Creating Peace: Unitarian Universalist Perspectives

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Jeffrey Brown

Rev. Jeffrey Brown is with the Canadian Unitarian Council

If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our conversations on peace and justice begin as Black History Month starts (and Wiarton Willie is poised to appear). I find it fitting to hear the words of a great American emancipator, Martin Luther King, Jr. at this time. In my early years, his thoughts and actions set out a path where justice and peace became inextricably entwined. Without fairness and equality, he proclaimed, we could never understand the fullness of peace. The words that I have heard at the Occupy encampments seem to me to express this same essential message that I heard from Dr. King’s lips as I was growing up.

As I began my professional ministry, my first mentor was a gruff, former naval chaplain who had served his way proudly through World War II. He was a “patriotic” hawk of the old school. Not only was my field education “by the book”—I believe that the book was the Uniform Code of Military Justice—but it also reflected a fervent support for the then roiling Vietnam War.

Four years later, into my second parish, my neighbouring colleague was a quiet, yet steadfast, soul who had refused service in the military during the Second World War and, because he was not recognized as a conscientious objector, had been imprisoned, forced to serve as a human guinea pig in the laboratory, and eventually was conscripted into hard labour in the Civilian Public Service, where he had been seriously injured.

Here were two ministers, well esteemed by their Unitarian Universalist colleagues, who could not have held more divergent attitudes toward war, peacemaking, and peacekeeping. I name them, not simply because they were integral to my formation, but because they reflect the diversity of ideals that one can find in a free religious tradition that encourages individuals to formulate their own beliefs. Any attempt to understand Unitarian Universalist attitudes toward peace must begin with the acknowledgement that no one of us can speak for another.

Nonetheless, over the last half century of our current institutional existence as the Canadian Unitarian Council and the Unitarian Universalist Association, we have frequently expressed the majority will on matters of peace and justice issues. In the 50 years we have crafted hundreds of resolutions and statements that have decried our nations’ participation in conflicts (Vietnam, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq), supported disarmament and the elimination of nuclear arsenals, advocated peaceful international intervention in regions where genocide was occurring, defended human rights for all groups, and pushed for environmental justice.

Recently, North American Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in a multi-year process of discernment that resulted in a Statement of Conscience. It was adopted by representatives at the June 2010 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I hope and believe that it acknowledges both the centre of our current thinking and allows for differences that inherently arise when a faith tradition proposes that people must think and believe for themselves.

The Statement says:

We believe all people share a moral responsibility to create peace. Mindful of both our rich heritage and our past failures to prevent war, and enriched by our present diversity of experience and perspective, we commit ourselves to a radically inclusive and transformative approach to peace.
Our commitment to creating peace calls us to the work of peacebuilding, peacemaking, and peacekeeping.

Peacebuilding is the creation and support of institutions and structures that address the roots of conflict, including economic exploitation, political marginalisation, the violation of human rights, and a lack of accountability to law.

Peacemaking is the negotiation of equitable and sustainable peace agreements, mediation between hostile parties, and post‐conflict rebuilding and reconciliation.

Peacekeeping is early intervention to prevent war, stop genocide, and monitor ceasefires. Peacekeeping creates the space for diplomatic efforts, humanitarian aid, and nonviolent conflict prevention through the protection of civilians and the disarmament and separation of those involved in violent conflict.

We advocate a culture of peace through a transformation of public policies, religious consciousness, and individual lifestyles. At the heart of this transformation is the readiness to honour the truths of multiple voices from a theology of covenant grounded in love.

We all agree that our initial response to conflict should be the use of nonviolent methods. Yet, we bear witness to the right of individuals and nations to defend themselves, and acknowledge our responsibility to be in solidarity with others in countering aggression. Many of us believe force is sometimes necessary as a last resort, while others of us believe in the consistent practice of nonviolence.

We repudiate aggressive and preventive wars, the disproportionate use of force, covert wars, and targeting that includes a high risk to civilians. We support international efforts to curtail the vast world trade in armaments and call for nuclear disarmament and abolition of other weapons of mass destruction. We repudiate unilateral interventions and extended military occupations as dangerous new forms of imperialism. In an interdependent world, true peace requires the cooperation of all nations and peoples.

For Unitarian Universalists, the exercise of individual conscience is holy work. Conscientious discernment leads us to engage in the creation of peace in different ways. We affirm a range of individual choices, including military service and conscientious objection (whether to all wars or particular wars), as fully compatible with Unitarian Universalism. For those among us who make a formal commitment to military service, we will honour their commitment, welcome them home, and offer pastoral support. For those among us who make a formal commitment as conscientious objectors, we will offer documented certification, honour their commitment, and offer pastoral support.

