Today I received a copy of a letter a friend sent to his US Congressperson encouraging support on his part for a proposed Department of Peace and Nonviolence (HR 808). The bill calls for a new Federal department that will be allocated funds at a rate of 2% of the Department of Defense, now $300 billion, to study and implement strategies that deal with violence at home and abroad. It will require other Cabinet Secretaries to consult with the Secretary of Peace concerning nonviolent alternatives to potentially violent situations. Supporters believe the new Department will instill hope in a “Second Path” to resolving conflict. I wish I could have more enthusiasm for the project. What follows is my attempt to keep it moving but also remind us of the times and the ways of super powers.
The proposal for this new Department comes out of legislative leadership working with the support of the peace community to institutionalize positive efforts for change. I understand very well the need to make concrete the positive nature of the peace vision in the context of the negative energy of war and violence. Thirty-five years ago as the war in Viet Nam moved to an end, a similar national discussion ensued to invent a United States Institute of Peace. The peace community gave good support. I wrote letters of support and encouraged other to do so. After years the legislation passed and there is now a USPI. As administrations come and go the Institute is reinvented to serve the policy priorities of respective administrations. The peace community that was mobilized to support Institute for Peace’s creation now hears little from the Institute, but in recent years its silence has deepened.
I believe that it’s possible that some day maybe even in this century I will be able to trust an American government to honestly place the work of nonviolent alternatives to war and conflict on its permanent agenda without being sideswiped or wrecked by the urgent priorities of a single crisis of national security or truth bashing that characterizes contemporary party poltics. I know that national leaders including Presidents, Senators and Secretaries often welcome opportunities to use the language of nonviolence in order to lecture militant adversaries whose access to the technology of violence is not a modern as smart bombs and laser defense systems designed for the heavens. I also know that the debate and energy required for this discussion is one part of a larger process, building a culture of peace.
Twenty years ago when we began the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams I was frequently contacted by researchers working on designs for less violent conflict resolutions. Sometimes I felt that my answers were still tentative. Today I would be more confident. There were times when I felt like there were about five researchers for every CPTer. My time was limited so I developed a series of questions for the researchers. How will this material be used to try to make things better? Will you give us the consumer, the results of your research? Will you put it in a form that can be understood by the people we work with, our co-workers around the world? These questions would often lead to a discussion about the purpose of research and the accountability of researchers to their subjects.
The United States Institute of Peace has been a fountain of support for scholars and a forum for discussion. As the war in Iraq heated up the Institutes bibliography was helpful to me on several occasions. In the mid 90s I attended a symposium financed by the Institute for peace team groups who intervene in selected situations of conflict around the world. That was a good event. I remained in touch with a respected former colleague who was on the Institute staff whose opening words to me usually went something like this, “So good to hear from you (or see you) Gene. You are doing great work but please don’t ask us for money.” The subscript here is that the USIP is not in the business of funding actual peacemaking programs, especially nonviolent direct action.
I respected his request however if my memory serves me he did occasionally send personal contributions, one of the signs that committed government workers are doing their best in what are sometimes lonely constricting positions. I believe he was as committed to building a peaceful world as I am. I enjoyed far more flexibility and fewer resources than he did. I believe there are good people to staff such a department. But, I am also confident that in the politcal culture of America today a Department of Peace and Nonviolence will be unable to deliver on the promise implied by its lofty and hopeful name.
I am sure it will mean more research grants and symposiums. Some of this is needed and someone will decide how to award these in a manner that places the current ruling party in the best light. Of course this scholarship will be objective as far as objectivity goes within the politics of the hour. Will some people who might have done great grass roots peacemaking work have been seduced by liberal notions that peace really gets started in Washington? Will this new department encourage, stimulate, awaken or even organize an army of nonviolent peacemakers? I doubt it, but surprises happen.
So you see I come to this discussion with a plate full of ambiguity. I believe it is important to dream and propose a day when the US Government honestly engages with the deep vision of a nonviolent world but today it is in no position to broker such a vision I believe the vision will require policies and legislation. I believe there are competent persons to staff such an effort. But I am in no hurry because I don’t believe that our political culture or our national culture has reached a point where the freedom to act, think, experiment and deliver on the promise is there. So lets keep working in our local communities, our local churches and organizations to energize that emerging culture of peace so that when Congress delivers a Department of Peace and Nonviolence it can study actual examples the truth of violence and nonviolence and authentically empower practitioners of the latter. I want a Department of Peace and Nonviolence I can trust.
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