race social justice

The difference between negative and positive peace

It’s around 5pm and I’m cooking dinner in the kitchen, when I am interrupted by shrieking from the living room. The kids are at either end of the sofa, kicking at each other and hollering accusations. Someone has had five minutes more Minecraft than they are entitled to. It’s not their turn any more, but they won’t surrender the controller. Or something.

I intervene. Parental Authority is deployed and the kicking stops. There is a begrudgingly muttered exchange of “sorry”. I return to the kitchen, scroll back the last minute of my podcast, and get back to chopping my vegetables. Except that, two minutes later, the shouting has started again.


Because I have only attended to negative peace.

I have mistaken the cessation of kicking for the end of the matter, when of course the underlying injustice – the unequal amounts of Minecraft time – has not been resolved.

Martin Luther King wrote one of the pithiest summaries of this problem, when he criticised white people who were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

When you stop and consider current affairs through this lens, you see the problem everywhere.

It’s there in race debates. Slavery and segregation have been abolished, so what are Black people so upset about today? But the end of direct oppression of people of colour isn’t the end of the story. Not if a huge wealth gap remains after generations of exclusion from loans, home ownership, or job opportunities.

It flairs up in discussions around empire. The colonies are independent now. It’s over! We should move on. “He wants to focus on the future” as David Cameron’s spokesman said when Jamaican MPs raised the issue of reparations during a state visit to the country in 2015. But if the vast resources plundered by colonial powers aren’t even acknowledged, let alone repaid, then there’s no possibility of moving on. Justice hasn’t been done.

We’re going to see the same problem with climate change in future. Rich countries and fossil fuel corporations will point to their net zero commitments, but decades or even centuries of cumulative emissions will remain in the atmosphere, destroying the lives of people in vulnerable parts of the world. Cutting our emissions isn’t enough. We have to take responsibility for the emissions we have already caused, and the damage they are doing today.

Johan Galtung, the creator of Peace Studies, argued that lasting peace must be a combination of the positive and the negative. Advocates of restorative justice – a related concept that I’ll explore another time – emphasize the need to make good as well as end immediate harm.

It strikes me that a deeper understanding of justice is vital to solving some of the enduring problems society struggles with today. The government’s focus on protecting statues, for example, is practically a living demonstration of being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”. The protests themselves are far more troubling to the Conservatives than the injustices that bring people out onto the streets.

Without paying attention to the deeper justice issues, tensions will only ever be deferred.

  • See d’Arcy Lunn’s Teaspoons of Peace project for practical application of this subject.


  1. Order is necessary to avoid chaos. Without order nothing lasting can be built. There are good reasons to prioritise order.

  2. Thanks for the shout out at the end Jeremy for Teaspoons of Peace. In all the theoretical work I did in my Master’s in Peace Studies, negative peace and positive peace came down to the ideas of tolerance and celebration of diversity. The other thing that has really stuck in my head is a quote from Mikhail Gorbachev that goes something like this – “Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity”. We are lacking so much positive peace in the world and there is so much to gain from it! Thanks for the post Jeremy as this kind of vocabulary can be powerful in opening up higher quality conversations…

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