Self-Examination and Peace Work
by Gunnar Stalsett
To be a peacemaker, you need to understand the deeper
dimensions of the conflict or struggle, and you need to see with your
heart. There is a role for empathy, not only for intellect.
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing
himself," said the Russian author Leo Tolstoy. He also said:
"Everything that I understand, I understand only because I love." These
words suggest a relationship between change and love. To be a
peacemaker, you need to understand the deeper dimensions of the
conflict or struggle, and you need to see with your heart. There is a
role for empathy, not only for intellect.
The title of this article also suggests that if you want to be engaged
in peace work, you have to be conscious of your own qualities as a
human being. It is easily understood that such characteristics as peace
of mind and a good conscience are positive attributes for one who wants
to bring peace to others. If you want to be an instrument of
reconciliation, it helps to be reconciled to yourself. It may also
suggest that peace work may lead to self-examination, a deeper
awareness of one's own motives.
Sometimes this realization of responsibility may come from an
unexpected source. Former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower expressed
this profound wisdom: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched,
every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who
hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." I
believe these were words of deep spiritual and moral insight gathered
in times of war and transformed through the office of being president.
Was this not the fruit of a self-examination on the basis of the
experience of a warrior?
For twenty-seven years, Nelson Mandela had ample time in his prison
cell for reflection and meditation. Does this explain how the
resistance fighter in the struggle to free South Africa from the curse
of apartheid became a global icon of reconciliation? You may win the
war without winning peace--but Mandela did both. He changed his country
and he was himself changed. And he has continued to change people in
his commitment to peace, justice, and reconciliation, and in his clear
stance for openness and compassion on HIV/AIDS.
For many years, I have been involved in peace work in such different
places as Namibia, Guatemala, Kosovo, and presently, East Timor. My own
inspiration comes from several sources, but especially from my faith
and my experience. Encounters with people who suffer under war and
oppression always bring back the question of what more should have been
done by the world community and all of us individually to help in the
healing of their wounds and the creating of a new world.
One special source of inspiration and challenge for my own peace work
has been my association with the Niwano Peace Prize. This prestigious
prize has for almost a quarter of a century had a special focus on
persons who from a spiritual motivation have contributed to the
well-being of others. Its foundation on Buddhist ethics and principles
has made it a global voice for peace and justice. Its committee members
represent all major faiths and all continents.
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo every year on the 10th of
December. Like most Norwegians, I have been formatted to be
peace-oriented through this annual exposure to heroes of peace and
human rights. Their lives and achievements have instilled in me a sense
of urgency in peace building as a religious and humanitarian duty with
It became my fortune in life to be elected as one of the five members
of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize Committee, on which I have served
for fourteen years. This brought me into close encounters with a number
of the most prominent peacemakers around the world over the last
I am impressed by an anecdote about Alfred Nobel himself that points to
the need for self-examination and the far-reaching effect it may have.
When opening the newspaper one morning, he received a great shock. He
read his own obituary. Confusing him with a brother who had in fact
died, the newspaper described Alfred Nobel only as the man who had
invented dynamite and amassed a great fortune from the sale of weapons.
Jolted by the awareness that he would be remembered only as a man who
had invented a means of mass destruction, in that very instant he
decided to devote the rest of his life and all of his fortune to the
pursuit of peace and fraternity among nations.
This anecdote also shows that even in this honorable decision, which
has brought so many blessings to humanity for more than a hundred
years, the deeper motivation was self-interest, that is, concern about
his own legacy.
Perhaps it is only when we have faced the ultimate boundary of death,
and come up against the sobering details of our own obituary, that we
begin to discover something about the true nature of our motives. It is
against the ultimate horizon of our existence that the need for change
becomes imperative. But then it may be too late.
If I look back upon my encounters with many Nobel laureates, what has
impressed me the most is the diversity of globally heralded peace
personalities. Laureates like Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, Mother
Teresa and Aung San Suu Kyi, just to mention a few, were worlds apart
in more than one sense.
