Building a Peace Narrative with Charles Eisenstein

The 2019 Bayard & John Cobb Peace Lecture Presents:
BUILDING A PEACE NARRATIVE with Charles Eisenstein

Originally published in the 2019 Naropa Magazine
Photos by Sofia Drobinskaya

A speaker and writer focusing on themes of human culture and identity, Charles Eisenstein has spent his life exploring the origin of the “wrongness in the world.” He is the author of several books, most recently Climate: A New Story (2018), The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (2013), and Sacred Economics (2011). Distinguished thinkers, practitioners, activists, and scholars from diverse backgrounds are invited to give Naropa University’s annual Bayard & John Cobb Peace Lecture, and the Naropa community was honored to have him join us this spring.

The stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world are what can organize us and cohere us toward a common purpose. If we want to serve peace and wellbeing for all people, a world of healing where society and all the beings on this planet are moving toward greater wholeness, we’d better make sure that we’re telling the right story.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Today the dominant narrative, whether we recognize it or not, is a war narrative, not only on the obvious level of U.S. foreign policy, identifying enemies around the world and bombing them, but also in our basic understanding of how the world works and how to solve problems. War thinking permeates the public psyche. To build a peace narrative, we need to identify the existing foundational war narrative.

In preparing for this lecture, I read a classic essay by the Christian theologian Walter Wink called “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Redemptive violence is the idea that the way to make a better world is to destroy something, to kill something, to extirpate evil, to overcome the forces of evil and chaos with the forces of good and order. Wink traces it back to a Babylonian creation myth that recounts the misogynistic killing of the great mother, who was identified with chaos and the wild. The king was the incarnation of good, conquering the beasts, cutting down the forests, bringing civilization to the barbarians, domesticating the wild. This process continues today, as we take the pieces of a ruined Gaia and build civilization out of them, building the world out of the destroyed mother.

The myth of redemptive violence translates in a striking way into modern science, which says that the tendency of the universe is toward entropy, toward disorder. Only by imposing our design onto this chaotic, disorderly, and degenerating universe are we able to maintain a realm fit for human habitation; to impose good upon chaos. If you accept that nature itself hasn’t any inherent intelligence, any inherent tendency toward complexity, toward the emergence of beauty and organization, but instead that it normally degenerates into disorder, then we are inescapably at war with nature all the time, subject at any moment to being extinguished by random natural forces. Our wellbeing in that view comes through imposing more and more control on this wild, arbitrary, random nature that is outside of ourselves. For centuries, the ambition toward control has defined progress.

Here is the basic template of war thinking. First, identify the cause of the problem, the culprit, the perpetrator. Then, control, imprison, exclude, kill, humiliate, or destroy the bad guy, the culprit, the cause, and all will be well. And the better able we are to do this, the better human life is going to be. Walter Wink gives the example of Popeye the Sailor. Every episode has the same plot: Brutus kidnaps Olive Oyl. Popeye tries to rescue her and is beaten to a pulp by Brutus. Then, just before Brutus can rape Olive Oyl, Popeye eats a can of spinach and beats Brutus to a pulp instead. That’s the plot of Popeye. Wink points out that nobody ever learns anything from this encounter. The lesson is that the way to solve a problem is to overcome the enemy with force.

The War on the Symptom

The mentality of finding an enemy to overcome with force extends beyond warfare. Take agriculture, for instance. You have a problem, like declining crop yields, you identify the cause—there are weeds in the field. And the solution is to kill the weeds. Or maybe you have strep throat. What’s the cause? Let’s find the pathogen. That’s the orientation. Ah, streptococcus bacteria. Solution? Kill them with antibiotics. Or how about crime? Well obviously crime is caused by criminals, right? So if we lock up the criminals, then we won’t have any more crime. Terrorism, obviously it’s caused by terrorists. So let’s kill the terrorists. No more terrorism. Problem solved.

