Commentary: War and Peace on Nelson Mandela Day

On July 18, the world leader would have celebrated his 96th birthday. Why this day is perfect to reflect on the possibilities for peace.

Posted: 07/18/2014 11:41 AM EDT

I've been thinking a lot about violence this past week.

Last weekend, I was unexpectedly drawn into a bar fight in Long Island that left me punched in the face. All this week, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza traded rocket fire and missile strikes that left hundreds of Palestinians and two Israelis dead. And then on Thursday, a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine.

We live in a violent world where men have been taught to settle their differences and prove their masculinity with savage brutality, while peace and love are far too often seen as signs of weakness.

It's not rap music or video games that makes men violent. These tendencies have existed for centuries. When governments resolve their disputes through war, states punish their criminals with execution and parents discipline their children with abuse, why should we be surprised to see boys and young men dueling to prove their manhood, or old men sending them off to fight their battles?

Sadly, many of those most prone to violence in our world are also those who profess to be most religious. For those who believe in a violent god who will strike down villages and cities to punish them for their sins, striking down a mortal enemy becomes a natural extension of god's will. But I believe in a God of peace and love.

When the Israeli Defense Forces posted a message online this week asking Americans what they would do if they were under constant attack by rocket fire, I responded that they should find a way to make peace. A college friend suggested I was naïve, replying online that Hamas militants were "irrational terrorists" and argued that peace was impossible.

Of course, in the fictitious world of western bravado, the "good guys" never negotiate with irrational terrorists. Except of course when President Reagan traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal. Or when President Nixon negotiated with the Viet Cong for the release of captured U.S. soldiers. Or when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for just one Israeli soldier.

I'm tired of hearing about the necessity of war and the impossibility of peace. After a week filled with disturbing news of aggressive attacks and counter attacks, perhaps it was fitting, then, that the world should celebrate Nelson Mandela Day today.

Born July 18, 1918, Mandela was a revolutionary freedom fighter who later became a Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the world's greatest advocates for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Released from prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration by South Africa's racist apartheid government, Mandela quickly took on the role of national healer. "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," he wrote later.

After decades of racist minority rule, Mandela became president of South Africa and led his country to freedom through a period of truth and reconciliation. "You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution," he said.

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela argued that hate is learned and love is natural. "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion," Mandela wrote. "People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

So as we watch the events unfold in the Middle East and Ukraine, we must remember that peace is always an option. When men who call themselves leaders behave with the machismo and bravado of boys, it perpetuates unhealthy images of what is strength and what is weakness and disregards our real history.

I remember when it seemed unthinkable that the Soviet Union would abandon communism, but Ronald Reagan did actually negotiate with a government he once called an "evil empire."

I also remember when it seemed unthinkable that South Africa's white leaders would ever surrender power without a bloody revolution, but Nelson Mandela was eventually released from prison and his African National Congress became the dominant political force in the country.

So in a time of war, let's not give up on peace, here at home or abroad. As Mandela himself would say, "It always seems impossible until it's done."

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