“Peace!” “My peace I give to you!” “Go in peace!” “Peace be with you!” We hear these beautiful words and phrases often in our Mennonite world. We are, after all, a historic “peace church.” These words often evoke a sense of inner calm, a deep hope, a stillness in the soul. But have you ever looked at how these words can reach beyond ourselves? How, while a sustaining inner source, they can be a catalyst for change? Peace is not just something we keep to ourselves, tucked away in our own hearts but it is also a gift we share, an extension of ourselves. We extend the hand of peace, spreading its power to each person we touch. And that touch can transform lives.
Some Biblical scholars, when researching the origins of the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, discovered that the root of the word is wholeness, intactness, well-being. In this sense, according to Perry Yoder, shalom is referred to as “an event rather than a condition. Shalom, peace, is experiential and dynamic.” It is not just a sense of feeling but a sense of being. Peace moves beyond an inner stillness and becomes an outward extension of hope, light, and reconciliation in our world. This traditional meaning of peace as wholeness was part of the hope Jesus brought in his ministry. It was, in many ways, the essence of Jesus’ ministry, to bring wholeness to humanity.
In the essay, The Dual Concept of Peace (pp. 122-123), Biblical scholar Luise Schottroff writes:
“During Jesus’ lifetime Herod and his sons were allies of the Roman Caesar in order to guarantee Roman peace in Palestine. The land was ruled above all by military means through a large number of Herodian fortresses […]. “Peace”” and “security” were the political-religious words with which this situation was normally summarized. […]. Jesus and his followers traveled as prophets throughout the country. They used the word “peace” in quite a different sense. They were Jews living out of the religious tradition of Israel. Shalom/peace— meant something like life, life in its comprehensive sense. It included eating, health, fellowship, and hope. It included being whole or complete. The word had such an all-embracing connotation that many Jewish rabbis would say: shalom is the name for God […].“
Donald Kraybill, in his book “The Upside-Down Kingdom,” describes peace in this way:
“We often think of peace as the absence of violent conflict. Shalom, the Old Testament word for peace is closely connected with ideas of justice, righteousness, and salvation. It refers to a pervasive sense of well-being in personal, social, economic, and political spheres. There is no peace when greedy systems oppress poor people. There is no peace when the stigmatized find no justice in the courts […] Shalom comes when there are right relationships among people in every area of life. Peace is God’s gift to God’s people […] Shalom is the core of God’s message.”
This is the message Jesus brought to the people in his day and still brings to us today: that there is a peace that passes all understanding, a peace that gets to the core of our hearts and our relationships, a peace that makes us whole. And this deeply angered the empire and religious leaders of the day because Jesus’ way of peace was one that challenged the status quo, challenged the rulers and their authority, and shook things up. It made people realize the false sense of peace and security under which they were living and the oppression under which they suffered. It was a way that questioned, called out, and called forth others to do the same.
In many ways peace has been co-opted within our society as well. Many religious and political leaders in the American empire hide behind labels of peace and security in order to keep the status quo unchanged and unchallenged. We militarize our borders to make us more secure, we make it nearly impossible for people to enter this country or gain status to keep us safe from the unknown, we live under the pretense of a peaceful society while we are bombing people in faraway lands. We funnel money away from our schools and into our prisons under the guise of keeping the peace and securing our communities. We stop and frisk large numbers of black and brown youth in the name of justice. In these ways we allow peace to be used as a weapon. And when we are silent, the violence continues.
This is why, when we embrace Jesus’ definition of peace, systems and structures are turned on their heads. Jesus calls us to a way of living that stands in between passivity and violence, a way that calls us to question and hold accountable the powers that be, a way that reconciles and transforms relationships. It’s not easy. Peace work takes imagination and God’s grace.
In the Fall 2013 volume of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology, writer and speaker Nekeisha Alexis-Baker describes her journey into transformative peacemaking. “I have taken steps away from a narrow view of peace as the absence of war and violent conflict and toward a pursuit of peace that challenges systemic human oppression and embraces forgotten members of creation.”
She goes on to say that “When people accept the status quo, they perpetuate violence that is less obvious than planes flying into buildings and bombs falling on cities. The more I realize this fact, the more I believe that peacemaking involves more than resisting overt destructive conflict. Today peacemaking includes investing in my church families, networking in my community, mentoring youth of color, learning about the prison-industrial complex, and discovering ways to be a better neighbor.”
Time and again we see Jesus embracing forgotten members of creation and restoring the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressor. When a woman accused of adultery was thrown at Jesus’ feet, he calmly asked those without sin to cast the first stones. One by one the accusers unclasped the tight grips around their stones and turned away. One by one they realized they were as flawed and human as this woman. And then shame and the anger and guilt washed over them. And as God’s grace was extended to them, perhaps they even saw the pain and the beauty in the eyes of the woman they accused.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, as soldiers come to take Jesus away to be tried and crucified, Simon Peter, one of his disciples, angrily cut off a servant’s ear. But Jesus, extending the hand of peace, healed the man and condemned Peter: “Put your sword back in its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup Abba God has given me?” And I’m sure Peter felt the waves of shame and guilt surge through him. But he also felt grace and peace extended as he was able to see the servant, Malchus, as a man who perhaps worked to support a family, who was following orders so he could receive pay, who also felt pain and hope. Through the physical healing of Malchus, Jesus also healed a relationship, allowing two people to see themselves in the other.
Right relationship was so important to Jesus that in Matthew 5 he commanded his listeners to be reconciled to one another before bringing their gifts to God in the Temple. Jesus knew that in order to be in right relationship with him we need to be in right relationship with one another. Building and restoring relationships—it is the foundation of Jesus’ ministry and the challenge to which we are called. When we extend the hand of peace to those around us, its dynamism expands beyond ourselves and indeed begins to infiltrate oppressive systems.
