Hempton: Work toward Peace Every Day

September 27, 2016
Hempton: Work toward Peace Every Day
HDS Dean David N. Hempton / Photo: Laura Krueger

Dean David N. Hempton of HDS is a social historian of religion with particular expertise in populist traditions of evangelicalism in Europe, North America, and beyond. On September 21, he spoke at the Morning Prayers service in Holden Chapel, Harvard Yard, on the occasion of the International Day of Peace. Below are his remarks:

Readings from President Obama’s Speech in Hiroshima, Japan, May 2016

“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself. Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in the not-too-distant past. We come to mourn the dead … Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.”

President Obama went on to speak about the paradox between the human capacity for both innovation and unmatched destruction; our best and our worst exist side by side:

“Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill. Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

On this day, the International Day of Peace, as Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and as the founder of its Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, I want to offer some reflections on the topic “Is Peace just the absence of War?”

In a way it’s a dumb question, whose answer seems obvious. How many of us think that life is just the absence of death, or love just the absence of hatred? Yet the question needs to be asked, because I’m not sure we have yet come up with a very compelling answer, though humans have asked it for over two millennia. Thanks to the horror of the photos we see every day through global media, we have no trouble imagining war. But we seem to have a great deal of trouble imagining peace.

What is it, really? Peace has come to be a soft word associated with flower-power vacuity or drug induced hallucination. It’s a flaky concept for flaky people. Serious people have other things on their minds, such as leveraging our first-strike option, or the military containment of military aggression. So let’s ask the question again: Is peace just the absence of war?

Let’s begin the way we academics do—with some ground clearing. To begin with, there is no denying that the absence of war would be a good thing. This year has seen some sobering anniversaries and memorials. I have already read to you the text of President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima, 71 years after the bomb ended a war that cost over 60 million lives.

This year was also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which produced over a million casualties fighting over a few miles of terrain in Northern France during WWI. So, the absence of war, as any resident of Aleppo will testify, is, of course, a good thing, but is it enough? Can we also begin actively to imagine and to create peace as a cultural and spiritual presence? As we ponder that, consider the following quotes from some of our wisest forebears, who grappled with these very questions:

Baruch Spinoza, the great Dutch philosopher wrote, “Peace is not an absence of war. It is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” Jane Addams, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, said in 1931 that “true peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.” Similarly, and still relevantly for our troubled racial climate, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated that “true peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” In more religious mode, Pope John Paul II wrote that “peace is not just the absence of war. Like a cathedral, peace must be constructed patiently and with unshakable faith.” How would we do all this?

Here are three thoughts I would like to leave you with:

  1. Peace and peacebuilding is a practice, not an aspiration. Like all practices, it requires, discipline, formation, meditation, commitment, and action. For many of us, that formation will be rooted in a spiritual practice within a particular religious tradition. For others, it will be rooted in self-conscious ethical reflection about ourselves, our communities, and the wider world. All religious traditions have resources within them for spiritual formation around peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In the words of Psalm 34:14: “Seek peace and pursue it.” These are active verbs. Seek it, pursue it, cultivate it, work for it, insist on it, and devote your talents and resources to it.

  2. If we are to move beyond pious good intentions to achievable results we will need to mobilize the resources of all our disciplines and schools at Harvard and beyond, and bring them into creative conversation around a common objective. What does the concept of “One Harvard” really add up to if it does not result in human flourishing, and what kind of human flourishing is possible without peace and justice at its core?

  3. Finally, let not the International Day of Peace be a day when we merely talk of peace in sanctimonious platitudes and then get on with the real world of self-actualization and acquisitiveness. Let peace be something we work towards, actively and concertedly, every day of every year. And may it be, next year and in future years, a day when we check back with one another, to discuss our challenges, learn from our failures, and celebrate our successes.  

We dream of establishing a permanent program at Harvard to fully leverage the deep resources of the Divinity School in world religions, the unparalleled multidisciplinary expertise of our colleagues across Harvard, and the university’s global reach to prepare generations of leaders in advancing sustainable peace both domestically and globally. Please join us if you can.

A short prayer. This is the opening paragraph of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your Peace
where there is hatred, let me sow Love
where there is injury, Pardon
where there is doubt, Faith
where there is despair, Hope
where there is darkness, Light
and where there is sadness, Joy.