Peace, Beloved Community, Elders, and Digital Economic Nationalism

I’m on a snowboarding holiday in Austria with my partner, and a dear friend who I work with at a charity which works for peace (The Fellowship of Reconciliation).

We’ve been discussing what we have learnt about the nature of peace – what makes for it, how it emerges, how it is so much more than demilitarisation and has to do with the nature of the human spirit, and so on.


For me, which I’m sure I’ve blogged about before, the words of Thich Nhat Hanh ring in my mind like a meditation bell: if we put all the weapons and all the bombs on the moon, we would still make more weapons and bombs. So peace has to be about some other kind of transformation; not necessarily disarmament – at least not first (by which I mean, armament is an effect, not a cause).


On the other hand, for those who have discovered spiritual enlightenment according to their given or favoured tradition, inner peace becomes a reality of daily life. Om mane pemme hum. Discovering this for yourself, it is tempting to think that if all of humanity could make this discovery, the shift in culture, in society, in art, would be beyond measure. But the Way cannot be owned and cannot be forced to emerge in others. It goes where it goes.


Conflict of any kind is clearly a disease of the human mind; borne of our adversarial ego position, with which we are born. We are acculturated to allow the ego too much room in our minds. It possesses us, and the vital prerogative to keep alive – to persist – to thrive – for which the ego evolved to protect – becomes all consuming.


Hence conflict in the world, in communities, and the need for inner transformation in order for world peace to be attained.

But knowing inner peace for one’s self does not promulgate greater world peace on its own. The inner transformation has to also become outwardly transformative, and this is the point currently being made by evolutionary enlightenment thinkers.

In Zen Buddhism, a bodhisattva vows that ‘how ever innumerable are all beings, I vow to save them all’. This does not translate as ‘save’ in the same sense as a born again Christian might be instructed or commissioned to “save” others from an after life of hell. It simply means something like, ‘I have a duty of compassion and respect to all other living beings, and realizing one mind between us, I vow to save them from my own pain and suffering’.

If I can take my own illusion, anger, and greed out of the equation through death of the ego, then the world is more peaceful. Transformations occur simply because I am walking in the Way rather than pushing myself against the forces of the cosmos. Rather like a carpenter working with the grain of the wood. And such transformations in relationships, in work, in others around me, become immeasurable, tangible, unexpected, and beyond my own control. They are simply realized without effort.


Sure. If we all attained this, there would be little to no conflict. We would deal with our conflicts more intelligently and compassionately when they arose. We would look upon the waging of war as the infantile, egotistical, stupid, and futile illusion that it is. An illusion because it can never be a path to happiness, or a path to success, or a path to peace. It never has been and never will be.

Perhaps there will be a tipping point. Enough of humanity will awaken, and enough people will awaken out of such illusion and suffering, that even those for whom awakening has not yet occurred, the illusion of ‘final solutions’ will fall by the wayside and into human history much like cannibalism has already done. And this is what the 2012 brigade are hoping for; galactic alignment will simply occur, causing a new great transformation in human history.


But there may be ways for peace to emerge which don’t rely on such a faith in galactic alignment (which, for some, is hocus pocus), or a belief in the power of the individual aligned with Spirit. Inner transformation work, when combined with a beloved community, can create communities of peace. And many peace NGO’s (including FoR), Christian emerging churches, Buddhist sanghas like Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, and others, are exploring and making this a reality in the world. In turn, these peace communities have a greater force of good karma than an individual standing alone. And they don’t have to be reatreatant in nature.


What my colleague and I were specifically grappling with in our discussion was the demise of imperial nationalism, and the emergence within living memory of capitalist nationalism; all nations still defend their own interests, but this is along economic and not imperial or religious lines. And because this form of nationalism is economic in nature, it is much more fluid than previous forms of nationalism – almost to the point where ‘nationalism’ is nolonger the right word, unless you think of it in terms of ‘imagined communities‘ rather than in terms of geopolitical areas. Moreover, transactions are made across the globe digitally, and allegiances often cross national and cultural borders. The project of the European Union is essentially a post-imperial form of digital economic nationalism. The EU is a monetary bloc, a cooperative where the merging of culture and humanist ideals succeeds, and does not precede, economic collaboration – at least at the level of governance between member nations.


In this context, ‘defense’ and ‘governance’ are closely tied to the economic prosperity of the privileged. This is not so much a military/industrial complex, as was witnessed in Hitler’s Third Reich (which heavily drew on the imperialism of the Christianised Holy Roman Empire – ordained by God to conquer), as a military/economic complex. This is important because economic growth now grows out from a centre of power much more organically than forced empire building. Sure, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait not so long ago, and this was the older form of empire building. But the nations who became concerned about this were not sort of jealous that they didn’t think of this first; nobody toppled him off that throne in order to take it for themselves in a 19th century fashion. An independent Kuwait was much more important a prize for the economic stability or availability of the oil resource, and reasserting such stability in that area required cooperative thinking between economic centres rather than competitive thinking; there was more to gain financially that way through trade.


