I grew up in a country at war. It was Northern Ireland, in the 1960’s, and there was a war going on all around us, except we didn’t call it war, we called it “The Troubles”, because calling it a war would be much too frightening for a country that was still recovering from a world war. My parents protected me from the violence for the most part. We avoided the areas where riots might break out, we lived a normal life. If it hadn’t been for guards searching our shopping bags at the entrance to every downtown store, seeing the British soldiers with their machine guns and armored vehicles everywhere, and hearing distant gunfire at night, we might not have known we were at war.
But for others in Belfast the war was very real. For those whose businesses were bombed, whose sons were tear-gassed or knee-capped, whose family members were imprisoned without trial or murdered, it was a time when peace seemed very far off and reconciliation an impossible dream. The two parts of the population, Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians, were locked into mutual fear.
Some time after my family left Northern Ireland, around 1980 I think, the Dean of Belfast Cathedral, Sammy Crooks, started an annual discipline of spending Christmas week sitting on the steps of the cathedral, wrapped in his black clergy cape, bearing witness to the divided province and collecting donations to send Protestant and Catholic children to summer camp together. You see, ours was a segregated society. We went not only to separate churches but to separate schools too. We didn’t know kids from the other side of the tracks and they didn’t know us. I count myself blessed that I got to play in youth orchestras, that were one of the few ways Protestant and Catholic children could be together.
Dean Crooks knew that until we allowed relationships to develop between the different sides of the community, there would never be true peace in Northern Ireland. And so he took a chance. He came out of his comfortable cathedral office and sat in the cold rain, in the city centre where bombs went off every week, and he asked strangers for money, all for the sake of peace.
True peace, the peace of God that passes all understanding, requires certain conditions.
It requires that there be justice. It requires that people be willing to take risks, to step out of their comfort zones, to give up their privileges. It requires that people learn to trust each other. These are challenging conditions. Justice, risk, trust. How are we doing with those?
Over the last year we have heard a lot in this nation about justice, about equal treatment under the law, about the anger and fear that simmers just under the surface in encounters with law enforcement personnel, between people of different ethnicities or different religions. We may not be at war in America, but we are surely not enjoying a true peace.
I have had my eyes opened to the many ways I benefit from white privilege. Rabbi Laurie’s sermon two weeks ago reminded me that my two sons can walk or drive the streets in confidence that the police will give them the benefit of the doubt, unlike their African-American friends. I have seen how afraid many of us are of the possibility of large numbers of Muslim refugees being resettled in this country.
I have been challenged by my relative wealth and comfort, as the evening news has shown the deluge of men, women, and children who have fled the wreckage of Syria and Iraq with only the clothes on their backs, people whose lives were just like yours and mine only a few weeks ago and who now are prepared to walk through live mine fields – mine fields in Europe! – if it means they might have a chance to live in peace.
What kinds of risks would you be prepared to take for the sake of peace?
What can you and I do to help bring about the conditions for peace?
The first thing Jesus tells us to do is to pray for our enemies, to pray for those who wish us harm. He doesn’t tell us to pray for their conversion or to make our prayers conditional on the good behavior of others, but simply to pray for them. The first step towards peace is to let go of what we expect of the other. We pray for our enemies, not because of who they are, but because of who we are. We are to love those who have no time for us, to love them not because they are lovable but because we are made in the image of love.
Peacemaking begins in the first person. I must get over my fear and take the first step. I cannot wait for the other to deserve it. If I wait for the other, I play into the vicious cycle which only reinforces the fear and resentment that drive so much of our public discourse.
Peacemaking means setting aside our own needs – to be right, to be satisfied, to be in charge – in the service of a greater good. This week the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he is inviting all the Anglican primates to a meeting. For the first time he is including the Archbishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA. You may recall that this is the umbrella organization for the congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church some ten years ago now.
When I learned of Archbishop Welby’s invitation I was angry. Many of us were personally hurt by the statements and actions of those who left the Episcopal Church. I don’t want to see that group given legitimacy in our Communion; I want to see them punished. I wanted to hold onto my desire to be righteous, to be an injured party, and I blamed Archbishop Welby for caving in and letting ‘those people’ return to the table. But upon reflection I came to believe that Archbishop Welby is doing the right thing for the Gospel and for peace.
As long as Anglicans are bitterly divided, there can be no peace in our Communion, let alone across the church, let alone across the world. As we say before Communion each Sunday, this is the table, not of the Church, but of Jesus Christ. We have no business barring other Christians from that table, even when they bar us. And so I salute Archbishop Welby for taking the risk and reaching out, when he surely knows that he will be criticized for it and that his invitation may be rejected.
Being a peacemaker means being an activist. It means working actively to interfere in unjust structures. It means overcoming fear with love. It means stepping out of our comfort zone to enter into relationship with the other. It means refusing to play the games of insult, cynicism, cheap shots, and thoughtless generalization that are so prevalent in electronic and social media.
It’s much too easy to share a Facebook post that casts a political candidate or religious leader in a shameful light. And yes, sometimes they deserve it, but remember, we base our treatment of others not on who they are but on who we are.
We are the people of the Jesus Movement, as Bishop Michael Curry puts it. We are the footsoldiers in God’s campaign to wage peace, to end injustice, to treat all people with dignity, to convert swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We cannot wait for others to clean up their acts, we must simply clean up our own. So I pray for my enemy, not because I see any redeeming quality in my enemy but because I want God to see a redeeming quality in me. I give a dollar to the homeless man not because I think he will spend it wisely but because I want God to be generous to me, I tithe to the church not because I agree with every spending decision of the Chapter but because I need to give back a portion of the abundance with which God has blessed me.
Jesus sent out his disciples telling them they carried peace within them. They were to offer to share their peace with those they met along the way. That meant they had to set aside their fear of the stranger. We live in a world that is filled with fear – fear of the other, fear of loss, fear of insecurity, fear of rejection. Until we conquer our fears there will be no chance for peace. And the only way to tackle fear is head-on. So take that step, reach out to the stranger, offer the peace of your heart without any expectation of return or acknowledgment. Do it because of who you are and who you are called to be, God’s beloved child, made in the image of love.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
Peace Sunday, September 20, 2015