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.

1 thought on “The Arts of Peace: Some Working Thoughts”

  1. Bill, your and Sylvia’s vision for peace through the arts is simply have opened my eyes and senses to a much richer definition of both. You no doubt will have an amazing conference since your vision is so rich…and comprehensive…and inviting.

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