by Ken Beller and Heather Chase. LTS Press, Sedona, AZ 2008.
"If peace is what every government says it seeks, and peace is the yearning of every heart, why aren't we studying it and teaching it in schools?"
-- Colman McCarthy, journalist and peace educator
Great Peacemakers is a remarkably inspiring book, overflowing with tales of sacrifice, courage and compassion.
But how could it be otherwise? This slim volume profiles 20 of the modern world's most effective activists, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. These stories are brief, but successful: each peacemaker gets a one-paragraph summary, a five-page biography, photos, and a page of resonant quotes. Blending the individual's philosophy with critical life episodes, Great Peacemakers will appeal to adults and younger readers alike.
Choosing their 20 subjects from 250 peacemakers born since 1800, Beller and Chase worked to balance factors like race, nationality and level of fame. Within this diverse group, each activist's story is impressive.
Bruno Hussar, for example, was remarkable for his mixed identity and his visionary efforts to create peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Born in Egypt to non-practicing Jewish parents, Hussar became a Catholic priest who spent his working life in Israel.
"I feel I have four selves," Hussar said. "I really am a Christian and a priest, I really am a Jew, I really am an Israeli and if I don't feel I really am an Egyptian, I do at least feel very close to the Arabs whom I know and love."
In 1969, Hussar began living in an old shipping crate on a hilltop between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. His vision was to create a village where it was possible for Jews and Arabs to "live together in a spirit of equality and brotherly cooperation." Early on, Hussar nearly abandoned the project when no other residents arrived, but eventually, they joined him. Now, 50 families live in the "Oasis of Peace," known as Neve Shalom in Hebrew and Wahat al-Salam in Arabic.
In 1978, Hussar also founded the School for Peace, where Arabs and Jews traveled to meet the "enemy," often for the first time in their lives. These workshops later expanded to include participants from other war-torn countries like Cyprus, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland.
Other activists featured in the book are: the Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias; the American journalist and peace educator Colman McCarthy; and the South African Anglican archbishop, Desmond Tutu.
The biggest problem with Great Peacemakers is its very broad definition of peacemaking, devoting a fair amount of space to humanitarians, animal rights activists, and environmentalists. To be fair, this approach illustrates many valid paths for creating peace, all opposing various forms of violence. But this choice also shifts attention away from peacemakers who have directly opposed militarism, war and weapons systems, raising their voices against the countless human deaths they inflict.
Great Peacemakers' flaw, then, becomes the activists missing from the book. There is no section devoted to citizens struggling against nuclear weapons and war, which has been, and continues to be, the biggest threat to peace in human history. Where are Bertrand Russell, Andrei Sakharov, Helen Caldicott or Petra Kelly?
Beller and Chase also favor peacemaking's spiritual side, making the practice seem less politically controversial. This may be a valid choice for two authors wanting to sell Great Peacemakers to schools and church groups across the United States, but it largely omits activists critical of modern US foreign policy.
With recent wars, there is little focus on American opposition to Viet Nam. Neither are there any peacemakers mentioned opposing the current Iraq War. An unjustified reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "Operation Iraq Freedom" has now ended thousands of innocent lives.
But why be stingy with our praise? Whatever the book's omissions, it is inspiring to spend time with these 20 extraordinary individuals, all struggling to make the world a better place.
Overall, we see how activists are able to stand back from society, and grasp its flawed assumptions and practices. But where do these peacemakers get the energy to challenge, again and again, the culture's addiction to violence?
Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica and broker of the 1987 Central American peace plan, puts it this way: "...by fighting for the impossible, one begins to make it possible."
Reviewed by James Applegate, a Vancouver writer on war, peace and environment.