Why don’t we practice peace?
Is that we don’t regard the biblical vision of Shalom as a practical alternative to the violence all around us? Is it all just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Walter Wink observed, “Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism” (Jesus & Nonviolence, Fortress Press, 2003, p.9).
And he’s right, isn’t he? Turn the other cheek seems like an awful way to stand up to a bully (if you like your face). Love your enemy sounds sooo naive. Pray for those who persecute you. Just what we need in the world: more thoughts and prayers! If only Jesus had more American pragmatism about him. Didn’t he know that the best way to keep the peace is through a show of strength? Take up your cross? Nope. “Speak Softly and carry a big stick.”
But it isn’t just that we think the peace of Jesus as impractical idealism. We also lack the spiritual and moral imaginations to live at peace. Our Western mindsets cause us to think of our spiritual lives in individualistic terms. We talk about personal disciplines (e.g. daily Bible reading, prayer, quiet times, meditation). Our evangelical emphasis on personal conversion emphasizes our personal responsibility in the Christian life. And yet to practice peace is to enter deeper in relationship. God’s shalom is always communal. It ripples out from Father, Spirit, Son—the perichoretic peace within the Godhead—into our hearts, our neighborhoods, our nations and all creation.
When we think about practicing peace we need to reimagine communal contexts for our actions. The individual who turns the other cheek may incur the violence of a bully or enable abuse to continue. But non-violent direct action becomes powerful when done in the community, before a watching world.
The Civil Rights era has become part of our cultural memory. Nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham awakened national outrage at the injustices faced by the Black Community. America saw BullConner, the KKK, White citizen councils, firehoses and dogs, young people jailed and beaten and finally decided that enough was enough (and yes, there is still so much work to be done!). The power of turning the other cheek is that shames the oppressor into repentance (Wink, 27). Turning the other cheek is all about social change.
When an individual person loves their enemy, it does something. At least one person has learned to rehumanize the opposition—to not see their enemy, whether nations or those across the political aisle, as evil incarnate. But the real power of enemy love is found when churches and communities commit together to a vision of humanity that leaves space for the redemption of the other. Wink writes:
It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny [w]hat they have of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. (58-59).
Can you imagine what it would look like if the church in North America were committed to this sort of vision of shalom? If we refused to demonize or write off anyone? What if we regarded Democrats, Republicans, the LGBT community, Westboro Baptist Church, Pro-Choice advocates, evangelicals, Muslims, terrorists, refugees, undocumented immigrants as all worthy of redemption?
The Advent vision of shalom is that one day wolf and lamb will lie down together (Isa. 11:6). The oppressed and the oppressor will be at peace; they will no longer be prey and predator. Do we dare hope for this? How can we become a people committed to seeing the humanity of oppressors, enemies, and adversaries?
Pray for those persecuted! But please, do it in public! Our world won’t be transformed when our cries against injustice are only done in private devotion.
The autumn of 2017 erupted with cries online of #metoo and brave women and men sharing stories of systemic abuse from Hollywood producers, actors, politicians, and executives. Time magazine named their person of the year “The Silence Breakers.” When darkness is brought to light, systemic change becomes possible.
Praying for the persecuted names injustice. It points it out. When we pray in public for the victims of religious violence around the globe, or victims of sexual violence, when we dare to acknowledge before God and the world the ways our unjust systems privilege one person’s race or economic status and do violence toward another, we both bear witness to our lack of shalom and commit to no longer being complicit in injustice. We can’t pray publicly about the persecuted, downtrodden and oppressed and remain the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.
Jesus’s call to nonviolence comes with a promise:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. -Matthew 5:44-45
It is as we love our enemies we become the household of God!
John Lennon’s sang: All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. I dare to hope for God’s shalom. But if peace is ever to have a chance we can’t embody it alone. May we become the “we” that gives peace a chance.