Peace Peace When There Is No Peace
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” — Jeremiah 6:14
On Friday, February 3rd, 1956, Autherine Lucy attended her first class at the University of Alabama. In doing so, she became the first Black person to attend a white university in Alabama. Her journey to that class was hard-fought and came at the end of a long legal battle that, even with the help of future supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall, took over two years to conclude. But it ended with her admission to the university.
But the celebration was quickly cut short, as riots broke out on campus a few days later, led by students and community members enraged at her admission. Crosses were burnt and eggs and bricks were thrown at Lucy and all manner of threats were made. Finally, the school administration made her leave the campus and, not long after, the board of trustees dismissed her from the school, for, quote-unquote, “her own safety.”
The next day, a local paper came out with this headline: “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”
After a tumultuous few days, they said, there was peace.
Not long after this event, Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, and, with the gravity of this event in Alabama still hanging heavy in the air, had this to say:
“Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa. Yes, there was peace on the campus, but it was peace at a great price: it was peace that had been purchased at the exorbitant price of an inept trustee board succumbing to the whims and caprices of a vicious mob. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of allowing mobocracy to reign supreme over democracy. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the force of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God.”
As Dr. King said will say later in this same sermon, “peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice.”
Seeing peace as the absence of tension is nothing new for those with power and privilege or who want things to remain as they are. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah encountered people offering these same proclamations over 2000 years ago.
Jeremiah was a prophet at the end of the 6th century BCE in the Kingdom of Judah, a kingdom of people that at that time — according to the Hebrew Scriptures — were failing to live up to being the people of God. God had made a covenant with them that God would be with them and be their God, as long as they lived out God’s love and justice in the world. Yet they had continued to turn their backs on God.
And in the midst of this time, there were prophets who stood up and said, “Don’t worry. All is well. God will not leave us. There is peace!” In the midst of the idolatry and injustice and abuses of power that were happening, these prophets said to ignore all of that, things are just fine.
And Jeremiah, in his full prophetic authority, stands up as says: “STOP! Stop saying there is peace. You are hurting our country. I am trying to call people back to God. Back to following the way of love and justice God has given us.”
The people, as we see in the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, do not listen to the words of Jeremiah, and Judah is conquered by Babylon not long after Jeremiah speaks these words. Something that the people, looking back on this time in their history, believe could have been avoided if they had heeded Jeremiah’s words and turned back to the way of God.
In a world of chaos and injustice and uncertainty, peace as the absence of conflict can be alluring. Especially to those of us with power and privilege who are more removed from injustice and oppression. And the powers that be know this. The empires know this. They know that if they can convince us — in the face of systemic oppression and injustice — that peace is the absence of tension, then we will be less likely to rock the boat. We will be less likely to stand up and say, “Someone is hurting our neighbors, and we are not going to stay silent anymore.”
Yet this is not the idea of peace we see in the biblical narrative. The Hebrew word Shalom — often translated peace in the Hebrew Scriptures — is a far more deep and holistic idea than our Western idea of peace. While there is no simple definition of Shalom, Walter Brueggemann says that it is “about the flourishing wholeness of creation into the purposes of God.” About a “peaceable life together among the nations and tribes and religious traditions, and economic justice so that everybody has enough resources to live a life of safety and dignity.”
This is the kind of peace we are called to see flourish in our world as disciples of Jesus.
Today in America, we are hearing leaders and people in power — even people of faith — who are standing up and saying “Peace Peace”, when there is no peace. They are saying that all is well. That the injustice we see is the exception, not the rule. They say that if we would just get back to our normal, status quo way of life, all would be well.
We are hearing people say that COVID is not all that bad and that the economy will hurt if we don’t open back up. All will be well, they say, and we must do what’s best for the economy. Peace Peace they cry…
We are hearing white Americans say that, yes, slavery was bad, but we have come a long way, and we almost have equality now. So stop making a big deal about racism and just learn to live in peace and not see all of these differences. Peace Peace they cry…
We hear many able-bodied Americas complain about accommodating people with disabilities, saying that we already have some good laws. Why burden people with making everything accessible when only a few people need it? All is well already for most of us. Peace Peace they cry…
Peace, Peace, when there is no peace.
The voices of the false prophets still ring out in America today, crying Peace Peace when there is no peace. And in the midst of these cries, we as the church are called to be people of shalom. Called to be people who proclaim that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. To be people who resist the pull to a simple peace but instead are willing to choose the challenging and sacrificial path of shalom that works to see systems of oppression and harm come to an end and communities of love and justice emerge in their ashes.
The true peace of God — shalom — comes out of our simple call to love our neighbor. That until all of our neighbors are free from harm and oppression, there will be no peace.
The more the church is willing to embody this Shalom-filled call to love our neighbors today — in real and tangible ways that get us out of our places of comfort and into the streets — the more we might see the true peace of God break into our world.
This is the work of the church today.