Observing the protests and riots from a safe distance in my living room, the thought occurs to me that such activities are not conducive to bringing about peace. Placards stating that “there is no peace without justice” proclaim a truth, but it seems unlikely that the placard-wavers are on the road to peace. St. Augustine defined peace as “the tranquility of order”. A riot is the very opposite of order. If we can put our lives in order, the order that God intends, only then will we be eligible for peace. In other words, peace is far more demanding on us than we might be willing to admit. It is not obtained by shouting.
When I was in junior high school, a fellow student won an oratorical contest by expatiating on the theme, “A Bomb of Peace”. If bombs can destroy, he reasoned, why can’t there be a bomb that showers people with peace? His philosophy may have been indefensible, but his rhetoric was irresistible, especially at a time when fear of the bomb was a national anxiety. His audience loved the fantasy he wove that peace could be so easily provided. We are attracted to fantasy but living in reality is difficult and often disappointing.
Junior high school students, even a champion of oratory, can be forgiven for their naïveté. The hard truth is that it is incomparably easier to destroy than to create. A child spends considerable time and effort erecting a tower of blocks, only to witness his mischievous brother knock it down with a single blow. The young builder’s tears proclaim an unhappy truth about the seeming unfairness of life. Why should it be easier to be a vandal than an engineer? Life is brutally unfair. The builder, despite his efforts, ends in tears while the bully concludes his act with laughter.
Life would, indeed, be terribly unfair if we omitted one important factor from the equation – the dignity of work. We are situated between two elementary forces: gravity and grace. The former operates without any effort on our part. It weighs us down, depresses us, and is a constant source of discouragement. Grace counters gravity. It is an upward movement, a retort to the heaviness of gravity. It is the avenue, delicate as it is, to peace.
What is the meaning of life? It is to live in accordance with the line of grace while overcoming the force of gravity. Our work has great dignity because it allows us to overcome gravity with grace, the spiritual over the material, creation over destruction. If peace could arrive as conveniently as packets falling from a plane (falling with the force of gravity), we would not have earned it. Peace is something we must win. It cannot be simply given to us. And that is why, the gap between grace and gravity is a good thing, for it gives our life purpose and direction. We need this discrepancy between the ease with which things can be destroyed and the difficulty with which that can be produced, to achieve our identity and to show that we are very special creatures who inhabit this world of gravity.
Life is not a luxury hotel with little distance between desire and satisfaction. It is more like a wilderness that we are asked to cultivate into a garden. Luxury can be an enemy to life. It can be a detour that takes us off the road to peace. According to Plutarch “five great enemies to peace inhabit within us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride . . . If these enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace”.
How difficult is it to rise above the Seven Deadly Sins of which pride is its deadliest member? Saint John Henry Newman understood expressed the answer with telling metaphorical images: “Quarry the granite rock with razors,” he wrote in The Idea of a University, “or moor the vessel with a thread of silk. Then you may hope with such keen instruments as human knowledge to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.” Pride is a gravitational pull away from God; humility is a disposition that welcomes a return to God. Music and poetry have wings because they soar on the magic carpet of grace.
Sin is a form of gravity; virtue follows the line of grace. “No peace was ever won from fate, by subterfuge or agreement,” wrote social reformer John Ruskin, “no peace is ever in store for us, but that which we shall win by victory over shame or sin—victory over sin that oppresses, as well as over that which corrupts”.
Returning to my observation of those who are protesting and rioting, I am not led to believe that they will achieve the great ideals—peace, justice, and freedom—that they seek. They seem unaware that these ideals are achieved only by means of victories over sin or triumphs of grace over gravity. The ideals retain their luster, but their price, seems to be out of their reach. They want peace “now,” without realizing that peace require both time and effort.
On the occasion of the 17th World day of Peace (January 1, 1984), Pope John Paul II proposed, “From a new heart, peace is born” as his theme. “Humanity’s helplessness to resolve the existing tensions,” he remarked, “reveals that the obstacles, and likewise the hopes, come from something deeper than the systems themselves.” Neither politics, protest marches, nor progressive ideas cannot deliver peace. Peace must come from that ordered life which invites God’s grace to activate the human heart, “the innermost depth of the human person”.