In the opening scene of the classic Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, brought to an almost living stature by Franco Zeffirreli’s landmark 1968 Hollywood movie, the Prince of Verona warned sternly, “If ever you disturb the streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace!” Those words, through the clever machinations of the great bard, proved to be prophetic in the story. Romeo did die, not in the hands of the law which had prescribed an arguably legal sanction but, ironically, by his own hands, driven by an unquenchable desire for the love of his life, Juliet.
Thus, was a sullen peace restored in Verona — the peace that often escapes us when we run amok with our passions yet oftentimes belatedly settles when nothing remains but our torn lives and starved hopes.
Tybalt had accidentally killed Mercutio in a playful sword fight. Romeo killed Tybalt in a burst of vengeful rage in a fair duel to the death. It would have been a “fair” exchange of blood between two warring wealthy families, if they were only allowed to sit down face-to-face and made to accept the ultimate cost of an endless feud that had spiraled to such heights due to the fires of hatred that burned in their hearts. Like it or not, the opportunity to grasp at a settled peace could have been imposed by the ruler there and then. Building peace at that crucial moment when human souls needed rest, nay, escape, from the self-destructive lust for blood would have been a more productive, if not, the better alternative.
But the “rule of law” required justice for a crime committed, thus stoking the flames instead of dousing it out. The Prince, after all, had claimed the right to impose the dictates of the law: to require the blood of anyone who caused it to spill. Romeo must not live! Yet, the sentence came even before a proper investigation was undertaken. The strict application of the law was deemed necessary (or as they had hoped) to quell future brawls between the two families, knowing that the deterrent sword of the law dangled over their heads.
This legal doctrine has been with us since time immemorial, even before Moses enforced it upon the Israelites who lived by the precept of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Today, that doctrine remains as a stumbling block for the delicate peace that remains so elusive between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “Peace talks”, the byword of leaders who desperately seek a solid foundation of conflict-free and cooperative relations in the Middle East, continues to keep nations busy at the negotiating tables.
Peace-building aims at complete elimination of violent conflict. Once the cycle of violence is continued, whether by individuals or by the State, blood will likewise continue to spill. Yes, the state, in certain circumstances, does have the power and the divinely-delegated right to defend itself against aggression and rebellion. Yet, aware of the root causes, in the case of rebellion, several nations have wisely sought to minimize the use of violence as a tool for achieving peace.
Jewish law incorporates this balancing act in its application of such military power:
Judaism does not require that society go to war in every circumstance in which war is permissible. The decision as to whether or not to wage war is a societal burden, one made by those who are part of the society who will suffer the consequences of waging the war. In response to a belligerent action, in situations where war is authorized rather than obligatory, society has the right to adopt a pacifistic stance and decline to wage war (or to wage some kind of limited war). In that sense a society could adopt a generally pacifistic response to aggression and decline to exercise its right to respond to every aggression. That form of societal pacifism is permitted according to Jewish law. Even in that situation, these considerations are limited to cases of authorized war.(”Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition”, Michael J. Broyde.
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher and theologian, stated that it takes moral daring, not power, to make peace. He wrote:
The truly daring are not those who dream of conquest and subjugation, but rather those who look to the future, when two nations will together, in brotherhood, make the Near East flourish.
In contrast to the hard-line practice of holding every perpetrator or rebel-group accountable for their lawless aggression then is the refreshing alternative of Pacifism. The defeated Japanese people, in 1947, incorporated into their Constitution this form of non-violence when they adopted the “No Army” clause (Article 9). To wit:
ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
On May 3, this year, Japan conducted a peace program to further highlight this unique and still highly debated legal provision. Without sacrificing its capacity to defend itself against internal aggression, the Japanese have striven to remain faithful to their constitution, with the tacit support from allied US military forces. Its prosperity so far had proven to be some kind of reward for its “good behavior”.
The task of peace-building ultimately has a spiritual dimension and so does war or authorized military action which is often mistakenly perceived as a mere political right. Romans 13 of the New Testament grants the king or the ruler to take up the “sword” to protect society. Obviously, such power could be abused by less altruistic leaders, as it often happens nowadays.
Yet, people now tend to move toward Pacifism. For many, the one charged with the task of keeping or making the peace carries a greater burden and more noble duty than one who is charged with finishing the war. Why? Because Pacifism (the idea of pursuing peace by means of non-violent means, that is) runs counter to our basic legal and psychological nature. The girls who watched Leonard Whiting play Romeo onscreen certainly did not fancy having him sent to the gallows but some people may have thought otherwise. Romantic of not, the young lover deserved to pay somehow for his criminal outrage although not necessarily by hanging. For the right price, a good lawyer might have gotten him exonerated on the basis of self-protection or even self-defense
Come to think of it, if only the Prince had talked to the mother of Romeo instead of his father, a different decree might have been reached. Women did not have a voice on such matters in medieval times. Today, however, women have such a voice that leaders (some of them women as well as mothers themselves) have brought in their mode of thinking and intuition into the once male-dominated halls of government. Rightly so. For when negotiators who may not have had any experience in combat encounter the dire collateral damage that conflict creates in the lives of non-combatants like women and children, the glory of victory in battle loses its appeal. That does not mean, however, that males are any less sensitive to the horrors of war.
For soldiers themselves are first to admit that they desire peace more than war. They would prefer to be with their families instead of waiting in the trenches. A boxer like Manny Pacquiao has often said that his son would not become a boxer like him. Calm and comfort after all made up our first unconscious recollections in life as infants. As adults, we all yearn to go back to it somehow and so reluctantly succumb to it in old age.
Yet, we need soldiers as much as we need mothers for our homes as well as managers for our industries and businesses. The reality and inevitability of conflict is strong enough for us to invest in a military force. Preparedness is a necessary cost of maintaining and achieving a real and secure peace and assuring prosperity.
The important criterion that justifies having an armed force is legitimacy. The right and the power rest upon a duly instituted government. Anyone else is subject to it and liable for any disobedience.
But as we suggested, Romeo, or any other rebellious citizen for that matter, need not die. He may be allowed to live and to pay for his offense in some way if we choose to seek the path of peace and building it upon a principled foundation of “restorative justice” and not just a “retributive justice”. Moral ascendancy requires first and foremost the ability not to use power when mercy can do a better job. Hence, Romeo may be granted amnesty based on certain conditions that are both acceptable to all parties concerned. If presidents are granted pardon for even graver offenses, why cannot armed rebels and ideologues be granted the same as long as real repentance is present?
Sure, the politics of peace may also cloud our minds to the real issues. But in the end, the true spiritual foundation of peace must not escape our attention. When we were still sinners (worthy of death in the eyes of God), Christ died to ransom us and established peace between us and God, our righteous Judge.
Remember: Let us not judge the pardoned or the pardoner. For each of us stands guilty to a certain degree. But we could all be granted a pardon, no, a clear Conscience, if we know how to claim it. Until we freed ourselves of the warring passions within us, brought about by our own inability to claim God’s gift of true peace within ourselves, we will never desire to make peace with God or with others as well.
The Old Testament vengeful God has given way to the New Testament selfless and loving God. All in the hope of establishing an eternal peace among all people under God’s rule. To miss this significant truth (as some people do in the name of religion) is to totally miss the real meaning and the real source of peace.
To stand then as a belligerent individual or nation armed to the teeth before one’s enemies is to court conflict. To humble oneself before God and stand firm before one’s enemies with dignity and courage, armed with peace and hope in the heart, is to win the peace already. For truly, peace begins within us.
Can we still establish peace today? As The Byrds said in their ‘60’s hit song “…a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
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