Only Peace Can Save the World!
In contrast to the horrific images of devastation from Israel that we see almost daily, Isaiah's prophecy that 'they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;' seems but a dream 'for unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder: and his name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.' The Messiah mentioned here assures us in the Gospel of John: 'My peace I give unto you, My peace I leave unto you: Not as the world gives, but as I give.' It is from this that the Letter to the Ephesians draws the fundamental statement encompassing the Christian understanding of peace: 'He is our peace'. Yet the prophet Isaiah was no more an illusionist than Jesus himself was. Rather they both understood what the terrifying images tell us: that hate, violence and terror only drive opponents further into ruin. This is why the unforgotten Pope John XXIII in his peace encyclical 'Pacem in Terris' wrote into humanity's conscience the principle that, in view of the modern potential for weapons of mass destruction, war must never again be used in political, economic or social conflicts. Never before has this been more valid than today.
Following the triumph of liberty and political awakening in 1989, a European house was erected upon the blood-stained soil of Europe, an island of peace which many had hoped would send out signals of peace to the rest of the world. However, the terrorist attack on the heart of the world economy, as well as America's reaction, was a blow to this hope; and it is unclear how long it will take to regain that hope.
Burden of suffering
Like signs of the times that require urgent attention, current events demand that we reconsider what peace means; and that we realize there is no other alternative to peace, and therefore reestablish it as an imperative. It is known that television has the disastrous effect of being able to transform the most horrible facts into a sequence of prettied-up images which at most make viewers shudder but do not adequately upset them. The images that are suppressed are the ones that show combatants' fear of death, the agony of the wounded and dying, the misery of survivors and orphans, and moreover, the concomitant human degradation and brutalization that occur. The search for peace, though, is necessitated by the massive suffering and equally massive pressure to find new meaning. Evidently, it was not enough that, particularly during post-war periods, voices were raised, often heartstirringly condemning the loss of peace, the horrors of battle and the death of human dignity in the maelstrom of war. These appeals, influenced mainly by the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa and Immanuel Kant, made a passionate and perceptive case for the desirability of peace, yet they also submitted to the principle of experience that peace is always followed by another war. This had the effect of relegating true peace to the realm of hopes and ideals. It is therefore particularly urgent that, in the face of the current situation, we take a truly objective view of peace.
Peace as an imperative
According to Kant, a peaceabiding people can make the decision: 'There ought to be no war among us.' Here, though, a new war remains a possibility. Those who say, like Tolstoi's book title, 'war and peace' have in principle already betrayed peace to war because peace is not just one of humanity's greatest utopias that forcefully demands fulfilment in this age, it also belongs to the cardinal group of ideas to which - like the ideas of truth, freedom and goodness - there is no alternative and which thus must be unconditionally accepted. This is why the New Testament inverted the meaning of Isaiah's word that 'justice will bring about peace' and declared justice to be the 'fruit' and effect of peace instead. This means, however, that peace must be unconditionally considered and strived for in the same manner as the other cardinal ideas.
The ability to achieve peace
Is Man, who is so quickly inclined to hate, turn to revenge and violence, at all capable of peace? It is extremely questionable whether the destroyed houses and ruined cities are truly a reflection of the human soul as is often claimed. There are many reasons explaining mankind's inability to achieve peace. One of the greatest underlying causes for this inability is fear, particularly in an age of rampant fears. Fear paralyzes and isolates people, making them lose contact with their fellow men, and it silences them as well as makes them helpless. Driven into a corner, their right to exist threatened, people in the grip of fear become unpredictable and violent. That is why fear needs to be overcome if Man is to become peace abiding and peaceable. This is exactly the core message of Christianity.
Even though the churches coerced people into accepting their goals by instilling them with fear, qualms of conscience, fear of sin and hell, in its origins Christianity is the religion of overcoming fear. This is manifested in the first words spoken by the resurrected Christ, words that reverberate back to the Christmas message: 'Fear Not!'. This message is further explained in I John 4:16, 18: 'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.'
If faith is unable to overcome all forms that fear takes, forms which are increasingly multiplying, it can dispel the three root fears - fear of God, fear of one's fellow men, and fear for one's own self: The fear of losing God, the spiritual meaning of one's life, is overcome by the message of an unconditionally loving God; the fear of one's fellow men is overcome by the commandment of brotherly love; and the fear for one's own life is overcome by the call to become a child of God. The latter is taken up in Jesus' last blessing spoken in his Sermon on the Mount: 'Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God'. Those who feel they have been raised to the status of a child of God recognize their qualification and obligation to establish peace. As the Cappadocian theologian Gregor of Nyssa wrote, the person who has been crowned with grace as a child of God is truly qualified to carry out the work of peace.
Mutual peace work
There are tasks of such importance that they cannot be carried out by any single institution or religion alone, but only by the common effort of all. The 'Gospel of Peace' therefore obliges Christianity to seek other partners to carry out this work in cooperation. Buddhism is here an obvious choice because Buddha, according to Guardini, undertook the astonishing task of raising human existence from its violence and misery to lead mankind onto the path of dispassionate peace. At the same time Christianity has a particular attachment to Judaism and Islam due to their common belief in one God and revelation. Yet for centuries and until the horrors of World War II the relationship between these 'religions of Abraham' has been marked by bloody persecution and conflicts.
Since then they have all become challenged by atheism, which is spreading worldwide. In order to meet this challenge they must pool their efforts and combine forces. To show that they are sincere, however, they must also first prove to the world that they are willing to settle their old conflicts; and in acts of tolerance and understanding they must demonstrate that they are worthy of their common faith in God. Only then will they be able to prove to their atheist environment that their message is capable of guiding the world out of its increasingly dangerous and threatening situation.
In order to combine forces, however, one must also have a common goal. If one reads the signs of the times, there is hardly a goal more pertinent to our time than world peace. This would mean that the religions must motivate their members to disregard the burdens of their common history and - in order to convince all others - become messengers of peace from a sense of deep conviction and determination.
|Eugen Biser, emeritus professor, held the Romano Guardini Chair at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and received the Romano Guardini Award from the Catholic Academy of Bavaria in 1997. After acquiring emeritus status in 1987, he set up the study program for older adults at the University of Munich, where he is chancellor. Eugen Biser is a papal honorary prelate, corresponding member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and is also Dean of World Religions at the Academia Scientiarum et Artium Europea in Salzburg. He is one of Germany's fore-most theologians.