Many of the Nobel laureates have spoken about their faith as a source
of inspiration and strength in the struggle. The Nobel Peace Prize
given to the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, which was the first time
the prize was given to a Buddhist, may be seen as a special affirmation
of spiritual values in the struggle for peace, and the consciousness of
one's source of inspiration. The Dalai Lama has been consistent in his
adherence to a strategy for change marked by nonviolence, based on the
principle of reverence for all living things. This decision by the
Nobel Peace Prize Committee was seen by many as a correction to a
preponderance of laureates from the Judeo-Christian tradition and from
the West. It also underscored the profound relationship between faith
and freedom. In that sense, it might be seen as an expression of
self-examination by members of the committee who may have been less
open to the importance religion plays for peace and less than global in
Through my years on peace prize committees and in active peace work, I
have become more conscious that peacemaking is not only for saints.
Some of the laureates have been rather average, a few of them rather
obnoxious, with their demonstrated air of self-importance and
arrogance. In the course of time, some of them have been exposed as
having a rather ambiguous legend, raising the call in some circles that
their award be recalled. Needless to say, not everyone has emanated a
need for changing himself or herself. This does not, however, detract
from the value of their efforts and achievements for peace. Peacemaking
is not totally dependent on the character of the individual. Even if
this comes as a comforting recognition for all of us in the business of
peace-making, it does not invalidate the need for a willingness to
undergo self-examination for would-be agents of peace.
Let me elaborate briefly my impression of a few personalities in whom I
have recognized a deep moral motivation combined with a sense of
humility and an openness to self-examination and change.
My first meeting with a Nobel laureate was with the medical doctor,
organist, and theologian Albert Schweitzer, who was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1952. For his Nobel lecture, Schweitzer (in 1954) chose
the theme "The Problem of Peace." It had a tremendous impact on all of
us who heard him speak about "reverence for life" as the guiding
principle for humanity's future. He called for an ethical mentality as
the basis for peace. For me this was a call to self-examination and
indeed for conversion of mind and spirit. But not only for me.
One newspaper editorialized: "What Schweitzer has taught us is that we
all can be men and women of goodwill. During his visit we felt that in
us there is a desire to be just that."
In his laudatory address, Dr. Johan B. Hygen, professor of theology at
the University of Oslo, stated: "Schweitzer is a wise counselor in a
time when good counsel is scarce." Alluding to a debate among
conservative Christians in Norway who were critical of Schweitzer's
somewhat liberal theological profile, he said: "If his activity is
humanism, then I would gladly be a humanist. If his activity is
Christendom, then I would like to be a Christian."
"Reverence for life is carried by clear thinking," Schweitzer said. Two
years later this led to his appeal to all scientists of the world to
unite against nuclear weapons. "The modern weapons of mass destruction
are a cause for great pain and anxiety," he said. Schweitzer was a man
who in his spiritual voyage so far had not been known for linking
personal morality to active engagement in the political life. Now he
had come to realize that this separation is untenable if we are to take
the future of humanity seriously. He also said, "I am life which wants
to live among life which also wants to live."
When Willy Brandt, who received the prize in 1971, as the Chancellor of
West Germany silently knelt at the memorial to the Holocaust victims in
the Warsaw ghetto, he assumed a guilt that was not his personal guilt.
He made this act of repentance on behalf of his nation and his
generation. Brandt had personally fought Nazism and had become a
refugee from Nazi Germany. He nevertheless acknowledged collective
guilt as a reality for which self-criticism is due and for which
confession must be made, personally, existentially, and collectively.
Self-examination is also about motivation. What is it that drives us to
do good work? There is a shared wisdom among all religions that we
should do unto others what we want others to do to ourselves. Or, in
the negative version, we should not do unto others what we do not want
others to do to us. Paradoxically, this could be interpreted as a
selfish motive rather than an altruistic one.
Also, the spirit of the "great commandment" in the traditions of the
three Abrahamic faiths is to be found in other religions, even if not
in the same wording: It is a call to love God with all your heart and
mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
This three-dimensional expression of love is a moral imperative. It
also positions us as human beings in a universe of interdependency
between the immanent and the transcendent, a universe wherein mystery
is as real as reality.
