I’m visiting family back east this week, so rather than write a new Saturday Evening Post I want to republish a former one dated 1/25/20 named “Irenic.” So this one is called “Irenic Redux.” I hope you enjoy it either for the first - or second - time. It is one of my personal favorites!
Do you know the word irenic or irenicism? I wouldn’t be surprised if you don't because I didn’t either until I received a note from a friend who said he gives talks on irenicism, so I had to look it up. But it turns out it may be a useful word in my vocabulary - and maybe yours - and I would like to introduce it to you (unless you were one of the better linguists, of course, who already knew the answer to my opening question).
Irenic is an adjective that means someone "favors or is operating toward peace, moderation or conciliation,” or describes something that is peaceful. It comes from the Greek eirēnē, which means peace. And those with an Irish heritage will be pleased to know it’s the base word for Ireland. And I personally received assurance to note a dictionary illustration of the use of the word suggests that as we grow older we become more irenic.
I am not sure that it makes me feel any more peaceful to have a special, less used word to describe one of my life’s goals of “operating toward peace, moderation and conciliation,” but I do like feeling part of an aspiration with ancient heritage that goes back far beyond the Greeks. I don’t believe the Greeks were any more successful achieving an irenic culture than we are. But I do believe there were folks in those ancient times who yearned as much as we do for an irenic realm with the goal of “favoring or operating toward peace.”
I give a good deal of thought to a whole range of possibility about what it means to be irenic. I want most of all to possess a sense of peace in myself strong enough to live with a nonviolent witness every day of my life. I guess I could call it an “irenic practice.” My wife Cathy Whitmire’s book, Practicing Peace, is a record of those in the Quaker tradition doing just that.
But the meaning and effort of being irenic/peaceful gets complicated in the stressful world of conflict that so often tolerates and then erupts into violence. We are generally appreciative of those who attempt to control or prevent conflict from becoming violent, commonly known as peacekeepers. Some peacekeepers are unarmed “green vests” at controversial peace rallies where there is concern for possible violence. But many who consider themselves peacekeepers are associated with armed police or the military, and, although I personally am not able to perform that role, I admit to being grateful they are part of my world - albeit within firm accountability to the people they are protecting from violence. My point is that there is a wide spectrum of what it means to “operate toward peace."
The beatitudes favors the word “blessed peacemakers” who are to be called children of God. Consistent with the rest of the beatitudes, Jesus’ teaching acknowledges and honors lives committed in the spirit of compassion and inclusion to counter a culture of dominance, exploitation, and oppression - a morality that was, is, and forever will be radical and difficult to follow, and all the more important that we try to do so.
Personally I prefer to be called a “peace builder," and my “irenic” calling card says I promote “strategic peace building.” We don’t say we make houses. We build houses, brick by brick, wall by wall, with a clear step by step plan. We also build communities, and we build trust in the same intentional and committed way, and that’s also what it means to be irenic. I hold almost sacred my image of an aged, dhoti-clad Gandhi walking 10 or more miles a day on his salt march that was a crucial turning point in building the nonviolent movement for Indian independence from England. Peace building involves that kind of planning, persistence and commitment.
As we know well, we live in a turbulent and all-too violent world. So we need more than ever to build and nurture an alternative, growing culture of irenicism, and I believe all of us are aspiring to do just that within our families, workplaces, community and wider world. In spite of so much in the news that can feel so discouraging, we are not alone in our efforts to build a peaceful world.
(As I conclude I realize I have used the word irenic like a new convert to a cause, and you may not want to see word irenic again for a while. Sorry - but it’s such a great word, and it should be understood and used more often, don’t you agree!?)