“To have peace we must tell the truth; without truth-telling there is no peacemaking.”* (Jean Zaru)
“Only by being truthful about how we got here can we imagine another way.”** (Austin Channing Brown)
The words were like salve to my weary mind. A balm in Gilead. Oil poured out and running over.
For three weeks, I had been focused on deep listening. You see, three weeks ago, I wrote a blog in deepest sincerity, not seeking to be provocative, but needing to be honest about a book that many leaders in my church were reading.
The response from some has been to read it again. Not to throw out the baby with the bath water. This may be an option for some. Our deep investment institutionally will make it necessary for some, and I understand that. Due to the calling that I have to amplify “the cry of the needy”, this was not personally an option for me.
That does not mean I had the answers. In truth, it had frightened me how willing I had been to swallow down what I now know to be a mixture of stories, some true and some likely not, under a veneer of heavy handed opinions on one of the most painful and ongoing conflicts in our world. Inviting people to get out of the box with a story taken from a people, many of whom quite literally cannot leave the walls that box them in. I felt deep grief that the pain of an occupied people half a world away was being coopted, not in order to end their pain but in order to end mine. Their trauma domesticated and packaged for my consumption. A placebo of peace. A lesson for better living.
Over these three weeks, I worked hard. I continued hosting a family of asylum seekers in my home, and I listened to their insightful opinions on the topic of my study. I traveled and I spoke and I prayed.
Most of all, I read. I read voraciously. I read for my life. I read to hear all those voices that had been stolen. While it is true that I needed to keep reading, in my case it was not the same book again.
This is what I read:
- Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, by Dr. Christena Cleveland
- I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown
- Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, by Dr. Mitri Raheb
- Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Time of Trouble, by Dr. Mitri Raheb
- I Am A Palestinian Christian, by Dr. Mitri Raheb
- A Will for Peace – Peace Action in the United Methodist Church: A History, by Dr. Herman Will
- Occupied with Non-Violence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, by Jean Zaru
- An Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Dr. Brittney Cooper
- Along with this, I read again “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the document that has been one of my guides in a calling to invite people of power and privilege to take up their cross and follow Christ in a lifelong commitment to sustained discomfort, knowing that much of the world has no choice in the matter.
Throughout the weeks, I both wanted and did not want to continue this conversation. I scribbled notes. I created and scrapped outlines. Many times, I thought I could escape the need to continue. Yet the words of a Palestinian Christian woman, Jean Zaru, would not let me rest, “To have peace we must tell the truth; without truth-telling there is no peacemaking.”
So, because peace must be made and not merely awaited, I’m going to try to share three things that I invite you to bear in mind with me.
Peace is not an inherent good.
I love my church too much to say it.
I love my church too much not to say it.
Jesus was clear that the peace that we are called to pursue is different from the way that the world uses the word. In John 14:27, he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
I do not give to you as the world gives.
The peace of our God is not the peace that the world gives. The peace of the world most often requires that some suffer in silence, so that others may feel comfortable. The peace of Jesus leaves no one out. The peace of Jesus makes room for everyone. A peace that even makes room for the Canaanite woman, when she disrupts worldly peace to cry out, demand, and refuse to be excluded from the table of the Lord (Matthew 15:21-28).
As Dr. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said of his occupied context in Palestine, “The peace model that has been employed to date has been a type of Pax Romana where the empire dictates peace either through endless processes or through facts on the ground (settlements, land confiscation, colonization, and so forth), thus buying time to expand the boundaries of empire. Pax Romana was rejected by the Judeans of the first century, and similar models are understandably rejected by the Palestinians of the twenty-first century. Peace dictated by the empire is not desirable, doable, or durable.”****
What we must seek is Pax Christi, not Pax Romana. The peace of Christ, not the peace of the Emperor. The peace promised in Isaiah 65:25. This is what defines us as people.
This strange and unusual peace of Christ is what would lead him to say, in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
In Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” his sermon on this very text, he wrote,
I had a long talk the other day with a man about this [at the] bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agreed that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely to absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accept his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be an obnoxious peace. It would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant complicity, deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace:
If peace means accepting second class citizen ship I don’t want it.
