Last night, I was watching a performance/documentary about American singing. One of the featured singers/commentators was a gospel singer who sang a beautiful rendition of “Let There Be Peace on Earth”; the next line of the song is “And let it begin with me.” I imagine that nearly everyone would say that they agree with this sentiment. But do we really?
Rewind just a few days. Duke University announced that they would allow their Muslim Students Association to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer weekly from the Duke Chapel Bell Tower. The University soon reversed the decision in response to protests by an influential evangelical Christian (who urged donors to withhold financial support from Duke until the policy was changed). I found the comments by the Duke community heartbreaking, as the vast majority expressed extreme anger and hatred towards Muslims and the idea of chanting a public call to prayer. Precious few comments expressed sadness (and shock) over the hatred. A discussion thread on Facebook was equally disturbing. A friend had started the thread, expressing good memories he had of hearing the call to prayer while he was visiting Yemen years ago. Several people on the thread argued against a call to prayer at Duke, complaining that it didn't belong at a Christian chapel and even suggesting that it would lead to terrorist attacks here similar to those that took place in France last week.
How does this connect to the song? Well, the desire for the first line is clear. Even the hateful, fearful comments are expressing a wish for peace on earth. But equally clear is how often our words and actions contradict the second line. In order to make the world peaceful, we demand that others act peacefully. If terrorists stop attacking my friends and allies, then I'll be peaceful. Let's prevent other religions from organizing because they might hurt us; then I'll be peaceful. Let's bring economic sanctions or military action against groups or nations that are linked to radicals; then I'll be peaceful. What we are doing through these words and actions is coercion. It is forcibly trying to control others to behave the way we want. This is a form of violence. It is not peaceful.
Let peace begin with me. What this means, if we take it seriously, is that I/we must be peaceful even if others are not. “Begin with me” means “I will do it first.” I will not place conditions or demands on others. I will treat others with respect and kindness even if they do not reciprocate. Nearly every religion and philosophy that I have ever heard of—Christianity, Judaism, Secular Humanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam included—teach exactly this. Yet the adherents of those religions and philosophies fail to practice it all too often. In the case of the call to prayer at Duke, there wasn't even a harmful act committed. Not even the threat or idea of a harmful act. People tossed their beliefs, teachings, and even humanity out the window out of an irrational fear. The result is even more anger and animosity in the world. We are creating the very world that we are trying to avoid.
Have faith that if you act peacefully and treat others kindly, they will, over time, act the same way towards you. Kindness works. I have seen it work in my own life. We have all experienced how the kindness of others makes us feel and changes us. We have all witnessed how our acts of kindness have made others feel and changed them. We can find countless examples posted all over social media. These examples are not anomalies. Take them as teachings and models to follow. Don't wait for peace to come from others. Begin with yourself.