Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Response Paper 2

Alex Blosser RELG 390 – October 11, 2019

“If we can love the men we cannot trust and if we can to some extent share the burden of their sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there is some hope of a kind of peace on earth, based not on the wisdom and the manipulations of men but on the inscrutable mercy of God. For only love — which means humility — can exorcise the fear which is at the root of all war.”1

As soon as I read this quote from Thomas Merton’s Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, I immediately thought of Sibyl Schwarzenbach’s theory of Civic Friendship that we discussed in Friendship Studies last semester. Merton sees the world and is appalled at the hate and fear present in the societies of today, something Schwarzenbach recognizes as well. Their writings combine incredibly well, and both are relevant not only to Friendship Studies but to the concept of Forgiveness in daily life. Forgiveness and friendship are inextricably linked, after all.

Merton approaches peace from a religious angle. He writes that “If men really wanted peace, they would sincerely ask God for it and He would give it to them. But why should He give the world a peace which it does not really desire? The peace the world pretends to desire is really no peace at all.”2 In this passage he hints at the differences between “positive” and “negative” peace, and dives further into it in the next paragraph. “And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence…”3 Negative peace is simply the absence of violence: The Metta Center for Nonviolence defines it as a state in which there is not open conflict between actors – a perpetual pre-hostility, if you will.4 This is not only undesirable, it is unsustainable. God would grant us peace if we could simply realize that peace is not the absence of violence, it is the sustaining of peaceful systems and societies. If negative peace is self-defeating, always leading back to war, then positive peace is self-reinforcing, and pushes for an ever more peaceful society. 

In the final sentence of his first quote, Merton links humility and love together in a connection that may seem odd at first glance. However, that is only because humility is so seldom practiced in our daily lives. C.S. Lewis is famously quoted as saying “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” In a world where the global political climate shifts ever towards nationalism and a “my country first” sort of mentality, we are losing ourselves to the sin of pride. Here the difference between patriotism and nationalism is important. Patriotism is a love of one’s country, but nationalism is a love of one’s country above all others. A society built on nationalism is never content, because there will always be a country outside itself that has not adopted its “superior” ideals and way of life. It inevitably leads to war and conflict.

Then, Schwarzenbach brings to the table this idea of “civic friendship”. Much like Merton’s idea that we should love even those we cannot trust, civic friendship is, in her own words, “a reciprocal awareness of the moral equality of the other, reciprocal goodwill towards them, and a practical doing…” integrated into the very fabric of society.5 “Civic friendship requires the individual recognition of the moral equality of others, a flexible good will towards them, and a practical willingness to do things for them.”6 Quite a religious ideal, isn’t it? Schwarzenbach hints around “love thy neighbor” with her writing, and there is a sort of inherent religiosity in realizing not only the equality of all, but the human-ness of each and every individual in a society. In my opinion, there is no better moral framework with which to achieve a society built upon positive peace than that of Schwarzenbach’s civic friendship. Even among those you dislike or distrust, spreading love and humility brings people together, and Merton and Schwarzenbach understand that. In Schwarzenbach’s words, “I can thus personally detest a fellow citizen but still be his or her civic friend”.7

These ideas often go against our basic instincts as humans to form an “ingroup” and an “outgroup” – but as soon as we start looking at everyone as part of our “ingroup,” a world of lasting positive peace is possible. She speaks out against ideas of solidarity and nationalism, “…Solidarity all too often implies a kind of “negative friendship”: the Schmittian kind which is grounded in thwarting a common enemy. We stand together against Oppressor X or Oppressor Y , but once this oppressor is vanquished our social union all too often tends to fall apart…”.8 

Civic friendship is not a deep friendship – it does not create nor require deep connections with those around you. It’s more of a foundation for a society that is self-aware enough to realize every one of its members is no more or less equal than the next. And whether this society is created through secular institutions – as Schwarzenbach mentions – or religious institutions – as Merton mentions – the ultimate goal is the same. It is difficult to find effective theory on a society built on positive peace because it simply hasn’t ever happened in the history of the world. Positive peace is a strength that is often viewed as weakness: a country aiming for positive peace cannot attempt to engage in hostilities or conflicts with other countries or groups, nor prepare for them. 

Pragmatically, this makes it difficult for a society like the one Schwarzenbach and Merton described to exist unless that society was Earth. To think that a world at peace would mean a world free from hardships, crimes, and sin is potentially shortsighted, but it would show how far we have come as a people to start looking to others to help them instead of looking to others as enemies or opponents. The essence of humanity is choice: the free will to choose sin or salvation, Satan or sainthood. A world at peace would not remove this choice in any way. If anything, it would make it more attainable. Let me explain.

When one group declares war on another, they remove any choice of nonviolence. If safety of yourself is your highest priority, you must fight back, and to that extent you no longer have the option to choose a nonviolent solution or alternate path. Poverty is very similar in this sense; most people steal or commit crimes out of a necessity for self-preservation rather than an urge or prejudice against the victim. If you are unable to provide for your family through legal means, then your choice is either to steal or starve. Essentially, you have no choice. In America we pride ourselves on the “American Dream,” and the ability of our citizens and fellow patriots to pull themselves up by the bootstraps from poverty to wealth. Unfortunately, we also view wealth as a zero-sum game. If the CEO makes more, the workers make less, for example. Tax cuts and slashes to our welfare system perpetuate this cycle. “Love thy neighbor” has lost its way, and only through the philosophies of civic friendship and positive peace can we steer back towards the road to salvation.

1. Merton, Thomas. Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence. New York: Crossroad, 1997. Page 34.

2. Merton. Page 37.

3. Merton. Page 37.

4.“Negative Peace.” Metta Center, April 13, 2010.

5. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015. Page 14.

6. Schwarzenbach. Page 14.

7. Schwarzenbach. Page 11.

8. Schwarzenbach. Page 14.

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