An alternative to war emerges when we see all the enemies—weeds, criminals, terrorists, calories, selfishness, laziness, and so forth—not as causes of evil, but as symptoms of a deeper condition. Focusing on the symptoms allows the deeper causes to go unexamined and unchanged. We never ask, “Why does Brutus want to kidnap Olive Oyl?” If we don’t unearth that, we will be fighting Brutus again and again forever.

When we see proximate causes as symptoms, we can ask questions like, Why are weeds growing in the field? War thinking is not usually helpful with this question. Perhaps there’s a lack of biodiversity in the field or the soil is depleted in some way and those weeds are coming actually to repair the soil because there’s an intelligence in nature. There is nothing to fight. Why is there crime? Is it because those criminals are just bad? Or are they acting from circumstances that we won’t ever examine if we are at war with them? What are the economic circumstances? How about legacy racism? What about trauma, despair, or the loss of meaning in life?

In all cases, war thinking is a simplifying and reducing narrative. To wage war, you pretty much have to reduce and dehumanize the enemy. It’s a universal tactic in war to make them less than fully human. As war thinking infiltrates our political culture, I’m seeing more and more dehumanization and demonizing of the other side, left and right, red and blue, Democrat and Republican. Each side constructs narratives that make the other contemptible, evil, subhuman.

A Recipe for Despair

[In a war narrative], our one hope lies in overcoming [the enemy] by force because “they’re never going to change.” We have a formula for creating change when there’s a bad guy. It’s in all the movies, not just Popeye, it’s in Batman, it’s in the Lion King. It’s in pretty much every action movie you’ve ever seen. It’s in Star Wars. You kill Darth Vader, you kill the emperor, you destroy evil.

In the real world, our one hope is impractical. If it comes to a contest of force, who has more force? Who has more military power? Is it we hippies and peaceniks? Or is it the military-pharmaceutical-medical-financial-educational-NGO-prison-industrial complex? They have the guns. They have the money, they have the surveillance state, they have the police, they have the control of the media. So if it comes down to a contest of force, they’re going to win.

“… in any fight, the resolution lies in the things that are hidden by the fight: the things that both sides agree on without even knowing it and the questions that neither side is asking.”

So, domination is probably a recipe for failure unless you become so good at the technologies of war that you do tear them down—you defeat the bad guys and now you’re in power. But is the fight over now? No. They are still bad guys out there. And in order to defeat those bad guys, you need to consolidate your power to protect the world from evil. It’s OK to do that, because you are the good guy. George Orwell described this clearly in 1984: “The goal of the Party is power.” The justification is that they’re going to create a perfect world, and in order to do that, they have to have complete power. What is power? Power is the ability to make others suffer. So you end up becoming evil yourself.

The more likely scenario is that you lose the fight with the powers-that-be. And that’s why so many activists fall into despair. Despair is built into the paradigm of the fight. On one level, it is because we know the powers are too great for us to win. Underneath that, there is a kind of futility: if we do win, it’s the same. The science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick put it well in Valis: “To fight the Empire is to be infected with its derangement. This is a paradox. Whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire. It proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby, it becomes its enemies.” If you go to war against war, if you go to war against the empire, you have actually become part of the empire.

Consider the following as a general principle: in any fight, the resolution lies in the things that are hidden by the fight: the things that both sides agree on without even knowing it and the questions that neither side is asking.

So for example in the fight over immigration, one side says, “Immigration is harming us, they are breaking our laws, let’s keep them out.” The other side says, “You horrible bigoted, intolerant people, this nation was built from immigrants. We should welcome the unfortunate masses from the world.” Nobody, at least in the mainstream media, is asking why there are so many immigrants to begin with. What has made life in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and so forth, so unbearable that people are willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives, willing to leave their homes and families for a totally uncertain future? What would it take for you to do that?

Foundations of a Peace Narrative

If we want to build a peace narrative, the first foundational pillar would be holistic thinking. Holistic thinking understands that everything is intimately related to everything else. That everything is a part of everything else. That to exist is to be in relationship. That we are not separate individuals, but are interdependent both practically and existentially. That we are interexistent. Therefore, anything that we see as an enemy is part of a constellation of relationships that includes ourselves. To use a Buddhist term, the foundation of a peace narrative is interbeing: a connected self in a living, interdependent universe, in contrast to a separate individual in a world of other.

