A Sunday of Peace
According to a Presbyterian colleague of mine, the theme on this second Sunday of Advent is peace. By this, we might mean the absence of war or conflict. But a deeper exploration of peace would include a companionable silence, a comfortable camaraderie, a feeling of safety, a happy stillness in one’s heart. Peace is equanimity, tranquility, a sense of well-being.
In Christian terms, peace is that absolute trust and rightness that comes from an abiding relationship with God. According to the Gospel of Luke, Zechariah, eight days after his son John the Baptist was born, prophesied about Jesus. He said, “By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace” (Luke 1:78:79).
Apparently, Jesus came to bring peace to the world. Thousands of years later, have we learned anything about walking the way of peace?
Jesus and Peace
In his article, “Seeking the Peace of Christ: Christianity and Peacemaking,” Mark D. Roberts points out that shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, means “wholeness, completeness, soundness, and prosperity.” Thus peace requires righteousness and justice. To bring prosperity to everyone, we need to make sure they have food, water, clothing, shelter, and proper medical care. As Annabel Shilson-Thomas writes, in “The True Meaning of Peace,” “True Peace goes hand in hand with justice.”
This is one reason the United Nation’s published the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” In 1948, after the horrors of the Holocaust awakened Europeans and Americans to the atrocities of which we humans are capable, they wrote that “inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights” are “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” If we treated each other with dignity, we could not possibly have a holocaust or a genocide.
The Articles in the document assert that everyone, absolutely everyone:
- is “born free and equal in dignity and rights”;
- has “the right to life, liberty and security”;
- shall be safe from slavery, servitude, torture, and degradation;
- and has the right to “equal protection of the law,” to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” to “just and favourable conditions of work,” and “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his family.”
The document outlines specific rights for women and children. It mentions freedom of marriage, it declares we all have a sanctuary, to membership in a nation, to property, and to education. Article 29 points out that we also all have “duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of [our] personality is possible.”
How Do We Create Peace
What a daring vision. Were we to fulfill this vision, we would have the “Kin-dom”  of God on Earth. We would have right relationship, compassion, equity, and peace.
Is there any way we can get there?
One way is to remember this document, to study it, and to honor it. That’s why we celebrate Human Rights Day this Sunday, December 10.
Another way to fulfill this vision is to seek wisdom from religious traditions. Jesus taught nonviolence, reconciliation, and forgiveness as the path to peace. The Taoist teacher, Lao Tzu, tells us that if there is to be peace in the nations, we must all nurture peace in our hearts. He writes:
If there is to be peace in the world,
there must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
there must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
there must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
there must be peace in the heart.
That means all our hearts, including those of our leaders and lawmakers and of ourselves.
Declaration of Human Rights
How do we even start?
It’s easy to point fingers at those who commit atrocities, who bluster and bully from pulpit and governing house. We can blame our woes on Neo-Nazis and sex offenders, or on immigrants and queers. It all depends on whom we choose to hate.
But the Declaration of Human Rights and the teachings of Jesus and Lao Tzu tell us that everyone, absolutely everyone, deserves the rights and consideration. Part of the problem, though, is that even if we believe this, we don’t really think it applies to everyone. Deep within, we aren’t sure that everyone is really human.
Obviously, if you’re a member of the species homo sapiens, you’re human, but if we really believed that, we would not express disdain, harass others, or discriminate. I’ve read tributes to the Dalai Lama because he treats everyone he meets as worthy and even special, as if they matter, as if they were fully human. But that shouldn’t be unusual. It shouldn’t take enlightenment to behave that way. Unfortunately, it often does.
The Thrill of Power
Perhaps that’s because so many of us have been shamed and belittled. We hate ourselves, and thus we tend to hate others. Maybe we “lead lives of quiet desperation,”  or maybe we lust after power and the domination of others. Too many people who gain a position of trust and authority, such as CEOs and governors and judges, forget what it’s like to scrape by, to cope with demeaning social systems while hungry and overwhelmed. Some of them never knew. So empathy is hard to come by, especially when we see the poor and vulnerable as groups of “others” with no human face.
I’ve been thinking, for instance, about the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations. In some ways, sexual harassment is no big deal. After all, it’s not rape, or murder, or starvation, or political torture. Yet sexual harassment, including the constant threat of it, is invasive. It’s exhausting to always be vulnerable to touch you don’t want, propositions you don’t like, and demeaning comments, leers, and offensive jokes. It leads to hyper-vigilance and grief.
Harassment isn’t an expression of interest or caring. It’s an expression of domination. Harassment, whether of women, immigrants, the homeless, transgender individuals, children, or others, treats them, not as people, but as objects without power, rights, recourse, or voice. Do this often enough, and it’s easy to rationalize laws that penalize the poor, the prisoner, the addict, the immigrant, the one who is different.
Though despicable, sexual harassment is just a symptom of our broken system that cares not for human rights, but for the rights of rich and powerful.
