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The Field of Peace
John Perkins once told me a story of bringing a group to have an audience with the Dalai Lama. A woman asked him, “Is it important to pray for peace?” The Dalai Lama said, “Yes, praying for peace is very good, but if that is all you do you are wasting your time.”
What he meant is that prayers will have no effect if they are not aligned with action. It makes sense—if I pray for one thing and enact its opposite, whoever hears the prayer is going to be confused. Which is it that you want, X or Y? Which is it that you want, peace or war?
I read this morning of an upcoming parley between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. Do not think that it will be easy for either one of them to turn the locomotive of war in its tracks once it has built up such momentum. Each surely has a robust set of beliefs in which his side is the righteous party.
In the case of Zelensky, the righteousness is obvious: foreign troops have invaded my country’s territory and are killing my people. The horror of the onslaught is plain for all to see.
In the case of Putin, the righteousness comes, I suppose, from an historical narrative of NATO expansionism, missiles on Russia’s borders, oppression and shelling of ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, and so forth.
The point here is not that each side is equally right. It is that each side believes it is right. In that mindset, justice and righteousness are the result of victory over the opponent. Short of the opponent’s total capitulation, to make any other peace is to compromise justice.
Unlikely though it may seem, let us hold the possibility of peace from this meeting. Here is one scenario: Russia agrees to an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all troops from Ukraine. Ukraine agrees to become a demilitarized country like Costa Rica. The Donbass region’s status will be determined in an internationally-supervised referendum. Zelensky’s government remains in power. And let me add a flourish: a nonviolent Peace Witness Corps from all over the world, armed only with cameras, comes to Ukraine to keep peace and help rebuild.
To reach an agreement like that would take something of a miracle. We certainly can’t pin our hopes on Vladimir Putin’s compassion, although judging from his interviews I don’t think he is a heartless man. Hardened, yes, and shrewd, but not the soulless monster war propaganda portrays. (That is a heavy accusation to make against another human being, but we tend to make it lightly in the heat of conflict. If you don’t believe me, look at Twitter.) In any case, even if Putin had the peace consciousness of Nelson Mandela, and even if Zelensky were not utterly dependent on a bellicose imperial power, still it would be hard for them to make peace now that the self-feeding fire of war fever has been ignited. If they make peace, both Zelensky and Putin will face intense criticism from militants in their own countries and abroad, who will accuse them of capitulation, appeasement, or weakness. Zelensky in particular will essentially be ending Ukraine’s status as a pawn of the West and will thus bear the fury of the US establishment that is at present howling for escalation.
How then can we recall the aggressors to their humanity? The world must stand in solidarity for peace. We must not pretend to tolerate the intolerable, nor cooperate with it. We must be loud in our revulsion, and express our noncooperation in the form of sanctions and boycotts. And not only in opposition to this war. If we are to be consistent, we must also look with shame at the wars instigated by our own country as we lived obliviously to them, shielded from their horrible reality by our own justifications just as Putin is shielded by his. We must stand in solidarity not only with the innocent victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but with all war victims, present and future. It is psychologically and politically easy right now to condemn and boycott Russia, but if we don’t stand with equal fervor against militarism generally, we are not truly serving peace.
A prayer for peace has no force if one is an aggressor oneself. Are the calls to protect the victims of Putin’s war motivated by compassion only, when they happen also to fit into an imperial narrative? We in the West are allowed, encouraged even, to witness their suffering; meanwhile the suffering of those who are incidental to American imperialism or stand in its way is made invisible, and when someone like Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange shows it to us we (as a nation) react by imprisoning the messenger. Those of us who truly want peace will not stand for that either.
The awful fear, grief, and suffering the American public is seeing now through images and videos is not just the reality of the Ukraine war; it is the reality of war, period. Usually it is beyond our sight, hidden behind ideology, justifications, propaganda, normalization, desensitization, and ignorance.
A true prayer for peace cannot be only “Let this war end.” It must be nothing less than “Let all war end.” It would extend the sanctions against Russia to non-compliance with all militarism, including our own.
We are rightly appalled at the invasion of Ukraine. But where were these sensibilities when our own countries and alliances invaded Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and countless other countries? In many cases these invasions wreaked devastation far, far beyond what Ukraine has suffered. The point here is not to distract from Russia’s action with what-about-ism, nor is it to decry hypocrisy. I am more interested in results, not in blame. I want our peace work to be effective. It will not be so, if it selects only the wars of our enemies.
