Every day we are bombarded by images of horror. Violence and death on a scale that might cause you to ask if there is something fundamentally flawed in our make-up. Somewhere deep down, do we actually desire our own destruction? Well, have a careful look at this graph:
That is not an error. There has been a marked reduction in deaths from conflict, and the 21st century has been the most peaceful period to date. Indeed, the last two hundred years have been the most peaceful in human history. Yes, the centuries that included World War I, II, the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those centuries.
To which many will respond with incredulity. For example, you might well point to the genocidal acts in South Sudan to demonstrate the violence inherent in humanity today. However, Joshua Goldstein explains that “if the world feels like a more violent place than it actually is, that’s because there’s more information about wars — not more wars themselves.” Our access to information and the way that information is reported have convinced us that we are losing the fight for peace, whereas the opposite is true.
And this trend is not just noticeable in armed conflicts. Violence in general in our societies has plummeted. Steven Pinker’s research shows that “Violent deaths of all kinds have declined, from around 500 per 100,000 people per year in prestate societies to around 50 in the Middle Ages, to around six to eight today worldwide, and fewer than one in most of Europe.” For your information, Aotearoa New Zealand’s homicide rate, based on 2013 figures, is 1 per 100,000.
In the midst of all the reporting, the sensationalism, the outrage, the concern, the fear and the anger, the factual reality that we are living in a time of peace seems farcical. But the farce is the attempt to distract us from celebrating that overall, we have been part of creating and living in functional and safe societies. What struck is the latent power if we were to live believing in that peace that is breaking out all around us.
I don’t know about you, but most people that I know have never killed another person, nor permanently physically damaged another person. It was one of my great joys in community work to sit with men and young men who have lived violent lives, to hear their story, and then to say to them that their lifestyles are abnormal and unnecessary. To tell them that most people live a life of comparative peace, and they can too. To point out the obvious to those who can’t see it: we actually live in a peaceful society.
Most social and community services that I know (and I have been extremely guilty of this) act as though they are holding the barbarians back from the door. At any moment, society is about to crumble into a paroxysm of violence and destruction that is only stopped by my talented, but clearly underfunded, efforts. What a grim, grim view I held as a manager of a community service. We did good work; I would have done better work if I had believed in the peace that sat at the centre of each person who came into our service.
All the statistics tell us that peace is possible in our time. But it is doubt in the power of non-violence and peace that will delay peace in our world. Time and again people have said to me that violence is necessary in certain circumstances, that you cannot solve every problem with non-violence, that some people just can’t be reasoned with. It normally ends with Hitler and the Nazis. Non-violence wouldn’t have stopped them.
Actually non-violence did work in this most extreme of circumstances. Within Nazi Germany itself, a remarkable non-violent protest in Rosenstrasse in 1943 by non-Jew spouses of 2,000 Jews taken by the Third Reich, led to their release, and many survived the war. In other countries occupied by the Nazis, non-violent protests were also effective in protecting minorities and Jews from the occupying forces (See Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers).
Peace is not only possible. Peace is probable in our time. Let’s live like we believe it. Support movements, organisations and groups that promote peace in our society. Whether it is facilitating restorative justice, volunteering for Cool Schools, writing letters for Amnesty International, leading non-violent protests against mining and oil exploration, attending the Waihopai Base protests, not hitting your kids, praying every day for world peace; do something for peace. Not because peace is the underdog, but because peace is the grand movement that will be the mark of our civilisation; and you don’t want to miss out on that.