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Peace is a tragic gap

Acting in Faith  |  By Madeline Schaefer, Dec 20, 2013

Elias Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom," 1826.

Photo: Creative Commons

 And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore: Isaiah 2:4

What I love about this quote—both its content and its historicity— is what it signifies about the seemingly human-ness of our yearnings for peace.  Some impulse in the human Spirit has been calling us to a time when we can lay down our fear and our hatred and to not “learn war anymore,” a time when we can transform our destructive energy into something more constructive.  Humans have always known what they were driving at, and known, more or less, how to attain it—complete and utter rejection and disengagement with the tools and systems of war. 

We’ve even had a vision for what that world might look like:

The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them: Isaiah 11:6

This early depiction may seem to almost oppose nature itself—the “Peaceable Kingdom” is not, exactly, practical.  Perhaps our own idealism is human, as well.  Peace has always remained beyond our grasp.  For if peace has always been part of the human condition, so has conflict and tension. 

As much as I love these ideals of peace, I can’t help but wonder if there is another, more divine, approach to understanding what humans have been driving at all of these years.

As Bayard Rustin says in perhaps the most Zen quote I’ve ever found from a Quaker:  “God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.” 

True peace, according to Rustin, is not accomplished through any human’s pursuit of peace, necessarily—it is something much more subtle and much harder to grasp.  Peace is the natural state of equilibrium that all humans, even us well intentioned ones, tend to avoid.  Peace requires that we stand in the middle of good and evil and simply feel what is left when our judgments fall away and understanding emerges.  It has been given to us, free of charge, if we have the courage to know it.

As American naturalist, John Muir, says so poetically:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

When we return to our lives from the mountaintop, our task, then, is to remain aware of and gracefully straddle the oppositional world that we live in:

“The insight at the heart of nonviolence is that we live in a tragic gap -- a gap between the way things are and the way we know they might be. It is a gap that never has been and never will be closed. If we want to live nonviolent lives, we must learn to stand in the tragic gap, faithfully holding the tension between reality and possibility.”

-Parker Palmer

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan and Greg Elliott work together and with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Greg is the Friends Relations Associate. He grew attending North Branch Monthly Meeting in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Greg currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.