For those of us who follow the liturgical calendar in our churches, the season of Advent is the time where we focus on the virtues of hope, peace, joy, and love – perhaps lighting a candle on an advent wreath to represent each attribute.
The second Sunday in Advent, we highlight peace. We recognize the peace that Christ’s presence brings to the world, and we long for that eternal peace with the coming of Christ’s reign. In the meantime, we are too aware of the absence of peace in our homes, communities, and world.
While I realize the traditional Advent texts for peace are found in Isaiah this year, I’ve been stuck in Jeremiah 6, where Yahweh is warning of the destruction that will come to Jerusalem because “there is nothing but oppression in her” (Jer. 6:6). Yahweh claims that the prophets and priests, in pursuit of “unjust gain” claim “‘peace, peace’, when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14).
What does this sense of false peace mean?
Absence of conflict may appear peaceful for some people, but not all, especially the most vulnerable. It seems that the priests in Jeremiah claimed there was peace, because they lived in relative comfort and experienced no troubles. This peace, however, was at the expense of those whom they dealt falsely (Jer. 6:13).
Perhaps the notion of peace isn’t the absence of conflict. Perhaps peace is necessarily connected to justice, where oppression ceases. Perhaps avenues to peace must trouble the waters of the status quo so that true peace, peace connected with the reign of God, can be attained.
I’m reminded of this especially in the decision not to indict in Michael Brown’s death. Most of the protests have been nonviolent, and clergy from many denominations have served as leaders in calling for and modeling peaceful demonstrations. They also bear witness to Jeremiah’s words when they chant “K(no)w Justice, k(no)w peace.”
Some may identify the absence of protests as indicators of peace. But perhaps the times before the protests really weren’t that peaceful. They may have been peaceful for some, but not for all persons. The St. Louis region, reflecting the nation as a whole, has a troubled history with racial prejudice, stemming from before the Dred Scott decision in 1857 to outrage over bussing mostly African American students to the white suburbs for schooling in 2013. Those who suffer a lifetime of racism do not experience peace.
Concerns of racism are complex and multilayered, and do not have an easy solution. But perhaps the prophet Jeremiah provides me, a white person, with clues. Later in Jeremiah 6, Yahweh encourages the people of Jerusalem to mourn, to put on sackclothes and ashes as a sign of lament. Later, in Jeremiah 7, Yahweh urges Israel to repent, turning away from their sins and instead act “justly one with another” (Jer. 7:5). By confessing, repenting and mourning our sins of apathy to racism, we recognize that we need a different definition of peace. This definition of peace may have its roots in Genesis, where the Triune God creates humanity in God’s own image to worship and commune with God. This definition acknowledges black lives as full bearers of that image.
This Advent, I hope our ideas about peace are challenged. I hope our concepts of peace mimic those of Christ’s, who challenged the Roman government, who loved his enemies, and considered the least of these his most important confidants. May our definitions of peace be defined in light of the life of Christ, in whose name, as Placide Cappeau articulates it in the hymn “O Holy Night”, “all oppression shall cease.”