Why do we need a peace mythology?

Before I talk about the necessity of a peace mythology, it will be helpful if we take the notion of a peace mythology one step at a time. First I’ll consider the notion of mythology, and then move on to peace mythology.

What is a mythology? And if myths just result in people being duped into being delusional, why do we need them? Or why do we have them? Is there more to myths than delusion? The word “myth” covers a lot of ground, historically and globally.

In what ways are myths true and false? They are usually pretty intangible and inexact. We would not go to a storyteller to have brain surgery. And some of these stories are only fantasies, advertising claims, or urban myths. On the other hand, we know that they are sometimes an imaginative way of teaching essential moral truths, like the myths of the Garden of Eden or the Sermon on the Mount. Was the ancient Greek mythology of the Olympians a similar kind of truth about gods and their importance to humans? Were the Indigenous mythologies everywhere offering similar kinds of truth? These questions may seem to argue with each other. What does this confusion mean?

For some curious reason, every culture, including ours, provides a body of myths that cohere in peoples’ minds into a mythology that serves as a lens for seeing a path for living and a purpose in this world.

The fact of the universal presence of myths tells us that, at some deep level, we want to believe in some fundamental, life-guiding truths about the world and about ourselves in the world – perhaps the rose-tinted glasses that people want to live by – an invisible hand of compassion.

Mythology is not equivalent to history. Histories are narratives of events -- carefully crafted stories of the past that we believe to be fairly accurate statements that, if we had been there, this is what we would have seen. Mythology tells us about the personal meaning of events, and how they embody ideals, a vision that depicts our best interests – whether these are best interests as a commonwealth or as individuals, or both. And we try to act according to the images it provides.

As Canadians, we have a myth about how we came into possession of this land, motivated by the European myth of the Doctrine of Discovery. Now we are glad that we took the land from the Natives using Samuel de Champlain’s mythic lens of peaceful co-existence, in contrast to the bloodier Spanish conquest of Latin America, or the American myth of Manifest Destiny. We had the RCMP rather than the conquistadors, or the U.S. Seventh Cavalry.

Myths probably have to be gripping stories in order to get our attention and have a motivating traction. An example is the myth of Vimy Ridge and the whole national celebration of victory and sacrifice. The “traction” is evident in how much press Vimy (or the War of 1812) receives—‘this was how Canada became a mature nation’ etc’… The memory of the carnage of a battle to take possession of a French hill has become a myth, a big piece of militaristic culture. And certainly the raid on Dieppe also got a grip on the Canadian imagination, though it was a bloody disaster and so has more martyrdom than victory -- less of a grip. Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003) gives us the contemporary scene.

A myth built upon a martyr’s cause has a special traction - is emotionally strong, and politically wise leaders know that these emotions are very conducive to further violence. In the case of the FLQ crisis – Trudeau’s decision was to NOT martyr the FLQ and also to respond by policing with Francophone (rather than Anglophone) soldiers. Although there was public outrage over the military response, there was a diminished chance of martyrdom if there had been any consequent armed conflict.

The problem of having to have emotional traction – of myths being gripping – is that violence in its very many forms is gripping, whether war, riots, vandalism, bar fights, airplane crashes, rapes, football games, fireworks, and so on and on and on…

How can prevention of violence, or harm reduction and processes of peace-building be given traction? One way is by confronting the consequences of failing to reduce harm and failing to build a more peaceful world. Another way is to construct a persuasive and comprehensive mythology of peace that can be a corrective to the mythology of war.

Now we are faced with the mythic Doomsday Clock at 5 minutes to midnight, looming environmental catastrophe, nuclear terrorism, and the necessity of a sustainable, harm reducing and peace-building transformation. How much traction do these myths have? So far, not enough.

In Hamilton, our Canadian Department of Peace Initiative is the strategy for achieving a mythic goal, but is not in itself the way we can describe the mythology of peace.

A peace mythology will be a coherent collection of myths expressing persuasive and memorable ideas about peace, and the recognition of the terrible foolishness and wastefulness of war.

