There are two competing narratives that confront any 21st century peace activist. As such, there are two ways to start this article:
Narrative 1: The 21st century is a violent time. Sept. 11th sparked protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Conflict prevails in Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uprisings shape the landscape in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Syria. In short, the world is in turmoil.
Narrative 2: The 21st century is a period of unprecedented peace. Research by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker and others suggests we're living in what is statistically the most peaceful era in recorded history with the number of people killed in battle or by violent crime only a fraction of what previous centuries have witnessed.
My point is that to be a 21st century peace activist you must first ask: How do I see the world?
I live in Belgium, once called the "cockpit of Europe" and site of the deadliest battlefields of the previous century. In fact, this year marks the centenary of World War I, ranked among the deadliest conflicts in human history. It's hard for me to imagine its destruction as I gaze out my window at the Post-modernist utopia enjoyed by most Europeans today.
But at the same time, I work in a military crisis response center, where I'm surrounded by flat screen TVs airing CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera displaying hourly barrages of human suffering and senseless murders coming from all corners of the globe.
So, how do I see the world? I see a safer world that doesn't feel safe. On the one hand, more and more people embrace peace and choose nonviolent means to resolve disputes. Yet on the other, parents keep their children on a tighter leash, we have bigger locks on our doors and we live in greater fear of random acts of violence.
This discrepancy between statistical reality and global perception can be blamed in part on the media's 24-hour news feed of human misery. But we can also point to the countries, political leaders and corporations that need war to stay united, in power and in profit. These war profiteers seek to propagate fear and perpetuate an existential threat, so that we support the proliferation of ever more weapons to protect us from a perennial, omnipresent enemy.
Whatever you do, don't take their word for it (or mine). Discover for yourself the true nature of war and peace in the world.
The second question you must ask to be a 21st peace activist is: What should I do about it? In other words, what meaningful actions can I take (given my specific life circumstances) to make the biggest impact on peace in the world?
I'll mention three powerful options. The first is to protest. "The Protestor" was Time magazine's 2011 Person of the Year. A fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire and sparked a wave of protests that toppled dictators. The second option is to meditate. New agers assert that meditation quiets the turmoil in your mind thereby allowing you to send feelings of peace and calm to others. Finally, you can donate time or money. In doing research on how to help Syrian refugees, the only tangible action offered by the major humanitarian organizations is to donate money.
So, what do I do? I give a nod to pacifist A.J. Muste's famous quote, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." What this means to me is that peace activism requires looking inward. If there's a war going on inside of you -- addiction, depression, or self-hatred -- you must first tackle your inner conflict before you're truly in a position to spread peace to others.
Peace activism today goes beyond taking to the streets in anger to rage against the system, it's about finding peace from within and then sharing that peace with others through inspired action that is meaningful to you.
To be a 21st century peace activist you must search beyond how others construe the current state of the world, and define it for yourself. It's a path of inner growth and discovery where you hold in your heart that if you choose peace in your life, the world will follow.