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CCADD 2006, Session 10


Just Peace as Harmonized Co-existence: Utopia or Attainable?

A Few Remarks in Response to Richard Lee’s Paper


Karel Blei


  1. “Just Peace”; i.e.: a peace in which justice has been done and is done to everybody who is engaged. In that sense, the European Ecumenical Assembly of Basel 1989 had as its theme: “Peace with Justice”. History knows about peace treaties to which that ideal did not apply; e.g. the Peace of Versailles 1919, a “peace” that in fact laid the basis of a new world war. A “peace” that implies injustice and tolerates an ongoing violation of human rights cannot be considered “peace” in the full sense of the word. “Harmonized Co-existence” may well serve as a definition of such a true, “just” peace. “Harmonized” then makes it clear at once that controversies and oppositions had to be overcome in order to attain that peace. And “co-existence” indicates that peace is really more than a (temporary) cease-fire; insofar as “co” implies community, not just an accidental togetherness.


  1. Is “Just Peace as Harmonized Co-existence” a specifically Christian ideal? Anyway, Christians may refer to what is called shalom in the Old Testament (and eirčnč in the New). The biblical, Hebrew word shalom means originally: totality, fullness; a situation of untrammelled, free growth; in that sense, simply: wealth, happiness; the kernel of which, however, is community with others (what in biblical terms is called: covenant). The New Testament, Greek word eirčnč basically has the same connotation (whereas in classical Greek eirčnč means: an interim situation of “peace” – indeed: a cease-fire – as an intermezzo in the ongoing wars).


  1. Is such a “Just Peace” attainable? Or is it just a utopia, an unrealistic dream? Is it feasible that history, in the long run (may be via a scheme of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”) will evolve to such a peace? That conviction has often been expressed among Christians, who had in mind the biblical view of a “salvation history” ending with the coming of the Kingdom of God. In secularized form, socialists and liberals shared it: each ideology looks forward to achieving in the end the “perfect society”. Richard Lee rightly shows that that conviction again and again broke down because of the facts. Even after the end of the Cold War, the hope that now the universal peace would come soon became a disillusion. – In Christianity, there is also another tradition: that expects salvation to be realized from Above, via a sudden intervention by God. In that view, salvation is not the self-evident outcome of an historical evolution, but the result of a rupture in history. According to this line of thought, peace, in the full sense of the world, can only be a gift from God, a gift that surely will come. Richard Lee just, in passing, mentions that tradition (he calls it “Barthian thought”) without discussing it explicitly. He doesn’t seem to appreciate it very much, and that is understandable: such verticalism is pious, but not inspiring for us to take up our own responsibility. - Finally, he refers to the increasing impact of the media and the growth of increasingly influential legal institutions, as positive developments, that may give to some “drivers” (leaders) the opportunity “to bring about a form of political harmony”, and so, in the long run, a Just Peace. So, according to him, there is a kind of evolution of history, to be recognized here and there, in certain developments that open up certain possibilities.


  1. In my view, the above dilemma (peace is either the outcome of the evolution of history, or the final gift from God despite history) is a false one, and Richard doesn’t do justice to what he calls “Barthian thought” (but what in fact is not just Karl Barth’s invention!). The issue is not: verticalism over against horizontalism. Every Christian will agree that we, human beings, do not create the Kingdom of God. So: yes, shalom, Peace in its full meaning, is God’s ultimate gift, in and through the Messiah. Yet, this does not deny our responsibility and activity; on the contrary. We are looking forward to this future of Peace, we are anticipating it. Expecting God’s Peace, we cannot but do ourselves acts of peace keeping or of peace creating. Such acts are signs of that messianic Peace. This the more so as, according to Christian faith, God’s Peace – or: God’s Kingdom – is not just a matter of the future. Christians believe that this Peace, this Kingdom, is already there, with and in Christ. Christ came, He died and was resurrected; since, history did not remain what it was, it started anew. That new beginning of history will go on, will evolve, like the bud of a flower is unfolding until the flower will show its beauty. In that sense, since Christ onward, we may speak of an evolution of history indeed.


  1. How, then, will this evolution go? What will be our contribution? Is there a Christian contribution to peace? Looking for such an answer, I came across a fascinating book, written not by a Christian but by a Jew: The Dignity of Difference. How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2003). The author is Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Due to the free market, we live, says Sacks, in an era of globalization. That is an era of unprecedented wealth for many but also of poverty for many. We should not oppose in principle to the free market, but we should see also  the discontents of globalization, and realize our moral responsibility. There are differences in humanity; differences that mainly have religious roots. Empires, ideologies, always tried to wipe them out and to impose an artificial unity on what is diverse by nature. In vain; see the story of the tower of Babel, Genesis 11. The differences in culture and religion cannot be wiped out (as we experience today); instead, we should learn to see them as enrichment: each one, each group, each community has his/its own “dignity” in that he/it is different. If we do not learn to respect that, it would be fatal to ourselves.


  1. Himself a Jew, Sacks appeals to Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Bible is about God’s covenant with the Jewish people. But it doesn’t start with that. The beginning of the Bible is on God’s relationship with creation, with humanity as such. That relationship takes shape in a general covenant: with Noah, and in him with all humankind. God’s special relationship with Israel doesn’t replace the Noahide covenant, rather, it has its place within that broader frame. Which means that differences between peoples, cultures, faiths, as far as their relationship with God is concerned, are taken into account. Certainly, these relationships are different from Israel’s relationship with God (which is unique); yet they have their own truth and value. So, the Hebrew Bible is in itself a powerful anti-universalist witness. Universalism, says Sacks, is due to the  continuing impact of Platonic philosophy. According to that philosophy, truth is found, not in chaotic, empirical reality, but in the world of universal ideas. Seen from that point of view, particularity can only be inferior: source of conflict, prejudice, error and war. Platonism calls us on to go from and via the particular up to the universal. The Bible is reversing that order. It charts a journey from the universal to the particular. Sacks calls it: “the great anti-Platonic narrative in Western civilization”.


