As I write this, a new Pope, Francis I, has just been elected by the College of Cardinals, and this is currently the top news story around the globe. Whenever a new Pope is elected, my thoughts naturally turn to peace – or at least a renewed hope that we are entering a new era that will be more peaceful than the last one. That’s because Popes (to me, anyway) are synonymous with peace. Popes traditionally pray for peace, and ask us to do the same. January 1st is the World Day of Peace, and every year the incumbent Pope delivers a message to mark the occasion. Here is Pope Benedict XVI’s 2013 World Day of Peace message, and this is a list of Pope John Paul II’s messages, from 1978-2005.
In principle, I have no objection to praying for peace. It’s a lovely sentiment, and it expresses one’s desire for a better world. This gesture may make you feel more optimistic about the future, and others will perceive you as being a kind, tolerant and benevolent person. If you’re part of a large assembly that is praying for peace, you may even feel that you’re changing the world. However, in practical terms, praying for peace is a complete waste of time.
Sitting around and wishing for something will accomplish absolutely nothing unless you start taking actual steps to make it happen. A few years ago, I was in attendance when the Dalai Lama visited Toronto, and he told the crowd “Peace will not fall from [the] sky”. I found the Dalai Lama’s speech very refreshing because he was pragmatic as well as spiritual. If we aren’t getting along with our neighbours, or if we aren’t living in a peaceful world, society or community, then it’s our own fault. Asking God to intervene and conjure up a more pleasant environment for us means that we are not “owning” our problem, and simply want someone else to fix our mess for us. Therefore, if we want peace, then we need to do something more substantial than simply wish for it, pray for it, “raise awareness”, or post these intentions on our Facebook walls.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the ultimate answer to world peace – at least not the type of global harmony coveted by Miss Universe contestants in their acceptance speeches. I’m not able to offer you a complete, all-encompassing, turnkey solution; I can’t end wars, but peace doesn’t have a single definition – it can also mean simply living together more harmoniously in an environment of mutual respect. Therefore, I’d like focus on a subset of world peace, and to present to you, a way to reduce (or perhaps even eliminate) the friction and conflict that often arises from our religious differences.
During my graduating year in high school, one of my classmates, Steve, had a very interesting statement posted as his yearbook grad comment, one I still remember to this day: “It was always there, but not always in my sight”.
At the time it didn’t strike me as being particularly memorable, but a few years later, as I was leafing through my yearbook, I saw it again. I thought that it sounded biblical, so with the help of the Internet, I did a little searching to try and discover its source. To my surprise, it didn’t match anything in the Bible. Nevertheless, it still struck me as significant, and I’ve been referring to it regularly since then.
In fact, it was this statement that made me recognize a way to work toward achieving peace in our world – or at least reduce some of the fighting and killing around the globe that’s done in the name of religion. The answer was right in front of me, contained in a pop song. The song is called Counting Blue Cars, by a group called Dishwalla, and was released in 1995. To everyone else, this is just another pop song, but when viewed from The Bob Angle, you’ll see that it contains one of the secrets for making our world a friendlier place.
Halfway through the song, after the second verse, is the line “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ’cause I’d really like to meet her”. These words are sung several times during the song:
I thought it interesting that the band members see God as being female, but despite the repetition of this line in the song, it wasn’t the answer. The revelatory part of the song actually comes after the first verse – they sing the same line, but instead of saying “I’d really like to meet her”, the vocalist is silent for two bars – a small but critical difference.
And there you have it – those are the first tentative steps toward world peace… the answer that was always there, but not always in my sight. The way to achieve peace in the world is done not only through better communication, but through a genuine understanding of another person’s point of view – the proverbial “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Let me connect the dots for you and the life-changing message contained in these lyrics (or more specifically, in their absence) will become obvious.
There are about 7.1 billion people on this planet (as of March, 2013), and they subscribe to a multitude of different religions. One thing that we all have in common is that we don’t know for sure what comes after this life. There could be a heaven, or a hell, or even a limbo and a purgatory. We could come back and be reincarnated. If we didn’t live an honourable life, then we might come back as a lower life form; maybe we’ll come back as a human, but on another planet somewhere else in the universe. Or, according to the atheists and agnostics – arguably the bravest souls among us – there might be nothing at all after we shuffle off this mortal coil, and we’ll just wink out of existence.
