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 weak, but his rhetoric was irresistible, especially at a time when fear of the bomb was a national anxiety.
Junior high school students, even champions of oratory, can be forgiven 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 sibling knock it down by a single blow. The young builder’s tears proclaim the fundamental unfairness of life. Why should it be so much easier to be a vandal than an engineer? This is not only unfair, it is unjust!
Grace Counters Gravity
We will view life as unfair as long as we omit an essential factor from the equation. That factor is, to put it simply, work. Only through hard work can we offset the discrepancy that exists between the powerful force of gravity against the seemingly weaker force of grace. Work that follows the line of grace is not only essential to counterbalance the force of gravity, but also to give our lives a sense of meaning.
If peace came to us as conveniently as packets are dropped to us from a plane (that fall, of course, because of gravity), we would lose an important part of our life’s meaning. We need challenges to awaken and mobilize us so that we build something that bears the stamp of our personality. We need this discrepancy between the ease with which things can be destroyed and the difficulty with which they can be produced to see our own identity. Life is not a luxury hotel with no rift between desire and satisfaction. It is more like a wilderness that we are asked to cultivate into a garden.
Want Peace? Conquer Sin
The specific kind of work needed to bring about peace is essentially moral. No one is born virtuous; virtue must be acquired, and through considerable effort. The Greek moralist and biographer, Plutarch, said that “five great enemies to peace inhabit within us: viz., avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride. . . If these enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.”
How difficult is it to banish pride and other exemplifications of the Deadly Sins? John Henry Cardinal Newman wryly attests to the answer: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk,” he wrote in The Idea of a University. “Then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”
Cardinal Newman offers a sober realism and a challenge. It is naïve to think that peace will be the automatic product of any educational curriculum or the necessary aftermath of a peace treaty. British social reformer John Ruskin shared the Cardinal’s view concerning the moral work that is demanded of us. “No peace was ever won from fate by subterfuge or agreement; no peace is ever in store for any of 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.”
Do Not Despair
If we take an impersonal look at the world, we should be horrified at the enormous gap that exists between the formidable powers of destruction and the delicate powers of construction. Then, we either despair or take refuge in a fantasy, perhaps hoping for a “bomb of peace.” If, however, we place ourselves within the situation and work to overcome our own faults, then we may expect a harvest of good things, including peace. At the same time, we should not forget that we also need God’s guiding hand.
As we confront life, we are all aware that we are handicapped. The great excitement in being alive comes when we begin to realize what can come about when we are willing to work for it in the proper way—with God’s help. Peace is the result of victory over sin. The quest for peace and the difficulty of attaining it, then, give us our working orders for a lifetime. And this is enough to fill our hearts.