Going on the Peace Path

Going on the “war path” involves raising a clamor of accusations, stirring up elemental fears and basic instincts for protection as well as aggression. Going to war calls on collective feelings of fight and flight that are just under the surface of human exchanges. Once stirred, the winds of war carry the heat of furor into all fields of life, penetrating homes and offices, farms and plants, schools and churches. The idea of war converts all fields to battlefields; a radical condition that supercedes other concerns and can convert all roads and networks into channels of the warpath.

While the super-charged atmosphere of war spreads quickly and widely, paths of peace develop more slowly and require a specific attention for finding ideas and places of refuge. Each attempt at peace means creating a new sense of sanctuary. Just as the war path involves the fashioning of weapons, the paths of peace require the reinvention of sanctuary. Peace is a re-creation of refuge at the edges of conflict.

Either path can require a great sacrifice on the part of individuals. Whereas the call to war quickly becomes collective and general, the paths of peace involve a “calling” to something uniquely individual in a person. War is a collective effort that can evoke heroic responses from individuals. The call to peace is heard in the deepest areas of the soul, where character is formed and the sense of culture as refuge originates.

It must have been a keen awareness of the differences between the war path and the paths of peace that caused tribal people like the Winnebago to elect two chiefs instead of one. Two chiefs could better represent the distinctly opposite paths that could open when threats to public safety occur. Being intimately connected to the ways of nature, they observed that most things appear two-sided, day and night, light and dark, upwards and down. People are two-handed, left and right; even the heart has internal oppositions pounding away moment to moment. And breath, the very vehicle of spirit goes in and out, out and in during moments of peace as well as when folks go on the war path.

Tribal people often made explicit what is primarily psychological for modern folks. So, two chiefs were established and each gave allegiance to one of the basic paths that open when trouble comes in its many forms. One chief would respond to any threat by going on the war path, the other would be just as dogged in responding to each problem by making a path of peace. In that way, it was structurally guaranteed that the basic opposition so evident in nature, in the interchanges of night and day, of life and death would also be reflected in human society.

The war chief became responsible for protection of the people, for defending against attack from outside and for punishment of crimes within the tribe. The peace chief carried a peace pipe and had to be ready to seek healing and find peaceful ways no matter the threat. This reflected the biological, psychological and spiritual shape of the world as revealed to native people of this land.

Any threat or injury might trigger the war path. If there was a new disease, the war chief would attack the cause of it. If anyone threatened the tribe, the war chief would gather warriors to search out the enemy. If a crime was committed, the war chief would seek to punish the accused. This attitude still prevails when the contemporary government declares a “war on drugs” or on crime, or poverty, or on terror. The war path is one elemental response to internal or external threats and it has increasingly become the automatic reaction of the modern commanders and chiefs.

Meanwhile, the peace chief reacted in the opposite manner, seeking to make peace with enemies, find healing for each disease and provide protection for the accused. Even the guilty would be given sanctuary, as healing was offered to both the wrongdoer and the victims. Each new threat required a new path to peace. The peace chief was as dedicated to healing as the war chief was to dominance or elimination.

This old way of seeing and thinking didn’t deny the presence of the path of war or the threat of disease or the prevalence of crime. However, it didn’t neglect the importance of peace and healing, or reject the sense of forgiveness and the need for refuge and understanding. Courage was understood in more than one way and service to others could be seen from both approaches.

The two-sided approach to leadership went further than simply reflecting the elemental oppositions woven into earthly life. For, the point was not to create a stalemate or a balance of equal forces. Too much equality in this area could paralyze everyone. If the paths of war and peace were equal, life and death might be confused with each other. If punishment equaled forgiveness exactly, neither might be effective. Some provocative imbalance had to be present or all meaning might cease to flow. A creative imbalance was necessary in the immediate moment if a greater balance was to occur overall.

So, a small distinction had to be made between chiefs. One would have to be above the other in some way or life might cease to make sense. Thus, the peace chief was considered to be the Upper Chief, carrying the peace pipe and the responsibility for protecting the core of community, sustaining cultural imagination and enhancing the vitality of life.

The peace chief served the greater function of enhancing life in the presence of death, of finding unity in times of dissension, being devoted to forgiveness no matter how strongly punishment might be called for and humbly seeking medicine for whatever ailments came to the people. That’s what it meant to carry the pipe and learn the ways of refuge in a world of opposing forces and elemental conflicts. The paths of peace were made by seeking moments of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that allow life to slip past the nets of death and open the road of renewal.

This small difference between chiefs was aligned with a basic preference imbedded in each person and hidden in the things of the world. For, it used to be known that anything in this world can be the source of trouble and suffering; yet for each ailment the cure also exists. The preference for healing and forgiveness involved the creative struggle to sustain a connection to the spirit of life that keeps remaking the world.

This open-hearted spirit of understanding and sanctuary caused many native people to welcome the strangers who came seeking refuge in the “New World.” In a sense, America exists because many native people upheld the understanding of the peace path, even when it meant being devastated by new diseases and attacked for reasons of common greed, elemental fear and misguided religious convictions.

The idea of electing leaders was also present before Europeans arrived; just as many “core values” of America were known in the land before it was re-discovered and renamed. Terrorism is the latest scourge to come to the shores of the New World and America has become the “only remaining super-power.”

The idea of America stands on the often conquered ground which still offers two paths for leadership. Chiefs are still elected, more or less and the warpath remains one response to the threats of terror and other dilemmas facing the world. If those chosen to act as commanders and chiefs cannot remember the paths of peace, if they are too enthralled with the haze of war and the thrill of “shock and awe” to find the pipes of peace, then the common people must recreate the paths of peace within themselves and become like many feathers in the headdress of a peace chief.

This may be the only way to avoid the increasing domination of the war path which always has the short-coming of being short-sighted and reactionary. The paths of the peace chiefs call on something deeper inside people and aim at something further down the line. The paths of peace are not only the “upper paths,” they are the only paths that provide genuine refuge from the dangers of the world including the seductions of power that come to all who become leaders in times of great threat and trouble.

For America to truly become a leader in this world trembling with increasing uncertainty, it will have to recall the knowledge of the land, the old knowledge that allowed the “new world” to manifest its destiny. The old knowledge of this land places the paths of peace above the warpath so that all who seek refuge may find a healing path. If there be a true destiny for America, it involves the old knowledge held in the land, the living seeds of peace waiting to be rediscovered.

When conflicts heat up and the whole world seems threatened, the small difference that lifts the paths of peace above the instinct for the warpath determines whether a culture simply defends a given lifestyle or seeks the greater destiny that makes possible a whole way of life.

© Michael Meade