Recognizing that I am a white pastor and writer on this blog, and guessing that the audience of this blog is predominantly white, my question is this: do our prayers for peace mean silence?
Often, sadly, I think they do.
In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s violent death while being in police custody, protestors took to the streets of Baltimore. It wasn’t long before more police were called in, then stones were thrown, then hundreds of police in riot gear, then fires started, then the National Guard was called in. What I hear and see from my white colleagues is “pray for peace in Baltimore.” What I hear and see from my colleagues of color is “work for justice in Baltimore.” Sometimes, I think white Christians think that peace and justice are the same thing. They are not.
True peace comes after the work of justice, not vice versa. I think all too often white Christians quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others about nonviolent protests and do not quote them about anger and the work of justice. We quote Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but not “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King clearly calls out white clergy who have tried to silence him in the name of peace. We think that if people who are oppressed would just sit down and talk calmly and rationally about their feelings, the oppressors will then listen.
Imagine if Jesus had walked calmly into the temple and sat down at the moneychanger’s tables and said, “Listen, I want to talk to you about how you are cheating the poor by selling them doves that are not acceptable for sacrifice and are not giving a fair exchange rate for the temple currency.” Do you think they would have listened? Or would they have ignored him, or even had him removed?
Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Jesus also turned over the moneychanger’s tables, scattering the coins, and stopped the carrying of merchandise through the temple. If that doesn’t sound like the beginning of a riot, an act of vandalism, an outpouring of righteous anger, I don’t know what does. Jesus didn’t call for the harming of others. But it’s clear that Jesus didn’t care about property, either. He cared about people. And after he threw the tables around, the leaders looked for a way to kill him because they were afraid of him (Mark 11:15-18).
We claim to follow Jesus to the cross, but I bet we never got past the temple doors. We never got to where the message became uncomfortable. We want peace, not the sword of division. But calling out injustice may cause division, uncomfortableness, and anger.
I call myself out in this. I was all set to preach last November as we were waiting for news of any indictment of Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. But I never got that far. Even in praying for Michael Brown’s family, I was asked to not be so divisive. I was asked to pray for the police officers and to pray for peace. And in my own fear of being seen as divisive, of causing controversy, I consented. I still was active in public conversation and social media, but within the hour of worship, I went silent after that. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I failed the church, and I failed the children of color that are part of my church family.
We cannot pray for peace without justice. Psalm 34:14 says “seek peace, and pursue it.” The pursuit of peace is the path of justice. Justice demands that the violence of murder be accounted for. Justice demands that the systemic subjugation and killing of black persons in America be stopped. Justice demands that the cries of the oppressed, through chants and signs to rocks and flames be heard. Be listened to. Be understood. Not simply condemned without accountability for the death and violence that has already taken place.
If you are like me, wanting to speak for justice but afraid to do so, please do one thing: stop simply “praying for peace.” If you want peace, as everyone knows, work for justice. Look to the prophets and preach on justice. Look to your community and find ways of working for justice. Amplify the voices of the oppressed in your community and share their stories (with their permission, of course—or better yet, invite others to come share their stories) with your congregation.
We can pray for peace, but only if we first have truly worked for justice. Otherwise, our attempts at peace are just to make ourselves, often white Christians, feel better and safer, instead of lifting up the oppressed and seeking justice, as Christ called us to do.