Many years ago, Father Alex Brunett, today the bishop of Helena, Mont., was a young seminary professor in the Middle East. He was invited to spend one summer break in Lebanon, many years before the civil violence which enveloped that country in the 1970s and '80s.
Brunett recalls being invited into many Catholic homes and all of them, to his recollection, had arsenals of handguns, rifles, submachine guns and hand grenades. "These were weapons of execution," he says. "Anger, hatred and resentment had been festering for centuries. It would only be a matter of time before the stage was set for the principle of death to operate" ("Stories of Violence and Responses to It," Origins, June 22, 1995, pp. 102-04).
There was a truce between Muslims and Catholics in the country, but one could hardly say there was peace. The war hadn't started, but it was there under the surface being nurtured by the feeding of real and imagined grievances, some of them dating back to before today's combatants were born.
Canada, by contrast, has a history of relative peace. Our lives have for the most part not been ravaged by the sort of civil strife which has beset other regions such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Rwanda and Lebanon.
But we would be wrong to assume such violence could never happen here. We are a young country without the accumulated baggage of centuries of division, resentment and hatred. The regional, linguistic and political divisions of today can easily grow into a civil war of tomorrow if we aren't vigilant.
For the last 30 years or so, the popes have issued a statement prior to the Jan. 1 celebration of the World Day of Peace. In his statements, Pope John Paul has frequently referred to economic injustice and lack of respect for human rights as one of the roots of war.
"The culture of human rights cannot fail to be a culture of peace," the pope said in his 1999 message.
"Those living in poverty can wait no longer. They need help now and so have a right to receive immediately what they need," he said a year earlier.
Injustice is a breeding ground for war. When some people have a disproportionate amount of society's resources while others have little, it can only give rise to resentments. In many countries, the rich not only have wealth but they use brutal repression to protect their wealth.
We can pride ourselves that such overt repression has been a rare thing in Canada. But we should ask ourselves whether the lack of repression is due to beneficence on the part of the powerful or to the failure of the dispossessed to use force of arms to obtain their share of the pie.
War is also a breeding ground for more war. Every war is justified by its perpetrators with some supposed high moral purpose. It is promised that this war, unlike the others, will prevent a worse war from developing, that it will serve the cause of freedom and democracy, that it will defend civilization from the infidels.
But war is war. It kills lots of people and it leaves many of the survivors with shattered lives. War "weakens the moral foundations of society and creates further divisions and long-lasting tensions," the pope wrote in 1999.
Today we have the spectacle of children being forced to fight in wars. Their involvement interrupts their education and undermines their chances for future employment. They become trained killers. And if that is what they know best, they will continue to foster violence in society long after the war is over.
Peace, then, is more than the absence of war. It is the effort to build the conditions which ensure there will never again be war. Peace is built on justice. It is also built on disarmament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church criticizes the weapons industry: "The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them" (no. 2315).
Peace is also built on personal conversion. Far too often, religion has been used to harden attitudes and build resentments between peoples of different faith backgrounds. True religion, however, leads not to self-righteousness, but to a conversion of hearts. It leads us to critique our own attitudes more than the attitudes of others. And when it does that, religion can be a profound cause of peace.
In Canada, we have no war. But our falling away from organized religion and our increasing sense of righteous grievance and entitlement are not healthy signs. They show we are drifting away from a culture of justice and peace. Unless we can build a sense of solidarity and critical self-examination, we may lose our peaceful tradition.
The fifth commandment says, "Thou shalt not kill." We need to always be aware that long before anyone has been killed with a gun, someone has usually killed them with their heart.
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