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Peace, Not Quiet – 6/7/2015

Dona nobis pacem – the phrase you’ve already heard sung this morning and will hear again momentarily – is a bit of Latin common enough that many of you probably already know its meaning: Grant us peace. As an element of the Latin Mass of the Catholic Church, this three word prayer has been spoken and sung by uncountable voices over long centuries. Peace is a popular cause, after all, and a theme to which the voices of religion often return.

For instance, in the Psalms we are counseled to, “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”[i] The teacher Jesus is famously said to have proclaimed, “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called the children of God.”[ii] And in the Qur’an it is said of those who serve al-Rahman – a name for the divine which means “the Most Merciful” – that they, “walk upon the earth modestly, and when the ignorant address them harshly, they answer: Peace.”[iii]

The yearning for peace is a theme that runs deep throughout the human family, and the voices of rage, hate, greed, or cynicism – all that find pleasure or profit in war – need constant answering and countering. Yet, the prayers and proclamations of peace and its goodness and necessity can also serve to stifle dissent and paper-over discontent. They can become a means to hush the afflicted, out of the fear that the noises of their suffering might disturb the comfortable. This problem poses the greatest danger where it is absorbed and internalized, so that the voice of a false, flawed peace comes from within, rather than without. Consider, for example, that despite the premise of equality, too many women in our society still come of age trained not to be their own best advocates, or to take up the full physical and social space their personhood ought to afford them.

There is a bit of gallows humor sometimes told among Jewish people to highlight and struggle against the way that marginalized groups can become focused on an idolatrous peace to their own great detriment. The story goes that three men were led before a firing squad, to be executed. The first was given a blindfold, and accepted it. The second did the same. But the third declined the offer, wishing to face his end with open eyes. So the second leaned over to the third and said sharply: “Don’t make trouble!”

This attitude which prioritizes peace by demoting justice really only winds up offending both ideals entirely. For the one thing can never exist without the other: there is no wholeness, no right-order to the world where violence persists, whether that violence be the overt form of armed conflict, or the more subtle type of poverty, oppression, or alienation. The great writer, orator, and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass said that,

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”[iv]

We must draw a line between what is truly peace, and what is only really a matter of quiet: that it is righteous not to harm another person does not make it a sin to confront those who are harming you, or your neighbor. This distinction can be a hard one to live with, sometimes, because there is a lot that is attractive in the realm of quiet. I say this for myself especially, as someone whose inner Hobbit is very strong. Hobbits, you may or may not know, are the imaginary creation of JRR Tolkien, who made them the sorts of folk who love good food and comfortable living quarters. Hobbits place a high premium on being not-too-hot and not-too-cold, and on the simple pleasures of music, good books, and the company of friends. But just as Tolkien’s two most famous hobbits – Bilbo and Frodo Baggins – came to appreciate, there are things in life more important than the comfort of the easy and familiar. As the poet Annie Dillard wrote,

“There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”[v]

Dillard’s final connection there, between Cain – a biblical figure of destruction – and Lazarus – a biblical figure of rebirth – is telling. The rebirth and renewal of the world and everything in it depends upon the destruction of what is to make way for what might be. This does not mean that all destruction is somehow good, only that there is such a thing as a positive destruction: the sort undertaken with imagination and destruction. A creative upending of the way things are. A holy ruckus. Without such a force in our lives and the world, we would only have stagnation.

During Augusto Pinoche’s military dictatorship in Chile, the regime justified itself as keeper of the national peace – even though its thorough militarization and constant suppression of dissent made this the sort of peace that pollutes the term. The cost of confronting the state was enormous as whole families were disappeared. But one tactic that the Chilean people found for lodging their protests at Pinoche’s government was a practice still common throughout Latin American called Cacerolazo. The term shares its origin with the English word casserole, by the way. And it refers to a motley street protest where the marchers make as much noise as they possibly can by singing and banging on kitchen pots and other such things. Such protests could be started and stopped very quickly, and they had a very low bar for joining in with, leading to their becoming a popular strategy. Even after the regime made it illegal to sing in public in the nation of Chile, the Cacerolazos continued until Pinoche’s government finally fell.

Sometimes the only way to work for peace is to disturb the peace. Sometimes we need to cast aside our preference for the ease and comfort of social quiet, in order to make way for a vital and necessary disruption. What peace demands of us is not our silence or inaction, but our creativity and hard work, our pots and pans, our prayers and our songs.

[i] Psalm 34:14

[ii] Matthew 5:9

[iii] Qur’an 25:63

[iv] West India Emancipation speech (1857).

[v] From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


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