Even if the concept and understanding of the code word "God" varies
among the faiths, the sense of "an Ultimate Being," "a Mysterious
Beyond" is a common dimension of religions. All religions have a
dimension of transcendence. The term "religion" itself is related to
relationships. It connotes the interdependence among human beings,
nature, and the Divine. A fundamental religious urge is to search for
harmony in this essential relationship. To attain to this experience of
harmony, one indispensable element is awareness about one's self. This
is a self-examination in a religious sense.
Another way to achieve self-examination is reflection, the throwing
back of a light that lets us see ourselves as an object, not only as a
subject. In this context, we might explain reflection as the return or
throwing back of light from others that we had originally cast upon
them. The metaphor of light and its symbolic importance is recognized
across religions. In the words of Jesus: "You are the light of the
world; . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see
your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."
In no other area is self-examination and reflection as important as in
the search for peace and justice and the affirmation of human dignity.
In one of the most quoted texts of the Christian tradition, Jesus is quoted as saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This text, which is known as the Beatitudes, is part of the Sermon on
the Mount. The words are open to many interpretations. But no one can
be unmoved by their spiritual depths. The emphasis on the experience
and self-understanding of the individual is cause for deep spiritual
soul-searching. Am I meek, am I hungering for righteousness, am I
merciful, am I indeed a peacemaker?
It is commonly understood that Jesus announces a new age for humanity,
and a new rule of life in discipleship. Not war, nor hatred, nor envy
or personal prestige is to be the characteristic of his disciples, but
rather humility, steadfastness, mercy, and righteousness. Peacemakers
are those who earnestly strive to make peace with other humans, with
nature, and with God. Peacemakers are at peace with themselves. They
are not proud and boasting about their achievements but poor in spirit
and humble about their mission. The greatest prize for peacemaking is
the promise to be called children of God. God will call them his sons
No doubt the teachings of Jesus echo the words of the prophets of old
of a promise for a time when "righteousness and peace will kiss each
other" (Ps 85:10). And it hails a messenger of peace with the words,
"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger, who
announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation" (Is
Peacemaking is practical and it is political. This means that peace is
not only a conveyance of peace of mind and heart for the individual; it
is also an indispensable feature of daily life in all its
In the Christian tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi has become an icon
for a kind of piety that transcends the individual and embraces the
social, that which is a broad interpretation of neighborly love.
As Saint Francis of Assisi discovered that sun and moon, wind and
flowers, birds and beasts need the loving care of God, he transcended
the Judeo-Christian tradition, as he may be said to have expressed a
central tenet of the teachings of the Buddha. He expressed a new
spirituality for his time. As he gave up a life in luxury to share his
wealth with the sick and the poor, he embodied that spirituality that
sees love of God as love of humanity and creation.
We live at a time when planet Earth is suffering the dramatic effects
of acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, and widespread
desertification. The present environmental trends are seen to alter the
planet dramatically, eradicating many species upon it, and in its
ultimate consequence endangering the human species.
On the wall of a plaza next to the United Nations building in New York,
there is an inscription from the prophet Isaiah about the coming
Messiah, the Prince of Peace:
"He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many
peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears
into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more" (Is 2:4). For those who pass by
without time to read these words, let alone ponder the impact of this
text, the message is repeated in the huge cast-iron sculpture of a
twisted gun at the visitors' entrance to this center of peace in the
In a world marked by conflicts between religions and of tragic
sectarian divisions, fueling wars and terror, these words convey a
message of hope for diplomats and heads of state who have lost
direction or become cynical about their mission. It is a divine and
thereby a deeply human call to self-examination in order to return to
the path of peace. Every human being is called to be a messenger of
peace and a servant of the common good for all humanity and all
The Most Reverend Gunnar Stalsett, bishop emeritus
of Oslo of the Church of Norway, was formerly a member of the Nobel
Peace Prize Committee. He now serves as the chair of the Niwano Peace
Prize Committee. Bishop Stalsett has been actively involved in efforts
for reconciliation and peace building as a president of Religions for
Peace and the moderator of the European Council of Religious Leaders.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2007 issue of Dharma World.
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