Ara Pacis Mexicana
By MATT SEDDON
In 13 B.C., the Roman Emperor Augustus built an altar to peace on the outskirts of Rome. He had just returned from squashing resistance to the empire in what is now Spain and France. The altar – called the Ara Pacis Augustae – was beautifully carved with images that reinforced Roman notions of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. This peace, of course, was achieved primarily through violent conquest and military repression, but that did not seem ironic to Augustus and most of the ruling Roman elite. It seemed normal, almost part of the structure of the universe. Augustus, feeling rather good after subduing a major part of his empire, spared little expense and built his altar to the Pax Romana of a beautiful gray-white marble.
I thought about that marble as I looked at pictures of the commissioning of the new National Guard. They stood at attention in crisp lines, in striking new gray-white camouflage uniforms, toting rather deadly looking rifles. They formed a vast, square, lethal altar. This new National Guard is Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) proposed solution to the violence that is plaguing Mexico — violence that is continuing to rise each year. The pressure on him and other leaders to do something, anything, must be tremendous. Certainly, I myself have felt anxious about the rise in murder rates, and I can’t imagine what it must be like in places where violence and murder occur on a daily basis.
As an Anglican priest, I try to model my thinking on that of Jesus, who constantly preached the coming Reign of God – a world of peace and harmony and dignity for all. It is likely that he often used the word “shalom” in his preaching. This word does mean peace, but it means more than simply an absence of violence. It means the kind of flourishing of dignified life for all when we are in the right relationship with each other and with God. This peace seems ever-more elusive in Mexico and, indeed, around the world right now.
I’m a priest and not a security expert. I don’t have a simple solution to the security crisis in Mexico, and I don’t know whether the new National Guard will or will not be that solution. I do worry that transforming a police force into what is clearly a military force reflects the notion that the Pax Romana, peace through violence, is the main path to peace.
What I also think is that we can’t lay all the responsibility on AMLO. Achieving shalom in Mexico is going to require what he likes to call a transformation, a cultural transformation. For us, I think this means becoming a people of peace. We need to think hard about the way our culture celebrates and glorifies violence – in movies, songs, memes, etc. We suffer from what the theologian Walter Wink has called “the myth of redemptive violence,” the notion that violence is a good way to resolve our conflicts. We need to question ourselves every time we celebrate violence and learn to mourn our collective tendency to turn to violence first rather than last.
We expats, particularly we U.S, expats, need to ask hard questions about our government’s drug interdiction policies – policies that militarize other nations instead of addressing the fact that the demand for the drugs that fuels much of the violence in Mexico comes from our own country. Our government also has a long record of supporting dictators who have not been advocates for peace. We must recognize that this is not “their” problem; we are enmeshed in it. It is also our problem. We need to exercise our privilege and powers to advocate for policies that address the poverty that drives young people to choose lives of violence over peace.
While I don’t think Jesus objected to personal self-defense (he did once instruct his disciples to arm themselves [Luke 22:36]), he himself absolutely refused to engage in or support any form of violence as a means of solving largescale and complex conflicts. He also said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This is the model for all who follow Jesus. It is not an easy path, or a short one. It will require each of us to constantly resist all forms of violence and to constantly strive to create peace in all parts of our lives. Making Mexico a country of shalom will require all of us to confront, and change, the violence that lurks within us.
One thing that has impressed me about Mexico is that it erects a lot of monuments. And it is unafraid to erect monuments – like the one to victims of state violence that sits in Chapultepec Park – that question failed efforts to bring peace through violence. I hope that AMLO will also put resources into a cultural transformation toward nonviolent peace so that we one day will be able to erect a true Ara Pacis Mexicana, a monument celebrating peace achieved not through violence, but through the transformation of all humanity into a people of peace.
Matt Seddon is an Anglican priest and rector of Christ Church Parish in Mexico City. He offers services in English every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.