Joseph Campbell believed that we have the task of evolving a planetary mythology – transcending the old and new imperial mythologies, and below them, the societal or national mythologies – in a kind of recapitulation of the ancient, earth-based Gaia mythology of our ancestral hunting cultures. The ecology movement with its premise of the holistic interconnected dynamics of our environment – the basis of reasoning about the spirituality of the earth is a step in this direction. And the peace movement, with its premise of universal rights and responsibilities – the basis of reasoning about the spirituality of human nature, is a step in this direction.

Why do we need a peace mythology – a body of moral narratives that guide us towards more peaceful lives? Because we have learned that historically, all peoples have developed a traditional, myth-based spirituality that was meaningful to their lives. And now we have the challenge to develop a spirituality that guides our attitudes and actions in living more peacefully in a globalized world.

Mythologies are the fundamental notions of a culture, comparable to the way that premises are fundamental to a system of thought, belief, and practice. But myth is not simply abstract, theoretical, or intellectual. Myth is a compilation of pieces of experience, remembered or imagined, that are gathered around a theme. Mythologies are clusters of myths that share common themes, and they have the ability to evoke a spiritual experience, both emotional and perceptual, and both imaginative and concrete. We have some familiar examples of mythologies, though we usually call them great religions rather than mythologies. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three great Abrahamic mythologies. Bhuddism, Hunduism, and Conficianism are the three great East Asian mythologies. And these are only six notables among a great many. Are they obsolete? Certainly not in the eternal values they example, such as compassion. On the other hand, mythologies probably have a dynamic – continualing adapting their world view to the changes of the people in their world.

The power of mythology is partly in the coherence that each of the stories gives to the other stories, creating an aesthetic, spiritual whole world view. The power of myth is partly in the context of our life experiences that makes them not just plausible, but forceful. The mythology of Christianity is forceful for those who have actually learned it, as for example the apostle Paul, the dissident Martin Luther, the founder of Quakerism George Fox. So the myth is a kind of ethos, an emotional tone, but it is also a network of experience, bits of experience, and these things coalesce around particular stories and make them sound far more than merely plausible – as actually necessary to living a good life.

I have experienced this coalescence. As an anthropologist who sojourned in James Bay communities, I discovered the reality of another culture, to my surprise, while listening to the old stories and finding myself saying -- ‘yeah, that makes sense, yeah that makes sense’ – until one day in the third summer I was there – I had a rush of recognition where I inwardly said ‘and it really does make sense!’ That was the point at which I began to perceive a little of Cree culture. When it really does make sense, that’s when it becomes forceful, when you really get it! It is like somebody getting classical music. Or getting it in some other kind of experience of a breakthrough. You suddenly realize this is a part of something larger. It carries with it a very powerful domain of meaning that makes sense of life – and that’s what I’m now looking for – in a mythology of peace.

The myth-makers and myth-tellers are bricoleurs (Claude Levi-Strauss, Le Pensee Sauvage/The Savage Mind), who create by taking pieces of stories from here and there to build a story – a work of art - that people will recognize and feel a relation to. In a real sense, they will “get it.” It may be an epiphany or it may be a more gradual awakening where you perceive cumulatively until you “get” the whole in a way similar to “getting” any other work of art.

Finding our myths of peace is a fundamental way of orienting us to a hopeful way of life: living well together in a society that we respect and cherish, with non-killing politics, ecologically sustainable and fair-sharing economics, and inclusive spirituality. We know that we can find some of this in our own traditions and aspirations.

This is not the most common kind of contemporary myth. What is our contemporary mythology? It draws on a long tradition of The triumph of good over evil.