From that foundational understanding, we seek to understand the constellation of relationship. So if you are getting strep throat a lot, you might seek to understand, “How is the bacteria part of my body ecology?” In fact, a healthy microbiome on the mucus membranes of the throat includes friendly bacteria that secrete substances that suppress the pathogenic bacteria. Killing the strep bacteria also kills off the friendly bacteria, leaving you more susceptible. This exemplifies a general principle: war creates the conditions for war. When you bomb the terrorists, you create conditions for more terror. When you lock up the criminals and destroy families and destroy communities, you’re creating conditions that breed more crime.

Looking through a holistic lens, the lens of interdependency and interrelationship, the base conditions that breed all the things we war against become visible. And we no longer then default to fighting something. That doesn’t mean that there’s never a time to fight. It doesn’t mean never to run away from a robber or use antibiotics. The problem comes when we default to a fight first because we’re so used to seeing the world in terms of good and evil. So a fight becomes the default, reflexive response.

The Pillar of Compassion

When we can understand the conditions that generate the behavior that we are fighting against, then there are other options, specifically, the option of changing those conditions. This leads to the second pillar, which I’ll call compassion. What is compassion? It’s not the superior person indulgently, patronizingly tolerating or sympathizing with the condition of the inferior person. Compassion is to feel what it’s like to be somebody else. It is the experience of identifying with somebody else and knowing what it’s like to be them. It comes from the question, what is it like to be you? What are the conditions that have made you into who you are?

Compassion is the opposite of the dehumanization upon which war narratives depend. Dehumanization is a simplifying narrative, which is the opposite of holism or interbeing. The habit is, for example, when addressing racism to blame it on the individual attitudes of bad people—racists. Racism is caused by racists, right? Or could it be that racists are a symptom of racism, not the cause, and that by dehumanizing them we reinforce the basic psychic template of racism. Racism is dehumanization, and it will not be solved by dehumanizing the racists. Oh, it might feel good, you get to be on ‘Team Good.’ But is that what you want to serve? Or would you rather serve the healing of racism?

“The healing of Earth that we all want so much is going to require a sacrifice. We are going to have to sacrifice the identity of being on the moral, ethical, right side.”

Sacrificing Winning

I have a feeling that the healing of Earth that we all want so much, is going to require a sacrifice. We are going to have to sacrifice the identity of being on the moral, ethical, right side. For things to change, an awful lot of letting go is necessary.

So, the third pillar of a peace narrative is to end the internal war and to develop a peace narrative inside of ourselves. It is to heal the wound of self-rejection, and thus to remove the psychic engine of war—the division of the world into us and them, good and evil. The best, easiest way to establish your identity as a good person is in contrast to the evil people. So, are you willing to give that up? Are you willing to give up having been right all along? How much do you care about peace?

Earlier I described two possibilities: you either get defeated by the military-industrial complex, or you overcome them and become the new complex. What’s the alternative? The alternative comes from an entirely different place: interbeing. It starts by asking [questions like], “Where does greed come from?” That question opens up insights, understanding, and new possibilities for change. We may discover that [greed] is another one of those symptoms, just like strep. It’s a symptom of an experience of scarcity. It’s a hunger that can never be met by the objects that are offered to feed it. If somebody is cut off from community, cut off from nature, cut off from meaning in their lives, they’re going to be hungry for those things. But instead, what’s offered is money, prestige, possessions, power. Those are the substitutes modern society most conspicuously offers.

A Story Is an Invitation

If you can look at the person that you call an enemy and see in them that actually, on a deep level, they want what you want and what all people want—to contribute their gifts to a more beautiful world, to be generous, to belong, to know and to be known, love and be loved, and to serve a purpose beyond themselves—if you can see that, you’ll be able to speak to that, and you’ll be able to create an invitation to that.

