My peace candle melted from the wick out, the first time I burned it, puddling into a hollow mess that went everywhere. Somehow this seems apt. Our efforts at peace sometimes seem equally hollow. The truest thing I can say about peace is that our vision and work for it – in the United States anyway – seems to always burn out hollow at the heart.
We are brought up in a civic or Christian tradition that values strength, power, might and overcoming; the virtue of the winners is established, it seems, by winning. And we are not alone in this; every religious tradition and most nationalist traditions have at least a strand of their story that operates by the same logic: might makes right. But an enforced peace is no peace at all. We have all of us grown up in a lie, a distorted perspective on unshared realities. And yet, we cannot all see the hollow at the heart of our democracy, that our commonwealth does not establish the common wellbeing of all.
For Christians, this distortion runs clear through our tradition, a fault-line ready to melt down over and over. We can see it in the texts for the second week of Advent, those focused on a vision of peace. Isaiah’s vision of the Anointed One to come says that
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth …
But then it also says …
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
That right there is a problem, because – as Woody Hayes and Darrell Royal used to say about passing the football – one of three things can happen, and two of them are bad. One thing that can happen is that people think that because God is portrayed as a judge and a killer, then it’s okay for people to behave the same way (see wars, the Inquisition, the Crusades, colonialism, the history of the Americas, and pretty much all other violent acts and –isms). That’s bad.
Another thing that can happen is that people can reject God along with those words. That’s also bad. (Well, maybe not bad in all cases. I know lots of people who are kind, just, mindful, and all around good people without God or religion. But when someone becomes separated from the Love at the heart of their universe because they can’t stomach what has been made of it, that’s bad.)
A third thing that can happen is that people can think critically about the language, who wrote it, what their context was, and that the writers are leaving judgment and vengeance to the Author and Lover of the Universe to sort out, and that our role might be something different. That’s a good thing. It’s also a lot of work. Which is why violence is prevalent and peace, not so much. Particularly when the scale is large and the potential spoils significant.
So, what are we to do, and be, when the world is so complex and there is so much violence on a scale that feels impossible for us to shift? And anything we can do, as individuals, or in our own small corner of the world, feels insignificant?
Significant? Insignificant? Those are assessments. Maybe the place to start is not to worry about how your signs will be read, now or later, and just go ahead and signify. Let your life give signs of the love, the grace, the peace that is within you. Let the peace within you be the lens through which you view your family, your community, your nation, your world. You may begin to question whether might makes right. You may begin to have different ideas about what justice is and what it does. You may begin to find you share realities you never saw before. You may begin to live from a less hollow, fragile place.
That’s what an itinerant rabbi did, a couple of thousand years ago … told stories slant, healed poor women and blind men, raised children from the dead (because children shouldn’t die), and asked us to take care of each other, particularly the least of us. Now there’s a couple of billion people trying to do just that.
Of course, for your life to give signs of the love, the grace, the peace that is within you, you will actually want to have love, grace and peace within you. As Thich Nhat Hanh notes in Living Buddha, Living Christ,
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” To work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart. When you do, you are the child of God. But many who work for peace are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work is not really peaceful. We cannot say that they are touching the kingdom of God. To preserve peace, our hearts must be at peace with the world, with our brothers and our sisters. When we try to overcome evil with evil, we are not working for peace.
This, friends, is the work we can all do, wherever we are, and whoever we are. To be at peace with oneself and in oneself may not seem like much – I certainly used to shake my head at this calling – but the reality is that this work will save our own lives, moment by moment, as we live them, and it will offer the greatest of gifts freely as the breath we exhale, to whosoever we come in contact with, improving the quality of every relationship we have.
Of course, if you do want to do work that brings peace to the world? Awesome. But you’ll have to start with you. On the up side, only good can come from that.