Taking a lead from Joseph Campbell’s books and TV series, The Power of Myth, Campbell answered Bill Moyers’ question of what the American contemporary mythology is, by pointing at Star Wars as a widely known example of a narrative of the triumph of good over evil. Luke’s epic of final victory in Star Wars and other big epic narratives like Frodo’s victorious epic in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter’s victorious epic have this common underlying myth. Indeed, our three heros have much in common – nice, non-threatening, modest, boy-next-door, but with parents absent – they are the proverbial orphan who overcomes all and saves his people. Out of the conflict between opposites (Manichean - good versus evil) comes the resolution where the well-meaning hero (who is really peace-loving at heart) is mortally threatened by a powerful villian and, at the last moment the hero miraculously marshalls overwhelming power to achieve victory. The winner takes it all, and evil disappears from its active part in the world. Think of Hiroshima. These myths are very engaging and exciting, convince leaders, and motivate the killing of millions of people. Not only by deliberate and organized brutality, but also by small acts of casual brutality.

These are contemporary echoes of very ancient narratives, mythologies of conflict, the power to subdue enemies, and the triumph of good over evil, as Shelley envisions for us in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

What is our contemporary Canadian mythology? We can take a lead from John Ralston Saul’s introduction “The Power of a Story” in his book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008: xii-xi). Saul’s position is that we are believing the wrong myths, based as they are in other countries’ contractual systems. These social contracts include the French heritage of a class system based on the Siegneury, the English heritage of a class system based on the family compact, and our next-door neighbour American myth of liberal individualism that has produced a class system of its own. These systems have all had their advocates in Canada, and are still found in our socio-economic elite and our formal education system, right through university. And yet these contracts do not sit well with the Canadian social democracy contract of “minimal impairment” of both individual and group rights and freedoms, with such systems as universal one-tier health care, and with our image of ourselves as belonging within an amalgam of minorities...(77-79).

Saul is pointing the way to finding the truth about our Canadian identity in the historical fact of our Metis heritage, biological and cultural. The first two centuries of Canada were a “partnership” blend of Native peoples, fur traders, and couriers du bois. Part of this heritage is an ethos of peace, fairness (rather than “order”), and good government. It comes from the Aboriginal heritage of co-existence and welcoming newcomers, sharing with those in need, and a fundamental ethics based on respect (p.50-51). And what of war? Warriors were (and are) always present, but they were used only as a last alternative and were an admission of failure, when political negotiation failed. This has developed into our modern egalitarian, non-monolithic, ever-negotiating, consensus-seeking, individual-group balanced Canadian culture (p.74). We will return to Saul’s insights, shortly. The myths that he provides are a fine example of the materials that we can draw on to create a peace mythology.

1) So, how about a mythology of peace?

It is the role of us peace advocates to try to create new myths. I believe that it is within our power to do this, and I am convinced that somebody has to. The peace myths are there …at least pieces of them are there. Its not going to take a genius who can create a mythology out of nothing. It IS going to take the efforts of many of us to cobble bits together in the way that gifted mythologists like Joseph Campbell, George Lucas, J R R Tolkien, or Ekhart Tolle have done. But its time to get started. First, lets examine our basic assumptions.

Peace is an impossibly big word, claiming (denoting and connoting) a huge range of relations and a huge scope of geography. This is so big that most of us, most of the time, scarcely know what we are talking about. A good mythology can provide us with the intuitive understanding to choose our words wisely.

Peace is not utopian – an ideal state to be hoped for. Peace is a cluster of shared personal processes, spanning our social geography from inner peace to family to neighbourhood to municipality to nation to war within nations and between nations.

So we need to examine our language to make it more recognizable, acceptable, and persuasive. We need to be clear about what we mean by peace, and to establish clear links between local and global.

And we would do well to start from a position of facing the reality against which we seek peace. Peacefulness is in actual or potential tension with violence, or at least with violence causing harm to humans. A realistic perspective must take in this basic fact, and so we must be comprehensive. Violence is a commonly used word – but, like peace, used with no realistic understanding. Violence is not a thing that could be expunged from our lives. Violence of some kinds is integral and necessary to our lives. All animals eat life in order to live. Consider your own diet. Plants and animals are routinely killed so that you can live. That is a kind of basic and necessary violence. So violence is not a condition to be denied; it is involved in recurrent problems to be solved. Our mythology must necessarily be inclusive of violence, or we will work for peace blindly.

