When I was young, like most of us I was quick to cry out when harmed by another child (usually one of my siblings):
“Mom! He hit me! MOO-OOM!”
My mother, like most parents, responded in one of two ways: the first being some form of punishment for my brother (thus administrating justice), and the second being telling me to quit shrieking like a banshee, because it robbed the peace of the rest of the family, and that I should solve the problem myself. Parallels between this case and many other cases (e.g., just war theory and the ‘black lives matter’ movement), particularly the themes of peace and justice, are striking. In those cases, peace and justice cannot be prioritized equally: the just warrior must prioritize a just war over peace between peoples; the majority in a city must prioritize the peace of their living space over the ability for protesters to plead for justice. This tension—between peace and justice—is unnecessary, and is why we need to abandon our current understanding of ‘peace’.
What is our current understanding of ‘peace?’ Often we simply mean the opposite of concepts such as ‘conflict’, or ‘disturbance’. I think this is what a person means when they say someone is ‘disturbing the peace,’ because for them, peace is something akin to it ‘not being noisy’. Yet peace understood this way is nothing more than ‘not X’, allowing anyone to fill in the blank and define peace as ‘not…whatever they want.’ To be fair, if ‘not X’ is peace, then ‘X’ is loosely limited to synonyms of conflict. But there remains a significant amount of wiggle room; one can still dictate which conflicts should be avoided (e.g., peace with your roommate could be defined as not fighting over the last tapioca Jell-O cup,) and so the term is still ungrounded.
Peace becomes a powerful trope which authorities and majorities in social blocs can wield to justify avoidance of any conflict, inside or outside a group.
The only two entities that can fill in the blank in any meaningful way are: 1) authority figures—since we look to them to ‘keep the peace’ and to tell us which conflicts we need to avoid to achieve peace; or 2) our societal groups—since they dictate our usage of most words. Considering that we place a high value on peace, it becomes a powerful trope which authorities and majorities in social blocs can wield to justify avoidance of any conflict, inside or outside a group. Peace becomes associated with the status quo where authorities and majorities possess power, which redefines it as peace-as-political-order (usually defined by states) or peace-as-societal-order (defined by majorities within groups). At this point, it makes sense how peace could become pitted against justice. If justice in a particular case would create difficulties for the ‘powers that be’ within the status quo, then peace should be prioritized because it protects the status quo.
Now, why does this matter? It matters because peace can be used to marginalize justice. Setting aside the debate between pacifism and the Just War Tradition, the Just War Tradition has argued persuasively that justice can be administrated through war. But if the status quo of the state sovereignty norm is recast as ‘peace’, then states should never mess in each other’s business, and peace can preclude justice in this case. Additionally, if my mother was right in telling me to refrain from shrieking like a banshee (and disturbing the peace of the family) when my brother hit me, then it would appear that peace can preclude also justice in this case (this of course ignores other variables at play, such as the volume of my response, which was usually disproportionate to how hard I was hit). Even from just these examples I hope it is apparent that our current conception of peace is bankrupt, or at least far from ideal.
A synonym of peace which may prove more helpful, as it is not a ‘fillable’ term but one that has a strong grounding, is shalom. Shalom is a Biblical Hebrew term defined as “completeness, soundness, welfare, [and] peace.” The category of peace-as-shalom is much more helpful than peace-as-a-political or societal-order, as it cannot ignore suffering; all segments of society must be complete, sound, well, and peaceful for shalom to be manifested. Authorities or majorities would be able to claim less often that there is a unique harm to peace being lost; if a disenfranchised or minority group is willing to go to the great lengths to initiate conflict, it is likely that shalom has been lost already.
This analysis is exactly what occurs in my last example: the Black Lives Matter movement. Understanding of shalom indicates that since societal completeness or welfare in the US remains absent—because significant portions (read: black communities) of society are kept from being complete or whole—than shalom remains absent as well. Indeed, one way of interpreting a chant often used by protestors, “no justice; no peace!” would be to say that if black communities are not served justice (“no justice”) then peace-as-shalom cannot be present in the broader community either (“no peace!”—also note that peace in any sense is already lacking for black communities). This is not to say peace-as-order is unimportant, just not important in-and-of-itself; it is a lesser good which only has instrumental value.
Justice, just like peace-as-order, is a prerequisite to individuals’ wholeness, and only peace-as-shalom can encompass both of them.
Peace-as-shalom absorbs peace-as-political/societal-order and includes the absence of conflict as one instrumental category of completeness or welfare alongside justice. This disallows justice or peace-as-order from being preferred too much over the other. Peace-as-shalom also allows for disturbances, violence, and war to be fought in the pursuit of completeness or welfare; indeed, shalom has violent and disturbing roots in the Old Testament. It is precisely this difference which makes peace-as-shalom a preferable understanding of peace, as it can adjudicate between the instruments available to secure the goods of human life. Its complete manifestation may also be unachievable end, but at least it is an end which ensures better benefits today.
Peace needs to be able to encompass the ability for critique and recourse for wrongs where individuals—particularly the disenfranchised in the national or global community—can cry out in pain when they are transgressed and expect justice to be done on their behalf. Justice, just like peace-as-order, is a prerequisite to individuals’ wholeness, and only peace-as-shalom can encompass both of them. Yes, people’s crying out may hurt their neighbor’s hearing, but it is far better than for them to suffer much worse things in silence without the capacity to secure the welfare they are due.
Photo Credit: The Huffington Post.
The author would like to the thank Wheaton College’s Authority, Action, and Ethics: Ethiopia seminar and Dr. Andrew DeCort for their comments on a similar version of this argument which greatly improved its cogency.
Guest Writer: Robert Jones is a junior pursuing a B.A. in Philosophy and International Relations at Wheaton College. While at Wheaton he has served as a debate team captain in addition to participating in protests and dialogues on racial and ethnic issues on and off campus. Robert has also worked for the National Center for State Courts and the Michigan House of Representatives. After he graduates, Robert hopes to pursue a Ph.D. focusing on East African international security. When he is not debating or doing research, Robert’s hobbies include lizard-keeping and a good game of foosball.