Peacemaking from the inside out

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I have always been drawn towards ideas of peace and nonviolence… my obsession with Martin Luther King Jr began in highschool when I read his biography for a book review. This changed how I thought about the world and how I wanted to move forward. In my early years of University I was a part of Nonviolence Now, a working group, and we facilitated workshops and events that promoted a culture of peace and also exposed people to ideas about violence and nonviolence. One concept that I first learned in Nonviolence Now, and then continued to learn about throughout my courses and experiences (anti-poverty work, learning about forms of oppression, etc) is the concept of structural violence.

I find it hard to talk about peace when most of what I see around me is violence in all its different manifestations. Whether obvious, large-scale violence that we see from afar in the wars that rage around the world and the resulting devastation. Whether targeted events with specific people and communities. Domestic violence and child abuse and the resulting long-term impact on victims’ lives.

Is it a coincidence that black and aboriginal people are disproportionately represented in prisons (see this article from earlier this year)? That “aboriginal” comes up in nearly every single at-risk group related to health and socioeconomic outcomes, as my sister was telling me during a Nursing study session? No, this is a tangible result of structural violence. The fact that most trauma survivors are living below the poverty line… the fact that a white man in America can murder a young black man who was merely walking through his neighbourhood, without consequence. Also a result of structural violence. I could go on and on, but I will not. Because I want to explore what peacemaking can look like amidst this world where violence seems to reign.

So where is the hope? Where is the way towards peace? I often don’t use the word “Peace” because I am not sure what it means or if it means anything at all in our society these days. I believe strongly that peace is not static, that it is not merely the ‘absence of violence’, that peace is a state of being within people, between people, and in our world that we are constantly striving for but that can only be achieved through God – through the way of Jesus. It is a “moving target”. Justice, Truth, Peace… These all go hand in hand. There is no justice without peace and vice versa. I don’t think we can fully know what Peace looks like because it only exists in its fullness in the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom is what we are aspiring towards right here in our own communities.

It is really easy to get overwhelmed and to think that there is no way out, there is nothing to do, that our culture of violence is so encompassing and has so much power. When I get pulled into this way of thinking, I am usually forgetting about Jesus and how he pursued peace in unconventional ways. How his peacemaking was actually “troublemaking”. I think our passage speaks to this, which comes from Luke Chapter 9:

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Disciples

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples[a] and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. “Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money,[b] or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town. And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.”

So they began their circuit of the villages, preaching the Good News and healing the sick.

Herod’s Confusion

When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee,[c] heard about everything Jesus was doing, he was puzzled. Some were saying that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. Others thought Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets risen from the dead.

“I beheaded John,” Herod said, “so who is this man about whom I hear such stories?” And he kept trying to see him.

Jesus Feeds Five Thousand

10 When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done. Then he slipped quietly away with them toward the town of Bethsaida. 11 But the crowds found out where he was going, and they followed him. He welcomed them and taught them about the Kingdom of God, and he healed those who were sick.

12 Late in the afternoon the twelve disciples came to him and said, “Send the crowds away to the nearby villages and farms, so they can find food and lodging for the night. There is nothing to eat here in this remote place.”

13 But Jesus said, “You feed them.”

“But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Or are you expecting us to go and buy enough food for this whole crowd?” 14 For there were about 5,000 men there.

Jesus replied, “Tell them to sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 So the people all sat down.16 Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread and fish to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. 17 They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers!

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

18 One day Jesus left the crowds to pray alone. Only his disciples were with him, and he asked them,“Who do people say I am?”

19 “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead.”

20 Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?”

Peter replied, “You are the Messiah[d] sent from God!”

Jesus Predicts His Death

21 Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone who he was. 22 “The Son of Man[e] must suffer many terrible things,” he said. “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.”

23 Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. 24 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. 25 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed? 26 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels. 27 I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God.”

