Peace is something that we all say we want, but few of us actually possess. What makes peace so elusive? Perhaps peace eludes us because we do not understand what it is or we do not chase it with the same fervor as our other goals. In this article, I’ve invited four female winners of the Nobel Peace Prize to teach us what they know about peace. From closely observing their lives, we learn how we too can become women of peace.
There are nine women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. For the sake of brevity, I’ve only presented four of these award winning women here. They come from various nationalities, religious traditions, and socio-economic statuses. Yet, each of these women distinguished themselves by living a life dedicated to peace. There example encourages others to do the same.
Mother Theresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Born into an Albanian Roman Catholic family in Yugoslavia, she felt called as a teenager to a life of service to the poor and disenfranchised. At the age of 18 Mother Theresa left her family and country to live a life of service in Calcutta, India. She worked with people who were not of her race, religion or nationality. Mother Theresa committed herself to working with the poorest of the poor. She established a new order, Missionaries of Charity, to do precisely that. Missionaries of Charity soon spread to many other countries. This order mobilizes thousands of people around the world to join Mother Theresa in her mission of peace.
Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Jane Addams was born in the suburbs of Chicago to an affluent and privileged family. Addams is known as one of the founding mothers of sociology and social work. Although she considered herself a sociologist, Addams chided the profession of sociology for its elitism and sexism. She advocated a vision of academic knowledge used in the service of society. She wanted sociology to solve some of our world’s most pressing problems, such as poverty and war. Addams was a lead advocate on both these issues.
Addams founded the country’s first settlement house: Hull House. Hull House provided comprehensive community based services to low-income and immigrant families in Chicago. Hull house became the model for social service delivery across the country and around the world. Addams also regularly lectured on peace and the need to end war in this world. She served as the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom for a decade. Through her teaching, writing, and organizations, Addams embodied the virtue of peace and encouraged others to do the same.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991; but she could not be present to accept it because she was imprisoned by the military dictatorship of what is now Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned for her leadership role in a peaceful, non-violent, social movement for the liberation of her nation of Burma. She modeled her life of peace based on the tactics of Gandhi and her father Aung San who was also a leader in the liberation struggle. Aung San Suu Kyi continued their legacy of peace, holding tight to the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, reconciliation between groups, non-violence, and personal and collective discipline.
In 1992, The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rigoberta Menchu Tum “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethnocultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.” Tum is a Mayan Indian born in Guatemala. Military soldier murdered her mother and brother and burned down the building where her father and his compatriots were gathered in peaceful protest. This pervasive regime of state sanctioned violence led Tum’s remaining sisters to join the guerrilla resistance force. Yet, Tum remained steadfast in her commitment to nonviolent resistance.
Even when personally confronted with such brutal violence, Rigoberta Tum refused to perpetuate that cycle. The chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee describes Tum as “the shining individual examples of people who manage to preserve their humanity in brutal and violent surroundings, of persons who for that very reason compel our special respect and admiration. Such people give us a hope that there are ways out of the vicious circle.”
So what do these women of peace have in common? What do these patterns tell us about the necessary components of peace?
These women shared a unshakable believe that the world should and could be better than it was in the present. They believed in the intrinsic value of human life and worked diligently to preserve that life. It did not matter if the life represented a gender, racial, ethnic, religious, political group different than their own. Their commitment to peace required these women to challenge the social, economic, and political systems threatening the well being and security of others. This shared faith in the value and dignity of humanity comes from a variety of different religious traditions as well as secular humanism. The virtue of peace itself models the common brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity. It is only once we realize this that we can ever posses peace.
These women did not have easy lives. Their commitment to peace cost them dearly. Sometimes it costs them their freedom and security. For others it costs them their personal and professional relationships and social standing. Many of the women who won the Nobel Prize were unable to make it to the presentation ceremony because of exile, imprisonment, or deteriorating health. These women had given their all in the service of others and we continue today to reap the benefits of their labor.
