Whitewashing peace doesn’t serve anyone. 

There are days when the news is an endless stream of horror and violence. When bombs filmed from a distance leave dust clouds in their wake and fighters flushed with bravado roll into town on the back of jeeps. Lovingly tended homes come crashing down, tents go up and thousands flee. Pampered politicians absent-mindedly threaten war, impervious to the fact that they bargain with other people’s lives. And in the one-step-forward-two-steps-back logic of peace processes, all the steps backwards happen together in one fateful, cataclysmic moment.

For people caught up in the chaos, these are days that don’t end but instead stretch out to fill a lifetime with shadows of terror and loss. For all of us they are days when the cruelty of humanity comes into stark relief once again. We are shocked, saddened, maddened, abased.

These are the days that I think of when I see the search for peace being trivialised. When I sense the very word ‘peace’, that clarion call for radicalism and revolution, being robbed of its potency. Swashed about in a bath of bright colours, warmth and fuzz. Commandeered by marketers and sanitised by politicians. After all, these are days when the absence of peace has the power to cripple us. They would be my rebuttal, if it weren’t such an appropriation, to the assumption that pursuing peace is a hearts and flowers game.

Our perceptions of peace are formed from a patchwork of stock images, all reliably familiar to us. They are collages of visual memory. Typically the backdrop is a riot of colour, with psychedelic peace symbols and hippy flowers competing for space. In the foreground smiling young people hold hands in a circle. In the corner the golden orbs of candles reflect in the wide eyes of children, cast in soft focus. And on high white doves soar, sailing straight in a windless sky towards a horizon jewelled with a setting sun.

They are visions of peace extrapolated from our idealised imaginings of what it is to exist in peace. A tonic for the soul. A comfort blanket. In so far as they help us to envision a better future, they can also help to build momentum behind movements that promote peaceful change and coexistence. And I’m not decrying this, heaven knows we all need a reason to get up in the morning. The trouble comes in when we mistake these snapshots of peace for the whole story, when we assume there is nothing more to say.

The fact is that heartwarming visions of peace do nothing to help us understand what the search for peace looks like, especially in the places where it is most acutely absent. Because the search for peace is actually much more a story of war than anything else. The fact is that peace stinks. In the words of a dear friend, ‘peace is offensive’. It doesn’t feel good, not for a long time and sometimes not ever. We make peace with our enemies, not our friends, and normally in times when we’re least inclined to do so. When we leave this crucial fact out of our understandings of peace, because it’s complicated or unsavoury, we’re glossing over other people’s tragedy.

Nor do these visions help us to understand who peacebuilders are. In fact they lead us down a blind alley, so that we assume that peacebuilders must be a bit like nursery nurses for errant politicians and warlords, organising activities and group trips to help them rub along better in the future. Giving out gold stars for good behaviour. Clucking like mother hens when our chicks go astray.

But peacebuilding is not guitars and kumbayas. The peacebuilder is the woman who lies in the road to stop trucks of young men bent on retaliation from leaving the village. The man of God who tells me that if he dies then I should know that it was someone from his own side who killed him. The ex-militia man who extends his only remaining hand to his former enemies, offering not to forgive and forget but to remember and change. They are brave, visionary, hard people.

We need a vision of peace that reflects this. That pays homage to their sacrifice. That focuses on the journey as well as the destination. That has people at the core instead of birds and waves and sunsets. We need a tapestry rich enough to accomodate the many dilemmas of peacemaking. We need to portray the whole spectrum of emotion that working for peace engenders. And we need to stop obsessing over happy endings. Sometimes the best possible ending is only the least worst.


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