During the recent Multi-Religious Gathering at the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan led by Pope Francis, which I attended, the pope offered a prayer for remembrance. He prayed, echoing Lincoln at Gettysburg, “God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events. Grant that those whose lives were spared may live so that the lives lost here may not have been lost in vain.”
In his reflection later in the service, Pope Francis described how the pain of 9/11 had been transformed, even on that terrible day. He said, “This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division.”
Earlier that morning, the pope had issued a similar proclamation of peace and reconciliation at the United Nations, which was formed in 1945 for precisely that purpose. Over the previous three decades, the people of the world had suffered two devastating world wars. The First World War prompted the poet William Butler Yeats to observe, in one of his most famous poems:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
After a second world war, one that was even more all-encompassing than the first, the nations of the world desperately sought to stem the blood-dimmed tide, to reign in the anarchy; to find a center that could hold things together. After the abject failure of the League of Nations, which had been established after the First World War under similar circumstances and with similar aims, the nations of the world vowed to try again.
In the preamble to the treaty establishing the UN, the peoples of the United Nations declare that they are “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The concluding section of the preamble commits the signatories “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another.” From the outset, the purpose of the UN was to save the peoples of the world from the scourge of war and enable them to live together in peace.
Peace is more than the absence of violence
In both its political and religious forms, peace indicates the absence of conflict — but in different ways. The absence of conflict in the political sense means that people aren’t shooting at each other, or bombing each other, or planning to harm each other. The absence of conflict in the religious sense means something more subtle and more profound.
One of the fundamental principles of human existence is that we are contingent creatures: we depend upon our environment for everything we need. Without the natural world, we wouldn’t have air to breathe, water to drink, or food to eat. Without biological parents to conceive us, none of us would have been born. Without nurturing hands to care for us during our infancy, none of us would survive. Without people around to teach us how to use language and how to accomplish the basic tasks of daily human life, none of us would be able to fend for ourselves. And without the institutions of human civilization, such as schools and hospitals, not to mention governments, none of us would be able to realize our potential as human beings.
If we are fortunate, the people and world around us have given us what we need to develop physical and emotional maturity. We become spiritually mature as we realize what we owe in return. When the vast array of relationships that make us who we are turns out to be painful or even perverse, then we are in conflict. When these relationships are beneficial and beautiful, then we are at peace. Our experience of all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible, is what I call the experience of God.
In the spiritual sense, the experience of peace requires us to be in right relationship with the people and world around us, and them to be in right relationship with us. Peace is a two-way street. It’s not merely the absence of violence. It also requires the presence of supportive relationships that contribute to our emotional and spiritual well-being.
With clarity and conviction, the tide turns
One reason the blood-dimmed tide of violence was loosed upon humanity, according to Yeats, was that the best lacked conviction. Presumably, Yeats would also add that when the best gain conviction, the tide begins to turn. Make no mistake: it’s not enough to have conviction. Yeats points out that even the worst can be full of passionate intensity.
Rather, we need to embody what’s best — not just best for us, but for everyone; not just best for here, but for everywhere; not just best for now, but for always. Embodying what’s best gives us the conviction to make peace in the world — to foster the kind of environment where everyone can experience wholeness and well-being.
If we bring clarity and conviction to this work, we can turn the tide. When I see the spiritual hunger in our world today, I believe the tide is turning. The blood-dimmed tide of sectarian violence, the misogyny-dimmed tide of patriarchy, the hate-dimmed tide of racial bigotry, and the greed-dimmed tide of economic inequality — the tide is turning.
Perhaps you’re not convinced. Perhaps you think the evidence is mixed. Here’s the thing about the tide: it’s never turning everywhere, but it’s always turning somewhere. The question for us is whether the tide is turning where we are.
Within the significant constraints imposed by his tradition and his worldview, I believe Pope Francis is doing his best to turn the tide of violence and misery, which is why I welcomed his visit to New York with open arms. My prayer is that the rest of us will also do our best wherever we see suffering. We too can turn the tide — from despair to dignity, from fear to hope, from conflict to peace. This is our calling and our duty. Always somewhere, the tide is turning.
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