Our faith calls us to create peace, yet we confess that we have not done all we could to prevent the spread of armed conflict throughout the world. At times we have lacked the courage to speak and act against violence and injustice; at times we have lacked the creativity to speak and act in constructive ways; at times we have condemned the violence of others without acknowledging our own complicity in violence. We affirm a responsibility to speak truth to power, especially when unjust power is exercised by our own nation. Too often we have allowed our disagreements to distract us from all that we can do together. This Statement of Conscience challenges individual Unitarian Universalists, as well as our congregations and Association, to engage with more depth, persistence, and creativity in the complex task of creating peace.

At its heart, this Statement of Conscience reflects the centrality in our tradition of the freedom of individual conscience, while it reaches much further in recognizing that we are interdependent beings. We exist in societies, in nations, and we are, as significantly, part of one humanity and even of one living, evolving planet. We ignore our relationships with one another and with our globe at our peril.

This recognition of human connections is, in varied configurations, at the core of religious beliefs, traditions, and institutions. It is implicit, and explicit, in Christian creeds, the Jewish Kol Nidre, Hindu homas, and hundreds of expressions of what human beings identify as sacred.

As a tradition that arose from the Enlightenment, Unitarian Universalism has attempted to mould a faith that is both rational and shaped by our actions. Deeds, not creeds has been its hallmark, or as the 16th-century Transylvanian Unitarian Ferenc Dávid proclaimed more poetically: “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Still, over the centuries we have tried to give verbal expression as to who we are. Since the 1800s we have usually rearticulated our core values every generation (more or less). For North American Unitarian Universalists, this currently takes shape in a set of principles that we adopted in 1984-1985. In them are the foundation stones for the 2010 Statement of Conscience.

We say that:

We covenant to affirm and promote:

    • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    • Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
    • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
    • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process;
    • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
    • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

At its heart this “covenant” grounds itself in relationships: relationship with ourselves, with one another, with all creatures with which we share this blue-green Earth, and with Gaia itself. Furthermore, it recognizes preferred ways that these connections might play out. They are theological statements, though not necessarily in a traditional shape. The Statement of Conscience reflects these basic Unitarian Universalist theological principles in at least eight fundamental ways.

First, it speaks to a fundamental unity and interdependence of all existence. We experience this interdependence in our ways of knowing the world, whether scientifically or intuitively, and especially in the daily reality of this globalized world that we inhabit. Our interdependence makes it both possible and necessary that we see the peoples of the world as one community in which the security of each nation is entwined with the security of all others.

Many, perhaps most, people have felt the transforming power of love. Many religious communities hold it as a central, animating force: a dynamic power within and among us. This power moves us to create relationships of compassion, respect, mutuality, and forgiveness. It pushes us to love our neighbour and, as significantly, to recognize everyone as our neighbour. We stand on the side of love when we work for peace.

Second, the notion of the inherent worth and dignity of all persons is woven throughout Unitarian and Universalist history and thought. All human beings have a right to a meaningful and fulfilling life, including physical safety and economic and social well-being. All of us own a responsibility to work on behalf of the dignity of others.

Third, human freedom holds a central place in Unitarian Universalism. Most human beings are free moral agents with a capacity to make choices, and we are accountable for those choices. Human freedom may be used creatively or destructively. These possibilities are expressed not only in our individual choices and actions, but also in the institutions and social structures we form. Peace is the product of human choices that empower human agency and extend the possibilities for human freedom.

Fourth, most Unitarian Universalists live on a “grayish” globe where we refuse to see the world as either “black” or “white.” We reject a moral dualism that is present in so much of contemporary culture. We consider the sharp segregation of good and evil as a false dichotomy and, when we are our best selves, refuse to assign individuals and nations to one category or the other. Moral dualism shields us to our own and our country’s capacity for evil and blinds us to the inherent worth and dignity of those whom we might label as enemies. Only in the midst of ambiguity can we build peace by cultivating goodness in ourselves and others.

Fifth, we celebrate the understanding that emerges from cooperative power. Power evolves from, and is expressed in, complex networks of human relationships. People can use power to create or destroy, to liberate or oppress. Preventing war and creating nonviolent alternatives require utilising cooperative power: power with, not power over. Cooperative power is grounded in commitments to mutual persuasion rather than coercion.

Sixth, Unitarian Universalist principles directly articulate the values of justice and peace. Justice and equity revolve around the fair ordering of human relationships, including social and political relationships. War signals the breakdown of equitably ordered human relations. Peace is an attribute of relationship; it is a process, not a stagnant state. Peace emerges when our social and political institutions become more cooperative and more just. Lasting peace rests on just relationships.

Seventh, a corollary of these perceptions of our humanity is the role of humility and open-mindedness. Open-mindedness urges us to be suspicious of all claims of finality, including our own. Humility allows us to take strong stands while we remain free to the possibility that we are wrong or that future circumstances may call for a different position.

Eighth, as an experiential religion, Unitarian Universalism relies heavily on praxis as its method for discerning truth (with a small t). What we know in the present moment is forged by the fires of practice, both contemporary and historical. In tandem, our actions arise from our current understandings of our world and ourselves.

Thus, praxis in creating peace calls for action at every level of human interaction. To be effective, we must incorporate actions into existing structures and institutions at the same time that we develop new systems that will further a more fully peaceful planet.