Despite this level of cooperation in the interests of good trading, the possibility of colonial/ imperial/ military-industrial forms of evil reasserting themselves, or if not that then the fear of an as-yet-unseen “evil”, is enough to cause nations to build and maintain a defense system much in the way that it is sensible to have anti-virus software installed on your computer before being able to safely surf the Internet. The “war on terror” can be read in this context as a purge of a system bug – the bug being an organised group of dispersed, trained individuals acting like worms, trojans and phishers, and democracy in this context can be read as the global digital economic system working within ‘normal system parameters’.

THE MILITARY ECONOMIC COMPLEX PROTECTS GLOBAL SYSTEM NORMAL, RATHER THAN IDEAS OF A PERFECT SOCIETY (ideologies are dead – including left/right forms of politics as demonstrated by China’s capitalist-communism, or Blair’s free trade socialism), OR TRIBES (ideas of racial or creedal boundaries are all but gone in much of the world).


Global system normal sounds quite good. With economic stability comes other forms of stability – fewer abuses of power, fewer breeches of human rights and so on. But the problem is, and many people are talking about this, that organising human behaviour around purely economic grounds is beyond lame. Economics has no care for the real value of world resources, for sustainability, or even for its own perpetuation. Within this global system normal, the operating system itself is fatally flawed. It is only a matter of time, if left to its own devices, before the system will break itself down because we live on a planet with finite resources. Cynically speaking, the end of apartheid, of homophobia, of sexism, of ageism (which we are starting to see if not seeing) could all be attributed to global system normal rather than to brilliant advancement in human behaviour. These old distinctions simply don’t matter in the way they once did; all human units are potential consumers. It’s tempting to look at positive social changes from the 20th century and think that this means the democracy experienced in late capitalism is a good system of governance. But it isn’t. Not only is it fundamentally flawed, but it is also not the right way to look at it. We aren’t choosing democracy. Democracy is choosing us because we now organise ourselves within a global total digital economic system which requires certain ‘software’ to operate. This sucks.


Some peacemakers seem to prefer Anarchy. Especially the protester types who often forget that active nonviolence means not being violent. And we came back to the theme of beloved community.

My colleague’s question is – how do you have accountability, how do you fill the power void, in any community? To leave it empty would be anarchy, to fill it totally would be totalitarianism, so what else is there other than where we are now? The Quakers, for whom peacemaking has been a major theme throughout their history as a faith group, favour total democracy; all voices are heard and given equal balance. The trouble is that even this form of super democracy does not have within it the force to undo a fundamentally flawed global system normal.


There may be another option, and it’s an option which is already being experimented with by the Sanghas, churches, and groups mentioned above. It’s already prevalent in our religious heritages. It’s a system of eldership, and some of the oldest human civilisations thrived using this system.

What do we do with our elderly? We hide them away in shame. For some reason, our elderly stopped being our elders at some point. Perhaps this was because of the industrial revolution, and the disconnection this caused between human society and living natural systems. The very moment that rural communities were depopulated and urban centres grew, drew us away from these roots.

Or perhaps it is because of two world wars. Our elderly are not our elders quite simply because they fought in wars, whether they wanted to or not. Or if we are talking about our baby boomer parents as our elderly (which they have become), then it might be possible to talk of in terms of the self-centred hedonism which stereotypes a baby boomer. Rebelling against their parents whose worldview became darkened by wars, baby boomer culture was bright, colourful, indulgent, and insatiable. The world was not enough, and they can’t get no satisfaction.

I haven’t fathomed out what sort of system would be preferable for determining what makes an elder, but we all have built within us the capacity to know spiritual wisdom when we hear it, and there are many existing good examples of communities with elders where the elders themselves are accountable too.

I recently saw an advertisement calling for the Grandmothers of the world to unite as a voice for peace and wisdom, to admonish their sons about how they express their anger and fear in the world, to give their grandsons an aspirational sense of awe, and to remind their daughters and grand daughters the important gifts which women can give the world. This is a call to eldership.

I don’t expect to figure out a path to world peace after one year of working for a peace charity, one year of exposure to the peace movement, or two years of sitting in the Soto Zen tradition (even with Bodhisattva ordination). But this is a statement of where I’m up to on chewing that fat, as it were.

Inner peace has to be an essential component of sustainable peace in the world, but it is not the only component, and the dharma is nothing without the marketplace. The marketplace has to be community – the place where inner wisdom passes into fully manifested and realized action in the world. And communities require an organisational structure. In Soto Zen we are taught that our peers are more important than our blood ties, because one day a peer might be our Master. And our Masters, monks and nuns, are our Elders whom we go to when we seek wisdom.

All well and good for making world peace a reality within that closed community system; but what about peace and justice for all? And in that sense, I guess that communities which are outward-facing (in the same way that the Network of Engaged Buddhists Sangha is) are more likely to align with the nature of the peace which passes all understanding. That source of peace which has a life all of its own, which moves and flows not knowing boundaries of race, creed, colour, wealth, sexuality, gender, religion, type of being, or system of governance.

Peace is not mine to take. Compassion is ours to share from the heart of our own beloved community.


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