How to become a peacemaker

How to become a peacemaker

Four broad, ancient guidelines for human behavior at the heart of every religion.
James Ishmael Ford
People sitting and meditating at Liberty Park on Sunday, October 16, Day 31 of Occupy Wall Street
People sitting and meditating at Liberty Park on Sunday, October 16, Day 31 of Occupy Wall Street
© David Shankbone


In 1993, on the one hundredth anniversary of the World Columbian Exposition’s Parliament of the World’s Religions, a second parliament gathered in Chicago. The highlight for many was an address by the Dalai Lama. For me the most important thing to come out of that gathering was a document, Declaration Toward a Global Ethic (PDF).” The principal author was the Rev. Hans Küng, a Roman Catholic priest and scholar. I once heard Küng, a controversial figure within his church, described as the Catholic Church’s finest Lutheran theologian—which is, perhaps, a way of acknowledging that he is one of the ecumenical Christian community’s finest minds.

The document was signed by 200 religious leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Robert Traer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the United Kingdom. It asserted there are “four broad, ancient guidelines for human behavior which are found in most of the religions of the world,” which it listed as “irrevocable directives” for those who would find peace for the planet.

These irrevocable directives are: 1) a commitment to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life; 2) a commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; 3) a commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and 4) a commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

I’m deeply moved by this analysis, which I think cuts through the fog of the conservative part of religions, that part which is meant to sustain and transmit a particular culture—defining inside and outside, us and them—and which is so often used as a club to beat people into conformity. Instead, the directives point to the radical heart of pretty much all religions, that part which opens us to the finest of what it means to be human.

The first of the directives, the first grand intuition of our deep humanity, is that in spite of our natural proclivities to violence, there is a better way. The second tells us we are genuinely responsible for each other. The third points to our need for broad tolerance, which is found within our commitment to genuine honesty with ourselves and with each other. And, finally, the fourth—so buried in so many religions, but implicit at their heart—reminds us that women and men need each other, and can only heal from the wounds of life when we see we are all in it together as equals. (I would add that the issues of sexual minorities are bound up with this last assertion, inevitably, inextricably.)

These four directives offer a life of authenticity and truth and a way of healing for hearts and a world torn by strife. For me there’s a next step that takes this document and its four irrevocables from ink on paper (or pixels on a screen) into our actual lives. There is a Japanese saying, gyogaku funi, which means “practice and study are not two.” And it is here I find myself thinking of Bernie Glassman.

Bernie is one of those characters who steps on the scene, and after they pass through, everything is a bit different. He originally was meant to be a rocket scientist, earning a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from UCLA. He did some of that rocket work. While at grad school, however, he met the Japanese Zen missionary Taizan Maezumi. Eventually Bernie became the Zen master’s first American dharma successor. He would go on to have an unconventional Zen career, first as a pretty conventional Zen priest and teacher, but then dropping the priest part, putting on a clown nose, literally going to clown school, and calling on people to lighten up. From there he went on to various social justice-oriented projects, including the Greyston Foundation, a Zen center that has evolved into a social service agency focused on the needs of the homeless and hungry. He is also deeply focused on issues of peace and peacemaking.

In service of that goal Bernie and his then spouse Sandra Jishu Holmes took those four irrevocable directives from the world parliament to heart and created what is now called the Zen Peacemakers. Along the way he reframed the directives as four commitments. And they’ve caught on. I would say most people aware of these four things think they came from Bernie’s fruitful heart. My own Zen community, Boundless Way Zen, which has no connection to Bernie, has incorporated these commitments into the vows we take when we formally undertake a spiritual life.

As the leader says in the ceremony for our Zen community, “The wheel of the dharma turns and turns. Each generation manifests the great way. Today we commit ourselves to the way of awakening, manifesting as peacemakers in a world torn by strife.” It’s time to step up to the plate. It’s time to do things.

Then, in the ceremony, the new initiate on the way responds together with all those who’ve made the commitment before, “I commit myself to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life; I commit myself to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; I commit myself to a culture of tolerance and a life based on truthfulness; and I commit myself to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.”

Bernie’s gift to us wasn’t just grabbing these four insights and pitching them to the world, but rather finding a clear, if not easy, path to their realization. Study and practice as one thing. He took something from the standard Japanese-derived Zen initiation ceremony, called the Three Pure Precepts, and reframed them as guidance for people of any and perhaps of no spiritual tradition, inviting us to plunge into the unknown, to bear witness to the pain and joy of the world, and to strive to heal oneself and the world.

The call is to become peacemakers.

Let me repeat the method: plunge into the unknown. Bear witness to the pain and the joy of the world. Strive to heal oneself and the world. I think of the first two as invitations into the very heart of life; the third—healing, for myself and for the world—grows out of them as if through a secret alchemical formula. Plunge into the unknown, bear witness to the world’s pain and joy, that you may bring healing. This is how we become peacemakers.

Adapted from “Plunging Into the Unknown: How to be a Peacemaker in a World Torn by Strife,” a sermon preached to First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, September 22, 2013 (Monkey Mind).

Photograph (above): Liberty Park on Sunday, October 16, Day 31 of Occupy Wall Street (© David Shankbone).

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