FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.
Jesus calls his disciples to peacemaking. But the peace to which Jesus refers is not the peace so many of us long for. It isn’t the kind of peace we imagine would follow if black folks would just stop harping on slavery and Jim Crow and let bygone be bygones. It isn’t the kind of tense peace that follows after Mom tactfully changes the subject when Uncle Ned makes a crude and sexist remark about a neighbor at Thanksgiving dinner. The peace of Jesus is not the kind of peace those of us in safe, affluent and homogenous communities experience when we crow about how God has blessed us, even as a substantial part of the world experiences want. The peace of Jesus is not ecclesiastical tranquility achieved by a system that permits some of its congregations to discriminate against LGBTQ+ folk and the rest of its churches to identify as “welcoming” to ensure they don’t wind up sitting in the wrong pew.
Peace without justice is no peace at all. Jesus made this painfully clear when he told his disciples that he had not come to make fragile, artificial and superficial peace:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Matthew 10:34-38.
There can be no peace as long as systemic injustice creates and maintains relationships of inequality and oppression. Efforts to dismantle these reigning “principalities and powers” often requires us to disturb the false peace of the status quo which is, in reality, a more subtle kind of war against the poor, the outcast and the persecuted. Ironically, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was crucified for disturbing the peace.
There are many angles from which to think about peace. I would like to focus on the global angle because I believe it determines so much of what goes on locally. I begin with the United Nations, an institution through which numerous conflicts have been prevented or resolved and by which many global humanitarian crises are being effectively addressed. Obviously, the UN is responsible for doing a great deal of good in the world. Many faithful, courageus and dedicated people have and continue to do great humanitarian work through its many agencies. Yet, for all that, I would argue that its chief function is to maintain a ruthlessly unjust status quo. Though made up of six organizational divisions, the National Security Council is by far the dominant center of power, being responsible for recommending the admission of new UN members to the General Assembly. It is also the body holding final authority to approve any changes to the UN Charter. Its powers also include establishing “peacekeeping operations,” enacting international sanctions and authorizing military action. The Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states.
Tellingly, the Security Council is made up of the following nation states: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States. The common denominator here is a military with overwhelming nuclear capability that cannot be matched by anyone outside “the club.” At the same time, it is tacitly admitted that members of “the club” cannot afford to fight an all out war with each other. To do so would amount to mutual annihilation. So they engage each other through carefully managed “proxy wars,” such as the one currently raging in Ukraine. Throughout the years of the Cold War, such conflicts were waged in Africa as well as South and Central America. World wars have thus never been eliminated. They have simply been managed such that their carnage takes place in some distant corner of the world allowing citizens of Security Council members and their close allies to “live in peace.”
Of course, there is more to all of this than military dominance. The Security Council members are also home to the most powerful economies on the planet. The vast disparity in wealth between the northern and southern hemispheres mirrors representation in the UN hierarchy. With their national fates under the military and economic control of Western Europe, North America and China, the countries of Central America, South America, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, still struggling with the ruinous effects of centuries of colonialism, find themselves still at the mercy of the military strategic and economic interests of the National Security club and its allies.
On the lowest rung of hell are those who have no nation. I speak of refugees whose countries of origin offer nothing but death by starvation or violence. These folks find themselves eking out a miserable hand to mouth existence in refugee camps or traveling long distances over sea and land hoping against hope to find a decent life in one of the many countries that don’t want them. They have absolutely no voice or vote in the global order and no rights of citizenship to invoke. They are, in effect, non persons. These people, so hated and feared that we are prepared to spend billions sealing our border against them, are paying the price for the peace and security we enjoy. World peace in our day, as was the case in Jesus’ day under the Roman Empire, is maintained through organized, systemic brutality for the privileged few at the expense of the many.
This global hierarchy of oppression works its way down to everyday life in our neighborhoods. Dying communities throughout the rust belt plagued with crime, addiction and poverty are products of a system valuing the needs of commerce over the needs of community. Toxic wastelands in our midst testify to the priority of corporate profits over the health and safety of our people. The vicious resistance on the part of government and industry to efforts addressing climate change testify to the determination of a few to hang onto an unsustainable way of life with callused disregard both for the many others and for the well being of their own children and grandchildren. True peace, the kind of peace to which Jesus calls us, requires dismantling structures of oppression maintaining the status quo of global inequality. There will be no peace until “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24. Peacemaking is a tall order that some might call impossible. But Jesus never calls us to anything easy.
The temptation here is to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and throw up our hands in despair. If peace and justice were solely our own responsibility, that temptation would become overwhelming. But the call to peacemaking is not an onerous obligation God lays upon us. It is God’s work in which we are invited to participate. The kingdom of God, Martin Luther reminds us, comes without our participation. But what fun is that? I think the worst consequence for those at the left hand of the Son of Man on the day of judgment lies not in any future torment, but in realizing the wasted years of their past. God was appealing to them every day of their lives in the eyes of the poor, naked, persecuted and imprisoned. But they never recognized the image of their Maker. They never learned the reason for their being. They never learned to be human. The reign of God slipped in right under their noses-and they never noticed.
Perhaps the first step to peacemaking is shattering the false and superficial peace in which we live. Only then will it be possible to recognize the crucified God dwelling just outside of our redlined neighborhoods, gated communities and secure borders. Here is a poem by Mary Oliver which I believe does just that.
Of The Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Source: Red Bird, by Mary Oliver (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. by Beacon Press). Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was born in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.