Two military guards stand on either side of a wreath for the International Day of Peace.

United Nations military personnel attend the Peace Bell Ceremony on the occasion of the 42nd Anniversary of the International Day of Peace on September 13, 2023 in New York City.

(Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/VIEWpress/Getty Images)

Waging Peace in an Uncertain World

Discovering solidarity and joint action on this International Day of Peace.

Every year, the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on September 21. Based on a declaration in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly, this day is devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace and designated as a day of nonviolence and cease-fire. This notion is rooted and anchored in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person” (Article 3), and yet, we are left wondering how this will be actualized in our worldly affairs both individually and collectively.

UNESCO cogently calls out the importance of peacebuilding in our time of unprecedented challenges:

New forces of division have emerged, spreading hatred and intolerance. Terrorism is fueling violence, while violent extremism seeks to poison the minds of the vulnerable and young. In the poorest and least-developed parts of the world, climate-related natural disasters are compounding existing fragility, increasing forced migration, and heightening the risk of violence.

Through social media, we have seen a cheapening and commodification of words, phrases, and concepts. Peace has become a marketing campaign for some, and for others, it is now conflated with ideological arguments that diminish meaning and capacity for change. The level of extremism we are witnessing today in many places of the world is reminiscent of a not so recent past, in which demagogues, fascists, extremists, identitarian youth movements, and eugenics all held hands together. The promise of their future was one of no diversity, no elderly or disabled, no poverty, no dissent. Instead, they offered up a sterile world, in which there would be total war to accomplish their aims.

Today, we are sadly at the same precipice. There is a war in Ukraine, despots and despotic regimes that use slave labor and traffic men, women, and children for exploitation. We have extremists who are committed to agitation and even violence, and our youth are influenced and emotionally agitated more and more through social media and substance abuse. In the midst of these human realities, there also exist the realities of nature, which include dramatic force-majeure events. Under this burdensome weight, one can easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges that each of us faces, and, as UNESCO clearly states, “The barriers to peace are complex and steep—no one country can solve them alone. Doing so requires new forms of solidarity and joint action, starting as early as possible.”

Each generation has a responsibility to the next in moving us toward non-violence, liberation, and justice.

What does solidarity and joint action look like? The pedagogical principle of empathy may best be captured by the African principle of “ubuntu” (Omeje, 2008). Ubuntu is a humanistic philosophy (which has no English synonym) and connotes “collective personhood” and is best captured by the Zulu maxims: “A person is a person through other persons” and “my humanity is inextricably tied to your humanity.” It is an overarching, multidimensional philosophy that invokes the idiom and images of group cooperation, generosity, tolerance, respect, sharing, solidarity, forgiveness, and conciliation (ibid., p. 89).

To engage an empathic pedagogy requires us to move beyond our binary thinking of us versus them and embrace the complexity of human thought and experience. We also need to actively look without bias through new perspectives and suspend personal judgment by approaching something with a willingness to understand (Millican et al, 2021).

As we move forward into the fourth industrial revolution with current and looming existential challenges, we cannot afford to barter away our ethics as a human community to the seductions of our own self-made technology. This is not to say that technology does not have a place, for it most certainly does and will continue to do so; however, the ethical considerations as it relates to our planetary survival and justice are even more critical. For this reason, we are now compelled to really question our reliance on instrumental logic and must begin to advance from the 20th century post-enlightenment turn in modernity into a post-human world that centers planetary interrelatedness. This will be part of our human journey together, perhaps even our errant into the wilderness. It is our destiny to take this journey and to take it together. How we do that will require great fortitude, a willingness to see ourselves as the extended kin that we are, and to wrestle with difficult questions, not one another. This is a spiritual reawakening more than anything else.

For those of us who work in and with community, this will be the work of our lifetime, and the International Day of Peace should be a time of reflection, repentance, and reconciliation. It should also be a time for action—we should not only have a “cease-fire” on all global violence, but also in our interpersonal relationships. We should take steps to reconcile where we may have fallen short, misjudged, or harmed in some way another individual and find a way for individual and community-wide reconciliation.

Perhaps it is auspicious that the 2023 International Day of Peace falls between Rosh Hashana (the Hebrew calendar new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement)—a time to reconsider where one has missed the mark, fallen short, or done harm to another (knowingly or unknowingly). It is a time for reconciliation, where the powerful lessons of forgiveness and mercy become central. There are many interpretations and lessons to be learned from this, but peacebuilding is not a one-day affair, as it requires a lifetime commitment to human justice. It will take extreme perseverance as the fruits of peacebuilding may not happen in our lifetime. It will require us to always renew the covenant that says we stand committed to one another and to all creation. In the Jewish tradition, there is a wonderful passage from “The Ethics of the Fathers” that should give us strength and agency. The passage states that in our striving toward peace and justice “you are not required to finish this work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.”

In considering our work in social justice and peacebuilding, this statement is perhaps the most relevant and captures the long-enduring spirit that is required to heal a world out of balance. It is a beautiful concept in which you are not obligated to finish the work of perfecting the world today, but neither are you permitted to do nothing toward that goal. Each generation has a responsibility to the next in moving us toward non-violence, liberation, and justice—and to think with an Indigenous mindset of the seven generations to come. What a beautiful and powerful gift we have—to live life in the fullness of moving us toward perfection in the recognition of our shared humanity and the potential of our genius.

As educators, we understand that the world stands on justice, truth, and peace, and peace is where the true beauty of humanity rests in all its perfection. Perhaps this is the highest calling for all of us as educators. We have chosen a path that can and should open hearts and minds to bring healing into those dark spaces of the human experience. Erich Fromm calls the art of loving in which love is not a feeling, but rather love is a practice that is our only path forward to actualize peace. Let us consider this day of International Peace a day where we recommit ourselves anew to the values that higher education and other sectors offer up to the world, an opportunity to develop perspective taking. May we discover a way of seeing the world from a new and different aperture and exhibit the energy and zeal to actively seek justice and engage the intractable issues of our time.

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