It is easy to talk in grand terms about ‘building a culture of peace’. This dialogue is aimed at helping us to think what it means to seek transformation among persons and communities, so that the political task begins to take a different shape. It was given as a seminar at a Fellowship of Reconciliation conference for Religious (Anglican and Catholic) in May 2004.

So you’re speaking on the mission of peace-building to a Conference of Religious, are you ? What are you going to say?

I’m going to tell them that ‘culture’ is about cultivating organised space for good habits, and that ‘peace’ involves being able to be truthful with each other. That is, moving beyond ‘tolerance’ to a place where radical difference can be sustained beyond the resort to mutual annihilation. This has both personal and global implications. It draws solidly on thinking about ‘virtue ethics’ in a divided world (Alasdair Macintyre ) and on the how the church can be a transformative community (Stanley Hauerwas  and John Howard Yoder ).

The basic drift of what I want to explore is that working at good behavioural habits (a very down-to-earth thing that many of us struggle with!) is the key way to instantiate virtues which constitute character, and which in turn form cultures. So ‘cultures of peace’ are communities of civility in which (sometimes painful) truthfulness takes precedence over our ‘wars of position’ with each other. This is what the church could be like if it took its own Gospel seriously.

The political impact of so doing (greater economic resource-sharing, refusing to kill each other,  and so on) could be pretty significant. In a world loaded with ‘bad examples’ we need some models of good practice as well as protest against injustice and the development of alternative policies in the public arena. These three belong together.

The persistent problem, of course, is that mostly the church doesn’t believe its own message — as many outside it have figured. Either that, or it has turned its message into an ideology of self-advantage, which is far worse. Or, again, it has fatally mistaken a liberal virtue (tolerance) for a theological one (forgiveness).  The difference is between assuming self-sufficiency and recognising the need for grace. The latter, inconveniently, requires God, “who, by being the only wholly non-competitive Other, alone holds out the possibility of relating without manipulation” (Rowan Williams).

So the question for each and every one of us to face is: what specific practices will re-generate small, outward-looking moral communities, and how are such examples to be deployed in relation to those political processes which overwhelmingly tramples on them?

Oh dear you’re not going to make me think, are you?  Talking to nuns about ‘good habits’, indeed … I think you’re right but where did I just read (alas, oh memory) that humanity becomes corrupted when it leaves its own soil.

Of course habits depend upon habitat and habituation, so the corruption wrought by ‘leaving the soil’ fits well with my theme. But what I’m talking about is not leaving the soil, but replenishing it. Unless the idea is that the soil can only properly nourish if it’s got some manure in it — which is also true, of course; but we’re not talking about ideal habits, we’re talking about good ones – which is quite different: goodness not being about ideals, but about actualities. Like the kindness of strangers which brought us together in friendship, for instance.  What defines a ‘good habit’ is that it benefits us and others, and is directed to some vision of ‘the good’ for society as a whole. That is turn requires a tradition to think about and practice ‘the good’ – which is precisely what we have in the Gospels.

Ah, yes. How do we define goodness?  By what’s in our hearts or by our actions?  My actions are often worthier than my sentiments.

It is probably a conceit to think we know our hearts too well, and a useless one if it stops us doing good things by making us think that ‘all is vanity’. We don’t define good, we learn it through people who affirm life, welcome the strange, feed the hungry and so on. That is, by mixing with good people. You know (you do… really).

I meant to type to be ‘stranger’ there, by the way… but “welcoming the strange” is no bad thing, either. An intriguing and very difficult book by theologian John Milbank is wonderfully called The Word Made Strange. Because flesh is, indeed, fearfully strange. It is perhaps my favourite-ever title for a book of this kind, aside from James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong, in which he explains why the notion of ‘original sin’ may not be the millstone round our necks that we usually assume it to be in modern culture…

Incidentally, “where your treasure is, there also is your heart” is, I reckon, the best we can do on that front. And of course your treasure is accumulated through actions and relationships (and thus habits).  As Jesus also reminds us, according to Luke, “God alone is good”, which takes an awful burden off our shoulders. Doing good is complicatedly simple; being good is simply impossible (and can therefore be entertained only by prayer, which is the contemplation of ‘the impossible’ in relation to the truly Good’ – God.)

As John D. Caputo says – and I paraphrase, “God is the axiology of the impossible redefining for us the possibilities of living, such that what we previously thought of as possible becomes inadequate. Thus the boundaries of ‘good’ are not fixed, but expandable…”

In the case of the cloistered life, surely it is often the reverse (intentions worthier than actions)?

Few of those I am talking to are ‘cloistered’ in the sense of ‘isolated’, which I think is what you mean. They lead reserved, but deeply engaged, lives. The problem is that most of us live in a culture that says ‘all’ or ‘nothing’, and so doesn’t understand the role of reservation and contemplation in engagement and action (cf. Thomas Merton). ‘Intention’ is one word for prayer, of course, which is about opening ourselves up to intentionality beyond our own to desire, to the possibility of ‘living beyond our means’ (which is what faith involves). That there is a gap between intention and action is an invitation, not a threat – unless it becomes an ideological gap used to attack others and defend the self – in which case it is hypocrisy.

Of course, good habits keep us honest and healthy which is a Good Thing.

Absolutely. Though there’s no need to capitals. They just make it Exceptional, rather than normal (that is, habitual)…

Aw, who wants to be good – sinners have more fun.  (“Lord make me good, but not yet.”)

It often seems like that, for sure. And as Augustine was stressing, goodness (that is, a life lived in the light of the kind of manipulation free, gracious and utterly demanding relationship God makes possible) isn’t easy or natural. His problem, which I suspect he was not unaware of, was that he tried to be good. But virtue is not about self-construction; it’s about habitat, habits and habituation. That’s my point.

As for sinners (people who keep tripping up and falling short), well that’s all of us. And some have very little fun.  As Neil Postgate points out, the culture of enjoyment and gratification often ends up with us ‘amusing ourselves to death’ , and arming ourselves to death to defend this kind of life (for some). By contrast the New Testament offers a strange word about service being perfect freedom. Of course that depends on who you are serving: empires and kings make bad and unhappy servants. Jesus enjoys the company of sinners and makes outsiders insiders. That’s much more fun.

Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement is my model of a saint (she loathed the idea, of course) – and she was pretty wild, so don’t give up hope!

None of this will stop George W. Bush getting elected, of course.

True. But you know what you can do about that. (A friend of mine has a button that says ‘Re-defeat Bush’). And you know what you can’t do. There are few shortcuts towards a world that would make Bush and his wars un-electable. We have to pursue peace politically, of course. But if politics thinks that justice and virtue can be built on people and communities of ill-will and selfishness it is surely deluding itself.  This is one of the most under-explored political issues at the moment.

Getting the church to be the church certainly isn’t the be all and end all of ‘building a culture of peace’ – I worry about people like Milbank and Hauerwas on that one. But it is much more important than most Christians seem to realise. That is, we forget that we have a story, a person and a community which shows us precisely what is at stake in such a culture, and which gives us something to model and commend. We also have institutions, with all their blemishes, which provide us with opportunities for intervening in wider social and economic processes.

Actually doing this is what we call ‘mission’. Mission isn’t about making people like us or imposing our will. It is about pointing towards the sheer graciousness of God in the face of Jesus: a graciousness which invites us to be so transformed that we can embrace difference in conversation, table fellowship and robust argument – rather than in exclusion or violence. This is good news for the world, not just for Christians. Indeed most Christians don’t seem to recognise it as good news at all. It is our conversion that lies at the heart of the task, therefore.

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