Holding Ourselves Accountable
How do we change this? In this whirlwind of “me toos,” we may be starting to hold perpetrators accountable. I’m not convinced, though. The ones deciding what accountability is in this situation aren’t the women who’ve been wounded, nor even the community of people who care about them. Instead, the consequences are decided by those who serve in office and those whose voices are loud and shrill.
Men are resigning from jobs and positions or are being forced out. Is this accountability? What happens when they go home? To fall from power hurts, but really they haven’t fallen. They have wealth and standing enough to land on their feet. A man without social standing who harassed the wrong woman would end up in court and, if convicted, spend time in prison, then for the rest of his life, be branded as a sex offender, unable to find housing or jobs or friends. Should this be the fate of Al Franken, Roy Moore, of our president?
In past columns I argued for restorative justice for gang members and for those we don’t like. The process of bringing community members together to repair relationships is complicated and time-consuming, yet the healing that occurs changes all who take part in the process. Punishment, shaming, and shunning change little. Indeed, they can cause more harm.
Yet how do we make people choose to heal? How can we force them to honestly and humbly take part in a restorative process?
Making People Heal
The short answer is, we can’t. To choose the difficult path of restoration, people usually need to fall far and hard. That is the value of all those awful things that happen to us in this life. When everything goes our way, we die self-satisfied and ignorant. Still, I don’t know anyone who would choose to suffer just so they can become better human beings.
Not that suffering is enough to teach us to treat the other person as ourselves. Without transformation, suffering simply makes us bitter and unkind. The other day, I was talking with a Christian man who was generous and loving in so many ways, but he had a wound he could not reconcile. Because she couldn’t afford her medication, his ex-wife had a stroke. For some reason, she didn’t seek help until a week later, when she went to the community health center. There, the man told me, the children of illegal immigrants were treated for colds, yet his ex-wife couldn’t get an appointment with a doctor for three months. The day before her appointment, she died.
Blaming the Other
Who does he blame for her death? His ex-wife or himself for not getting help sooner? Our crazy for-profit system of health care? The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor that meant she couldn’t buy her medication?
No. He blames the people whom, he insists, were getting taken care of first, the ones with brown skin who didn’t belong here. How did he know they were immigrants or “illegal”?
I don’t believe he did know. I suspect that, for him, those people weren’t truly human. They weren’t individuals with stories and possibilities and purpose. I doubt he talked with any of them. He probably saw their skin, perhaps heard their accents, and made an assumption. This is not seeing humans; it is seeing objects.
Taking Care of Our Tribe
I doubt anyone one has challenged his worldview or held him accountable for defaming the character of those mothers and children. He has such a big heart, loves his family dearly, would give food and clothes and even shelter to a needy stranger, yet he cannot see the wound that makes him objectify a group of human beings and blame them for his pain. In this way, his suffering has not made him more generous and kind. It has made him more angry.
This man tried so hard to take care of his ex-wife, yet he failed. Failure hurts. To lose a loved one hurts. If he lashes out at those who have no power, at some of the most vulnerable among us, that is normal. Who has the courage to take on the powerful insurance and pharmaceutical companies? What good does it do to tell our representatives that the United Nations has declared medical care a right, not a privilege? Do they even care about the “Declaration of Human Rights?” At best, the document is overwhelming. How can we take care of every single person in our country, not to mention the world?
Taking Care of One Person at a Time
We can’t. But perhaps we can take care of one person at a time. I don’t know how we choose which individuals to save. That problem perplexes me, so I do my best to help the person in front of me, though not even that is enough at times. I’d love to see us develop a way to heal the broken relationships caused by our unfair health care system or by sexual harassment. Surely there’s a way to restore justice in our courts, in our schools, in our government, in our homes.
Perhaps we could start with the children. If we take care of them, we could influence an entire generation, change the course of humanity.
But that’s thinking long term, and we’re not good at that. We’re so wounded, all of us, that we have trouble deferring gratification. We’re so crazed with addictions, we can’t bear to part with our money or our time, and we think punishment is the answer because it makes us feel better for a moment. If it makes things worse in the long run, we don’t notice, or we don’t care.
Recovery Is Possible
Such a sad state of affairs. Yet I can’t believe this insanity will last forever. Recovery is possible for us as individuals. It is also possible for us as a country, but we individuals must take the first step. We, as individuals, need to cultivate peace in our hearts.
I can do that by asking myself, who, for me, is less than human? Perhaps it is those I’ve been complaining about in this column, those nameless and faceless powerful ones who don’t care about anyone except their friends and family, if they even care about them. Yet, like the rest of us, they are complex human beings who have been wounded and who wound others. As the “Declaration of Human Rights” points out, they have the rights as I do, including the right to be dutiful to the community, to express their being and purpose in a meaningful and humane way. They have the right to heal.
Rights for everyone. The peace of God’s “kin-dom” is a dream to aspire to. Rights and peace, they are hopes and goals. We can get there, one person at a time, one step at a time, and we can start by remembering that even those we don’t like are human and deserve the same rights as those we love.
In faith and fondness,
- Kin-dom, rather than Kingdom, is about relationships rather than rulership.
- From Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience and Other Essays.