By Valerie Elverton Dixon
President Obama has been criticized for his respectful demeanor when meeting controversial and often anti-American President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Obama also was criticized him for not defending the United States more vigorously in the face of denunciations of U.S. foreign policy by Chavez and other Latin American leaders.
From a religious and a Just Peace perspective, I say such critiques are petty and shortsighted.
Biblical wisdom teaches us to overcome evil with good. The Koran teaches to compete as in a race in doing good. Both recognize that evil exists both within us and outside us. They recognize that we have enemies, but they give us a method of interaction with enemies. The Bible instructs us to feed our enemies when they are hungry, to give them water when they are thirsty. Jesus, the Son of Humanity, teaches an even more radical way. Love your enemies. These are the ways to a Just (and Lasting) Peace.
Unlike Just War theory that considers whether it is right to fight a war (jus ad bellum), how to fight the war (jus in bello), and how to end the war ( jus post bellum), Just Peace theory thinks about how to create and maintain peace, how to avoid letting conflict get to the point of war. In my formulation of Just Peace theory, I suggest there are three broad categories – truth, respect and security – that are necessary for creating peace.
Respect is important because people need to know they matter, that they are visible, that their history of struggle, suffering, triumph and loss has place and meaning in the human story. And, when a great power has caused harm, that nation ought to acknowledge the harm. When President Obama greeted Hugo Chavez with a handshake and a smile, he showed respect to Chavez, not only as a human being, but as president of the nation of Venezuela. He showed respect to the Venezuelan people who elected Chavez, regardless of his own opinion of their leader. When he listened respectfully to Latin American grievances against the United States, again it was a sign of respect, not necessarily agreement.
The truth is the U.S. record in Latin America and throughout the world is mixed. Sometimes, it has caused harm, and we ought not to be afraid to face that truth, to own it, and to accept responsibility for it. This is a moment to move toward a new paradigm of power — from leading by domination to leading by cooperation. This is where real security is found. It does not come in the negative peace of the absence of active violence but where fear and loathing of the Other remain. True security is found in the positive peace where justice in its various iterations–commutative, distributive, restorative, contributive–are present. It is found where fear and loathing disappear into care and understanding.
I’m reminded of the story of the religious fable of the wind, the sun and the traveler. One fine day a traveler was walking down a country road wearing a cloak and a hat. The wind said to the sun, “Let us see which of us can get the traveler out of his hat and cloak.” The sun agreed to the contest. The wind took his turn first. He blew hard. He blew cold. The harder and colder he blew, the tighter the traveler held onto his hat and cloak. Then the sun took her turn. She shone warm and constant. First the traveler took off his hat. She continued her gentle warmth. Soon the traveler also took off his cloak. The sun won the contest.
Too often, U.S. foreign policy has been one of a harsh, cold wind blowing upon the leaders and political and economic ideologies we do not like. However, the harder and colder it blows, the tighter people hold on to those leaders and ideas. Now is the moment for a new approach. Let us see what a foreign policy of sunshine and warmth, of truth, respect and security can achieve.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder JustPeaceTheory.com. She taught Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.