Making Room for Peace – 12/5/21

Of the themes for the weeks of advent, peace is one that I struggle in writing about.  And I think that the reason it is such a challenge is because peace is something that has been elusive in my life. It was engrained in me from a young age the importance of maintaining appearances.  If there was a problem, it was never to be shared outside the family.  Even if all was not well, it was imperative that others perceive it differently.

I continue to feel that pressure even now.  As a minister, there is often an expectation that your spirituality provides a shield from the stresses of life.  That I don’t battle a sense of hopelessness, that peace permeates my everyday life.  The spiritual leaders I experienced for much of my life either could not or would not admit that all was not well with them.  And it seemed to acknowledge otherwise was to admit a spiritual deficiency, a personal failure.

This is why the passage from Jeremiah speaks to me so strongly about the concept of peace.  As a society and as individuals, it is difficult to acknowledge that all is not well.  We say “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  And in do so, we are saying that peace is easy, that peace comes without work, that peace comes without vulnerability.

Peace is not a simple concept.  There is peace which is positive and peace which is negative.  The peace of the Roman Empire which existed at the time of Jesus, the Pax Romana, was an example of negative peace – peace which comes into existence through the exercise of oppression, through violent intimidation, through power and control.   The Hebrew word for peace, ‘shalom,’ means fullness and well-being not just for some but for all.   For the people of Israel, peace was more than an absence of war.  It represented a spiritual well-being that was grounded in a relationship with the Divine and was reflected in all dimensions of life.  Peace came in a life lived in association with community and marked by blessings both human and divine.  They looked forward to a day when this peace was brought to the whole world.

If we seek to continue the work that Jesus began, to bring this shalom to the world, we must recognize the need to avoid negative peace.  Martin Luther King Jr. described that type of peace this way: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Commenting on this statement Susan Maginn wrote, “He talks about the positive peace which is the presence of justice and the negative peace which is the absence of tension. The absence of tension is negative peace. We need this tension to make the positive peace. We need the tension between the power and the people. We need that tension to make positive peace. Tension is an essential ingredient when it comes to peace and justice. When that tension is not there, when the tension is not allowed or not tolerated or when the tension is not desirable, then there can easily be an abuse of power, not just from law enforcement but from Wall Street, the military, schools, medicine, the church. We need the tension and perhaps the realm of God. Without it we humans can easily grow into nothing but corrupt power structures on one side, and on the other, silent suffering.”

In our first reading for this morning we hear Jeremiah’s cry for this positive peace, a peace driven by justice.  When we are planting justice together with those who are just throwing off their oppression, we have the opportunity for peace. Peace is something we plant together and build together. For me, this positive peace is most apparent in our practice of the open table.  Regardless of the faith tradition you identify with, or whether you have a personal connection to the Christian practice of communion, no matter our ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, all come to one table to share a meal and commit to the values it represents – of inclusion, of equality, of the worth of all people.  The sharing of communion is in a large way a remembrance of the ministry of Jesus, a way to remind us of his work for inclusion, for justice, for compassion, for love.  It is a powerful reminder of the worth of everyone and our connection to each other, the way we are all bound together, our futures and well-being interconnected.

This idea of an open table runs counter to the way we are taught to engage in a capitalist society. Like the childhood game of “musical chairs,” we are convinced that there are not enough places at the table. And so we shrink the guest list just in case there is not enough, and we scramble to occupy the chairs first. And yet our sacred texts invite us to imagine and make real the gathering of all people to the table, robed in the garments of a peace that comes with justice.

Positive peace is not a crumb we toss off the table to those who can’t sit with us.  It means creating a community that will care for everyone and bring new life wherever we go.   As our figures of Joseph and Mary travel between our homes, we are reminded Joseph and Mary are immigrants that are going to become refugees. And Jesus will grow up as a homeless immigrant. It is from this homeless immigrant child, a brown child born under the oppression of the Roman Government who presents to us the vision of peace which has driven a movement for positive peace for centuries.

Still today, cries for a positive peace and the ones who will lead us will not emerge from places of power.  They will emerge from the margins.  And this is why we must make room.  We have seen in recent years how this positive peace begins to emerge, not through silence, not through the power of the majority, but through the voices on the margins.  I think of the Black Lives Matter protests which emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the rise of the MeToo movement and the courageous women who shared their stories, trans activists who have opened our eyes to the violence committed against members of their community.  And it is our duty to follow these voices, to follow their lead in creating a positive peace.  Desmond Tutu once said that if we are neutral on situations of injustice then we side with the oppressor.  This is what happens when we practice what we read in our first reading for this morning.  When we go around saying “peace, peace” but there is no peace.  When we dress wounds pretending they are not serious.

This concept of positive as opposed to negative peace applies to our individual lives as well.  For much of my life I defined peace in terms of what is absent.  Peace was achieved when there is an absence of hardship, an absence of conflict, an absence of fear.  Peace could be felt only when there were no perceived threats, only when everything in my life was in its right place, only when I knew beyond doubt that the people I cared most about in my life were safe.

But I now recognize that peace is not based on what is absent.  It is based on what is present.  Peace is active, not passive.  It is a sense which emerges not from the culmination of events outside of our control but an active practice, a state of being which we can build.  True peace comes to us comes not from diminishing our wounds, but acknowledging them.  As with society as a whole, peace does not come from the exertion of power, of self-control.  It does not come from glossing over the very real pain, sadness, fear we may feel. Peace can only emerge from listening to the pieces of ourselves which we try to marginalize.  Peace comes from a willingness to be vulnerable about the wounds we carry.

Just as the voices on the margins wake up those in power to the absence of peace, our willingness to be vulnerable wakes us up to the absence of our personal peace.  All of us have been through experiences when the peace we thought we had is shattered.  We go through an experience where a person of significance in our life is not who we thought them to be or when the house of cards we have built suddenly collapses.  Or we may need to come to the realization that we are not the person we thought we were.  That we need to acknowledge the wounds we have inflicted on others.  And in those moments we realize the peace we thought we had built is shattered.

Just like last week, each of us will have the opportunity to light the advent candle for peace this year.  During our time of response, I invite you go to the back of the sanctuary where we have the word “peace” spelled out in tealights.  As you light one of the candles, it is an opportunity to make room for a positive peace – a peace that follows the lead of the most vulnerable in our world and a peace that honors the most vulnerable part of ourselves.