Monday, April 15, 2013

The Straight Line

“You crumpled my paper!”

Naturally, this accusation is followed up with an indignant denial. “No, I didn’t! You crumpled your own paper!”

Sound familiar? If so, you’re a parent.

Scenes like that abound in my own home. A mom and dad, seven kids, a dog—flesh and fault and frailty abound, all in an abundantly finite space. Plus, it’s been a long winter and spring is taking its time getting here—not so easy to shoo everyone outside when the temperature is still hovering near freezing.

So, what to do.

When I’m around, and I’m privy to petty arguments and fighting, I have a standard response—and my kids know it well:  
You can draw a straight line between that kind of behavior and the war in  (fill in the blank) . 
Afghanistan. Darfur. Iraq. Uganda. Syria. Whatever the war du jour, and regardless of U.S. involvement, I impress upon my children that all conflict traces its roots back to personal selfishness and vendetta. Political leaders and pundits like to associate internecine conflict with abstract notions of economics, justice, and territorial sovereignty, but let’s face it: Wars are fundamentally bickering kids writ large.

And not just bickering kids, of course. It’s me driving aggressively in response to someone cutting me off on the bypass. It’s jockeying for a place in the shortest, quickest checkout lane at the drugstore. It’s gossip and backbiting at work. It’s nursing grudges and giving full rein to a bad temper at home.

The children, naturally, are incredulousand maybe you, too: Straight line? Iraq? Syria? Really? 

Pope John XXIII signs encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ in 1963.
Yes, really. It’s not a new idea either. Consider these words from Pacem in TerrisPope John XXIII’s landmark peace encyclical published fifty years ago: “The world will never be the dwelling place of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man, till every man preserves in himself the order ordained by God to be preserved.” 

So, no peace in the world without peace in our hearts—my heart, your heart, every heart. All the negotiations and treaties, concordats and U.N. missions, and every flavor of international diplomacy is for naught, the Pope was telling the world, unless we make peace with our neighbors—unless I make peace with my neighbor.

St. James said it even more plainly: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war” (4.1-2).

Yet James doesn’t just diagnosis the illness; he also points his readers to the antidote: “The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace” (3.17-18). War and conflict need no cultivation—they spring up around us like weeds. Countering discord and division, and creating true peace, is a work of cultivation—a work requiring dedication, attention, and constancy.

Any farmer will tell you that successful cultivation also requires good seed and good soil, and here’s where my bickering kids come in. “No one should ignore or underestimate the decisive role of the family,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his message for the World Day of Peace this year. “It is in the family that peacemakers, tomorrow’s promoters of a culture of life and love, are born and nurtured.”

In this regard, as in others, the family is truly a school—a residential academy that operates 24/7. We parents have a tendency to obsess about the bottom line: How to pay for the groceries and the electric bill, how to pay for another tank of gas. Such concerns weigh on us all the more in a tight economy, and some folks are struggling even to provide for essentials.

But Pope John and Pope Benedict are getting at something even more essential, more basic—that day in and day out formation in peacemaking, in shalom. As we go about our daily routines and the countless interactions we have with our children, we do well to keep in mind that we have been entrusted with the task of nurturing the peacemakers of tomorrow—and, in so doing, we allow ourselves to be similarly nurtured ourselves.

This all sounds Pollyanna-esque at best, hopelessly naïve at worst, I know. And it’s true that I wouldn’t want my sons and daughters to enter adulthood without a comprehensive and sophisticated grasp of all the origins of war. 

Even so, I'm convinced that it will serve them well that their visions for changing the world will be rooted in a personalist vision for changing themselves—that they will associate big plans with little ones.

For that straight line between global conflict and personal conflict is drawn right through our own hearts. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” Jesus said. “Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14.27).

So, next time you break up a fight at your house, or you soothe a bruised ego, or you attempt to broker a reconciliation between the warring factions under your own roof, remember that you’re not only making peace at home—you’re also contributing to a peaceful world. Taking the time to trace the line between the two will equip your children all the more to bring true peace to a troubled world. 

A version of this story was published in The Visitation, Nativity House, Downers Grove, Illinois.

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