Creating peace in our world

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall stream to it. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. —Isaiah 2:2, 4

Unitarian Universalists generally understand that to create peace in the world means that we must vigorously advocate for policies and participate in practices that move countries—and specifically Canada—toward collaborative leadership in building a peaceful, just, and sustainable world. This perspective involves advancing the United Nations’ efforts in promoting peace and the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through our United Nations Office. It also includes supporting the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) in nurturing sustainable human resources in underserved regions of the world, developments that will ultimately end the use of torture and address institutional violence. It also implies participation in international civilian peace building, peacemaking, and nonaggressive peacekeeping teams. Finally, it means backing the Canadian Unitarian Council, our congregations, and our individual members in influencing public policy decisions made by the Canadian government.

Creating peace in our society

The peace of one individual is small. The peace of many people together is big. When we see ourselves as separate from each other, our community, and from nature, then violence and strife arise. It is only when we understand our part in an overall unity that there is the possibility of peace on a large scale. —Deng Ming Dao

In order to create peace in the world, we must act in our communities to reduce the causes of institutional and structural violence. Our national Unitarian Universalist movement and our congregations have initiated, and continue to inaugurate, efforts aimed at eradicating all forms of cultural, political, and economic oppression. We must continue to be inventive in endeavours that practise the socially responsible investment of our Council, congregational assets, and individual assets. In tandem, we need to increasingly scrutinize our first-world lifestyles and more clearly advocate policies that promote harmony with our natural environment.

Creating peace in our congregations

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
—Colossians 3:12‐14

Unitarian Universalists emphatically do not believe themselves to be “God’s elect.” Still, we cannot expect to successfully participate in shaping a peaceful world when we avoid conflict and power dynamics within our own gathered communities. Thus we can help to create an attitude toward peace through worship, religious education, and social action. We accomplish this by giving members training in compassionate/nonviolent/collaborative communication and conflict resolution and by engaging congregants in an understanding of acting on multiple levels to engender a culture of peace. Increasingly our congregations acknowledge the importance of developing and honouring behavioural covenants in all parts of congregational life. Whatever the setting, we, as individuals within groups, need to acknowledge our roles in creating contexts of peace.

Education that spans the lifetime offers many opportunities to learn to grow as peacebuilders and peacemakers. Religious education that provides workshops on conflict resolution and compassionate communication, and appreciates inquiry encourages understanding of, and participation in, social justice ventures. Working together, we have produced resources such as “Peacemaking in Congregations: A Guide to Learning Opportunities for All Ages,” a program that people of all ages can utilize productively. Education does not flourish within isolated communities, though, and so we actively encourage Unitarian Universalists and their congregations to become resources and students for creating peace within their wider communities by cooperating with other faith traditions and community organizations. As communities reach across artificial barriers, they witness a reduction of violence and intolerance and the cultivation of acceptance and welcome.

Whatever our individual stand on armed conflict (nationally, regionally, or locally), Unitarian Universalists do seek to support veterans, military service members, conscientious objectors, and their families as they struggle with the turmoil and hardships that war-making has imposed upon them. Most of us would reach out further, to support nonviolent resisters and their families, whether they have refused the demands of the Canadian government to participate in conflict zones or they are refugees, sanctioned or otherwise, who are fleeing conflicts in their native lands.

Creating peace in our relationships

Kill hatred and thou shalt have peace and happiness. Kill hatred and thou shalt have no more sorrow. It is hatred that devours all thy goodness. —The Buddha

Creating peace occurs at many levels, and they all interact with each other. How we connect with people whom we know is a primary manner through which we learn and practise the skills of compassionate/nonviolent/collaborative communication. As I noted before, we do this at the congregational level in honouring the behavioural covenants of our congregations. Among family members and friends, we may practise this approach more informally, but this kind of communication still demands that we empathize with the other person in our listening. More fundamentally, it assumes lifestyle changes that more truly reflect a reverence for the interdependent web of all existence.

Creating peace with ourselves

Seek peace in your own place. You cannot find peace anywhere save in your own self. When a man has made peace within himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world. —Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Przysucha

Creating a culture of peace globally, in communities, within congregations, and among our friends and family rests on an assumption that we can fashion a place of peace within ourselves. This observation does not suggest a hierarchy of peacebuilding, peacemaking, and peacekeeping. We do not necessarily start with ourselves, saying that it is only with peace in our heart that we can begin to make a peaceful community or world. Every facet of peace is related, though, and we cannot succeed in creating peace without working in all arenas. This includes what is often the most frightening exploration of all: looking into ourselves with fresh eyes. It means reshaping ourselves through spiritual practices that cultivate inner harmony and sustaining these practices as foundational to wholeness, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It means practising loving-kindness and compassion toward ourselves and paying attention to the ethical insights that follow.

In the end, our self-exploration circles us back to a beginning: a reverence for all life.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. —T. S. Eliot

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