The Arts of Peace: Some Working Thoughts

My wife Sylvia and I are co-chairing the tenth, indeed capstone, Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference, which will be held on November 21-24, 2019. The Conference will lift up and reflect on the role of the arts in peacemaking that is vitally engaged with the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Whatever happens at the Conference sits on this three-legged stool of art, peacemaking and religious faith. It must have a religious significance rooted in the Abrahamic traditions, though not confined to them. It must contribute significantly to peacemaking. It must be truly artistic. I want to think out loud with you about what this means and ask for your thoughts about it.

Rooted in Religious Traditions

First, being rooted in the religious traditions does not mean confinement to aspects of those traditions that have often fostered violence, division, and warfare. Each tradition also bears within it vibrant visions of peace, practices of reconciliation, non-violence, forgiveness, and ethical values of inclusiveness and responsibility toward the creation. Each religious tradition exhibits rituals, beliefs, music and chant, artistic cultures, literature, poetry, and architecture that can be understood as promoting peace. Indeed, the very process of gaining a deeper appreciation of the artistic heritages in other religious traditions can be an act of peacemaking that bridges the ignorance, fear, and hostility that has often characterized inter-religious relationships. Whatever we do needs to draw on and reflect these heritages.

Building Peace

Second, we need to remember that peacemaking is not simply the ending of hostilities that can arise from military or violent action. Peacemaking means creating relationships among peoples, nations, groups, and individuals in which conflicts can be resolved without resort to violence or gross coercion. It involves healing the traumatic memory of past violence. It includes reparation and restoration of what has been injured or destroyed. It embraces the work of forgiveness and the resolution of anger over past wrongs. Peacemaking is the whole constellation of practices that enable people to move from a state of violence and fear to one of non-violent resolution of conflicts and the reconciliation of those who have been estranged. It is not only the creation of treaties and covenants to end war (the “pact” contained in the Latin pax), but the nurturing of Shalom/Salaam that is rooted in the Bible and Qu’ran.

Artistic Creation

Thirdly, we need to clarify what kinds of artistic objects, actions, and performances might be relevant to this work of peacemaking from a religious standpoint. This is a special challenge in this conference. While we might say that we seek out works of “high quality,” this does not necessarily mean that it fits the criteria of “high art” or of refined tastes of one or another artistic academy. Rather, quality is determined by the capacity of the work to elicit some sense of values that transcend the ordinary utilities of the day. While the concept may be highly contested, it is “beautiful” in a way that human beings have come to appreciate over the centuries. It is “religious” in the sense that it offers some kind of doorway into enduring transcendent realities, values, and, indeed, divine presence that can lead us into a more just and beautiful life. This kind of art can be produced by ordinary folks as well as highly trained artists, so we need to embrace both the creations of folk art and craft, outsider art, and self-taught artists as well as the work of the famous and well-compensated.

Moreover, we are not simply lifting up the art that is used to propagandize the interests of a particular group, nation, or religion. Here, the line between propaganda and “art” is often blurry, indeed. We might say that we are not lifting up art that creates oppositions but art that bridges divisions. We are interested in art that brings together those who are estranged, who have harmed one another, or who are divided by ancient rivalries and warfare. In short, we are looking for art that establishes a common ground rather than a chasm, art that heals rather than aggravates our angers, and art that introduces us to transcendence. The art of peacemaking expands our imagination of both the ways to peace and the understanding of peace itself.

We also need to respect the way an artistic work might challenge our religious or ethical preconceptions, leading us more deeply into the reality of peace. It does not immediately serve our preconceptions of “the things that make for peace,” but could help us reconstruct our very understanding of this vision and the practices it requires. A genuine work of art is not simply an instrument of our religious ideals, but helps us to grapple more deeply with them, leading us to recast or even transform them.

Some art does anger us, but in a way that might lead us to question and overcome our previous ways for the sake of a greater peace. It opens up wounds in order to heal them. It provokes and challenges us, often in uncomfortable ways. In this sense, such art needs to be included in the arts of peace. Similarly, memorials, whether sculptural, architectural, visual, or aural, can mire us in the past, evoking revenge, anger, and pain. But other memorials open us up to the healing work of knitting new covenants, new relationships, and new behaviors that open the way to healing and deeper peace.

Of course, any gripping artwork, whether it is a drama, a concert, or exhibition, might serve peacemaking simply by bringing people together who might not otherwise meet. This itself may help bridge chasms of fear, suspicion, resentment and anger. Laudable as this effect may be, it probably does not suffice to include it in our Conference. The work itself needs to directly address the intersection of religious vision and peacemaking. At the same time, we need to realize that part of what makes a work an “art of peace” is the conversation and debate that it may arouse. Its capacity to draw people into reflection, criticism, and conversation is part of its peacemaking power.

This is a beginning toward a common understanding of what we intend by creating a conference on “The Arts of Peace.” As we bring together works of art, whether objects, performances, or environments, we need to identify their religious import, particularly within the Abrahamic traditions, as well as their capacity to engage us in the work of building peace. It is a purpose that excites as well as challenges, inspires even as it awes us with its expanse.

We hope that people will leave this Conference not only with a new sense of what constitutes the arts of peace, but also with some ideas of how they might create arts of peace in their own communities. Your thoughts about this, either in the Comments below or through the Contact Me form in the header, would be most appreciated.



