The Positive Presence of Peace

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 1:68-79 (edited down)


“Peace” Professor Glen Stassen used to tell us, “like war, must be waged”. It is not the absence of overt conflict and violence. It is the positive establishment of harmony and understanding. There is a lovely turn of phrase in the Psalms that looks forward to the day when “Peace and Justice shall Kiss (or ‘embrace’).

It is one of the lovely parts of the holiday season is it not? There comes a moment, and that moment seems to change so much depending on your stage of life. Perhaps late at night on Christmas eve when everyone is in bed, especially for parents of little children. You’ve bought all the presents, everything is prepared (well enough of it is prepared) and for a little bit, you just find yourself at peace.

The fire is going, perhaps the snow is falling. And you have all these very real sources of stress and anxiety that will come back in a while. But for a moment, perhaps with a loved one, you are simply at rest.

I was amused to discover that Scandinavians have a word for this moment, when you create a cozy mood with candle light and fireplaces in winter. And you just chill. They call it “hooga” spelled Hygge. We aren’t doing anything. We just are present in the moment.

Christmas is the only holiday in the world that celebrates “peace” quite like it. On Christmas morning, from 3 a.m. until 9 a.m. our entire huge metropolis comes to a stop. And for one morning, rolling times zone after time zone, almost the whole world is just present with their peoples.

St. Augustine once said, “My heart was restless until it was at rest in Thee”. And all of us collectively enter the sacred time, no agenda except gifting our people and feeding our people and being at peace… before they start shooting each other with their new gun. I digress…

It is important that we set this mood in our families, in our homes, because we know that we have serious disruptions of the peace in our wider world. As Obi Wan Kenobi would say, ‘there is a disruption in the force’.

Locally, we had three incidences where boys painted or etched swastika’s in the boy’s bathrooms, two in the Middle School in Summit, one in the High School. Similar things have happened in Scotch Plains and in Westfield.

It is important that we call these out and exhibit a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for symbols of hate and that we do it in such a way that even alienated Middle School boys can hear it. These symbols hearken back to an era when we deployed organized hate to create a climate of fear and racial division.

And this era of fear is not all that far away. The ‘Greatest Generation’ fought World War 2 to put an end to it and some of the people from that generation are still present among us.

Indeed, I’m old enough that I still remember the vestiges of that era (thinking of another hate symbol- The Noose or the Hood). Just a few years before I was born Emmet Till was killed in the South of Mississippi. He was a teenager that was on the White side of town in this small rural town in Mississippi. There was some incident that involved a White Woman, perhaps. The details are not significant, nor were they ever established.

But a group of men kidnapped Emmet, beat him beyond recognition and killed him and left him in a field. You may not know this but some 3,447 African-Americans were lynched during the Jim Crow era- from 1880-1960.

Right now on Broadway, we have a revival of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ that tries to re-create the fear that African-Americans had to live through in that era, so eloquently captured in the stammering, halting speeches given by Tom Robinson in the play, the Black man who is falsely accused of a crime and then killed by a lynch mob.

Fortunately, I have no memory of that level of violence. But I do remember the fear in the South. I remember being 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The older brothers of the boys in my neighborhood, the guys in High School. They would just go into the black part of town and beat someone up at random because they could.

What I do remember is the aggressive, not funny, racial jokes. I do remember the way a normal interaction could quickly degrade with racially hostile remarks, aggressive verbal blasts. Of course, I grew up in Little Rock and they had to bring in the National Guard to integrate the school system in the late 50’s.

My neighbors couldn’t have been nicer people, well mannered, quite capable of being respectful towards African-Americans one on one. At the same time, we allowed this wider cultural ethos to pervade the city as a whole that dripped with fear, intimidation, inferiority. And if you intended to change it, white or black, you better watch out.

As a child, I just remember being filled with these contradictory messages. Adults were polite in this single interaction with some black person, but totally opposed to school integration, helpful in this charity instance, but opposed to any justice issue that implied equality between the races. Mannerly in the midst of a pervasive climate of fear.

It is hard for me to explain this now, but as a child in a different era, we just didn’t put ourselves in the shoes of African-Americans and reflect on what that world must have been like for them. If we had, we wouldn’t have needed the Civil Rights movement to change the laws before we could change people’s hearts.

It was mannerly; it was polite; it was charitable; it was repressed; it was inequitable; it was unjust; and it was stifling to African-Americans in every walk of life.

Part of my dissertation was on how hate took root and organized itself so effectively in Nazi Germany, helped enormously by a number of social conditions that we do not have in the United States right now- a country blown apart after WW1, sky-rocketing inflation of Venezuelan proportions, the shattered self-esteem the most educated country in the World before WW1 was reduced to begging after the end of the war, a huge percentage of the country suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- unable and unwilling to become normal families again.

The weed of fascism only grows on certain political soils. The conditions were just right for planting hate in the burnt over landscape of post-war Germany.

And the Nazi’s stumbled on so many things and got them right. They held their rallies at night. Later on, psychological studies would show that people are more likely to engage their emotions rather than their intellect at night, more likely to believe exaggerations that played to their prejudices at night, in the dark, where they no longer felt themselves to be personally responsible. But they could allow themselves to dissolve into the crowd anonymously.