If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening staus quo, I don’t want peace.
If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated polically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.
In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.
Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.
As Rev. Dr. King teaches us, the peace we seek must be the peace of Christ. The peace that passes understanding. The peace that the world cannot give to us. The peace that silences no cry of the needy so that it can sleep better at night.
The challenge for peacemakers, for those who pursue a peace that includes all, has always been to help us to clearly see the difference between the peace of the world and the peace of Christ.
On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in 1965, the people of Selma tried to cross and many were beaten to the point of death by the police. They did this in order to reveal to the rest of the nation that the peace that existed in their community was no peace at all. It was the world’s version of peace: the silencing of the cry of the needy. It was not the peace of Christ that turns the world upside down.
It is the work of peacemakers to reveal the difference. Therefore, it is dangerous indeed to create models, that when applied to social issues, would portray the non-violent resister as involved in a collusion to escalate their own abuse.
Peacemakers disrupt the peace of the world to make way for the peace of Christ, just as Christ did. Just as Bonhoeffer did when he spoke out against the Nazis, while the vast majority of Christians and pastors in his nation were content to be at worldly peace with Hitler.
All anger is not equal.
I love my church too much to say it.
I love my church too much not to say it.
Anger is not equal; neither in its cause, nor in its expression.
In 1965, when armed police were beating Amelia Boynton into bloody unconsciousness on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was surely anger on both sides. Yet the anger was not equal in its cause or in its expression. As those of us who have born the pain can attest, there is no desire on the part of peacemakers for a beating, no desire for tear gas.
The anger, for those that felt it as they fled for their lives back towards Selma, was a just and a righteous reaction to the injustice of their lives both in that moment and in the years preceding. The anger of those that were giving the beating was unjust and unrighteous and arising from their fear of losing the power to oppress those who were marching for their right to vote.
There is a scene in the 1967 film, “In the Heat of the Night” that always captured this so perfectly for me. A wealthy suspect in the case crumbles into anger and tears because he realizes the world has changed and he cannot just have the Sheriff shoot Mr. Tibbs for being a Black man with confidence.
We may all feel anger, but it is not equal. Neither in it’s cause nor in it’s expression. For some of us are angry that our humanity is being diminished, and others of us are angry that we cannot control the other’s expression of their humanity.
Sandra Bland was a Methodist woman pulled over in Texas, who later died in custody. When she was pulled over, both she and the officer were angry, but the anger was equal neither in cause nor expression. She was angry at being unnecessarily pulled over and illegally arrested. He was angry that she did not cater to his ego. His ego cost her life.
Some of us can get away with anger, with explosions and fits. Some of us can yell and scream and curse without lasting consequence. Others live their lives suppressing that anger and it’s expression, knowing that the results can be costly and even deadly. The ability to express anger is a privilege.
We cannot all explode in anger and get away with it.
Austin Channing Brown writes, “Because I am a Black person, my anger is considered dangerous, explosive, and unwarranted. Because I am a woman, my anger supposedly reveals an emotional problem or gets dismissed as a temporary state that will go away once I choose to be rational. Because I am a Christian, my anger is dismissed as a character flaw, showing just how far I have turned from Jesus. Real Christians are nice, kind, forgiving – and anger is none of these things.”*** She continues to write of finding freedom from this social positioning in the writings of Audre Lorde, “A sense of freedom fell over me as I read her words. Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom. I don’t need to fear my own anger. I don’t have to be afraid of myself. “^
Reading her book and Dr. Cleveland’s book made me aware that we value storytelling that leads to self-introspection, but that as a communal body we are more comfortable with the lens of our journey being that of a white man, as was the case in the initial book. The powerful storytelling of Dr. Christena Cleveland and Austin Channing Brown made me wonder could we go on that journey together if it were the lens of a Black woman? Certain ones of us have always had to go on these communal journeys through the lens of another, but others of us have not. Some of us do not see the need to read a book from such a different perspective than our own, how would it be relevant? Yet, others of us have been expected to read from another person’s perspective all their lives.