These women worked diligently for peace in the face of strong opposition. They did this because they believed that their goal would eventually be realized. Their faith in evident in their clear resolution to struggle against odds, to withstand various disappointments and defeats, and to never to give up. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes about this type of faith when he encourages his fellow believes to do all that they can and then to stand. Stand in the confidence that God is standing with you and is working to bring about the peace you seek. Although the women of peace presented here come from various religious traditions, they each demonstrated great, unshakable faith.
It is precisely that unshakable faith that gave these women the courage to act in such dangerous times. It took great courage for Aung San Suu Kyi and Rigoberta Menchú Tum to stand up to the soldiers who threatened them. It took courage Mother Theresa to commit to living the rest of her life in a foreign land with people who did not share her culture, religion, ethnicity, or social standing. Jane Addams demonstrated great courage in her decision to commit all her talents and resources in solving a problem that most people thought of as “the natural way of things.”
We honor these women of peace because they symbolize the best in us. They are ordinary women who have done extraordinary things. They show us the beautiful and powerful pieces of ourselves that may have been forgotten or overlooked. So how can we use their legacy to help us practice lives of peace?
It does not matter if others agree with or can see your vision. Women of peace have learned how to focus in on their vision of the beauty and dignity of life, in spite of the brutality that surrounds them. They know that even if others may be living according to such base motivations, there is an underlying reality that is more beautiful and more true. This vision fuels their actions and empowers them to create the world they already see within.
You too possess this creative power. Whatever you focus on will direct your behavior and magnify its presence in your life and in our world. It requires effort to see beauty in the midst of brutality. The fact that others do reminds us that this too is our choice. The lives and legacy of these women of peace show us that this is also the most effective choice. As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Hate can never drive out hate; only love can do that.”
You have the power to choose your vision. What do you see?
You do not create the life you seek by merely wishing it. It requires consistent and sustained action. We learn from the lives of these women that peace is not a passive attribute. Peace requires action. We create peace for ourselves and others based on the choices that we make each day.
Many times the choice for peace is the more difficult choice. It is easier to go with the flow and model what everyone else is doing. But everyone else does not have peace. They do not see your vision of life as it can be. Thus, they need you to show what is possible. Our world needs for you to “bring peace” with you so that we can see a better vision of life as it can be.
The fact that others don’t already see your vision means that you will need faith to carry it through to reality. Your faith in your vision, yourself, and the righteousness of your cause empowers you to stand in the face of opposition. Whether that faith is grounded in a specific religious tradition, a more general spirituality, or a secular humanism, your faith ensures your victory.
Most people do not believe that peace is possible. I see this in the political discussions of nations eager to go to war. I see our eye for an eye thinking in the street code of violence or public discussions about the death penalty. I see the lack of faith in peace in our tolerance of poverty and injustice. While we might say that we want peace, most of us think of it more like a children’s fairytale or Santa Claus.
But there are some of us who believe in the practical reality of peace. Like these Nobel Peace Prize winners, we know that peace is not just a way, but the only way to ensure our individual and collective well-being and survival. If you share this faith, guard it dearly. Protect it against the cynicism, fear, and apathy that would try to undermine your vision. Faith is the bullet proof vest that you can use to protect your vision for peace.
Courage does not mean fearless. Courage is the ability to act in the face of your fears. Courage empowers you to follow your internal compass when it leads you on a path different from those around you.
These women of peace were also women of courage . There vision of what should be inspired them to act courageously in the face of the world as it was. Their courageous action inspired others to do the same. Your individual actions posses that same power to enact change and to inspire others to do the same.
There’s no need to wait for someone to say or do something about this situation. You are here. Stop waiting, step into your vision, and act courageously. Others will be blessed by your example.
I’d love collecting stories of inspirational women; some famous and some unknown. Please share believe your personal role models of peace. You might also like to post quotes or resources that help you to live a life of peace. Thank you for demonstrating the faith, hard work, and courage that it takes to make your vision a reality!
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