Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

December 30, 1999


I checked in a few standard quote books and in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and was shocked. There is very little in what is widely viewed as our common cultural heritage that describes and celebrates the benefits of peace. That should be one of our tasks in the New Millennium.

(Yes, I know, it isn't really. Not only is 2000 the last year of the Old Millennium rather than the first year of the New, but the calendar-makers in the Middle Ages almost certainly got it wrong and the real 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth more than likely happened in 1996 – not to mention that it's most unlikely it occurred in December. But the first number of the year will change and that's not only significant to computers, it is sure to have psychological significance for us humans. So I'm going with the flow, though I need little excuse to party twice.)

It's certainly true enough that the Bible has Jesus saying, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." And there is imagery of peace in some of Isaiah's prophecies that still have the power to inspire and even bring tears to people of relatively normal sensibilities. But most of the places the word appears in the Bible it refers more to personal or household peace rest, repose, times of quietness with perhaps an opportunity for contemplation. The idea that peace of that character is desirable and spiritually necessary is more often taken for granted than explained or described. The benefits of peace among nations and peoples are assumed to be desirable in a few places, but there's little elaboration.


The Isaiah prophecy (Chapter 11) referring to "a rod out of the stem of Jesse" on whom the spirit of the Lord shall rest viewed by most Christians as a foreshadowing of Jesus – offers the most elaborate picture of the kind of peace the Lord will establish when His benevolent dominion is finally established. It has inspired art of all kinds, from the memorable Pennsylvania Dutch "Peaceable Kingdom" painting to music of every era, including an anthem written just a couple of years ago that my church choir loves to sing.

"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. "And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. "And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."

Depending on whether you view the passage literally or metaphorically, it is either so fantastic as to seem unnatural and impossible or quite realistic in its apprehension of the difficulties of attaining peace and harmony. In any case, its images are deftly chosen to be especially striking. The idea of asps and adders that would not harm young children cannot but grab one's attention, especially the attention of desert dwellers.

I choose to view the passage metaphorically, as a recognition that in this vast and sad old world there are many kinds of people, genetically, culturally and psychologically, and that one must recognize and reconcile those differences. Some of us are more like cattle and some of us are more like wolves, bears or lions, who are not predators (necessarily) because they have consciously chosen evil but because that is the way they are without countervailing influences. But when we understand how to attain a peaceable kingdom, such people will come to comprehend that their interests and ambitions do not require that they devour others (literally or metaphorically) to be true to their natures.

Perhaps the passage is meant to be taken literally. Maybe we'll find out at the Second Coming. But if it happens, I suspect it will be a while. The human race doesn't display much evidence of having gotten it yet. Which is one reason we peacemakers still have so much work to do.


The quotes on peace from more secular literary references like Bartlett's seldom have much content either. About half of those I found refer mainly to personal peace peace of mind, the peace that a loved one's presence confers, the peace to be found in the countryside, the peace that reigns in a happy household. Of those that refer to peace in a political or international context, perhaps half echo John F. Kennedy, who once said, "It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only be preparing for war," a sentiment going back to Horace, Machiavelli and George Washington. Theodore Roosevelt, of course, said something similar.

George Bernard Shaw, in "Man and Superman," gives the Devil the best lines on the subject. "In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons. This marvelous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness. What is his religion? An excuse for hating me. What is his law? An excuse for hanging you. What is his morality? Gentility! An excuse for consuming without producing. What is his art? An excuse for gloating over pictures of slaughter. What are his politics? Either the worship of a despot because a despot can kill, or parliamentary cockfighting."

And that was written in 1903, before the orgies of state-sponsored bloodshed and slaughter that made the century now departing the bloodiest in human history.


Most of the American president invoked peace in their inaugural addresses, but few explained what they meant by it or showed any evidence of understanding it in anything more than an incantatory sense. Interestingly, the best passage I found was by Dwight Eisenhower, a professional warrior for most of his life, in his second inaugural address:

"We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom. And now, as in no other age, we seek it because we have been warned, by the power of modern weapons, that peace may be the only climate possible for human life itself. "Yet this peace we seek cannot be born of fear alone: it must be rooted in the lives of nations. There must be justice, sensed and shared by all peoples, for without justice the world can know only a tense and unstable truce. There must be law, steadily invoked and respected by all nations, for without law the world promises only such meager justice as the pity of the strong upon the weak. But the law of which we speak, comprehending the values of freedom, affirms the equality of all nations, great and small. "Splendid as can be the blessings of such a peace, high will be its cost: in toil patiently sustained, in help honorably given, in sacrifice calmly borne."

