Peace on Earth

"Peace on earth is not just a holiday greeting. Every Jan. 1 the pope issues a message for the World Day of Peace, reminding us that peace is practical, peace is possible, and it is our calling. Peace is practical because it is foundational; without it, we cannot achieve other aims. Catholic Relief Services learned this lesson the hard way. Before the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, C.R.S. worked to reduce poverty, not build peace. They saw themselves as development experts, sidestepping the country’s political fissures to deliver aid and services. Then over 800,000 people were killed. C.R.S.’s years of experience and programming in Rwanda created many well-fed dead. Afterwards, C.R.S. did a great deal of soul-searching. They reorganized with peace-building integrated into their mission, vowing never again to regard building peace and prosperity as separate or mutually exclusive tasks.

We have moral responsibilities to be peacemakers, and to aid and accompany the poor, yet too often we do not see these tasks as related. They are. According to Luke’s Gospel, the angels announced Jesus’ birth to poor shepherds, singing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. Why did they speak of peace to the poor? According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first recorded speech was the Beatitudes, beginning with Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven and continuing with Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Working with the poor and working to bring peace are intertwined in Christ’s ministry and in his commission to us. It is also the most practical way to proceed.

How well are we doing with our commission? What is the state of peace on earth these days? We have good news. International conflict (war between countries) is down since the end of the cold war, as is the total number of major armed conflicts (those in which more than 1,000 people die per year). There are currently no major wars between countries, and major armed conflicts are down from 33 in 1991 to 17 in 2006. Ethnic violence is down. These gains come from persistent and coordinated efforts at peace-building by civil society and others, according to the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management. The Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia credits the unprecedented upsurge of international activism, spearheaded by the U.N., working to contain and resolve conflicts.


There are now more democracies and fewer authoritarian regimes than ever before, with gains for peace, since democracies do not go to war with each other and have more capacity for internal conflict resolution. It is important to herald this good news, lest we forget that peace-building works and has a track record.

But war is very much still with us. Most wars are civil wars, and these wars are deadlier to civilians (especially women and children). Civil wars last longer than international wars, and they produce more civilian deaths long after the conflicts are over because of the degradation of health and economic institutions. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Far from soliciting more attention, their longstanding and recurrent nature tends to make them less visible internationally.

We get used to ghettos of war and poverty. Eighty percent of the world’s 20 poorest countries today have suffered from a major conflict in recent years. These countries are particularly vulnerable; war reignites within five years more than 50 percent of the time. One-sixth of the world’s population produces five-sixths of the world’s wars. Risk is greatest if a country has a low per capita income, is in economic decline or is dependent on natural resources.

These conflicts and poverty traps have hit Africa particularly hard. Africa is the most warring and the poorest continent in the world. All of the 20 least-livable countries on the U.N. development index are African states. In general Africa is poorer today than 30 years ago, and has seen civil wars there rise while they have abated in other regions.

Too often we ignore in our public policies the connection between war and poverty. The United States spends over $500 billion each year on its military, nearly half of the world total for military spending. World military spending has gone up by 34 percent over the past 10 years, during precisely the period when major armed conflicts have decreased by nearly half. The United States spends $1,752 per person each year on the military, but only $46 per person each year on development assistance. Worse, less than 23 percent of U.S. foreign aid actually goes to the poor (most goes to military allies). For every $25 we spend on our military, we spend only 23 cents for those most in need. As the new Congress debates reforming U.S. foreign aid, we should remember that all the make poverty history U.N. millennium goals would be fully funded if 10 percent of world military expenditures were invested into development instead. While peace cannot be purchased, budgets do indicate our mistaken priorities. Until we regard building peace and prosperity as related, and as our responsibilities, we will continue to perpetuate a world in which 1.1 billion people live in countries in conflict or at severe risk of conflict. We need to commit ourselves to building peace on earth.

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