It was easier to unleash their inner frustrations, their inner anxieties. They could allow themselves to get caught up in this movement.

The Nazi’s used to have big rallies, really big rallies. And later studies would show that we are more likely to allow ourselves to become part of the crowd. We are more likely to allow ourselves to dissolve into the Masses when we are part of a really big group of people, all doing things together, each of us surrendering our individuality to the group, relinquishing our personal identity and our personal sense of responsibility (that we would have during the day, dealing one on one with a single person). We can give ourselves a wider sense of permission and we can find ourselves participating in hate acts collectively that we would never allow ourselves to participate in one on one.

If you look at the infamous movies shot by Leni Riefenstahl of the early Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, you will see them all marching the masses into this huge field that was divided into groups at night, carrying torches and lighting bonfires, supposedly returning the Germans to their primordial teutonic roots.

And then Hitler steps up to the microphone, after a lot of patriotic music is played- music that you can sing to drunk. And the lights are all extinguished except the single light on Hitler. The Nazi’s figured out that we are more likely to be swayed by this singular focus.

Do it over and over and over. You can become so effective at manipulating people that you can turn the anonymous masses into the mob suddenly ‘in a minute’. It happened many times but outside Germany no one much noticed until ‘Kristalnacht’ in 1938, when crowds were unleashed to smash the stores and the neighborhoods where Jews lived, driving them out of the country.

The Nazi’s used medical analogies in political propaganda, which we no longer allow because it is inherently dangerous. They said their country was sick (easy to prove since the economy was shattered, the infrastructure was shattered, their self-esteem was shattered). It was sick because they had allowed foreigners to invade the body- Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals. It was a long list, a lot longer than most of us realize.

The only cure was to hospitalize the patient, Germany. And then they started saying that the patient Germany had a cancer. Of course, the only way to get rid of cancer in the 1930’s was to surgically remove it. In effect, they gave people the permission to kill this cancer in their midst in order to save the patient.

And once they actually got power, they did just that. One of my professors had me read “Mein Kampf” before I started the research on my dissertation. I finished it baffled. I ran into him and asked him what the point of this exercise was since Mein Kampf is the ravings of a lunatic, full of one crazy conspiracy theory after another, vomited onto the page by a madman. He said to me, “I want you to remember that if people tell you what they will do in advance of coming into power, believe them.”

At the end of my dissertation, I discovered that Hitler was holed up in an underground bunker for a long week before the Americans destroyed the bunker with bombs. He was no longer directing the war effort which was a lost cause. Instead he made a series of recordings for the future, say like a thousand years from now.

He was sure that someone, sometime would pick up his mantle and that the Reich would rise again from the ashes. And he described how he wanted Berlin to be laid out, where he wanted Monuments and Memorials, tributes and epithets. It might be a long time, but he knew the organized hate of Naziism would come back in vogue.

It was chilling to read. There is a line that St. Paul used in a letter to the Ephesians where he says, “Our struggle is not simply against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers”, Cosmic forces. Hate, fear, intimidation are like that.  You know they can come back and back and back.

So we have to wage peace.

We have to have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy with regards to symbols of hate like swastika’s, like nooses, like KKK hoods- they just stand for fear, to remind people what we’ve done to them in the past and can do again…

We have to get organized about waging peace. We have to fund it. We have to build peace into our spiritual lives. And that is why we at Christ Church have decided that we need to intentionally become a multi-cultural, multi-racial spiritual family of families.

We want to share our lives with one another. We want to have people from different cultures than our own as our very close friends. We want to grow in empathetic, racial consciousness. We want to put ourselves in one another’s shoes and understand what makes us tick differently.

We want our children and our grandchildren to have a broader diversity of friends than we grew up with. Many of us already have extended families that have people from different cultures, families where we have two Dad’s or two Mom’s. We want to know how to make them work better.

More than that, we want to come together spiritually and support one another, so that more and more of us can realize the considerable potential that is within each of us. What a beautiful thing that will be.

We want to harmonize our differences, so that out of these many different voices, we can actually become one beautiful choir. We can make new beauty, better beauty, using all the colors on the palette rather than just one or two.

Our spiritual truth, so to speak, has got to be richer, for having a multi-valent prism of perspectives. I have to believe this. Ours is an experiment that has hardly been tried in our wider world. Few of us grew up with deep multi-cultural friendships, extended spiritual relationships with people really different from us. But here we are.

We know it can be done. St. Paul lived during the Roman empire and the Romans were as multi-cultural as we are today. He wrote in Galatians and Colossians, “For here we are neither Jews or Gentiles, neither slaves nor free people, we are not male or female (and we would add gay or straight or transgendered), we aren’t cosmopolitan elite or barbarian rubes” for we transcend these humanly devised identities through our commitment as children of God united by a live lived in love, focused on reconciliation, inspired by hope. And may we know a modicum of peace.

This is our hymn. We may not be able to stop gun violence. We may not be able to eradicate individual acts of hatred that sow fear. But our presence, our life together is the best single gift we can give our children and our families to promote inter-racial understanding, cross-cultural appreciation, genuine person to person respect. We can do that.

So thank you for joining us and thank you for your family and what they bring. You’re more beautiful than you know.

For God has raised a savior for us… and this child will give us salvation for our people and the forgiveness of the sins of our people…

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those that sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:74-79).

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