There is growing recognition that a conception of peace that equates it with the mere cessation of violence and conflict has yielded limited results. Those in the field of peace and conflict resolution acknowledge that efforts to address intergroup conflict and violence are most enduring when carried out in the context of a long-term commitment to social and economic justice and to strengthening the bonds that hold diverse peoples in society together. Peace, in this broader sense, is a condition of collective thriving, a state of communal health and well-being. In this sense, the challenge of peace is one that faces all human societies and not just those currently enduring war or coping with its aftermath. In an interconnected world where diverse peoples are living in growing proximity to each other and where systems of inclusion and exclusion are taking shape, learning to live peacefully together will increasingly move from being a moral choice to an imperative for collective survival.
To be prepared for the challenges of the twenty first century, our conception of peace will need to focus on our vast and yet largely untapped potential to collaborate and to draw strength from diversity.
The seeds of peace lie within human nature just as do those of war. Each civilization chooses which seeds to water. For too long the aspects of human nature that tends towards conflict and violence have been nurtured, consolidated and reinforced through culture, the media, our systems of knowledge and our social structures and institutions. A worldview that considers human beings to be inherently warlike, selfish and aggressive, anticipates and normalizes conflict, competition, war and violence as the natural state of affairs in human interaction. Peace becomes a palliative, a brief interlude before individuals and groups get back to fight each other for power, glory, wealth, status, prestige or perhaps just survival. What is required is a movement towards a culture of peace where those aspects of human nature that lead to cooperation, mutual trust, altruism, generosity and justice are allowed to grow and flourish. Some might consider a civilizational advancement of this magnitude to be impractical and unrealistic. However, it is vital to remember that at certain moments of great crisis in history, when solutions can no more be found through pragmatism, humanity has found it necessary to turn towards its ideals to take a creative leap forward. A central question before the present generation is this – are we willing to take another step forward through an act of consultative will and consciously create the culture, institutions and structures of peace, or will we again wait until perhaps a greater devastation forces our hand and compels us to outgrow the habits of war?
It is in this context that the role of religion in fostering the potential for peace becomes highly relevant. Notwithstanding the predictions that it would fade away with the processes of modernization, religion continues to remain a profound force in the lives of the vast majority of the world’s people who see themselves as moral beings concerned with spiritual awareness and purpose. A dispassionate view of history will reveal the vital role that religion has played in training human nature to overcome animal tendencies and to develop those moral and spiritual qualities that conduce to social order such as compassion, generosity, trustworthiness, forbearance, humility, courage and the willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Its influence extends to the whole of society as a source of law and morality and as a means of order and stability. It is this positive function that defines the true nature and purpose of religion and differentiates it from the many forms of prejudice, hatred, ignorance and superstition that are propagated in its name. It is also in this sense that religion can develop those conditions and qualities both within the human being and society that are essential for peace. As the Bahá’í writings puts it, true religion must be “the cause of oneness among men, and the means of unity and love; they must promulgate universal peace, free man from every prejudice, bestow joy and gladness, exercise kindness to all men and do away with every difference and distinction.”