Peace

Nine years and one day ago, I was sitting in an early morning class. Sitting through an 8:00 am finance lecture is not an exciting way to start the day, so I was initially pleased to see an instant message pop up on my computer. It was a friend asking “have you seen the news?” “no” I replied. 

“A plane has flown into the World Trade Center.” 

You may also remember where you were on that day, although 7/7 may be the date that is more indelibly etched in your mind – a series of events that were much closer to home for most of you. 

It became quite clear over the next few hours on that morning in September 2001, that what happened in Manhattan was no accident, and with the arrival of a second plane in New York, a third plane that struck the Pentagon, and the collapse of those iconic twin skyscrapers and the loss of thousands of lives - this would be a day we would not soon forget. 

I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time. MIT. Students come to MIT from all over the world. As the hours passed, televisions appeared in corridors and in other public areas – they showed the same horrifying footage over and over again. People from all over the world were glued to the news with expressions of horror on their faces. 

And then, looking up to a first floor balcony, I saw a student with a full beard. He was laughing. He seemed absolutely gleeful. 

I didn’t need that image or the news footage of Palestinian civilians dancing in joy in the streets to know that something enormous had happened to the course of history and that nothing would ever be the same again. 

Indeed it wasn’t the same. 

Just under 3,000 people were killed in New York and at the Pentagon. 

Two wars began at least partly as a result of what happened on 9/11. 

In Afghanistan, more than 2,000 coalition troops and between 5 to 6 and a half thousand civilians have been killed. 

Those numbers are dwarfed by the casualties of the Iraq war, which has claimed over 4,600 coalition military and more than 9,000 Iraqi military lives. The number of Iraqi insurgent and civilian deaths is very uncertain – somewhere between 100,000 and one million. 

Stemming from the events of that beautiful cloudless morning in September 2001, at least 120,000 additional people have died – and maybe many more. The world has become increasingly polarized. The attacks and their reactions have increasingly pushed everyone – on all sides – toward the extremes. 

Of course, the 9/11 attacks were not the only cause of the events that have followed – they were merely the spark that ignited a flame in the west – and most especially in the United States. 

The fuel for that flame runs deep. I think of the laughing bearded man and I think of the celebration in the streets of the Palestinian territories. We know each other as the enemy – not as members of the same human family. 

I think of my first reactions. They were not feelings of peace and love and understanding. I was – I hate to admit it – willing to believe that Iraq was ready to use weapons of mass destruction when the so-called evidence was presented. I was ready to believe that an appropriate way to deal with our enemies in Afghanistan was to eradicate them – the military approach – using violence to answer violence. 

Where has that approach got us? 

Of course, I am not nearly as smart as Albert Einstein, who said simply: “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” 

There’s a song I have long loved. In fact it’s an English song - written by Nick Lowe and made popular by Elvis Costello. “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?” If I had a scriptural reading for the day, that would be it – ‘Thus sayeth the lord “what’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?”’ 

We can get so cynical today that even peace and love can be derided as unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky, hippy-dippy dreams. But at least peace and love have a deep resonance to them. If I wish you peace or I offer the blessing that love be with you, there may be a resonance – a feeling that something important – something transcendent perhaps is being spoken. 

But the third element of Nick Lowe’s trinity gets almost no credit at all… understanding. Overused, underappreciated… understanding. 

I think of that laughing bearded man and the dancing Palestinians. Where is the understanding. Theirs for me and mine for them… 

We will never find peace and love until we begin to understand one another. 

The Israeli – Palestinian conflict is in some ways key to the divisions that the world faces today. In other ways, it is simply a focal point for some of that division. We can’t know how different things would be if a Jewish homeland had been established somewhere like Europe rather than the Middle East, but there it is – a flash point. 

The important thing to begin to appreciate – the beginning of understanding – is the depth of the stories that the two sides tell. 

As a boy, growing up Jewish, I learned one story. My people – the Jewish people – were persecuted for millennia. It was the Romans. It was the crusades. It was the inquisition…torture, expulsions, forced conversions… and then, a civilized country set about to exterminate an entire race of people. Six million of my family were slaughtered – methodically and cruelly put to death – treated like animals and worthless experimental subjects. 

And, at the ending of that horrible tale, came – at last – some light. Great Britain and the United Nations, in their goodness and wisdom – helped us to return home. They gave us a place where we could be free of persecution – a place where we could reunite as a people. They gave us a chance to say ‘never again’ to the horrors we had suffered throughout history. They gave us the opportunity to find safety and freedom at last. 

This new home was a desert – desolate. Nearly uninhabited – certainly uncultivated. And we applied our energies and our intelligence to build and create. Through the sweat of our brows, we created orchards where there had been desert sands. We made the desert bloom. 

But, we were surrounded still. Our enemies – the Arab nations who vastly outnumbered us – wanted us gone. They attacked, unprovoked, in multiple wars. We managed to prevail against overwhelming odds – with God’s help perhaps – in some cosmic echo of the biblical miracles. 