Posted in Arts, Public Life, Restorative Justice | Tagged | 1 Comment

Charlie and Harold

A few weeks ago I took part once again in the Poet’s Gathering in Winston-Salem North Carolina, sponsored by Press 53. In one of our workshops Adrian Rice, a poet from Ireland who teaches at Appalachian State University, asked us to recall significant moments or images from our past. Like a string in saline water, they can create a crystalline nub for poems that have emotional intensity. So I began to fish around for such moments and emerged with two that have remained from my summers on my family’s dairy farm in northern Virginia, where now the farms are gone and trophy homes crawl over land where cows and hay wagons once held sway.

The first recalls a childhood friend on the farm, whose tender life still sparks a kind of elegy. The second is a tiny snapshot of how I learned to shock wheat, which, I think I need to explain, means propping up sheaves of grain together so they can stay dry until they are taken to the threshing machine. Since the advent of the combine and industrialized agriculture, people don’t do this any more. The snapshot, as you will see, was actually part of a larger picture which I only understood later in my slow maturation.

Fishing with Charlie

Charlie Fewell was my fishing buddy on the farm.

Mostly we used worms

            we dug up in the ooze

            outside the milking barn

            beside the spring.

We would amble over to the pond

            and cast our lines for sunfish, perch,

            and sometimes even bass.

I knew that Charlie wasn’t playing with a full deck,

            his parents somewhere else

            and Charlie living on the farm with his gramma and his uncle Earl,

            but he was cheerful company.

He loved to fish and so did I.

On his tackle box he had scratched the letter E.

I asked him once about the E.

“Oh,” he said, a smile lighting up his face,

            “that’s E for Fewell.”

And then we fished some more.

One day a passing car snuffed out his life

            while he was riding down the highway on his bike.

The preacher said that no one knows what purposes our lives are serving

            in a world of fish and boys and ignorance of who we are.

But we are each a child of God.

That’s what Charlie helped me understand.


Shocking the Wheat

We were shocking wheat that hot, hot day

            in the field beside the old Ketoctin Church,

            its newer headstones in a row beside the fence

            shimmering in the heat.

“Take three or five on end,

            then spread a sheaf to cap them

            so they shed the rain.”

More words than I had ever heard from Harold Fairfax,

    so strong that he could lift two milk cans at a time

    and hoist them on the truck.

The sweat poured down my tender face

            so white

            beside his face

            so blackened with a brilliance

            by the ancient sun of Africa.

We paused and drank

            the cold sweet water

            from that metal can—

            our hidden secret

            in that open field.

And then we turned

            and shocked the wheat some more,

            a silent host of witnesses

            shadowing the land.


Posted in On Writing, Personal Events, Poetry and Songs | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Remembering Martin, In Fearful Times

We will not let our fear

            beget the fear

            that frozen into bullets

            separates us from the love

            that frees us from such fear,

            that we forgetting all the faithful

            who have gone before

            lie down before the god of greed and gore

            and lose the life they won for us

            in fearful times

            in hopeful dreams.

Posted in Poetry and Songs, Public Life | 1 Comment

Holy Darkness

As we move to the end of the season of Lent and into the Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter, I want to share with you two panels that Sylvia has created to enhance our worship at our home church. They seek to open up the meaning of “darkness,” a word we often use to describe the fearful chaos into which so much of our political world has entered in the past two years.

Here are her reflections on the two panels:

We often speak of God as light. We are told to “walk in the light.” If God is everywhere present, is God not also present in darkness, even darkness we do not understand? If we find God in nature, in a leaf or in a baby, should we not also seek to find God in an expanding universe? In the course of a year, there is an equal amount of light and darkness. We long for the warmth of the sun, yet much of life seems to be generated in darkness. We were each conceived and grew in the darkness of a womb. Seeds generate in the darkness of soil. Why do we find darkness such a fearsome place, where things “go bump in the night” and perhaps danger lurks?

Scientist tells us that our universe is composed of 68% dark energy. Another 27% is dark matter. Everything else ever seen by humankind—stars, planets, galaxies— makes up the remaining 5%. Space is not empty and is not nothing. The remaining 95% is also a part of God’s mysterious and wonderful creation and yet scientists admit that they scarcely have a clue as to its purpose or composition. It seems to be the force that causes our universe to expand at an every increasing speed.

In the liturgical year we celebrate both times of light and of dark. We use these words in both a metaphorical way and as a way to represent objective reality. We also use them to describe psychological and spiritual states. I find that their meanings bleed into each other and it is not easy to think of them separately. Some believe they influence our thinking on race and other instances where “light” is good and “dark” is bad. I argue that both are good and necessary although each also contains the possibility of danger. We think we understand something of the nature and purpose of the 5%. What are we to make of the completely mysterious 95%, whose purpose and characteristics are unknown?

These panels invite you to consider the ways in which we think of darkness as well as the place of individuals, the church, and earthly creation in a larger context. Each panel is composed of two parts. The front panel is made of painted Tyvek and suggests the flow of energy as well as observable objects. The underlying panel is composed of several layers of sheer fabric, painted, to show new possibilities behind the presenting darkness.

For further reflection on darkness, see Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor.

Posted in Arts, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , | 5 Comments