In our Scripture reading from Luke today we heard how Jesus commissioned his followers to be messengers of his peace as they traveled the land. Upon entering a house, Jesus instructed his followers to say, “Peace be to this house!” In essence proclaiming, “Wholeness and well-being be upon this house!” Peacemaking is the act of restoring wholeness. It is the yeast that makes the dough rise, the active ingredient in transforming relationships.
If we look at peace as the transformative process it is then Passing the Peace on a Sunday morning is a symbol of restoring our relationships with each other. It is a dynamic act that signifies right relationships with one another. By Passing the Peace we are recognizing each other’s humanity and extending a loving hand of relationship.
Abe Jenzen, director of Mennonite Central Committee Alberta, describes peacemaking in this way: “There is nothing magic or mysterious about peace work; it just means that we notice each other. It means that we problem solve endlessly … together. We don’t stop. It means that we walk towards each other and not away from each other […]. Peace making is relational work and it is never finished.”
Franconia Conference Peace and Justice Minister Samantha Lioi writes, “I remember a seminary professor’s clarity, honesty, and humility in admitting that while we may choose to reject the use of violence, we live in a world governed by force and the threat of it, and we rely on systems built on both…Emotional and relational nonviolence is perhaps the most challenging because it requires long-haul commitment and daily practice, which I believe lays a foundations for refusing to resort to physical violence.”
Transformative peacemaking starts with restoring relationships. It starts with noticing one another. In his book, “Preventing Violence,” James Gilligan explores the root causes of why people commit crimes or perpetuate violence. He talked with many incarcerated men about why they committed their crimes. Time and again it came back to, “He dissed me.” He disrespected me. As Gilligan states, “People become indignant (and may become violent) when they suffer an indignity.” Extending the hand of peace is the small but profound act of recognizing the humanity in each other.
I’m sure many of you have heard of Antoinette Tuff, a school bookkeeper in Decatur, Georgia. One ordinary Tuesday morning in 2013, a young man, Michael Brandon Hill, entered Antoinette’s elementary school armed with an assault rifle and other weapons. I’m sure the blood drained from her face, her palms sweated, her heart raced. She may have even been filled with anger that someone would dare to bring such tools of destruction into an elementary school. But no matter what emotions seared through her as she watched the gunman approach, she did not show anything but compassion and boldness as she calmly asked his name.
At first he was hesitant to respond, so she began telling him her life story, how her marriage fell apart after thirty-three years, how she struggled to start her own business. After talking with Michael for an hour, Antoinette finally persuaded him to lay down his guns. “I just started praying for him,” Antoinette recalled. “I just started talking to him … and let him know what was going on with me and that it would be OK. And then [I] let him know that he could just give himself up. … I told him to put [the guns] on the table, empty his pockets. He had me actually get on the intercom and tell everybody he was sorry, too.”
By recognizing and acknowledging someone else’s pain, by telling someone they are not alone, by the simple act of looking someone in the eye, Antoinette restored Michael’s humanity. She could have frozen or ducked under her desk. She could have screamed at the gunman or reacted with violence. But instead, Antoinette Tuff extended the hand of peace, embracing another way between passivity and violence. And in that moment, the transformative power of peace changed the mind of a would-be killer.
And it’s not easy, this thing called peacemaking. I am reminded of a t-shirt I’ve seen that says simply, “Peace takes guts!” Extending peace can be hard work and it can require everything we have within us. In fact, peacemaking often grates against our very nature. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us vulnerable. It forces us to be creative and to think beyond ourselves. But it teaches us to accept God’s grace through which we can begin to imagine what peace can look like in our lives and relationships and communities. And then it releases such beauty.
Now I don’t want us to confuse making peace with keeping the peace. Peace keepers smooth over a situation so all parties involved are no longer at odds. Peacemakers have the courage to say or do what is necessary to restore wholeness even when it hurts or costs them something. Peace keepers allow others to walk over them in order to prevent a situation from exploding. Peacemakers stand and speak boldly when needed and sit and listen intently when needed and give others space to do the same. Peace keepers are people pleasers, trying to maintain the status quo. Peacemakers take risks, trying to turn this broken world around and make it whole. Peace keepers bandage wounds. Peacemakers find the source of the wound and heal it from the inside out.
I am convinced that peacemaking must begin with our most immediate relationships, with those closest to us: family, friends, coworkers, community members, neighbors, our church. If we cannot make peace with those in our immediate circles, how can we expect to make peace outside of them? Ironically enough, restoring relationships with those closest to us can be the most challenging kind of peacemaking and the place where we are most tempted to keep bandaging and re-bandaging the wounds.
But when peacemaking feels too big or difficult of a task, Jesus reminds us in John 14:27, “I’m leaving you peace. I’m giving you my peace. I don’t give you the kind of peace that the world gives. So don’t be troubled or cowardly.” It’s as if he‘s saying, “I did not come to give you a false sense of security or peace in an oppressive system but I give you something better, something more powerful. I give you a peace that heals the world and, indeed, your very soul. So take heart, there is hope.” By God’s grace we are given the strength to bring wholeness to our world and the imagination to see God’s vision of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
“Peace!” “My peace I give to you!” “Go in peace!” “Peace be with you!” Jesus is sending us forth with much more than an inner calmness which, let’s not forget, is a necessary and beautiful foundation. Jesus is equipping us from the inside out with a transformative power that turns the world on its head, that challenges power structures, and stands against empires. A power that transforms relationships, that brings healing, and restores humanity. Jesus is saying, “Peace! My wholeness I give to you. I’m sending you forth with the ingredients you need to right relationships. Go and transform your world! Peace be with you!”