New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Peace and the Spirit

July 08, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Kent Shifferd, Politics

Truth, Power, and the Ultimate Ground of Being

by Kent Shifferd

Treaties, non-aggression pacts, techniques of conflict resolution (e.g., nonviolent communication, reflective listening, mutual gains bargaining), institutional structures for the control of interstate violence (e.g., UN, ICC), disarmament schemes, peace studies curricula — all are necessary to creating a lasting peace; but they are just the mechanics, the tools of peace. They can lie there on the bench or they can be picked up and put to use.

But they are useless without the Spirit, that difficult-to-describe-in-words something which, when you see or hear it, you instantly recognize its presence. It’s the difference between me droning on in a classroom about the second START Treaty and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice ringing out, “I have a dream today!” Close your eyes for a moment and recall the sound of that to your mind…

The Spirit is what powers peace. It is what surprises the cynical and the jaded. It is what makes miracles, what overwhelmed the Communist empire in Eastern Europe in 1989, what rose up in Tahrir Square in 2010. Human dignity rising up and refusing to be cowed.

It uses technical expertise but it is much more — it is the ground of being for technical expertise. In fact, it is the ultimate ground of being; truth and power joined together, Gandhi’s “satyagraha.” Genuinely effective peace makers recognize the Spirit in the very nature of things, see it as the fount of reality. And what is it? It is a recognition of who we are, each of us individually and all of us collectively. And who we are is each other. It’s that simple. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “interbeing,” Tibetan Buddhists call it “dependent arising.” While each of us is an individual, none of us would exist without the others. Therefore, to harm another is to harm ourselves. Empathy follows automatically. Justice denied for one is justice denied for all.

The spiritual dimension to peace is not just some abstract idea — it is an emotional conviction. That’s what we heard when Martin spoke. Of course we concurred in his ideas — but it was the Spirit emanating from him that thrilled us, that made us know we were hearing Truth.

This Spirit can be found in the great religions. Who would Dr. King have been without the Baptist tradition, or the Dalai Llama without Tibetan Buddhism, or Dorothy Day without Catholic Christianity? Just look at the Sufis (for heaven’s sake!). It is what allows us to see behind the veil to the real nature of things, as the great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton did when he looked at the crowds and had his vision on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, when he recognized (in his idiom) that God is incarnate in each one of us, that we are all sacred beings:

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire can reach, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way there would be no reason for war, for hatred, for cruelty … we would fall down and worship each other.”

It was at this moment that Merton attained enlightenment, became the bodhisattva that the young Dalai Lama recognized.

It’s so simple. Hear the poet Rumi: “Two hands, two eyes, two feet, good, as it should be, but no separation of the Friend [the Spirit] and your loving. Any dividing there makes other untrue distinctions, like ‘Jew,’ and ‘Christian,’ and ‘Muslim.’”

“Not peace” is when we forget who we are, when we forget that we are members of a great web of life that extends far beyond the human community to the smallest creatures. There is no peace between humans without peace between humanity and nature. This is what we have to cultivate, what the traditional Theravaden prayer calls out for:

“May all beings be happy and at their ease. May they be joyous and live in safety. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state; let none by anger or ill will wish harm to another! … with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world…”

And we hear this cry from the heart in the Hindu Upanishads:

“May he protect us both, may he take pleasure in us. May we show courage together. May spiritual knowledge shine before us. May we never hate one another. May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.”

There are limits to what we can grasp, what we can articulate. Some who are gifted, like Merton, are like the golden moon rising out of the clouds. The rest of us struggle, as I am here, to capture the elusive beauty of the Spirit in mere words. But we know it when we see its results. “By their fruits shall you know them,” Jesus said. And we know the essence of the Spirit. I learned this from Ian Harris long ago. It’s love. All the peace techniques are useless without love. St. Paul knew it two thousand years ago:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This Spirit is what keeps us from giving up — we persevere because we have come in line with a with a flow of power though the universe, and whether you believe that this Peace Spirit is simply inherent in the universe or whether you believe it is a fundamental essence of a creator-sustainer God matters not. Having experienced it, even for a moment, you can’t forget it and you can do no other but work for peace. It becomes your nature. You pick up the tools and go joyfully to a work that is no work at all.

Kent Shifferd is the founder of Wisconsin’s first Peace and Conflict Studies program and is an emeritus professor at Northland College. His most recent book is From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years (McFarland, 2011).

2 Comments to “Peace and the Spirit”


  1. This is so right on:

    “It uses technical expertise but it is much more — it is the ground of being for technical expertise. In fact, it is the ultimate ground of being; truth and power joined together, Gandhi’s “satyagraha.” Genuinely effective peace makers recognize the Spirit in the very nature of things, see it as the fount of reality. And what is it? It is a recognition of who we are, each of us individually and all of us collectively. And who we are is each other. It’s that simple. … While each of us is an individual, none of us would exist without the others. Therefore, to harm another is to harm ourselves…”

    Kent, thank you for engaging, successfully, in the struggle to “capture the elusive beauty of the Spirit in mere words.” It is wonderful to read such a compelling and broad-minded articulation of what undergirds successful peacemaking.

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  2. We are members of a great web of life. When we feel identity with the web of life, we know that we must care and share.
    It is not necessary to resort to spiritual fantasies to justify our sense of community and peace!

    go to http://www.kelvynrichards.com A Discourse: Social Ecology

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