By Guest Blogger Philip S Lomneth
Violence seduces youth. Not only do our movies, games, and TV shows make one wonder if we have an appetite for anything else, but a quick glance at the conflicts around the world will likely show young people on the front lines. What is the average age of enlistment in the U.S. Army? How old are many of the people we call terrorists? Though some of our ideas of destructive youth may come from stereotypes, in northern Ireland, those beliefs hold at least a grain of truth. During the Troubles, the average age for people joining paramilitaries was 17, and from 1982-2005, about a third of the people killed by paramilitaries were men aged from 15 to 24. Rightfully, this should disturb us, but I feel another point of violence’s seduction goes unnoticed; violence lures in young peace builders.
I am not referring to young people once dedicated to peace that turn around their values and pick up a Kalashnikov; rather, I refer to the young people desiring peace that often want to be on the front lines - where the “action” is. In the group of 14 American students I am with, we all are in awe of the individual who, at her internship, works with youth causing trouble on the streets. This internship, and others that deal directly with violent youth, are viewed as the most valuable, meaningful positions. Certainly, this work is necessary. When people throw petrol bombs over the so-called peace lines in Belfast, someone should step in to stop the antagonists. When local paramilitaries use punishment beatings, shooting youths’ kneecaps to keep them from causing further trouble, someone should try to reform their sense of justice, if nothing else. But is this enough? Can peace always be a response to violent action, or does peace mean something more?
When we engage in peace work that acts as a counter to violence, to conflict, what is our vision? Do we see a life beyond what we currently conceive? Is it simply an end to the petrol bombs and punishment beatings, an end to all conflicts, or do we dare to envision a society where such violence doesn’t exist? Do we simply accept it as a “fact” of life?
I came to Northern Ireland expecting, hoping, to work with violent people, people involved in conflict; that’s where I thought the greatest challenge and most learning would be. Instead, I came to a reconciliation called Corrymeela, and they challenged me with peace.
Sounds dangerous, no? Be careful not to trip as you run through the field of daisies.
But Corrymeela taught me that peace isn’t about running through fields or some fanciful dream where people always agree; rather, peace is about interfaces, about differences, about learning to live together, about life. At Corrymeela, we talk about interfaces, meeting points of distinct entities: nationalities, cultures and people. Any time you bring different perspectives together, tension inevitably arises. Using this tension for destruction, for killing, is violence. Using the tension to create something positive is peace.
This talk of meeting places for positive growth sounds nice, but when someone murdered Ronan Kerr this April, what use does any of this talk have? Should we not focus more on the perpetrators, ensuring that they are brought to justice and can never kill again? Yes, we do need to confront the people who murdered Kerr, but what a vision of peace demands is that we ask, “How can we live in community with the killers?”
Peace is not about starkly defining interfaces, erecting new walls and new prisons so that we can hide from differences, but about approaching those differences with care, while trying to understand and learn from each other. Peace is not about denying the variety, but seeing the other as such and loving the other all the more.
Is this not what interfaith work is about as well - Recognizing that we hold truly different beliefs and seeing this as an opportunity to learn, to understand someone else as someone else and loving them all the more? We can’t wait for violence to happen; we must seek out difference. We must dialogue in order to build understanding, build peace, and push out reasons for violence.
If we continue focusing on violence as the most important area for peace building, then will we not simply be responders to conflict, stopping individual cycles of violence, but failing to address the wider picture? If youth, young women and men, continue focusing on violence, then who will hold the vision for the future? Undeniably, we must take care of the fighting that goes on day-to-day, but if these conflicts end, how will we handle peace?