An obstacle to harmonious living is the one thing that seems to be common among most religions: they each state that they have discovered the one true path, and to varying degrees, they dismiss the tenets of other religions. For example, one lady I used to know told me that she had visions of me walking through a black, slimy, imposing gate, and then looking over my shoulder before actually entering this forbidding place. The reason for this vision? A few weeks earlier, I told her that I occasionally buy lottery tickets in an office lotto pool. She felt that this was gambling, and therefore contrary to God’s wishes. The implication was that I was going straight to hell, and was looking over my shoulder one last time in the faint hope that someone (presumably she) might save my wayward soul from an imminent and eternal damnation. This was her view of the world, and it’s perfectly fine. Another example: I used to work with someone who was a Muslim. He was a great guy and we got along well, except for one small thing. Whenever I disagreed with him (on any subject), he would call me a lousy infidel. One day he revealed a bit of his philosophy of life; he told me that there are two types of people in this world: Muslims and infidels. This was how he saw the world, and that view is also perfectly OK – I didn’t think any less of him because of it.
I’m sure that you can see the polarization inherent in these viewpoints; organized religions promote an “us vs. them” mentality. To be fair, my own religion, Catholicism, is also guilty of this. In my religion we have a list of Ten Commandments. The first Commandment – which presumably is the most important since it’s number one – states “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me”. Interestingly enough, this Commandment doesn’t tell us how to comport ourselves – it simply says “Listen only to me… don’t listen to anyone else”. Personally, if I was confident that my religion held the answers to life’s mysteries, I would welcome debate and other points of view. I can only guess why my own church doesn’t want me to listen to anyone else.
It seems to me that despite our multitude of religions, we all have similar spiritual needs, so could it be that there may be more than path to our ultimate destination? I suspect that we are all taking the same journey but travelling on different paths.
That’s why this line in the song is so profound “Tell me all your thoughts on God”. Unlike many religions, this doesn’t dismiss the views of others, but validates them instead. This line demonstrates not only tolerance, but also a healthy level of respect for the views of others. We are no longer assuming that people who worship differently than we do are going be either denied a pleasant afterlife, or simply go straight to our version of hell.
The second, and arguably the most important part of this line is the next two bars – the ones without vocals. The absence of words is what makes this part of the song so meaningful. Imagine if we put this into practice… just think of the goodwill that could be generated if we walked up to someone whose religious views were radically different from our own, and said “Tell me all your thoughts on God” (or whomever they worship), and then were silent for two bars… or four bars… or eight or sixteen… or however long it took for that person to explain the way they see the world. I’ll wager that that person would probably feel more kindly toward you afterwards because you took the time to ask for his opinion, and to listen to his point of view.
Unfortunately when I look around me, I see the opposite happening. Let me talk for a minute about certain religious groups that just annoy the heck out of me. I won’t mention any names, but you all know who they are because their followers come to your neighbourhood and knock on your door. The reason they are so annoying is that they don’t care what our views are. They start by saying (in so many words) “Good afternoon… your religious beliefs are unimportant to me – I’m going to tell you all of my thoughts on God, whether you want to hear them or not” – which is the complete opposite of what is suggested in the song. Is it any wonder that so many doors are slammed in their faces? They never seem to get the message… I suppose it’s because they’re so focused on spreading the message.
My fellow high school student Steve was wise beyond his years: It was always there, but not always in my sight. I believe that the path to peace, understanding and harmony (among religions anyway) has been right in front of us all along – at least since 1995 – and is contained in a pop song lyric.
Therefore, if you are sincere in your desire for a kinder and more harmonious society, don’t simply pray for peace. Listen to others, and make a genuine effort to understand how they view the world. By doing so, you are offering them validation, respect and acceptance. I believe that these are the first steps toward achieving the peace that everyone else is praying for so earnestly.