On a beautiful summer evening I took our children to their first outdoor family movie night. I was just noting how well-behaved they were, when an indignant bellow—“NO!”—interrupted the program. Uh-oh. I knew that big voice in a small person’s body. Our 2-year-old daughter, in her footie pajamas, had marched herself up to the big screen and was facing down the film’s celluloid villain.
In “Tangled,” Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story, the antagonist explains that the brutal world forced the villain to imprison Rapunzel for security reasons, to protect her because the world was a bad and cruel place. Our daughter was having none of it. “No! That’s not true!” she cried. “The world is not bad. The world is....” She opened her arms wide and pointed at the peaceful tableau of families and friends sharing blankets, pillows, picnics and popcorn on the lawn. “The world has....” Her big emotions soon swamped her smaller vocabulary, and she abruptly concluded her impassioned soliloquy with “grass! Green grass!” She nodded and rested her case, secure in her conviction that a world thick with lush, green grass and people breaking bread together could only be a good and grace-filled place.
Which world do we see? Is life nasty, brutish and short, justifying or even requiring bad behavior in order to secure our own survival, or are peace, love and community possible?
It is not just an academic question. Lives depend on it. How can people build peace who have never known peace? At St. John’s Seminary in Los Angeles, a young seminarian from the Democratic Republic of Congo told me he had known only conflict in the D.R.C. and had never experienced peace until he came to Los Angeles. He wanted to believe that peace was possible for his country, but he could not imagine it.
His comments mirrored those made by a Department of Defense official in Washington, D.C. We were discussing prospects for reconciliation in Afghanis-tan when he reeled in frustration, saying: “It is impossible. We ought to stop talking about it and instead focus on things that could possibly be achieved.”
Peacebuilders know a key factor in constructing sustainable peace in communities seared by violence is moral imagination. The peacebuilding scholar and practitioner John Paul Lederach asks in his book Moral Imagination, “How do we transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch our human communities while still living in them? Transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize and build moral imagination...requiring the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies.”
The Catholic Church has many assets in peacebuilding, highlighted in a new book titled Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis. Many of these themes were examined in a conference in Rome on June 30 on “The Future of Catholic Peacebuilding.”
Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, emphasized the church’s commitment to building peace, while representatives from Caritas Internationalis, Pax Christi, Catholic Relief Services, Sant’Egidio and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network spoke of the rich work of Catholic organizations in conflict areas. Operating for over 2,000 years, reaching into every country on earth, the church has a lot of “bandwidth.” The practical, functional and institutional capacities the church can apply to building peace are important.
Yet underpinning all these practical assets are the church’s greatest gifts: principles that nourish and sustain moral imagination and communities under siege and people who make those principles manifest. Too often our governments aim low in building peace, seeing in the world, like the Disney villain, only a set of bad choices among lesser evils. Catholic peacebuilders see a different world, where communion, peace and love are possible. In our sacraments of Communion and reconciliation, our beliefs in a relational, risen God and our institutional structures that seek to make real these relationships of local and global church, of the body of Christ, we regularly exercise moral muscles for a moral imagination the world needs. Imagining peace in war-torn areas is a challenging but crucial first step in realizing peace.