As Dr. Brittney Cooper writes, “Before we fully learn to love ourselves, all people of color in the United States learn that we are supporting characters and spectators in the collective story of white people’s lives. The stories we watch and read ask us to put aside their whiteness and relate to their very universal human struggles around conflict with the world, the self, and others. The problem is that only the experiences of white people are treated as universal. Meanwhile, Black movies, shows and books are typically seen as limited and particular.”^^
If after centuries of taking a man born in Palestine, like Jesus Christ, and clothing him throughout centuries with whiteness, seeing and hearing him through a lens whiteness, portraying God the the Father as a white man with a white beard on a cloud, is it then any wonder that we could so easily accept other thefts of the voices of Palestine. What have we lost by not seeing the world through the eyes of a God born in Palestine? What have we lost by failing to look at our faith through the eyes of Palestinian Christians, those that call themselves the Living Stones, the descendants of the earliest Christians? Has our discomfort with the turmoil of the region left us so divided from them that we would not recognize their voice if we heard it? This is a point where I feel personally convicted, which has grieved me deeply.
Peace requires change from all of us.
I love my church too much to say it.
I love my church too much not to say it.
The book that challenged me the most was Dr. Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. She pushed me to see the ways that I could change, without committing the error of oversimplifying.
That we all must change may seem like a simple and easy thing that we can all agree upon, yet historically this has not been true. In fact, all too often the change has mostly been expected on one side – the side of the one who is most moveable, with the least power, because they have always had to be the ones to move. We have even created elaborate reconciliation paradigms where we bring people together to have the impression that we have all moved; yet, when we go home, we find that often nothing has changed and that it has been an exercise in catharsis if nothing else.
History has always cast some in the position of being the ones who must move, and offered others the illusion of moving. In this paradigm, we have sought peace without the world having to change, without the church having to change. A peace in which systems of injustice remain in place is not the peace of Christ.
For example, what if, for one person, peace meant the dismantling of patriarchal systems that oppressed women. And for another person, peace meant people no longer talking about dismantling patriarchal systems that oppress women. A semblance of peace may be achieved if one person would be quiet, and the other would be content because their definition of peace would have been achieved. This is the kind of peace that we experience the most of in our lifetimes. This would not be the peace of Christ, however, because it would be the silencing of the cry, rather than the opening of the table.
A model where people become suspect if they criticize or make demands, where the oppressed must always consider where they have failed to support their oppressor, is a model that coddles the one with power who is reticent to relinquish or share it. This is a model that may create personal progress for all individuals, but when applied on a communal level works much better for the powerful than the powerless.
In her 2016 sermon on ‘Faith, Justice, and Race,’ Austin Channing Brown reminds us of how dangerous it is to allow those with power and privilege to paint the picture of how things are, without the true and authentic input of others. She reminds us that Pharaoh set out to slaughter the children of Abraham because he assumed that he knew how the Hebrews would act in a conflict without including them in the conversation. He decided that he knew their hearts and minds, and that they would turn against him. He controlled their narrative, stole their voices, and punished them for what he assumed they would do in the future.
Instead of saying, ‘There were some very fine people on both sides,’ perhaps we would do well to heed Austin Channing Brown’s advice when she writes, “Dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action – when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized.”^^^
Instead of permitting our views of the situations of Palestinian Christians to be shaped without their input, perhaps we would do well to heed Mitri Raheb’s words, “Christians in Palestine are forced to ask themselves what God’s justice means to a people whose members suffer under systematic political, social, and economic injustice. What does “freedom in Christ” mean to people living under occupation and denied basic rights? What does the cross mean to a people constantly crucified and marked by suffering? And what does love for even an enemy mean to a people facing a heavily armed enemy?”^^^^
The Bible is the only book that has the answers to these questions for me, the book which I have committed my life to teaching. And trust me, I get enough of a workout wrestling with it.
“When I hope for peace, I have to work for peace.” -Jean Zaru
*Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, Jean Zaru, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, Kindle loc 1076.
**I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 118.
***Ibid, p. 122
****Faith in the Face of Empire: the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, Mitri Raheb, Marynoll: Orbis Books, 2014, Kindle loc 1962.
^I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 125.
^^Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper, p. 53.
^^^I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 169
^^^^I am a Palestinian Christian, Mitri Raheb, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, p. 230.