Peace be With You: How the Science of Peace Can Make a Difference in Our Lives

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” – Jesus of Nazareth

As we look towards the second Sunday of Easter, we are reminded of God’s ultimate desire for peace. Yet, it remains an elusive ideal. In my lifetime, I have witnessed wars, genocide, civil unrest, xenophobia, misogyny, and myriad other social injustices. All these elements work together to make peace something almost impossible to attain. And even when we wish to stem the inexorable proliferation of these societal evils by returning to some utopic era, the truth is that humankind has experienced these problems, probably since the beginning of time. Just think about Charles Dickens’ words from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines peace as “a state of tranquility and freedom from civil disturbance (i.e., a time devoid of violence or force) predicated on establishing law and order.” Furthermore, Merriam-Webster highlights the idea of mutual agreement between governments that end hostilities, enmity, and war. These concepts are closely related to the New Testament concept of peace (i.e., eirḗnē), representing the opposite of war and dissension, bringing tranquility, harmony, safety, and happiness. Similarly, the Old Testament concept of shalom carries the idea of wholeness, welfare, prosperity, contentment, and friendship. The fundamental difference is that our contemporary concept of peace is construed as a social construct. Where the biblical idea of peace differs is that it is built upon a covenantal relationship with God stemming from a state of reconciliation.

Can science help us understand or even attain peace? Let us explore how emotional responses, social dynamics, and theological thinking can help us become peacemakers.

Living Meaningful Lives Through a Search for Peace

Have you ever wondered why we have strong emotional reactions under specific stressors? Sometimes, we are surprised by our responses and behaviors. Dr. Mari Fitzduff, Professor Emerita at Brandeis University, posits that we are woefully unaware of our most basic instincts and emotions. This dynamic contributes to the promotion of social conflict, wars, antipathy for other people’s groups, preference for dictatorial leaders, and violent behaviors. This means that, in the same manner that we respond to positive stimuli, our brains are also conditioned to trigger emotional responses that express fear, disgust, hatred, and rejection. Timothy Phillips, co-founder of Beyond Conflict, affirms that humans are emotional beings. Therefore, our responses to culture, race, and ethnicity are behaviorally driven by operating systems embedded in our brains.

So, to change how we respond, we must develop new skills. Rick Hanson, psychologist and neuroscientist, explains that developing positive coping skills and mental habits can promote peace in times of stress and uncertainty. Beyond cultivating self-control, wisdom, and moral action, Hanson advocates practices that promote emotional balance and alterity: being mindful of others and focusing on well-being, acting with compassion and kindness, developing a sense of fullness (i.e., realizing we have enough), feeling at peace with ourselves, living in the present (i.e., not feeling lost in the past or anxious about the future), being less reactive to others, and grounding ourselves in a spiritual awakening.

These researchers are optimistic that their research on peace can help us live meaningful and peaceful lives. Even when some of these practices seem abstract or esoteric, they show how our brains are connected to our behaviors. Thus, cultivating practices centered on peace will transform our responses to external and internal stimuli.

  • In “The Neuroscience of Peace and Conflict,” the UN Innovation Network underscores how the neuroscience of peace and conflict is crucial for developing effective peacemaking policies and programs.
  • Check out Mari Fitzduff’s “Our Brains at War” for an in-depth look at the latest theories on behavioral genetics, biopsychology, political psychology, and social and cognitive neuroscience.

Peacemaking: The Answer to an Age-Old Problem

As I already suggested, the struggle for peace is not new. However, in this moment, we seem to be experiencing too many crises and not enough peace. A glance at any news outlet will show a global climate emergency, wars across the globe, the threat of new viruses, the alarming surge of authoritarianism, countless refugee crises, and increased racial and social unrest. All these disruptions threaten our safety and social order.

These dynamics are paramount to the process of dehumanization. Dr. Lasana T. Harris, an experimental psychologist at University College London, suggests that human propensity for violent behavior can be traced to the phenomena of dehumanization. He describes our capacity “to treat other people as if they were not in fact people,” thus resulting in the suspension of moral rules and social norms, facilitating aberrant behaviors. Harris goes on to say that dehumanizing our brethren breaks the moral code that promotes social cohesion, stimulating immoral decision-making. These dehumanizing mechanisms, observed in our political and religious discourse, must be understood as direct contributors to the present social upheaval.

Many factors support this type of thinking. Among them, Harris describes:

  • Economic decision-making (i.e., seeing out-of-group people as economic threats).
  • Social cognition (i.e., securing one’s place within social hierarchies).
  • Learned social cognitive behaviors (i.e., facilitating behaviors that violate social conventions).
  • Disgust (i.e., a type of fear response that suggests contamination and immorality).
  • Othering mechanisms (i.e., stereotyping, prejudice, deindividuation, and intergroup processes).

These ideas remind me of liberation theology (a theological approach that emphasizes the liberation of the oppressed through social and political action). Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, James Cone, and others propose that the only plausible solution to these societal evils is grounded on social transformation. In other words, because our social scaffolding is sustained by oppressive structures and institutions that too often dehumanize, justice and salvation must be achieved by firmly promoting changes to our sociopolitical context.

Harris concludes that peacebuilding is the answer to dehumanization. To be clear, parallel to liberation theology, Harris’ concept of peacebuilding is predicated on addressing sociopolitical factors, de-escalating conflicts through cognitive re-learning, and attending to our emotional responses to stressors. Therefore, peacemaking becomes a political construct with far-reaching positive social ramifications.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears several times to his disciples after his resurrection. His message is simple yet profound: “Peace be with you” (John 20: 19, 21, 26). In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10), Jesus of Nazareth reminds us that the peacemakers are the true children of God. Consequently, for us, peacemaking is not just a sociopolitical framework. Peacemaking is the definitive characteristic of God’s children that flows from a deep, transformative relationship with the Great I Am and the Prince of Peace. Moreover, as we have seen, science can help us in our quest to become true peacemakers. Therefore, go and become a peacemaker.

In Nobis Regnat Iesus,

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