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Whatever Happened to the Language of Peace?

Pope Francis is the only world leader who seems prepared to denounce war.

Whatever happened to the language of peace?

The most obvious explanation is that the living memory of the total wars of the first half of the 20th century is passing away – and with it, Western publics’ awareness of how awful these can be. In America, the age of mass mobilisation came to a close with Vietnam, and armed conflict has since become the business of a self-selecting class of warriors. The rest of us had merely to stick yellow-ribbon decals on our cars and say, “Thank you for your service.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union, moreover, elevated the US to supremacy. From that commanding vantage point, leaders in Washington no longer saw themselves waging “war” per se, but “limited interventions” aimed at quelling challenges to a globe-spanning Pax Americana. That mentality remains in place, even as the geopolitical landscape comes more and more to resemble the 19th century.

As the Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli has argued, the collapse of the USSR as a systemic alternative has also contributed to the demise of genuine peace-seeking between rival global blocs. When John XXIII issued Pacem in terris, two ideologies, liberal capitalism and socialism, contended over which was the more advanced, humane and conducive to humankind’s peaceful development.

Today, only one of the two, liberalism, maintains a fragile hegemony, while pinched nationalisms and identitarianisms of various stripes reassert themselves in force – not least in the liberal heartlands.

Compounding all this, there has been no mass movement to force a public reckoning with the costs of war. That may be changing with the pro-Palestinian encampments spreading across US and UK universities. For the first time since Occupy Wall Street, the liberal establishment finds it impossible to channel left dissent into selective agitation against Donald Trump or Nigel Farage and their populist movements.

Instead of echoing the slogans of Palestinian hard-liners, however, the students would do well to follow Francis in reviving the forgotten language of peace. This might strike those in power as naive. Yet a kind of holy naivety is precisely part of the grammar of peace: the radical love that 800 years ago led the Pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, to travel to hostile Muslim lands not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake”.