  1. Sacks’ argument is mainly on economics. Yet, it also refers to politics, to the issue of war and peace. The subtitle of his book, “How to avoid the clash of civilizations”, is a clear hint at Samuel Huntington’s political book on The Clash of Civilizations. Sacks wrote his book under the impression of “9/11”. He even sees a connection between Platonic philosophy and September 11: “September 11 happened when two universalist cultures, global capitalism and an extremist form of Islam, each profoundly threatening to the other, met and clashed.” Such things happen when there is no respect for the otherness of other communions and cultures. In one of his chapters, Sacks deals with the issue of conciliation. In that context, he also speaks of forgiveness, as an attitude that does not imply forgetting, or abandoning the claims of justice, but that above means an acknowledgement  “that the past is past and must not be allowed to cast its shadow over the future”. Such an attitude is barely needed in the Middle East. Israeli’s and Palestinians each have their own narrative and memories, that make their mutual acts of violence perfectly understandable, even “rational in themselves”, yet ending “in consequences disastrous to both”. Here, as everywhere, peace can only be made “by people who acknowledge the personhood of their opponents” and thus are open “to listen to one another, hear each other’s anguish and anger and make cognitive space for one another’s hopes”.


  1. Is Sacks’ book a moral appeal? Yes, but not in the easy, abstract way. Morality has to do with what is really helpful. The argument here is also, and repeatedly, as we heard, that, if “the Dignity of Difference” would not be respected (in economics as well as in politics), the (practical!) consequences would be catastrophic. So, the appeal to the Hebrew Bible and the appeal to common sense go together! And, as I said earlier, I think that Christians can agree with much of what is stated here. The Hebrew Bible is also (part of) the Christian Bible. Christian faith does acknowledge God’s special way with the people of  Israel; that way was confirmed by the coming of Jesus Christ, born from exactly that people. So, Christian mission should not be understood as Christian imperialism/universalism. Jesus’ word “Make all nations my disciples” (Matthew 28,19) is interesting because of the plural “nations”: apparently, that plurality is supposed not to disappear as a result of missionary work. Christ is the Lord of all nations, and He establishes his own, peculiar relationship with each of them. Shouldn’t we say that his Lordship is not confined to the borders of “Christianity”?


  1. Of course, Sacks’ description of the “9/11” event could be questioned. Was that really a clash of “two universalist cultures”? Wasn’t it in fact a criminal act of religious fundamentalists against an open society? Didn’t Evil manifest itself here, and shouldn’t Evil be vigorously, even violently, fought against? Isn’t the “war against terrorism” a Just War par excellence? I am hesitant. Certainly, Evil must be opposed, restrained, defeated. But do we need a war for that? With reference to the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Israeli military actions in Lebanon were repeatedly qualified “disproportionate”. And disproportionate actions might be counterproductive. In the same sense, the American/British military action in Iraq might have been disproportionate and counterproductive. As if democracy could be imposed, created, by violence!


  1. It is interesting, to compare Sacks’ Dignity of Difference with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996). Unlike Sacks, Huntington does not write as a theologian or a “moralist”; rather as a political scientist, apart from his personal faith (is he also a Jew?). Yet, there is a remarkable similarity between the arguments in both books. Like Sacks, Huntington pleads in favour of the acceptance of difference, i.e. of a plurality of civilizations in the world. His central thesis is that the Western belief in the superiority and universality of Western culture is just false. Interestingly enough, though not being a moralist, he also states that the belief that non-Western peoples should adopt Western values, institutions and culture is, seen from a Western point of view, immoral (!). Namely: such an adoption could be achieved only by force; and apart from the fact that the West has no longer the power to impose its will on other societies, any effort to do so would be also “contrary to the Western values of  self-determination and democracy”. Huntington makes here one more point: such an effort would also be dangerous “because it could lead to a major intercivilizational war between core states” (of the different civilizations respectively), a war in which a victory of the West wouldn’t by far be certain. Huntington published his book well before “9/11”, but his argument is now all the more worth to be heard.


  1. Both, Sacks and Huntington, are looking for ways to “avoid the clash of civilizations”. And in that context, both suggest that the different civilizations (cultures) have certain values in common. Huntington calls them “commonalities”. He speaks of “minimal moral concepts of truth and justice” and of “rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression and tyranny”. Together, these commonalities are what Huntington calls “Civilization”, singular, with capital C. By searching for and expanding such common values and rules, peace could be promoted and preserved in a multicivilizational world. Huntington does not make clear where his suggestion of the existence of such commonalities gets its inspiration from. Here, Sacks may help. He finds what he calls “moral universals” (such as the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the right to be free, to be no man’s slave or the object of someone else’s violence) implied in the Noahide covenant with all mankind. Christians also know of this world-wide covenant. Just as they believe in Christ as the Lord of the world, they also believe in the Holy Spirit who works everywhere, even outside the borders of Christianity. This is what Christian tradition had in mind when it spoke of “general revelation”. This means that other cultures and religion cannot just be considered false. It means in politics that it is always worth while to seek opportunities for dialogue and cooperation, even despite harsh controversies. Christians may play their own role in reminding and practising this. Only in using these opportunities we can, in faith and common sense, build up a “Just Peace as Harmonized Co-existence”.


Smolenice Castle, Slovakia, August 29, 2006