On an immediate, practical level, protests, boycotts, and sanctions give Russia an incentive to make peace. However, their main power is moral; no country will bow to sanctions if it believes it is in the right. The boycotts and non-compliance that Gandhi inspired were effective because they carried moral force, not (primarily) because they crippled the colonial economy. Exercised by hypocrites, sanctions have little effect. A much stronger response would embed sanctions in an authentic peace declaration. “We will no longer stand for war. We will dismantle our global military bases. We will disband NATO. We will stop placing missiles on your borders. We will rejoin the ABM treaty. We will reduce our nuclear arsenal. We will shrink our military. We will stop invading other countries. We will cease supporting coups, juntas, and torture regimes.” Then we would generate a political and psychic field of peace in which war becomes impossible to sustain. Otherwise, if we don’t commit to demilitarization alongside our denunciation of the Russian invasion, we still affirm the principle: “War is OK as long as it is justified.” Well guess what: Everyone thinks their own war is justified. Most ordinary Russians fervently believe theirs is right now.
Just as integrity requires the peace activist to denounce not only adversary nations’ wars but also their own, just as anti-war exhortations have no power if they come with hypocrisy, so too are our prayers weak when they are inconsistent with our actions. The more we serve peace day to day in personal life, the stronger our prayers become.
If you care about Ukraine, please join together in generating a coherent pscyho-political field of peace. Prayer by itself will not generate that field, but it can firm one’s intention to hold peace and compassion in all relationships. Every time we let go of self-righteousness, we strengthen the field of peace. Every time we resist a call to arms, every time we put ourselves in another’s shoes, every time we act from the knowledge that we are not separate, every time we look for someone’s humanity and divinity when it hurts, we tilt the course of distant events into alignment with those choices.
It is hard work, because war thinking is a deep program in the human mind, carving up of the world into us and them, friend and enemy, hero and villain, good guy and bad guy. So quick is the reflex to see someone I disagree with as a monster, to write them off. When I do that, they often fulfill my expectation.
Writ large, that explains a lot of what is playing out on the international stage. After the Cold War, the United States was desperate for an Enemy by which to define itself as good (and maintain the profits of the armaments industry). For twenty years US foreign policy been writing the role that Russia now plays ( casting it as adversary, encircling it with bases, nullifying missile treaties). The arrogant, violent bully generates enemies in the image of his paranoid fear that others are as he is. The question of whether Putin and Russia are actually evil misses the point. If they are, we have created the conditions for them to be thus. The bully’s enemies may indeed be as brutal as he is, or even more so. The point is that he has created them. Yet even at this late date, it is not too late to de-identify with the roles we’ve set up that make conflict inevitable.
Holding the field of compassion in our political discourse is especially important given the fact that warmongers invariably use the suffering of innocent victims to justify even more war, producing even more innocent victims. Everyone has a reason why bombing and shooting and killing by their own side is regrettably necessary.
Will the ancient pattern continue forever? Has anything in human nature changed that will deliver us from the cycle of war begetting war and hate begetting hate? Actually, something has changed. We are in a new age of humanity—call it an age of compassion, of reunion, of interbeing—inaugurated, paradoxically, by the most murderous human invention ever: nuclear weapons. Radioactive blowback and mutually assured destruction offer a stern lesson in interconnection: I cannot escape the consequences I visit upon the Other. A corollary is that matters of right and wrong are no longer to be solved by force. Paradoxically, the mightiest force ever conceived has made force obsolete as a final solution. Before the nuclear age, war carried the prospect of total victory over an annihilated enemy. No longer. The age has turned. Nukes limit the degree to which even the most bloodthirsty are willing to escalate conflict, but the principle extends to non-nuclear conflicts too. Even when the United States faces a puny opponent, still total victory eludes its grasp. All the more so with a powerful opponent like Russia. Regardless of who is good and who is evil in this conflict, the traditional solution of victory over evil by force is not possible. We face the necessity of another kind of solution, a new and unfamiliar storyline.
If we follow it, we head toward a much greater miracle than merely peace in the Ukraine. It is the dismantling of empire, the termination of the military-industrial complex, the closure of 800 US military bases worldwide, the institution of a true global Peace Witness Corps and a dramatic shrinkage of all militaries globally. Until this happens, something like Ukraine will recur again and again, whether instigated (as is usual) by the US imperial hegemon or by the adversaries it generates from its us-versus-them worldview. Can’t we write another plot for the human drama?
On every level, from the geopolitical to the intimate, it is time to live that new storyline. Only if we do it in our own conflicts can we reasonably hope that the politicians may do so as well. How we act is a claim on human nature and a declaration of what is possible. So let us pray for peace, yes, in preparation to be peace ourselves. May we look first for the humanity and divinity of all we meet. May we be free of all vestiges of the habit of organizing the world into good guys and bad guys. May we see and cease our own role in the creation of enemies. May we believe so strongly in the possibility of compassion of others that we become a walking invitation that calls it forth into reality. And finally, as we live this prayer, may we see it reflected in global events. In fact, let us insist that it be so.
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