Every Advent we light candles on the wreath. Each candle marks the time as we come closer to Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the messiah come to live with us. We’ve already lit candles for faith and hope. Today we lit one for peace; next week, love. These four words speak to the kind of spirituality we seek in our lives; a spirituality of faith, hope, peace, and love.
Today I want to think with you about the meaning of peace. What does it mean for us to speak of peace? How can we recognize peace? How can we work for it?
I can’t come to these questions without facing the lack of peace in our world. Especially so with news this week of the broken peace between races in America.
On Monday the case against Officer Michael Thomas Slager ended in a mistrial. The jury could not reach a conclusion. In the wake of that decision, my mind filled with the words of Jeremiah, which we heard today, when God complains, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”
The charge against Officer Slager stemmed from his shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston last year. Slager pulled Scott over because of a broken taillight. Scott, a fifty year old overweight man with bad knees, tried to flee because he feared going to jail for unpaid child support. A bystander captured what happened next in a chilling and disturbing video.
As Walter Scott lumbered away, Officer Slager pulled out his gun and fired. Eight bullets struck Scott in the back. Slager walked up to the dying Scott, handcuffed him, and then dropped his police taser next to him; that is, he planted evidence of a weapon. That’s how Scott died.
And if not for the video of the bystander, Slager’s version of events would be the only one we knew. Slager - even with the video evidence - claimed he feared for his life once he saw the taser in Scott’s hand. An almost all white jury saw the video but listened to the cop.
The jury couldn’t decide if an officer shooting an unarmed man in the back as he fled counted as murder. They couldn’t decide if an officer planting a weapon on a dying man counted as a coverup. But I have to wonder: if Slager isn’t guilty of murder, then will there be any limits on officers killing unarmed men?
As God said, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”
But this was not the only news of police which disturbed me this week. For I also heard the case of Officer Stephen Mader of West Virginia. Mader responded to a domestic dispute; he arrived to find Ronald Williams waving a gun but not pointing it at the officer.
Inside the house, Williams’ girlfriend was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. The girlfriend explained Williams had a gun but it wasn’t loaded; he wanted to commit suicide by cop. The dispatcher put the girlfriend on hold to advise the police, saying, “watch out for a weapon.” That’s right; the dispatcher didn’t say the weapon was not loaded.
Officer Mader could tell something wasn’t right with Williams. A Marine who served in Afghanistan and learned to look at the whole person before making life and death decisions, Mader read the situation and worked to de-escalate it. As he talked with Williams, two other officers arrived. One shot Williams within seconds of reaching the scene.
In the aftermath of the killing of Williams, the officer who shot first and asked questions later was not disciplined. The 911 dispatcher who gave incomplete information wasn’t disciplined. The only person held accountable was Officer Mader. His police department fired him for not shooting Williams.
Shoot a fleeing, unarmed man in the back? Mistrial. Don’t shoot a suicidal person? Out of a job. “‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”
Jeremiah experienced similar kinds of injustice in his day. The prophet knew about corruption and violence covered up by sweet-sounding words. And so Jeremiah spoke of what he heard God say. “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.”
Jeremiah spoke of a society marked by widespread problems; everyone, the poor and rich, wanted their “unjust gain.” False deals abound; everyone wanted to make a buck - bribery, fudging the truth, jiggling the numbers, using false weights, whatever it took.
This desire of people for their own piece of the action, their own “cut,” turns into a pun in the next verse. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly.” Everyone seeking their own “cut” has perversely sliced up the people; everyone’s wounded.
But the wealthy and elite ignored these “wounds.” They said “peace, peace,” trying to falsely sooth the people.
Twenty-five centuries later: has much changed? We face a systemic problem of racism, which corrupts our society, with people literally bearing the wounds in their own bodies, and many more with hidden cuts. And yet people in positions of power cry, “law and order.”
Four people die in the county jail, including a newborn baby, and the Sheriff wants to distract us from this injustice with his “law and order” routine.
Ideals like “law and order” or “peace” can often distract from the violence really happening. One of my favorite ancient books is the history of the Roman invasion of Britain. The author, Tacitus, spoke to the injustice and tyranny of the Roman Empire. On the eve of a climatic battle between the Romans and the Britons, Tacitus portrays a British general rallying his troops by reminding them of the issues at stake. Describing the actions of the Romans, he said, “to plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire; they make a desolation and they call it peace.”
Tacitus, like Jeremiah, reminds me that people in power can rename violence peace, rename injustice order, but that does not make it so.
It might make sense to contrast the words “order” and “peace.” Both can mean a harmonious state. But they have different meanings too. “Order” echoes with the sounds of military power, of discipline and direction, control and command. But “peace” still sounds like its root word, “pact,” an agreement between people. Such different ways of being in community - one by command, the other by agreement.
In fact, we might use these different words to tease out the meaning of Jeremiah, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Order, Order’, when there is no agreement between us.”
I find this distinction between “order” and “peace” helpful because it points to a central element of a truly harmonious society. Orders come down from high places; orders get imposed on a society. But peace is established between people; and in particular, the agreement only works if those most vulnerable can freely agree.
Which is why Martin Luther King often had to explain, “Peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.”
The Psalm this morning plaintively asked, “From whence will my help come?” Many of us, struck by the systemic racial inequity of our society, ask the same question. We see the injustice too often, all around us. This summer, in the earlier hours, it happened when a Wauwatosa police officer woke up a man sleeping in his car in a park. The officer, claiming to fear for his life, shot and killed Jay Anderson. “From whence will our justice come?”
God answered that question in Jeremiah. “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Fundamentally, God called people back to remember the story. In that same passage, God made clear the importance of signal events. “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” Are we remembering our sacred story? Are we heeding the importance of signal events that warn of trouble? The way to peace in the future depends on memory about the past and awareness of the present.
There are several ways memory and awareness move us toward actual peace. First, awareness; the path of peace requires awareness of what’s going on. Think of the trumpet blasts we’ve heard: Dontre Hamilton - a homeless man killed in Red Arrow park, and Tony Robinson - high on drugs when killed in Madison, and Tamir Rice - a twelve year old playing with a toy gun in a park. People debate what happened in each instance. But we need to remember the larger sweep: the details change from incident to incident, but what does this pattern of violence say about our country?
If we look at the details of one incident then we only ask a narrow question: was the use of force justified. But if we step back, then we ask larger questions: why are we using force at all? Why are we having cops deal with the homeless? Why are we having cops deal with people on drugs? Why are we having cops deal with bored children in a park?
But we need more than awareness of what’s wrong. We need the memory of God’s great story; to remember, as Mary remembered in her famous song, what God had done and will do.
Mary could have seen the bare facts of her life and wept. A single mom, running away from home, no father of her child in sight. But instead she remembered the great sweep of God’s story; she remembered the God who led slaves out from Egypt, the God who never abandoned people in the desert, the God who brought liberation. Memory gave her the confidence to say, “God will do great things for me.”
We can only cope with the weight of racial injustice if we’re clear about God’s direction in all of this: God will bring liberation, God will do great things, God’s freedom will come. And that good news comforts those who mourn injustice and terrifies people who practice violence.
We can only do the hard work - internal and in our society - if we remember the old truth: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Tonight, as my family gathers for dinner - ham bone soup on this snowy day - we will light our “peace” candle. Thinking of peace will not distract us from what’s going on. Thoughts of peace will bring us to see all the wounds of God’s people. We’ll hold the memory of God’s work of liberation too. And our hearts will burn brighter than that candle for true peace and justice. Alleluia and Amen.