Throughout the Gospels we are learning about who Jesus is. Who does Jesus say he is? Who does God the Father say he is? What do the crowds say? What did the prophets say? What do the disciples say? All of these different perspectives help us try and understand who he is. I came across another sermon online, by an Anabaptist theologian, who spoke about Jesus being a troublemaker and referenced the events that we have just read about. Something I cannot argue with is stated in this sermon: Jesus’ exalted identity is tied inextricably with his being persecuted, arrested, getting in trouble.

Why would Herod, the ruler, have seen Jesus as a troublemaker? And why would the religious leaders, who in the end cooperate with Pilate in doing Jesus in, have seen him as a troublemaker? Well, let’s just look at some of the things Jesus did that are mentioned in Luke nine.

First, we read of his sending his twelve closest disciples out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (9:2). Here’s a kind of double jeopardy. The “kingdom of God” as over against the kingdom of Herod, or the kingdom of Caesar. Trouble for the political leaders. “Healing” through direct ministry, not through the rituals of the temple. Trouble for the religious leaders.

These twelve disciples, soon to be followed by a group of seventy, we may see as social change agents. They directly challenged Herod and the temple leaders. They offered access to God and to social power for those excluded and beaten down masses whose passivity allows the rulers to prosper.

Then we are reminded that Jesus himself taught and healed. The unsettling message the twelve spread originated with Jesus. It’s an upside down kingdom that, in Mary’s words from Luke one, overturns the powerful and lifts up the lowly.

Then, we read of Jesus’ direct action itself that powerfully subverts and challenges. He gathers thousands together to hear his words. When you look at revolutionary moments throughout history, one of the main ways the powers that be try to keep the lid on is by limiting unauthorized gatherings—in both South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement and in the American South during the civil rights movement, public gatherings were limited. Funerals, church services, these were about it for people getting together in groups. Getting people together is a threat to authoritarian regimes.

So, Jesus establishes himself as one who could be a catalyst for mass resistance to Herod’s rule. But then, to make it worse, when these 5,000 folks gather, Jesus shares table fellowship with all of them. The religious leaders would have been horrified. Jesus broke bread with these unwashed masses, many of whom surely fell short of the purity requirements that controlled access to full status in the community. Thus Jesus embodied his message of welcome—again an utterly subversive message, the message of a troublemaker…

So, Jesus was indeed a troublemaker—but because of his generosity, because of his openness, because of his willingness to confront injustice and oppression…

The key term in today’s Luke nine passage is “daily.” “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23). This “daily” both weakens and strengthens the image of the cross. Jesus seems here not to be saying, if you follow me you literally will be crucified (though surely he meant to say that actual crucifixion could be possible). Rather, every day the follower may be called to resist the forces of domination, to challenge misuses of power, even to make trouble. But it’s the kind of trouble caused by love, by compassion, by empathy.

This kind of troublemaking that is articulated here, is actually what I think of as peacemaking. In preparation for this talk, I was thinking about this connection and recognized that active troublemaking/peacemaking is my natural response to the violence we are surrounded by. I find it quite easy to act, and I speak often of taking action and working to create the Kingdom of God here and now. What I actually find more challenging is the inner work that is absolutely essential for peacemaking. What I find challenging is the prayer and perseverance that is required internally and that would sustain me through it all.

Martin Luther King Jr is one of my favourite peacemakers, but I want to share now a bit of the story of someone who was a quieter peacemaker, whose testimony has really impacted and challenged me in many ways, especially in this realm of peacemaking. A few years back I read the diary of Etty Hillesum, who was a Jewish woman living in Holland during World War II. Her diary really exposes her journey with herself and with God as conditions for her people got worse and worse and as she moved from a somewhat self-absorbed young woman to someone embracing the burdens of others and holding onto God’s dwelling place within her. I am going to share some words of wisdom from her diary:

All disasters stem from us. Why is there war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbour. Because I and my neighbour and everyone else do not have enough love. Yet we could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love which is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live… We human being scause monstrous conditions, but precisely because we cause them we soon learn to adapt ourselves to them. Only if we become such that we can no longer adapt ourselves, only if, deep inside, we rebel against every kind of evil, will we be able to put a stop to it. (80-81)

Only if we rebel – only if we are troublemakers. Etty also recognized the humanity in everyone amidst atrocities that are beyond our understanding and experience:

