It should be no secret that a common theme found in this blog involves the pursuit of justice in my life (and, eventually, my ministry). It makes up the first part of this site’s odd, yet question-provoking name; and among the many reasons why I choose to place such an emphasis on it, one of the main ones is because I feel that the pursuit of justice is one of the most important and fundamental elements of Christianity, and yet it seems to also be incredibly under-looked, misunderstood, and even condemned in Western Christian culture today. That is a pure shame, and it’s a stigma I hope to continually work to put an end to.
We can go over some of the reasons behind this backlash perhaps in a later post (or two or three or more), but for now, I want to delve deeper into a concept that goes hand-in-hand with justice, as it is simultaneously the means to the end goal of the pursuit of justice, as well as, I’d say, the end goal itself. And that is the pursuit of peace.
I’ve discussed in this blog as well that I consider myself to be a pacifist, but a lot of the reasoning behind that is because I don’t quite know what else to call myself. “Pacifist,” like any other label (i.e., conservative, liberal, vegan, feminist, Muslim, Christian, American) is a loaded word, and can mean any number of things to any number of people. Very rarely, however, does it mean just one thing to everyone.
I think many people consider pacifists to be hippie leftist activists who attend weekly protests, smoke weed daily, don’t shave any of their body hair, and are also probably Wiccan or something. While about one-and-three-quarters of those seven descriptions ring true for me, much of how I came to accepting this philosophy and lifestyle has been influenced by my study of scripture and theology (for those keeping score at home, theology is another prong of this weirdly-named blog. I mentioned the second one earlier, too, meaning they all seem to be “intersecting,” or something).
Lately, I’ve found myself attracted even moreso than usual to the theme of peace. Many of the books I’ve read recently revolve around the topic, and much of the music I’ve listened to orients itself in that direction, as well. While I’ve been tempted to write on this topic more in depth since even before the inception of this blog, I finally decided to act on that temptation after having read the first part of The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. This book was published posthumously (he died in 1996 and the book was first published in 1998), and it is a compilation of a lot of previously-archived writings on the matter, and so I suppose it is not considered to be one of his “classics.” I didn’t even know it existed until I found it in the Religion section at the Half Price Books in Rice Village (aka my favorite Half Price Books store) a couple weeks ago.
I was hooked from the very beginning, however, and I was struck most of all by the third chapter of the book, which was initially going to be a part, along with chapters one and two, of an actual, fuller book on peace. He builds it all up in chapter one by stating that peace is achieved first and foremost through prayer and contemplation. Before we can attempt to seek peace in the world, we must first seek peace within our own hearts. Next, in chapter two, Nouwen writes that peaceful prayer must then lead to action: to active resistance against the forces of death such as violence and systemic oppression. I very intentionally used a certain word in that description, as it’s both a word that he used frequently and a word that’s thrown around a lot in the political world today. You know what word it is. It’s in the title of this post. But more on that later.
Finally, in chapter three, Nouwen’s writings end up coming full circle (funny how that works). More than just being a rejection of the forces of death–a “no” to all the human-made killers in the world–the pursuit of peace is a loud, bold, affirmation of life itself. This idea requires the most attention, I believe, and so it will be the focus of the rest of this post. Even though it seems like such an anti-climactic epiphany, it becomes much more difficult once we begin to actually put it into practice.
When all my attention goes to protesting death, death itself may end up receiving more attention than it deserves. Thus my struggle against the dark forces of death becomes the arena of my own seduction…. As a peacemaker, my temptation is to underestimate the power of the forces of death and thus attack them directly. Precisely because I am such a sinful, broken person, these forces have many handles on me and can easily pull me into their network. Only the sinless Christ was able to overcome death. It is naive to think that we have the strength to face death alone and survive (pgs. 40-41).
Nouwen wrote this, like almost everything else he’d written, during a very tense political era: the Cold War. Fear had become habitual and perpetual, like a breath or a blink. While the Vietnam War had ended over a decade before this particular piece had been written, he was still well-acquainted with plenty of people protesting nuclear warfare, poverty in South America, and other forms of injustice. And he himself often felt like a hypocrite when he didn’t join in on these protests. Of course he was opposed to the Trident submarine being built just a few miles away from him in Groton, Connecticut. Of course he thought more needed to be done to combat homelessness both foreign and domestic. But he still couldn’t help but push back against public acts of resistance and protest. He continues on:
One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about (pg. 41).
