such a terrible event? The violence, the heroism? The tragic costs to human relationships? The sundering of our always tenuous relationship to the non-human world? Will we bear in mind and recall to mind when we embodied some of the values that make us human such as service to others, discipline and courage? If so, shouldn’t we ask whether we can embody these same values in any other way? Are these only martial values or are they human values?

On this solemn day of remembrance bear in mind and recall to mind that remembering is an intentional act in which we always have a choice: How and what we choose to remember is up to us both as individuals and as members of a society.

What would happen if instead of allowing ourselves to be led by people with cynical, aggressive, selfish and fearful motives into habitual patterns of violence and war that are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that these appear all but natural we both acknowledge that there are alternatives to violence and engage in non-violent activities of compassion and service to our fellow human beings and the rest of the beings with whom we share this planet?

One way to begin is to remember that there are those who came before us and those who are among us now who have shown and continue to show us that there are alternatives to violence. Do we know who these people? Do we spend time remembering those who have worked for peace in the same measure with those who have worked for violence?

One organization that I have recently begun working with is the Alternatives to Violence Project. “The Alternatives to Violence Project is a multi-cultural volunteer organization . . . dedicated to reducing interpersonal violence in our society….The AVP program offers experiential workshops that empower people to lead nonviolent lives through affirmation, respect for all, community building, cooperation, and trust” (AVP 2002). AVP was started in 1975 in the New York State Prison System and is now active in 40 states and 20 countries. More germane to our program today, however, “AVP has developed a strong and extensive youth component . . . [with] workshops. . .geared to a variety of age levels and community settings such as schools, group homes and organizations supporting youth at risk” (AVP 2002).

AVP is built on the understanding “that a life lived with dignity and self-respect, and the opportunity for self-actualization, is the birthright of every person. We believe that only when this birthright is made real, for all of us, will we have a just and peaceful world” (AVP 2002).

We are probably familiar with the old way of thinking about a just and peaceful world, negative peace, which justifies war and direct violence as the sole means in attaining peace and justice. In defiance of all wisdom, proponents of negative peace assume that revenge is somehow tempered, made more legitimate, by placing the authority to commit acts of violence into the hands of the state in the form of distributive justice. Distributive justice, or state-sponsored violence, is really a retributive model of justice that is less interested in establishing peace than serving the institution of justice.

In 1959 the conception of positive peace was advanced by social and political philosopher Johan Galtung and is defined as a social condition in which exploitation is minimized or eliminated and in which there is neither overt violence nor the subtler but no less destructive phenomenon of underlying structural violence. Structural violence is the violence built into the fabric of social, cultural, and economic life and usually entails denying rights to a segment(s) of the population. A society commits violence against its own members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being such as in the cases of hunger, lack of education, political repression, and psychological alienation. Proponents of positive peace respond directly to structural violence by focusing on peace building, establishing non-exploitative social structures, and working toward peace even in the absence of war. Those who work from the perspective of positive peace realize “that inequalities lead to injustices and injustices inevitably lead to strife.”

Since the 1970s, however, we have seen new conceptions and practices of both peace and justice that aim to harmonize us with ourselves and with others, including our perceived enemies. Some of these new conceptions of peace include organic peace, holistic peace, sustainable reconciliation, restorative justice, and justpeace ethics. What all of these new approaches to peace and justice have in common is that they each take the complementary ideas of peace and justice a step or two beyond positive peace and many steps beyond distributive justice. Furthermore, these new approaches to peace building are envisioned as sustainable because the goal is to establish peace and justice and thereby a stable society by moving human beings from a culture of violence to a culture of peace; however, working for peace demands that we choose to work for peace rather than continue in our old habit of working for violence.

On a day such as this, I ask: What kind of world will we choose?

Choosing a world of peace and justice involves imagining what such a world will look like. Some refer to the role of the imagination in envisioning a world of peace and justice that we can see ourselves living in as the moral imagination. Using our moral imagination also allows us to break free of the old ways of thinking—the efficacy of violence; retribution and revenge; the inferiority of other species; disparities in gender roles; the aggravated persistence of sexual, political, economic, and religious dominance; the erroneous views of peace as a weakness and solely as an effect of violence—an end rather than, as Gandhi has taught us, both means and end.

Furthermore, using our moral imagination to envision and choose a world of peace and justice allows us, both in our own lives and as members of a more than human world, to choose a preferential option for peace and justice.

I live in a society in which one conventional view of initiating our boys into manhood is training them to use weapons of mass destruction, propagandizing them into believing that our nation’s enemies, both foreign and domestic, are not human but are a threat to human civilization, and then sending them out to murder those who have also been trained, in their respective society to do the same thing. This is the kind of world we have had for at least three thousand years, a world where violence begets violence. A world where manhood is determined by acting out in violence. A world in which violence is chosen over cooperation, mutuality, compassion and trust.

Instead of the legacies of violence, I choose to bear in mind and recall to mind these opening words from a poem by the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz: 

“I have come into this world to see this: / 
The sword drop from men’s hands even at the height / 
Of their arc of anger.”

On this day we can choose to bear in mind and recall to mind what it means to be a human being living in a more than human world. William Penn, also pointed out that, “War shall yield to Peace”, but we should bear in mind and recall to mind, remember that “War shall yield to Peace” only if we can imagine it and then choose it to be so.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you great and noble things as you continue in your first Student Peace Leadership Conference.

Works Cited

AVP: Manual, Basic Course. The Education Committee, Alternatives to Violence Project/USA. Saint Paul, MN: AVP, Inc, 2002.

Penn, William. “from ‘Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace in Europe’”. In, Howard Zinn, Ed. The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. 5-7.

Suggested Reading

Fahey, Joseph J. and Richard Armstrong. A Peace Reader: Essential Readings on War, Justice, Non-Violence and World Order. N.Y: Paulist Press, 1992.

Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, D.C: The U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2013.

_______________. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. London.: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sawatsky, Jarem. Justpeace Ethics: A Guide to Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008.

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