It is sometimes hard to take in and comprehend, oh God, what those created in Your likeness do to each other in these disjointed days. But I no longer shut myself away in my room, God, I try to look things straight in the face, even the worst crimes, and to discover the small, naked human being amidst the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds… I try to face up to Your world, God, not to escape from reality into beautiful dreams – though I believe that beautiful dreams can exist beside the most horrible reality – and I continue to praise Your creation, God, despite everything. (114)

Reading Etty’s diary has really challenged me to work on my “inner life”. Her story illustrates so well how achieving “inner peace”, which is only possible through God, is so intimately connected with the greater good in the world, with a belief in life. Etty’s simultaneous acceptance and letting go while continuing to resist/refusing to adapt is incredible to me. Her attitude was not one of defeatism, she continued to seek strength to bear what was to come. She admitted when she was weary and overwhelmed and constantly humbled herself before God and sought to protect God’s presence no matter what. Etty also recognized her place as one small part of humanity, one person who is connected to past, present and future experiences that tie humans together. On one of her more tired and weary days, she wrote:

…it welled up inside me: throughout the ages people have been tired and have worn their feet out on God’s earth, in the cold and the heat, and that, too, is part of life. This sort of feeling has been growing much strongeri n me: a hint of eternity steals through my smallest daily activities and perceptions. I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries and it is all part of life. (133)

Prayer is something that connects us to something beyond ourselves, and it is something we can always do. Prayer is resistance, it is a refusal to succumb to the violence, to the fear, and to find space amidst it all:

We must learn to shoulder our common fate; everyone who seeks to save himself must surely realise that if he does not go another must take his place. As if it really mattered which of us goes. Ours is now a common destiny and that is something we must not forget. A very hard day. But I keep finding myself in prayer. And that is something I shall always be able to do, even in the smallest space: pray. And that part of our common destiny which I must shoulder myself, I strap tightly an firmly to my back, and it becomes part of me, as I walk through the streets even now. (146)

“Inner peace” is not just something Etty achieved and lived with. There were ups and downs and feelings of despair and exhaustion and other times where she felt light and grateful and immersed in the beauty of the world. She continued to defend God’s place within her, and to pray for the strength to bear the burdens and the suffering, to “be a balm for all wounds”. Etty ended up taking care of her neighbours in the concentration camps and dying in Auschwitz in November 1943 – interestingly this is 70 years ago. We are in a different context today, yet the atrocities that humans commit continue and the suffering continues.

Jean Vanier is another peacemaker that I greatly admire and have learned a lot from. In his book, Finding Peace, he explores what it means to be a peacemaker in our world, including how to cross the barriers that exist among people and the importance of embracing each other amidst our differences:

Peace is getting to know each other, appreciating each other, seeing each other’s value, and receiving from each other. It flows from a communion of hearts in which we discovery that we are truly brothers and sisters belonging to a common humanity… It implies that together, as a community and as friends, we are committed to working for peace and justice. Peace is the fruit of love, a love that is also justice. But to grow in love requires work – hard work. And it can bring pain because it implies loss – loss of the certitudes, comforts, and hurts that shelter and define us. (44)

To nurture peace we must search out openness, risk, forgiveness, and freedom to find not only what is sacred in others, but what is sacred within ourselves. We can become brothers and sisters in a common humanity only if we discover a God who is Father and Mother to us all. The God who is above all that is limited. (50)

Etty Hillesum needed to discover the sacredness within herself and thus expand that notion to include others as well. We all matter – and if we treat others in this way, peacemaking begins.

The important thing is to move towards peace, to keep going even when we don’t see the results. And peacemaking within ourselves, and at a relational level between people and communities, is absolutely essential if peace is to be attained on a broader scale. Here are some last words from Jean Vanier:

If you and I seek today to live peace, to be peacemakers, to help create communities of peace, it is not just to seek success. If we find peace, live and work for peace, even if we see not tangible results, we can become fully human beings, walking together on the road of kindness, compassion, and peace. New hope is born. (82)