It is a bitter and cruel irony that life often can’t really be broken down into separate, distinct poles. People who claim to be pro-peace have trouble hiding their own anger, their own sense of fear, their own prejudices. They cannot claim a sense of self-righteousness if they themselves are flawed and imperfect human beings. Even protesting something that is inherently and inarguably wrong doesn’t automatically turn them into a superior, or even “good” person.
But herein lies the other side of the same coin. I am against war. I am against police shootings (both by police and toward police). I am against the death penalty. I am against the destruction of the environment for the sake of corporate gain (or for any sake, really). But what am I doing to combat these injustices? How can I bring about change if I do nothing? If I do not seek to be a part of the solution, does that not make me a part of the problem?
I’ve wanted to go to more protests and do more activist-type stuff. I had hoped to attend the Women’s March in Houston this year, but didn’t. And had I known about the Black Lives Matter rally that was going on the night of July 7, 2016 in Dallas (you know which one I’m talking about), I can assure you that I would have done a lot to try to attend. Instead, I’ve attended prayer vigils and safe, on-campus, geographically distant awareness rallies for sex trafficking (neither of which are bad things by any means, but still).
This brings me back to the Nouwen writing. To paraphrase his second chapter: challenging Death is just another challenge to Death. Death is sneaky, manipulative, competitive, and always prevails. Death will reveal your flaws, and Death will, over time, make you look like an ass in front of your friends and, especially, your enemies. And this is why it is imperative that we make the conscious effort to focus on Life instead. When we do that, Nouwen says, we are stating that “for us life is stronger than death, love is stronger than fear, and hope is stronger than despair” (pg. 43).
Nouwen offers three tools to help us achieve this goal, which he describes as “aspects of life that are in stark contrast to the powers of death” (pg. 44). These tools are humility, compassion, and joy. When we express humility, we are acknowledging the interconnectedness of all living beings. The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning soil, so when we are being humble, we are embodying the very root of the word, so to speak, as we are seeking to protect, support, and nourish the life that surrounds us. Secondly, when we seek to be compassionate, we choose to focus on other people outside of ourselves. Embodying the mindset of Christ himself, compassion makes matters of injustice people-oriented rather than issue-oriented. Nouwen writes, “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues” (pg. 46). Finally, if we want to seek peace, we must make it our goal to pursue joy, as well. Joy can be difficult to find and define, but as Nouwen points out, it seems to always run parallel to peace when used in relation to Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (pgs. 47-49).
Like Nouwen, we are living in turbulent and divisive times today. His writings seemed almost prophetic when I read them for the first time, as though they had been written today rather than 33 years ago.
I feel like I spend much of my life on the sidelines, observing carefully, waiting for my chance to do… something. I am not (usually) the person who posts regularly about everything wrong with the world, nor am I the person who naively thinks everything is fine and dandy. I do not wish to contribute to the divisive rhetoric of today, but I also do not wish to remain silent or complacent about my convictions. So I hope to be slow to speak, slow to judge, but also, even moreso, quick to love. I hope to resist matters of injustice wherever I see it, but not without claiming my own shortcomings. I will admit that I am often too slow to speak and too slow to act, and too slow to love, but it is something I am continually working towards in order to better myself and my community. I hope to never cease writing about the matters I care about–and especially the people that I care about–and I very much wish the same for you.
You might not be a fan of the words “resistance” or “pacifist” in the contexts in which they’re often used today. But my hope here is that we all, regardless of where we stand on the issues of today, seek to learn how to be peacemakers. Jesus refers to those who pursue peace as “blessed” and as “children of God” (Matthew 5:9). May we make that our goal. May we be instruments of peace. May we resist injustice wherever it is found. May we pray, may we act, may we write, may we speak, may we listen, and may we love.
Thank you for reading. Until next time.