We can start by naming the kinds of violence that are the source of our oppression and then build as Paulo Friere taught us, using his pedagogy of the oppressed. The first task is to clearly recognize and name what we are facing, and then we can establish priorities, for we surely cannot deal with all kinds of violence at once. We can focus on actions or processes that cause harm, that we are capable of engaging. There are plenty of resources to draw on for this. In his excellent dissertation, Rick McCutcheon has carefully discerned distinctions between the kinds of violent processes that were applied in the Iraq War, and by extension, in other wars.

Our most fundamental act is to connect our peace mythologies with our peace-witnessing reality – to connect our actions and words. Put in reverse, let our words speak of, and guide our actions to peace building and harm prevention, based on our mythology of peace, fairness, and responsible government. Our mythology strengthens our ability to act and talk in a way that reflects both our culture (to the extent that we are aware of it), and our unconscious culture and our morality.

Now back to John Ralston Saul for a Canadian myth of Peace

He engages some unsatisfactory myths in Canadian history. Why were we a Dominion, and not a Kingdom, as MacDonald and Cartier initially proposed? The British parliament was not too worried about the word “kingdom”, since Canada at the time had about the same size population as the 13 colonies had at the time of their revolution, and Canada had plenty of land. It was the Americans who were distressed at the thought of a Kingdom to their north, and the Americans pressured the British. So there was diplomatic negotiation and we were launched as a Dominion.

We are probably surprised and pleased to learn that we were the first colony of the European empires to go it alone without bloody violence. From its founding, Canada was an example of peace, fairness, and good government (252). But the dominion myth went astray because intent of the word ‘dominion’ was not colonial subservience, as we wrongly assume. It was Biblical (Psalm 72; Zachariah 9:10) and referred to having legitimate power over a domain, as shown in the French language version where it is Puissance du Canada.

Saul offers another corrective myth. Ottawa was the statesmanlike choice for the site of the capital city, and not a compromise between conflicting Frech-English interests. Kingston was too close to the US, Montreal too Catholic and monolingual French, Toronto too Protestant and monolingual English. Ottawa was safely away from the border, had both languages and religions present in fairly equal amounts, and so it was the most representative of the nation, and would best support Canadians sense of belonging. Again, the founding fathers deliberately collaborated to ensure that Canada was an example of peace, fairness, and good government.

Following on these two of Saul’s many correctives to our standard, but mythically incorrect, history, I want to recommend another mythology of peace, fairness, and good government. Glen Paige has offered a corrective to the prevailing myth of political science, in his book Non-Killing Global Political Science (2002). The fundamental assumption, articulated by Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber and others, is that nations (and individuals) must rely on the adroit use of force and the threat of the use of force in order to maintain their autonomy. Their convictions about the nature of social control and political relations was predicated on their flawed conception of basic human nature. Hobbes’ famous “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” is echoed in Weber’s balancing of the virtue of individual liberty with the inevitable "polar night of icy darkness." ("The Profession and Vocation of Politics," p. 368) His essentially tragic view of human nature gave a rationale for his advocacy of mastery over nature through rationality. This led to the creation of political science as a science of the exercise of state power. But Paige argues that the Hobbesian view of human nature is empirically wrong and morally deplorable, and offers empirical proof.

Paige cites global statistics on human killing and shows that, even in wars, a minority of men become soldiers and a minority of those see combat, and a very small minority of those shoot at another human. A radical change of perspective about human nature and the role of state violence is both rational and moral. A non-killing politicial science is possible, and Paige is showing the way.

From the reading draft: We are a part of this movement, and it embodies notions of harm reduction and peace building that are parts of our peace mythology. It is up to us to reach the media with effective and useful materials, to reach many other NGO’s and governments with ideas in a form they can relate to and feel ready to adopt, and to build a popular base of support for the Department of Peace.

"If there is going to be change in the world, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves." (Howard Zinn)

NOTE: this is the first sketch of a long-term project. Any comments and criticisms would be very much appreciated. E-mail to