One of my mottos is that the story that we hold about a person is an invitation for them to step into that story. [Being able to invite someone into a different narrative] comes from understanding where those judgments come from. Why do we have such a need to establish ourselves as the good guys? It comes, as I’ve said, from a wound of self-rejection, which is also a product of war thinking, that says something is wrong with you, and virtue comes through some kind of self-conquest. It’s built into school; it’s built into parenting; it’s built into religion. It’s ubiquitous in our culture. If you’re a parent, any time you look at your child with contempt and say, “Why did you do that? How could you?” You’re basically conveying, “You’re bad.” It is rarely an honest question—usually it is a coded condemnation. If you made it an honest question, then you’d be getting somewhere. Why did you do that? Please help me to understand, because I know who you are, divine being. Help me to understand, Monsanto executive. Help me to understand, Donald Trump. Maybe you don’t ask that person specifically, but that’s the orientation.

So those are some of the foundations and pillars of a peace narrative. The building blocks, the construction components are the stories that foster understanding. They could be stories that help people understand what it is like to be an immigrant, what it is like to be a racist, what it is like to be a corporate executive, or what is like to live in a ghetto. So many of our political stances would be untenable if we really knew what it was like to be somebody else.

These stories need to be presented in a way that they can be heard. They are harder to hear if I present them with a secret agenda of making you feel ashamed and humiliated. The purpose is not to bludgeon their conscience with how much harm they’ve caused. That’s another form of warfare. That’s why these stories—the building blocks of a peace narrative, the building blocks of solidarity that doesn’t require an enemy—are so much more powerful when they’re presented and held in a way where people feel safe to hear them. They have to sense that you’re not trying to attack them, and you trust them, you trust their basic goodness. You trust. You take the stance of, “I know it’s hard for you to go through this humiliation. I’m here for you, my brother, my sister. I’m here for you. We’re in this together.”

That’s a peace narrative. We are in this together.

A More Beautiful World

Beyond the foundation, pillars, and building blocks of a peace narrative, we might also speak of its structure, its architecture. I call it a story-of-the-world, the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” that we invite people into. It’s a world where everybody has a place, where everybody is valued, where everybody is welcome and is known to have a gift that is essential to make that world even richer. And nobody is left out. To speak compellingly of that world, you have to have seen it. The story we hold about the world is an invitation for the world to enter that story, too. We have to have seen it. And I would say probably everybody in this room has seen it. You have had a glimpse of what the world could be, that the world could be peaceful. You’ve seen that this isn’t really working for the power elite either. You might see that there’s a part of them that is willing to make the courageous choice to let go of something that was precious to them, something they’re starting to realize is not so precious after all.

Here we all are, having caught a glimpse or many glimpses in our lives of a world that we know is possible. And if you’re like me, we don’t know how to get there. The mind says it’s not possible because, what’s the plan? The mind is immersed in war thinking, but it’s deeper than war thinking—forced-based causality. How are you going to make it happen? That’s a more subtle variation on war thinking. How are you going to exert a force on a mass? That’s Newtonian physics, another part of the old story of separation. Well, we don’t know how it will happen. We don’t have enough force and information to make it happen. If it isn’t entirely up to our own force, we’re going to have to trust something else. We’re going to have to trust that there is an intelligence in the world greater than ourselves, that there is an organic tendency or will toward organization and beauty and complexity that is unfathomably mysterious. Therefore, we don’t have to know how it’s going to happen, nor do we have to fight the world to make it happen.

Instead, we start by listening. What is my part? How shall I be deployed? Where am I to be and what is mine to do? What calls to my care? And from that place, maybe we become able to speak that world story, to speak that invitation, or maybe we just carry it in ourselves and act from our deep-seated knowledge of it. In these gatherings, we remind each other that the knowledge that a more beautiful world is possible is real knowledge— because you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t seen it too. The very fact of this gathering stirs my optimism. It reminds me, I’m not crazy. Even if you have come with loads of skepticism and despair, you’re here. You still have hope. Life never dies. Living things die, but life itself always strives for more life. Thank you for carrying that bit, that glimpse of a more beautiful world with you, so that we can weave a peace narrative around it.


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