“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” The lyrics to this song are well-known, but how often do we pause to think about them? There is an urgency here that actually indicates a distinct lack of peace to those who pay attention. After all, nothing heightens the yearning for peace like having had some experience of it, knowing it is possible, and being in dire need of it. By way of analogy, it’s hard to crave a cheeseburger if I’ve never had one, and even more so if I don’t even know what one is.
In the homily I heard last Sunday, the priest suggested preparing for Advent by paying attention to what things—or people—were distracting us from God, and dealing with them accordingly. I would modify this proposal by urging us to pay attention to what causes us unrest. Just because somebody or something is a source of anxiety for us doesn’t mean that we need to let go necessarily, but there is a call for some kind of change.
Whenever we are not at peace, there is some kind of discord between our mentality and our surroundings. In other words, a lack of peace is a valuable sign for us that something is wrong and must be addressed. Either we are legitimately distressed by an unjust situation or we are neurotically upset about something that really shouldn’t matter that much. True peace is more than a freedom from this unrest: after all, it may be possible to adapt our thinking to tolerate many things that should remain unacceptable. How many people have numbed themselves to the persistence of war and poverty with the cold comfort that “there is nothing I can do”? Fighting that ends with scorched earth is not true peace either, even after hostilities have ceased. Real peace implies more than the cessation of hostility (which can be coerced), and more than a subjective state of mind. Real peace can only exist in the context of justice, in which there is no reasonable cause for conflict.
I have often had difficulty with the Gospel quotation of Jesus that “[He has] not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10: 34). On first reflection, this doesn’t sound like the Prince of Peace that we spend all of our Advents waiting for. Recently however, I have come to see this quote as an affirmation that doing the work of justice, which is a requirement for peace, will often provoke violence from the powerful status quo. We saw this in the opposition to the Civil Rights movement in the USA, as well as in the targeting of priests and religious who cast their lot with the oppressed of Latin America, most especially in the 1980s. Heroic pursuit of peace did not mean compliance with injustice, but rather pursuing a world where a just peace can be more possible.
The Beatitudes say nothing about those who already are at peace. Rather, they proclaim as blessed those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, who are “merciful”, who are “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” and who are “peacemakers”, in short, those who struggle for a better world (Matthew 5: 1-12). Perhaps, we are not meant to be at peace just yet, but are rather meant to be pursuing it. In the meanwhile, we can pay attention to what disturbs our peace, as that may be a good place to start.
“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Don’t allow me to be the only one to feel peace while everybody else suffers, but rather give me the strength to step up and be an agent for peace (justice), because surely I know somebody in greater need than I am.
The “ear candy” and “brain food” for this week are a special treat. First, Bob Dylan expresses his wistful longing for peace and some of the realities that interfere with that desire. For this week’s brain food, I came across a fascinating reflection by a Reform Jew expressing his reservations about celebrating Hanukkah. You could connect it to this week’s blog post, but honestly that was not my concern this time… it’s Hanukkah, and this article was simply intriguing and relevant. Enjoy!
Ear Candy: “Blowin in the Wind” by Bob Dylan
Brain Food: “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah” by Michael David Lukas
Come back next Saturday for a new post!