Part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St. Matthew, whose feast day falls on 21st September.
It’s the dream of humanitarians and beauty queens, but world peace somehow eludes us., doesn’t it? Oh, we want it, of course we do, but we want it on our terms and if we can’t get it, well, then we can pull out the sticks and the guns and the RPGs. Today is the UN’s International Day of Peace, and it’s right to gather around that banner, to hope and pray and speak out for a better future, but it’s hard to shake the idea, when watching footage of shootings in Yemen and riots on the streets of London, that some people don’t give a damn about peace – they want what they want, and woe betide anyone getting in the way. After all, if you’re in the way then you’re the enemy, the Other, the dehumanised figures who can be tortured or beaten or murdered if it serves some purpose that innocent victims probably won’t get the chance to understand.
“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The surrender speech attributed to Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce after three months of conflict with the US army. He died on September 21st 1904.
And let’s not be naive, violence, the rejection of peace, isn’t just in the pulling of triggers or the raising of fists, it’s in our words and hearts – screaming “God hates fags” at a funeral is an act of violence in its own way, casting a vote for policies based on fear, hatred and ignorance is its own kind of atrocity. Heck, cutting benefits to the terminally ill and carrying out an inadvertant scorched earth policy against our economic future is both a recipe for violence and violence itself.
Number of Jews killed by the Nazis in Dunaivtsi, Ukraine, September 21st 1942.
Christ called on his followers to turn the other cheek when confronted with violence, and an open hand is a recognised symbol for peace. These go deeper than the physical – to reject bloodshed we have to turn away from things that tempt us to lash out; to confound brutality we have to open our hands and drop the weapons and attitudes we use to assault the person and humanity of others. Sometimes we have to reject old family arguments or lines on maps to allow us to even believe in a future free of the tumult.
“They’re reading names out
Over the radio.
All the folks the rest of us
Won’t get to know.
Sean and Julia,
Gareth, Anne and Breeda;
Their lives are bigger than
Any big idea.
Lyrics from U2’s ‘Peace on Earth’, written in response to the Omagh bombing. It was performed at the America: A Tribute to Heroes 9-11 memorisl concert on September 21st 2001.
It’s a day of peace, and 24 hours can never really be enough, but we have to start somewhere. We cannot continue to drag ourselves down, fighting over land and resources and ideologies and differences. We cannot expect to wage war on our neighbour and expect to remain untouched by violence. We cannot nurture fear, ignorance and anger without reaping that same harvest.
A lot can happen in 24 hours; blood can be spilt, hands can be shook. And we – each one of us, wherever we stand – have a choice to make. And after that, a lifetime more.