The noble harmony behind peace prizes

Not all recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize make peacemaking look easy. Yet most do assume harmony is an assured norm.

Residents in the Tigray region of Ethiopia cast their votes in a local election that defies the wishes of the federal government.

The world’s most prestigious award, the Nobel Peace Prize, will be announced Oct. 9 amid a time of pandemic, worsening climate change, and democratic decline. In making its selection, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will no doubt look back at the record of the prize’s last recipient, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

He was chosen for making peace with Eritrea and for his democratic reforms. Yet 2020 has been a tough year for Dr. Abiy, especially for someone with a doctorate in conflict resolution who puts harmony between people at the center of his work.

Since assuming power in 2018 following mass protests, his efforts to bring openness and equality to Ethiopia have unleashed ethnic and separatist violence in one of the world’s youngest, poorest, and most diverse countries. To many, his crackdown against the violence has not always been peaceful. He’s also had to deal with a locust invasion, a pandemic-hit economy, and mass floods. Yet despite all this, Dr. Abiy said last month that his goal of an inclusive democracy remains inevitable. “We have no illusion that this would be a smooth ride,” Dr. Abiy told the United Nations General Assembly.

His ability to think of harmony as an assured norm is best seen in his current outreach to the Tigray people. That minority’s regional government is attempting to defy central authorities and perhaps even seek independence. Negotiations have been difficult. But as Dr. Abiy told local Fana TV: “The government scrutinizes each and every action from perspectives of the interests of the people of Tigray. ... The people of Tigray are our people. We dare not to take measures that will hurt them.”

Listening to one’s opponents with compassion has been a common trait among many peace prize laureates as well as winners of similar prizes. Such qualities of character spring from an inner harmony based on humility. One of Dr. Abiy’s favorite phrases is “love always wins.” He says people of different faiths and ethnicities in his country must be able to see themselves as Ethiopians. “We can love what we are without hating who we are not,” he wrote.

Harmony was also the theme in a talk by this year’s recipient of the Templeton Prize. Now in its 50th year, this award is given for insights on humankind’s purpose. It has gone to figures such as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

The 2020 winner, Francis Collins, a geneticist and physician who is director of the National Institutes of Health, told an online audience Sept. 24 that today’s main conflicts in the United States – over COVID-19, climate change, and racism – require three solutions to “heal our land.” They are a commitment to truth and reason, a filling of “the growing spiritual void,” and a “return to our calling to love one another.”

Like Ethiopia’s leader, Dr. Collins does not see political polarization as inevitable. He quoted from one of his recent books: “God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself.” If Americans can avoid a tendency to focus on conflict and instead “reach out beyond our own tribes,” there is an opportunity for harmony. “Blessed are the depolarizers,” he summed up, “for harmony can show us a better way.”

That idea has long been the spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize. Its recipients are acknowledged for the harmony they have achieved. But they must also be known for the harmony they have discovered within.

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