You’ve probably heard the tired old joke about the beauty pageant judge who asks the contestant to name her two most important goals. She says “Um, world peace, and uh, my own apartment!”
That sad, fossilized chestnut has a barbed hook. We laugh because it contains the bitter little pill of cynicism, and the sarcastic, skeptical pain we all carry around with us when we think about actually achieving peace in the world.
The truth is, very few people believe world peace has a snowball’s chance in Death Valley. It’s hip to think skeptically about it; to scoff at the possibility; to bring up all the reasons humanity can never stop fighting our seemingly endless 6,000 years of war. We’ve reached the point where believing in the world’s ability to transcend violence and war can brand you as a putz, a patsy, a pathetic pipe-dreamer.
If you believe that world peace can somehow be achieved, the skeptics may think you’re completely naïve, an innocent, someone without much experience in the real world.
In fact, many so-called experts will gladly expound on our innate aggression, violent tendencies and warlike nature as human beings; and use the past history of warfare to prove their point. “We will always fight wars,” they typically say, “because that’s the way we’re wired. People are animals, and animals fight and kill one another. It’s just our nature, and there’s no escaping it.”
The Baha’i teachings contradict that view of humanity, saying that we can stop war if we turn to our higher nature.
Baha’u’llah wrote that we humans are “the noblest and most perfect of all created things.” But our nobility isn’t automatic – it must be strived for and consciously achieved. The Baha’i writings make it clear that each human being has a dual nature:
…whatever is interpreted as evil, refers to the lower nature in man. This baser nature is symbolized in various ways. In man there are two expressions, one is the expression of nature, the other the expression of the spiritual realm…. God has never created an evil spirit; all such ideas and nomenclature are symbols expressing the mere human or earthly nature of man. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 77.
That lower state – the qualities of anger, hostility, aggression, violence and bloodthirstiness that produce war and all its attendant horrors – can be overcome by our higher nature, our spiritual susceptibilities:
There is nothing so heart-breaking and terrible as an outburst of human savagery!
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content.
Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness…. Do not think the peace of the world an ideal impossible to attain! Do not despair! Work steadily. Sincerity and love will conquer hate. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 29-30.
Baha’is strongly believe that this beautiful vision of love triumphing over hatred will eventually result in a unified and peaceful planet. Baha’is aren’t naïve — understanding that we have much farther to go as a world civilization before peace prevails – but instead have faith and hope that peace can be achieved.
Still a skeptic? Researchers and scientists have begun to investigate, record and document a significant reduction in the sum total of human violence in the world. Harvard scientist Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined tracks human violence throughout all of recorded history, and strongly concludes that overall violence has measurably diminished. Violent deaths as a percentage of all deaths have dropped to the lowest total rate in human history. Pinker proves this remarkable thesis using an enormous range of global data, and concludes that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” – p. xxi.
We already know, and Pinker shows us repeatedly in Better Angels, that “the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.” Increasingly, Pinker points out, a greater and greater proportion of humanity has found ways to live in peace and die of natural causes rather than from violence.
So if world peace is possible, and we’re actually making progress toward that laudable and wonderful goal as a species, then how can each one of us do our part?
In Part II, Personal Peacemaking, learn what you can actually do to increase the peace.