Building peace at the kitchen table

When Hillary Clinton visited Northern Ireland recently she told her hosts: “You are the ones who reminded the world that while a peace deal may be signed at a negotiating table, peace itself takes life at the kitchen table. It must be nurtured in the hearts of people, in the way they live their daily lives and treat their fellow citizens, in the lessons they teach their children.” My father-in-law, the playwright Alan Thornhill, chose to begin

each scene of his industrial drama, The Forgotten Factor, at the breakfast table. A bitter management-labor dispute is resolved as honest conversation takes place within and between the families.Most of the violence today is perpetrated by young men. Women, who often hold families together, are in a key position either to reinforce grievances, fears, or stereotypes by the stories they tell their children or to instill values of compassion, selflessness, and forgiveness in the next generation. That is why projects like the Creators of Peace

movement, which is catching on in many parts of the world, are so important.  When our three sons were growing up, my wife insisted on a home cooked meal every night and everyone was expected to sit at the table. I can’t say that we always had profound discussions but perhaps the daily ritual had some civilizing influence. At any rate, Susan is gratified that all three sons have become keenly interested in cooking!It’s no accident that the kitchen is often the gathering point in a home, the place where people feel most comfortable talking. And sharing a meal is often the first step to a new relationship.

Our early race relations work in Richmond involved pot-luck dinners as people opened their homes to people of different races. For many people who visit the Initiatives of Change conference center in Caux, Switzerland, the most memorable moments are not the speeches on the platform but the conversations in the kitchen where delegates prepare meals for 300 or more with people they have never met before. Alan Thornhill, an Englishman, found himself chopping vegetables with an Argentinean at a time when their two countries were at war in the Falklands. They had no common language but a friendship was formed.  I vividly remember sitting at dinner in Caux with Les Denison, a former communist, and the exiled King and Queen of Romania. We were served coffee by Archie Mackenzie, a former British ambassador, and Cardinal Köning of Vienna. Les laughed and said, “If I told my friends about this they would never believe me!” Peace conferences, diplomacy and conflict resolution play important roles. But real peace is born and nurtured in our homes, around the kitchen table.