Ben McBride is a gifted leader who has done a lot of work at the intersection of peacemaking and justice, particularly around gun violence reduction in Oakland where he lives. Ben is deeply influenced by the civil rights movement and the genius of Martin Luther King Jr.
Ben tells the story of meeting with some of the living legends of the civil rights movement recently – leaders like Minnijean Brown (now 79). She was one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. At the meeting Ben asked the leaders if they still believed in the “tactic” of nonviolence. Before Ben could finish the question, Minnijean Brown interrupted energetically. She said to Ben, “Did you say tactic? If you think we used non-violence as a tactic, then you don’t understand our movement. Non-violence is not a tactic to convert the other. It’s how we saved ourselves. It’s how we remained human in the face of injustice. We became the peace we sought in the world.”
Peace, for Minnijean, is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
What kind of Peace?
Similarly, in this week’s text Jesus offers peace, and he draws a distinction between his peace and the peace of the world. Jesus (and Minnijean) know that the world offers one kind of peace – peace through violence. Peace through violence is the practice of using a little violence to ward off a lot of violence, but it always fails in the end. Let me try to explain.
Imagine a community in crisis where violent tensions are rising. If the tensions escalate too far, the community descends into chaos and suffers terrible violence within itself. So, in order to find “peace” the community unconsciously creates a scapegoat and transfers its unresolved tensions there. This magically relaxes the tensions and restores the community to order (or so we think). That’s peace through violence. Sound familiar?
But it’s a false peace to be sure – one that is built on the foundation of sacrifice.
Scapegoating and Peacemaking
Anthropologist, Rene Girard, points out that we have been practicing this form of peacemaking throughout human history and, unfortunately, we’ve gotten quite good at it, even though we are largely unconscious of what we are doing.
Jesus says, this form of peacemaking is like “Satan casting out Satan” (Matt. 12:26). In other words, we use violence to cast out violence. This approach seems to work in the short run, but it is doomed to fail because it requires an endless supply of scapegoats to keep the peace.
Jesus offers a different kind of peace – the same peace that shaped Minnijean and the civil rights leaders so deeply.
Jesus offers the kind of peace that puts an end to the cycle of violence. The healing medicine of Jesus’ peace is found in these words. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13). He puts an end to the cycle by absorbing the unresolved tension of the world in his own body and spirit. Instead of returning violence for violence he declares mercy and frees us to pursue true justice instead of mere vengeance.
Given the escalating tensions in our cities today, I want to embody the peace that Minnijean became with such grace and courage and lights the way. I can’t think of a more urgent call.
My peace I leave you…Do not be afraid.
P.S. In this reflection I am locating Jesus alongside Minnijean because it matters who is calling for peace. For example, within the world of justice work, cries for “peace” are often heard as denials of justice, especially when it’s on the lips of the dominant culture. When uttered from a place of relative privilege and safety, peace is often another way of turning a blind eye to injustice and caving into the status quo that has caused so much pain. Therefore, it helps to remember that Jesus is speaking from within a community who has suffered brutal violence and oppression. Like Minniejean Brown who had seen young black men lynched in the South, Jesus buried his cousin, John, who was beheaded by an insecure and frightened king, who himself was under the thumb of Roman rule. It’s this Jesus who offers peace and tells us not to be afraid.