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Coventry's Peace Message:
How Can Spiritual Ideals Help to Preserve Peace and Human Security?

by Alan Hunter


Peace is a great blessing and a fundamental need for civilization; human security argues that people should also be blessed with at least minimum food, shelter, and safety.

Millions of individuals throughout the world lead a spiritual life, as best they can, with the intention of benefiting their communities, their families, and themselves. Surely most of us also have an aspiration that people throughout the world might live free from the threat of war and free from extreme poverty, even if we cannot all be rich and successful in material goods. After devastating experiences of war and poverty, some nations and their governments have also become committed to developing a world that provides better welfare and protection to vulnerable populations. Many such efforts are channeled through the United Nations, the Red Cross, international aid agencies such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and religious organizations. Yet individuals who have a sincere religious practice in their personal life may feel that issues like world peace and human security are rather remote and abstract, the business of governments and international organizations rather than grassroots citizens. How can ordinary people like us make any contribution to these global issues? This article discusses a few pertinent ideas, making reference to the small city of Coventry in the United Kingdom.

Peace and Human Security

The concept of peace is relatively straightforward, if we take it as simply "absence of war." But in many countries, even where no major armed conflict is taking place, communities are often vulnerable to natural disasters, health emergencies, violence inflicted by organ­ized crime, or lack of nutritious food. Even Japan, one of the richest and best-prepared nations in the world, is deeply impacted by tsunamis and earthquakes. In the past decade the United Nations, the government of Japan, and various institutions throughout the world have developed the concept and practice of "human security." The intention is that a basic level of human security (freedom from extreme poverty, freedom from violence, and freedom to live in dignity) should be available to every person in the world. Peace is a great blessing and a fundamental need for civilization; human security argues that people should also be blessed with at least minimum food, shelter, and safety.

After the Second World War, almost all countries in the world made a commitment to provide better care for such people. Humanitarian concerns were deeply embedded in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been ratified by all member states of the United Nations. Article 25 states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social serv­ices, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

These aspirations were not well implemented for many reasons, including the military confrontations of the Cold War, but the agenda was revived in the late 1990s. Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, stated in 2001, "We must also broaden our view of what is meant by peace and security. Peace means much more than the absence of war. Human security can no longer be understood in purely military terms. Rather, it must encompass economic development, social justice, environmental protection, democratization, disarmament, and respect for human rights and the rule of law."

The UN Development Report also stated: "Albert Einstein summed up the discovery of atomic energy with characteristic simplicity: 'Everything changed.' He went on to predict: 'We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.' . . . Five decades later, we need another profound transition in thinking: from nuclear security to human security."

All predictions indicate that the world's population will increase rapidly over the next fifty years, reaching perhaps nine billion (from the current seven billion) by 2050. There will be huge concentrations of population in megacities in poor, and some middle-income, countries: for example, Karachi, New Delhi, Mumbai, São Paulo, Dhaka, Cairo, Manila, Lagos, Mexico City, and Jakarta may all have populations of fifteen to twenty million or more by 2050. The world may witness one of the most dramatic demographic changes in history. The population living in urban areas is projected to gain 2.6 billion, passing from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion by 2050. Thus, the urban areas of the world are expected not only to absorb all urban population growth over the next four decades but also to draw from the rural population. As a result, the world rural population is projected to start decreasing in about a decade, and there will likely be fewer rural inhabitants in 2050 than today. Population growth is becoming largely an urban phenomenon concentrated in the developing world.

In short, there will be many more people in need of food and fewer people in agricultural production. Human security into the twenty-first century will be most severely challenged by intensive shortages of food, water, and energy supplies for these large populations in poor countries. The basics for human life are likely to be available only to those who can pay for them on international markets, or possibly those who can gain supplies from richer countries for political or security reasons. Certain sectors of these populations will be especially vulnerable depending on local cultures and politics; among them are likely to be women, members of marginalized and minority ethnic groups, and those most susceptible to natural disasters, disease, and violence. People in such desperate situations may easily be manipulated by politicians or turn to violence in order to survive as criminals.

Coventry Cathedral and Peace Studies

Coventry is an industrial city in the Midlands; the geographical center of England lies only a few miles to the west. The town boomed in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly because of the numerous factories producing vehicles, electrical goods, textiles, engines, and a wide range of components and other items. The factories became even busier at the start of World War II, as many were converted to the production of armaments. The city also has a long religious history, which until 1940 was embodied in many beautiful old buildings, especially clustered around the great Church of Saint Michael, which in 1918 was granted cathedral status.

By October 1940 the German air force dominated the night skies over England. In November the German air force stepped up its raids on Coventry and neighboring Birmingham. On November 14 they launched what was probably the largest air attack of the early war years. Some four hundred bombers were active from 6:00 in the evening until about 5:00 in the morning, dropping five hundred tons of explosives. The city was virtually defenseless; it is thought that at most two German planes were lost. Many thousands of civilians had already vacated the city, some of them camping out in the surrounding countryside; most of the remainder spent the night in underground shelters. This evasive action accounts for the relatively low casualties: an estimated 550 dead and 1,000 injured, most of them emergency workers. The city, however, was effectively devastated. Almost all factories and a great proportion of the housing stock were damaged; much of it had to be demolished. Water, gas, electricity, telephones, railways, and many roads were unusable. The food supply was uncertain for a while. The city center was mostly rubble.

