Peacemaking--Commencement Address

 Douglas E. Noll

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 May, 1999

This year I was the commencement speaker at San Joaquin College of Law. In abbreviated form, here's what I, a peacemaker and a lawyer, had to say to the graduates:

 My address to you begins with the story of two towns in the Zapotec region of Mexico. These towns are 8 miles apart. They are culturally, economically, and religiously homogenous. Neither community has a stratified class structure. What is remarkable about these two towns is their very different expression of aggression.

 In La Paz, few animosities or quarrels erupt into violence. Fights are infrequent and usually end with one person walking away from the conflict. Women are close to being equal with men. La Paz has not had a homicide in 60 years. In San Andres, on the other hand, fights are common, especially during celebrations and parties. Men try to control their wives and assure fidelity through fear, containment and force. In San Andres, great care is taken not to arouse jealousy by unrelated men and women even talking to each other. San Andres has a homicide rate substantially higher than La Paz, with the last homicide occurring within 3 years.

 What is the difference? Anthropologists report that the primary difference appears to be that the people of La Paz internalize peace values. Most importantly, they teach their children the importance of peaceful resolution of disputes. In San Andres, the people internalize values that permit and covertly encourage violence. Higher levels of family violence are reported and discipline is harsher.

 An explanation for these difference values can be found in the myth of redemptive violence. The myth of redemptive violence started with the Babylonian myth of creation. In the Babylonian myth, good was pitted against evil. The young god Marduk murdered evil Tiamat, disemboweled her, and spread her entrails throughout the cosmos. Thus, humanity and creation arose from violence and chaos.

The Babylonian myth is the dominant myth of modern western culture. An indestructible good guy is unalterably opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible bad guy. Nothing can kill the good guy, though for most of the plot, he suffers grievously. Somehow, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain and restores order. Nothing finally destroys the bad guy or prevents his reappearance.

No premium is placed on reasoning, persuasion, peacemaking, negotiation, or diplomacy. Repentance and confession are alien concepts in this myth. Villains are never redeemed from their bondage to evil or restored to true humanity. Instead, they are apparently, but not actually destroyed. They arise on another day in another form to threaten order and stability and again must be violently suppressed.

 In this myth, the law is viewed as too weak to deal with pure evil. Hence the gunslinger of the Wild West or Dirty Harry of the inner city takes the law into his own hands. Thus, the myth of redemptive violence requires us to have an armed redeemer-someone who has the strength of character to transcend legal restraints to save us from evil. Furthermore, our children are taught, despite our best intentions, that violence is the ultimate solution in human conflicts.

The myth finds its way into the law as well. Good versus evil is fought out in the courtrooms of television, cinema, and popular novels. Good always prevails. Thus, we have become acculturated to law as a battle of good versus evil. Lawyers, representing good or evil, take on the moral attributes of their clients. And, the other side is always the evil force needing annihilation.

 The judicial system also perpetuates the myth of redemptive violence. Lawyers are generally given free reign to engage in costly, expensive, scorch-the-earth investigative processes. Accusatory and inflammatory communications are more common than not. Cases are characterized as battles and wars. The metaphors of violence permeate an institution that was supposed to prevent violence, but instead perpetuates it.

 My vision for the 21st century is different. I see lawyers as the vanguard of professionals who will, along with others, move our culture out of the bondage of the myth of redemptive violence. Lawyers trained as peacemakers do not have to succumb to the myth of redemptive violence. Instead, reconciliation of injustices through peacemaking will be the process of choice.

 How will you practice law? Will you succumb to the myth of redemptive violence or will you aspire to the highest calling of our practice and become a peacemaker? You have the choice. I hope that 20 years from today we can proudly say that the class of 1999 was the first of a generation of peacemakers from San Joaquin College of Law. Good luck and God bless.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 1999, Douglas E. Noll