Give Peace a Chance, Even if it Means Living with Differences

12 May 2005
the times logo1

This Credo was published in The Times newspaper, 12th May 2005

Peace is a paradox. Many religions and cultures praise it and decry conflict and war, yet they engage in war and often find themselves in conflict. In war, even ordinary people become heroes. In pursuit of peace, even heroes are often afraid to take a risk. Those who show courage in the heat of battle are celebrated. Those who take risks for peace are all too often assassinated — among them Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin.

The reason is that peace can come to seem to be a kind of betrayal. It involves compromise and settling for less than one would like. It has none of the purity and clarity of war, in which the issues — self-defence, national honour, patriotism, pride — are unambiguous and compelling. War speaks to our most fundamental sense of identity: there is an “us” and a “them”, there are enemies and friends, and there is no possibility of confusing the two. When enemies shake hands, who is now the “us” and who the “them”? Peace involves a profound crisis of identity. The boundaries of self and other, friend and foe, must be redrawn. No wonder, then, that peace is often a mirage: the more we pursue it, the more distant a prospect it becomes.

Usually when a religion speaks of peace, it means “peace on our terms”. This path does not and cannot lead to peace because it is predicated on the conversion of the world — to our religion or ideology conceived as a global truth or universal salvation.

Peace thus conceived is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It does not take into account the irreducible differences between cultures, faiths, ideologies of philosophies of life which make our world, for better or worse, what it is. Indeed, the better could not exist without the worse, for the attempt to impose, within historical time, a single intellectual, cultural or religious order threatens humanity with the loss of the diversity we need — a diversity which, in unredeemed time, is our divinely ordained fate. The attempt to bring prophetic peace by human action creates not peace but war — what is often called “holy war”. “Holy war” is, I believe, unholy war, a desecration of the image of God in the name of God.

Peace means living with difference — with those who have another faith and other texts. That is the fundamental distinction between the prophetic peace of religious unity and the rabbinic peace of religious diversity, with all the compromise, restraint and mutual respect that coexistence requires. The prophets articulated utopian peace; the Sages, a non-utopian programme for peace in the here-and-now. That is what is fundamental, and original, in the idea of “the way of peace ”.