Never again, we said. And we remain surrounded by hostile neighbours, eager for the opportunity to destroy us. In the memory of the millions who were murdered because we had no home, we stand firm – knowing that no one else will ever come to our aid – knowing that we must stand for ourselves or we will fall. 

It’s quite a story. Although I know that parts of it are not accurate, I am not able – even to this day – to think of it or tell it without being moved. I am not able to be objective about this story – despite the years that have passed and the truths I have learned. 

Now, ask a Palestinian about their story. Their homes were taken from them by an invading people. The Jews – the people who were enemies to the holy Prophet – came and forced them out. Israel is the enemy – dropped in their midst. It has taken away their rights, their homes, their livelihood, their freedom. They wished only to live in peace, but these Jews came with their American technology and took what rightfully belonged to the Palestinians. And now, the Jews impose generations of suffering upon them – their spirits crushed, their children hungry, their lives a living hell. 

Understanding is the hard part. It means holding both of these stories. It means holding the story of your enemy as well as your own. How can their be understanding in the presence of such deeply held stories? 

Both peoples talk about their children. They dream of a future for their children where there will be opportunities, where there will be peace, where there will be security. And their stories – as they are - make this future all but impossible. 

In his book, Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson describes an extraordinary occurrence among the people of Papua, New Guinea: [Edited version] 

An uproar erups in the Asmat village. Hundreds of men, women, and children throng down from their longhouses and line up along the shore of the river. They look excitedly downstream. The river in that direction is teeming with canoes of the Basim people—the deadly enemies of the Asmats. The Basim are scraping their paddles against the sides of their dugout and thumping their feet. Wild and deep shouts accompany the thumping and scraping to create a terrifying wall of sound that gets closer and closer. The Basim hold paddles that can double as spears. Palmwood bows and hundreds of arrows line the inside walls of their canoes. 

Basim canoes come to shore. The canoes lodge against the mudbank, but the men in them keep coming up on to the shore. It looks like a slaughter is imminent, but the Basim are coming to make peace. 

Suddenly men representing both the Asmat and Basim factions move, unarmed, toward each other and mingle on a small grassy knoll. Moments later, these mutual enemies lie face down on the grass, side by side, looking for all the world like sunbathers on a crowded beach. Then the wives of the reclining men advance to the same knoll. Each Asmat wife takes a position standing to her husband’s side, ankles apart. Then the elders of both factions bring children to the knoll and guide them to squirm across the backs of the reclining fathers and pass between the knees of the mothers. As each Basim child comes through that living passageway, he is picked up by Asmat men and women from and rocked like a newborn baby. Others bring water and bathe him, as if cleansing birth stains from an infant. Asmat children are handled in the same manner by Basim people. 

Days of joyful celebration follow. Each night, adults rock the children to sleep. Women coo lullabies in their ears. Then the children return freely to their own families in their own villages. From that time forward, peace ensues. 

Mother Theresa says: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

Knowing that we are one family is central to peace. 

And what Elizabeth Gilbert said in our reading from her book “Eat, Pray, Love” is a crucial piece to the puzzle. We cannot find peace in our world until we are happy – peaceful – in our own hearts. Lao Tzu beat her to it by a few thousand years at least. 

“If there is to be peace in the world” he tells us, “there must be peace in the heart.” 

We may think of the two kinds of peace – the inner state of peace and the peace between people and nations – as very different, but they are deeply related. We act our unease out in the world – we live out our lack of inner peace in our outer anger and hostility. 

Black Elk, a native American holy man, also spoke of these two kinds of peace: “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” 

In this time of the Jewish “days of awe”, it seems appropriate to bring in a concept from the Jewish mystical tradition – The Kabbala. 

That tradition teaches that God, in forming the world, created vessels to hold the Divine Light. But as God poured the Light into the vessels, they shattered, raining shards upon the world. Thus, the material world contains countless fragments of the original vessels entrapping sparks of the Divine Light. Our great task involves helping God by freeing and reuniting the scattered Light, raising the sparks back to Divinity and restoring the broken world. 

The phrase “tikkun olam,” has come to encapsulate this vision. Translated as repairing the world, it points to our unique role in the broken relations between humans and all beings. Our work is to make wholeness of what is broken – to bring peace within and without. 

Long ago, there was a very wise advisor to a great king. The advisor was to be rewarded and – shocking his ruler – asked only for a few grains of rice. He stipulated that his reward would be a number of rice grains determined using a chess board. For each of the 64 squares on the board, the number would be doubled. 

The King was pleased that his treasury would remain intact, for the advisor could have asked for and received great riches in gold and precious jewels. 

And then the counting began, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 grains… 

By the 20th square, the number had reached one-million grains of rice and by the 40th square, it became one-trillion. 

The royal granary soon ran out of rice. The total amount of rice required 18 billion billion grains – an amount that would weigh 460 million billion tones. 

Small things – and small actions – build upon themselves. It is not for us to create great peace, but to add a little bit of peace here and there. It is our task – our part in Tikkun Olam – to bring a bit more understanding here and a bit more love there. It is for us to open our hearts to all the stories – to begin the hard work of becoming one great family. 

There is nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. Let us recommit to the great work of Tikkun Olam. 

May it be so.