On Being Peaceful

I sense that our motives for taking part in an action for peace are crucial to the effectiveness of that action. But I am not clear about my motives. I can’t say with confidence that I am moved more by love for enemies (in this case, warmongers and other violent people) than by a desire to shame them for not loving their enemies. Do I want to express my love, improve the world, assuage my guilt, look and feel morally superior to others – or are all of those motivations, and more, at work? Fearing that “when the wrong person uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way,” I am unable to assess the usefulness of specific actions until I have deeper insight into my own motivations and goals. I am, therefore, uncertain about taking action, even as I feel the urgent need for effective peacemaking.

The Quaker tradition recognizes that such unclarity arises, paradoxically, from the illuminating work of the spirit of love, that inward light which reveals what is normally hidden. The recommended response is to examine oneself and one’s actions in that light. When I do that, what do I see?

I see that there is violence within me, and I understand that my violence is bound up with my self-absorbed approach to life, an approach that is inherently divisive because I reflexively – I intend that word in a double sense: my natural reflex is to feel and think in this way – interpret life as competition between self and other. Both intra- and interpersonally, I am caught up in struggle for dominance, entangled in the roots of violence. But I also see that love can work in and through me to overcome that fundamental alienation, and that peace is the living of that love in everyday situations.

Our Religious Society has for centuries borne witness to the possibility of peace within and among us. I am convinced that to continue that witness is one of our most important tasks today. I am also convinced that we can do so only by learning to live in that spirit which “takes away [from us] the occasion of all wars,” rooting out our deep-seated alienation and lust for self-aggrandizement. I understand that I can bring some peace to the world only if I can live peace in and for the world. But how can I learn to be thus reconciled to self and other?

I need to focus on how I come into that spirit which, in James Nayler’s words, “delights to do no evil nor to avenge any wrong, … and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind.” It is clear to me that this spirit is not an ideal to which I can conform myself — self-idealization being a work of alienation — but a power which abides within me and to which I may come increasingly to surrender. And it is clear, too, that I cannot simply reframe as self-surrender an attempt to embody a standard or ideal: I know experimentally (as George Fox would say) that conformity to law is but a self-aggrandizing ersatz of love.

Under love’s light, I see that I tend to devote my energy to developing and projecting a “good” — that is, better — image of myself, both for myself and for others. I want to believe myself to be, and to be known by others as, a person who is genuinely peaceful, who has surrendered to the spirit of love. But an imagined surrender is just that: imaginary. A ploy of self-idealization. A genuinely peaceful person does not experience him- or herself as over against self or other and therefore does not desire to be “better.” Leading me out of alienation, love is inviting me to give up attachment to any and all self-images. I think that allowing myself to respond to that invitation must be the real meaning of surrender. And of peace.

(This essay is adapted from my journal entry of 4/10/1988.)

Quaker Peace Vigil in Tasmania, 1962

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