Symbolic of the destruction, even the cathedral had burned almost to the ground, attempts to save it having failed through lack of water: most of the pipes had been smashed by bombs. One tower still stood, and a few of the treasures had been safely stored underground. On the morning after the raid, a caretaker took two partly burned beams from the fallen roof, tied them in the shape of the cross, and set the result in a mound of rubble.

Repair work commenced, and some factories restarted production after a few weeks, but Coventry has not yet recovered from the raid. Most old English towns have some kind of historic center, but central Coventry dates only from the 1950s - a visible reminder of the destructiveness of war. Yet the provost of the cathedral, R. T. Howard, was a remarkable personality who managed to create something positive out of this gloomy story. In 1940 the BBC invited Provost Howard to lead one of its Christmas broadcasts from the ruins of the cathedral. During his speech he said:

Early this Christmas morning, here under these ruins, in the lovely little stone chapel built six hundred years ago, we began the day with our Christmas communion, worshipping the Christ, believe me, as joyfully as ever before. What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge. . . . We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.

Provost Howard was determined that forgiveness, reconciliation, and international friendship were to be the key elements of postwar Coventry. A litany was composed that is still recited every Friday at noon in the ruins of the old cathedral, where people pray that we may leave behind hatred between nations, greed and envy, pride and indifference. Instead, we should be "kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another."

There were some who interpreted the words "Father, forgive" as "Father, forgive those wicked Germans, because I will not"; the provost categorically rejected this view and stated that "there are no innocents; we all stand in need of forgiveness; this understanding is the beginning of reconciliation."

In 1999 Coventry University decided to further the city's international work by opening the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies.

CPRS promotes research and learning that contribute to a deeper understanding of peace and reconciliation. It questions the inevitability of war as a method of conflict resolution and supports those who work for more peaceful solutions. It is a dynamic, cosmopolitan center reflecting contemporary international scholarship on the theories and practices of conflict transformation, peace building, nonviolent politics, human security, faith-based and humanitarian aid, postconflict reconstruction, and related areas. This history and focus differentiates the CPRS from some other centers of peace studies across the world.

As well as those of the cathedral, the city, and the university, there are a number of other important initiatives in Coventry, for example, the Coventry International Prize for Peace and Reconciliation (http://coventrypeaceprize.org.uk/), an arts link with Dresden, regular contacts with Hiroshima, a peace gallery at the local art museum, and the annual Peace Festival.

So, What Can We Do as Citizens?

As mentioned at the start of the article, many of us are people of goodwill, engaged with a spiritual orientation, and deeply wishing that all of our brothers and sisters might enjoy peace and some basic living standards. Many of the issues raised above - international bombings, earthquakes, and so on - seem far beyond our capacity to address. Should we just refer them "up" to governments and the biggest international agencies? Or should we do something ourselves?

One approach is that all of us can at least contribute to healing the human psyche by starting with ourselves. There is a growing recognition, even in mainstream politics, that much of the "new" ethnic violence is not easily subject to conventional monitoring like arms control. War and extreme poverty have their technical aspects. But even more fundamentally they have their roots deep in the divided and troubled human consciousness. To be meaningful, new peace agreements really have to indicate "we will no longer regard these persons as our enemies but as friends." For communities who have suffered unbearable heartache, these words are perhaps, understandably, almost impossible to utter. Likewise, communities may have to learn to share precious resources not only among themselves but perhaps with strangers, even with their former enemies. So perhaps a first step is to make sure we ourselves can practice forgiveness and generosity.

Then, there are many effective ways in which aid agencies and others provide help: they include emergency and humanitarian assistance, micro- and meso-level projects to enhance livelihoods, medical programs such as vaccinations, and improvements to infrastructure. It seems that all of these, assuming they are well designed and delivered, would make significant contributions to human security. So another positive step one can take is to personally or perhaps financially support reputable charities working in these areas: some directly deliver serv­ices and aid in poor or violent regions of the world; others campaign for better national and international practices, for example, in clearing land mines and building flood defenses.

Finally, our experience in Coventry shows that even in a small town in the United Kingdom there are vulnerable people or people who have links to vulnerable communities. They may be students from developing countries who try to survive on very low incomes and send money back home, conflict victims who arrive as refugees and asylum seekers, people who have been displaced after earthquakes and other disasters. If we care enough to take an interest, we might well come across such people even in affluent cities like Tokyo. If we want our spiritual practice to manifest as charity and generosity, we will surely find opportunities.


Alan Hunter is Professor of Asian Studies and Associate Director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University. He was formerly Associate Director of the Applied Research Centre in Human Security at Coventry University and has taught peace studies, religious studies, and Chinese studies in the United Kingdom, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Dr. Hunter has authored and edited several books on peace studies.

This article was originally published in the July-September 2013 issue of Dharma World.

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