That's not a bad expression of high-minded statesmanship, circa mid-century. It almost makes one nostalgic to read it now; in the light of post-Cold-War imperialism it seems almost naïve.

Historians have recently raised their estimation of Eisenhower, who while in office was generally viewed as a benevolent but detached golfer. It is worth remembering, however, that he was the only modern American president to express concern over the growing military-industrial complex as he was leaving office, to be sure – and his comments showed a certain amount of insight into the dangers of the complex to freedom, the rule of law and fundamental American principles.


My favorite quote came from that old pacifist-activist A.J. Muste: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." Martin Luther King, Jr. said something similar: "Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." A woman known as Peace Pilgrim said: "When you find peace within yourself, you become the kind of person who can live at peace with others."

Albert Einstein once said that "Every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust and only secondarily on institutions such as courts of justice and police." The Swami Brahmanada declared that "In truth, to attain to interior peace, one must be willing to pass through the contrary to peace. Such is the teaching of the Sages."


Much of what I found was interesting and insightful, but the image of peace projected was almost universally virtually devoid of content. What does peace mean beyond the absence of war, a surcease of violence? Why is it desirable? What promise does it bring beyond contentment and a good night's sleep?

Not that contentment and rest are to be despised, but peacemongers would do well to acknowledge that war has long held attractions, and not all of them obviously ignoble or embraced only by a tiny band of elite leaders who gain power or wealth from war. War can be seen as and sometimes really is an adventure that can be experienced in no other way. It is a testing ground, especially for young men who feel the need to discover what they are really made of. It can impart a sense of camaraderie and fellowship, of strong feelings for one's fellows that is difficult to find in any other endeavor. For many veterans even though they may have horrific memories of blood and buddies lost war was the peak experience of their lives.

What can peace offer as a counter-attraction to what might be a genuine human need to test oneself in situations that are not only exciting but present one with the stark possibility of facing life or death? I suspect such risk seeking is not a universal human desire I never felt much desire to participate in extreme sports, even when I was younger and more foolish (though I must admit some of the videos are fascinating) but it seems to be a widespread urge. And even those who prefer to "pass our time in rest and quietness" (as the old Book of Common Prayer's Collect for Peace puts it) still have a desire for various kinds of excitement.


I didn't say it would be easy, nor did I claim to have the answers. It might take us a millennium to fill up the platter of peace with meats, sweets and condiments sufficient to inspire a critical mass of humanity to study war no more.

In a sense, selling peace is a bit like selling freedom, presenting some of the same difficulties. Those who advocate restrictions on freedom often have the rhetorical advantage of promising some concrete benefit in exchange for giving up some freedom. The promise may well be a false one, and it may even be known to the promiser to be false. But it still has rhetorical and persuasive power.

The honest advocate of freedom, however, can seldom make such promises. If people are really free, you simply can't predict what they will do, and you can be reasonably sure that some of them will behave badly. You can argue from theory and experience that they will produce more, innovate more, love and laugh more than those in bondage. But you can't honestly promise that things will turn out for the best, and it's easy to sound like a naïve Pollyanna with an unjustifiably rosy view of human nature.

In making a case for peace, however, it might be possible to turn the circumstance to an advantage. Peace, like freedom, carries possibilities that are simply impossible to contemplate under tyranny or war. Maybe scientists won't discover new methods of communication or nutrients that will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; if they're living in bomb shelters and designing weapons, however, you can be sure they won't. Maybe the next Bach or Rembrandt or Shakespeare or Louis Armstrong won't delight future generations; if he is killed in a bombing raid, however, you can be sure his or her gifts will never be shared.

That might be a beginning. I sense there's a strong need to go well beyond what I have said or can even imagine. I sense that serenity and joy can be more firmly correlated with peace and the relationships among them can be explored in more detail. I am sure, as Basil O'Connor once said, that "the world cannot continue to wage war like physical giants and seek peace like intellectual pygmies."

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