Planting a tree will help celebrate the International Day of Peace on September 21, according to the website of the organization that promotes this annual event. “We have 14 days to make it happen,” the site tells us this morning.

The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by a U.N. resolution, and the first celebration on September 21 the next year started a continuing tradition. For 24 years people have taken a moment, or perhaps the entire day, to engage in activities that they hope will promote peace.

The intention is noble, but the results are less certain. For every hopeful news story—a nonviolent activist facing down the troops—a tyrant gives orders to fire. Currently, the world news is ambiguous. People on both sides of a protracted conflict in Nepal are compromising their hardened stances, but discouraging news from Sri Lanka counterbalances any optimism about a rising tide of peace.

The depressing news of warfare and violence around the world should encourage the worthwhile practices advocated by the International Day of Peace folks. Their website promotes an array of activities that individuals and groups might engage in two weeks from today: “join people throughout the world in one minute of silence,” “plan a local event,” “ask your government officials to issue a proclamation,” and so on.

Promote, incorporate, use, participate, engage, write, dedicate, fast, pray—the website is filled with active verbs. People should be doing something for peace. But what about being peaceful? The website has less to say about the daily actions by peace activists that might promote—or hinder—the development of peaceful societies. If aggressive people prod their pastors to ring church bells for peace on September 21, yet on other days they dominate their associates and stir up potential hostilities around them, are they really fostering a more peaceful world? The website does not deal with these complexities.

In fact, how really peaceful are peace activists? This is a complex issue to consider. Some interesting clues can be found in a couple of fascinating articles that appeared in the scholarly publication Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1984 (v.46:21-25) and 1986 (v.48:491-502). Judith Brutz and her colleagues explored the implications of their research, which found high levels of family violence among Quaker families in northeast Ohio. Surprisingly, some of the men that were the most heavily involved in peace activist work were also responsible for violence in their homes.

The authors suggest several possible explanations. Many of the men were converts to Quaker beliefs, people who had not been socialized as children to be peaceful human beings. Also, Brutz et al. speculate that the pacifist thinking of the men may conflict with the aggressiveness socialized into most human males in American society. This socialization may produce a clash of values that weakens restraints on violence.

Quakers are, of course, not the only people who need to confront the difficulties of translating their ethical opposition to warfare into an all-encompassing peaceful existence. Everyone will have different approaches to the challenge. For some, lighting a candle for peace in two weeks may help. For others, reading a good book, such as Scott Russell Sanders’ profound new work A Private History of Awe should prompt reflections on war, injustice, and poverty. It will be reviewed here next week.

The materials in this website, particularly the 30 scholarly articles now available in the Archive, may suggest effective, long term alternatives to lighting candles. But will any of the approaches taken by the peaceful societies, or by inspiring writers like Sanders, really help people in aggressive societies to change their ways?

Maybe we should go along with the International Day of Peace folks and “incorporate prayer and meditation into [our] plans.” That might be the most profound thing we could do. The religious beliefs and worldviews of many of the peaceful societies focus on peacefulness. The Amish, the Buid, the Hutterites and numerous others have fervent conceptions of themselves as highly peaceful people, and their religious beliefs reinforce their ideals.

In contrast, many people in the majority societies around the world ignore the peace aspects of their faiths. Peacefulness is impractical, they often rationalize—it can’t work in the real world. But if the prayers and meditations two weeks from now help people to connect more firmly with the peace beliefs in their own traditions, the process might be quite worthwhile. And if ringing a bell for peace on September 21 gets people to really reflect on what makes them peaceful, perhaps it too is a useful experience.