Advent, Day 3: “Peace”

2013-12-03 15.36.39

The above photo is my submission for day three of rethinkchurch.org‘s Advent Photo-a-Day project. If you haven’t seen a Photo-a-Day challenge before, the idea is to take a photo each day that relates to a specific theme, word, or concept. Today’s assignment is to post a photograph that denotes “Peace.”

Generally, I like for these photos to speak for themselves, but this photo and concept deserve some comment. “Peace” is difficult enough to conceptualize for me, much less depict concretely. I went with a photo of action, of dynamism, of movement. It may seem odd to use this image to depict “peace.” I went this direction because I think that many of the ways we talk about “peace” founder on an incorrect assumption that peace is paradigmatically something static– a state of affairs, a state of mind, or some such.

Take our tendency to talk about “peace” as a feeling one has. “I am at peace,” one says, meaning to denote something like calm or tranquility or the absence of stress. I think that these feelings have something to do with peace; it’s not wrong to call them peaceful. They aren’t, however, the whole of peace, and perhaps are the least important part of it, functionally speaking.

We also talk about “peace” as meaning the absence of conflict. We speak of peace as what happens when war stops. We talk of “keeping the peace” in our workplaces, our families, our churches, our relationships. Again, I think it is fair to call these things peaceful. Certainly the absence of conflict can be productive of feelings of calm or tranquility. However, this way of thinking about peace can, at times, be naïve and dangerous. When we valorize the absence of conflict, we often valorize the avoidance or denial of conflict. Conflict doesn’t go away, though, simply because we don’t want to acknowledge it or deal with it. One need not seek conflict actively or produce it unnecessarily for conflict to arise, and when it arises, it is there whether we want to look at it or not. Avoiding or denying conflict is not only futile, but it often only exacerbates it.

Moreover, valorizing the absence of conflict is often a tool the powerful use to silence the voices of people who have legitimate criticisms and complaints. This happens when, for instance, faculty members of color at universities are investigated and accused of “racial harassment” for pointing out racism and racial inequities on campus. It happens when white folks accuse people of color of “reverse racism,” “making things about race,” and “playing the race card” for pointing out what they experience on a daily basis. It happens when victims of sexism, abuse, and homophobia in church settings are dismissed and branded as instigators of needless conflict for telling the truth about what they experience and demanding change. It happens when service workers, adjunct faculty, unpaid interns, and others are deemed troublesome ingrates for having the audacity of wanting to be paid a fair, living wage for their labor. As with so many other important values, powerful elites routinely weaponize the value of peace.

It is often cited as a maxim that there is “no peace without justice.” I believe this is true. It is possible to feel peaceful, or to live in disregard of conflict, in the midst of a situation that is horribly unjust. In fact, one of the ways privilege works (white privilege, class privilege, straight privilege, and the like) that it insulates the privileged from the psychic realities of the injustices that produce their privileged status. It distributes the hard work–the “interpretive labor,” as David Graeber has called it— of dealing with injustice and conflict primarily upon those who lack privilege, and that distribution then becomes another part of the injustice that structures social relationships. The carefree minds of the privileged become one more thing that they– that I– purchase at others’ expense. Peace with justice, by contrast, is hard, uncomfortable work for everyone.

Beyond “no peace without justice,” though, I also believe that neither peace nor justice is synonymous with the absence of conflict. If conflict is a call for resolution with justice, then of course the resolution of conflict is more just than conflict that continues unabated. A just resolution of conflict, though, does not always translate into tranquil, calm feelings for everybody, certainly not in the short term, and these feelings can themselves be a source of conflict. Those of us who have profited unjustly from their privileges and from the exploitation of others will likely find it extremely uncomfortable, to say the least, to shoulder additional burdens. The hope is that justice will foster liberation for all, even for those who currently benefit from injustice, but this does not mean that there will not be struggle and conflict beforehand.

Good-thinking liberals, such as I used to be, founder on this latter point. There is an unreflective but widespread liberal belief, I think, that if we set everyone down around the same table and talk things out, then everyone will come away satisfied with the outcome– which means, of course, that everyone’s satisfaction is taken to be the measure of how just the outcome is. It sounds great, except that in practice it means that good-thinking liberals tend to find their efforts at a satisfactory dialogue held hostage by the feelings of people whose interests are unjust, and who will refuse to be satisfied with anything but an unjust outcome. The only way to satisfy those who desire injustice is, simply, to give up on justice and enjoin everyone to make nice, which is what happens all too often in practice. Good-thinking liberals have a hard time trusting that struggle and justice go together.

One of the things that keeps me Christian is that neither Jesus nor the canonical Gospels has any such illusions about peace and justice satisfying everybody. The Gospel According to Luke makes constant reference to God’s justice involving a kind of turnabout that will leave some unsatisfied. Take, for instance, the Magnificat of Mary (Lk 1:46-55), appropriate given the season we are in:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:52-53, NRSV)

There is no talk here of asking the powerful first whether they are cool with being brought down from their thrones and sent away hungry. There is no presumption that they will be happy with this. God is the God of all, of course, even of the rich and the powerful, but this does not mean that God is wealth and power. Far from it. God reaches out to us beyond, and in spite of, our wealth, our power, and our privilege. God can show us that peace and justice sometimes happen in spite of what we might want.

Peace, when thought of as a state of affairs we are meant to achieve and then make endure, frequently misleads us. Peace is not something that is. Peace is instead something we do. Peace is not a magical, long-distant goal in which all conflict has dissolved. It is, rather, in what we do with, and in, the conflicts that structure our patched-up lives.

Want to participate in the Photo-a-Day challenge? The words for Advent 2013 are as follows:

Advent Photo-a-Day 2013

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