On our journey through this season of longing for the coming Deliverer, we: cry out, giving voice to the suffering experienced under injustice; lift up those groans to the God who promises to be-there, demanding liberation; dare to celebrate the moments of light and life breaking through the darkness. In these last days of Advent, the light of peace joins hope, trust and joy. We began in Exodus where, as Walter Brueggemann writes, “the narrative of liberation begins with the grieving complaint of Israel.” Such groans initiate “criticism of the dominant reality” in order to “dismantle the dominant consciousness” – the first task of prophetic ministry. Before “a new reality… [can] emerge,” those who see the truth about the dominant reality (the prophet, the oppressed) must voice that truth: that all is not right, and the death-dealing effects of injustice cannot have the final word. The prophetic imagination understands that peace is possible only after oppression is exposed and dealt with. We hear such an imagination at work in the utterance of Isaiah:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth... The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them... They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea... Isaiah 11:1-4, 6, 9
In a sermon unpacking what “peace” means, Gracepointe Church (Nashville) pastor Josh Scott compares the so-called peace of Empire with the peace Jesus envisions. “Empires talk about peace all the time… [and] have a very specific way of bringing peace.” Josh draws from a speech found in the writings of first century Roman historian Tacitus describing the way of Empire: “Robbers of the world, now that the earth is insufficient for their all-devastating hands they probe even the sea; if their enemy is rich, they are greedy; if he is poor, they thirst for dominion; neither east nor west has satisfied them; alone of mankind they are equally covetous of poverty and wealth. Robbery, slaughter and plunder they falsely name empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.” The “peace” of Empire comes by way of domination: stability, order and prosperity is created for those in power by exerting power over others.
Josh says, “Here’s the problem: domination cannot bring peace… You cannot kill your way to peace… You cannot win your way to peace… What you can do is you can scare people, you can inspire people to do what you want with fear, you can force them into obedience, but obedience isn’t peace.” Empires force others into submission. The smashing and eliminating of resistance to their “robbery, slaughter and plunder” is declared peace. This way of operating in the world is critiqued again and again throughout scripture. Jesus describes this way of power-over when he says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors” (Luke 22:25). When the gospel writers announce the “good news” of Jesus and use the language of “Christ,” “Lord,” “Savior,” and “kingdom,” they are making a counter claim to Empire. Peace, they claim, is coming by way of Jesus, and that Way is radically different than the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) brought by way of the dominating and exploitative reign of Caesar.
The word translated into English as “peace” is shalom. Josh describes this concept: “Shalom means wholeness. Shalom means completeness. It means welfare. It means everything is in right relationship with everything else. Shalom is ultimately about everything being put back together, made whole and made right.” I often use the language of flourishing when I talk about shalom. The groaning I’ve mentioned throughout this series is a crying out for flourishing. “For the creation waits with eager longing… that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19, 21-23). Flourishing is possible when we are set free from all that brings suffering and death, when the way of domination and submission itself is put to death. Flourishing – life unhindered and unthreatened – is what Isaiah describes when he envisions wolf and lamb living together.
“For everything to be whole and in right relationship,” Josh says, “means shalom demands, requires justice and accountability. You cannot have shalom in the world until we have accounted for the injustices that have been perpetuated in the world.” Josh recognizes that when calls for unity occur without or before reckoning with the injustices dividing people, the way of power-over persists, even if subtly or unintended. “We’re being asked to unify when the problems that we’ve been dealing with… have not been deal with and are still being perpetuated, still ongoing, still harming people… We cannot ask the abused to unify with their abusers and continue to be abused. We cannot ask those who have been on the underside of power to just suck it up and unify with those who have used power so grotesquely to shape the world in their own image. To do so would be sinful. To do so is a violation of the image of God in every human being.”
It is easier and more comfortable for many of us to think about the way of Peace vs. the way of Empire when we keep it abstract and/or defined in terms of “Church” vs. “the world.” Throughout this series I have tried to help us see that injustice and the need for liberation is also an internal issue. Within our faith communities, we’d prefer to think about ourselves as prophetic voices against the evil of “the world.” However, we need to reckon with the ways we choose power-over, especially in the pursuit of “unity” or “peace.” We too often settle for marginalizing and eliminating anything and anyone that names the harm and injustice within our communities and/or that our communities inflict on those outside our communities. In other words, we participate in the dominant reality when we silence the cries of those we are harming so that we can persist in arranging things to our benefit.
Jen Hatmaker recently gave a keynote address at The Reformation Project’s 2021 Reconcile & Reform conference in which she demonstrated this power-over dynamic at work within Christian communities. Reflecting on engaging Jesus’ teaching on discerning what is right (“every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” Matt. 7:15-20) within the conversation on LGBTQ inclusion, she asks a critical question: “Who decides what is good and what is bad fruit? Who gets to make that call?” Non-affirming Christian communities point to the “good fruit” to maintain their position – Look at that gay Christian who says he finds meaning in living a celibate life! Look at that testimony of a former lesbian who left behind her lifestyle in faithfulness to Jesus! Look at the long-suffering obedience of the man resisting his sexual temptations for men and remaining in his marriage to his wife! “Those were just the tough breaks of subscribing to a tough gospel under a pretty tough God,” Jen says. “The good fruit, according to us, would have been the strict adherence to doctrines that broke people’s hearts and bodies. We would have claimed that as the good fruit… [as if] the real story is the good fruit of our obedience… It was the ultimate case of gaslighting: Look women, look people of color, look LGBTQ people – your heart is not broken because we broke it with terrible theology; it’s broken because of your errors, your own problems, your sins. We, therefore, declare all this bad fruit that you’re having to walk around with everyday, good. Those are the breaks.”
Jen, acknowledging her centered position as an “evangelical darling” prior to publicly declaring herself as LGBTQ affirming, unpacks the power dynamics at work within Christian spaces that marginalize and exclude those who do not fit within that center. “I am absolutely convinced that the first and most important step to be able to rightly discern between good and bad fruit starts with decentering the powerful majority from the good news… Let me put a pretty fine point on it: When white, mostly male, straight, married, able bodied people with a certain threshold of money and power are at the center of the narrative, we will never correctly identify good fruit… When people are flourishing and valued and honored and restored, there’s Jesus. That’s his work. Conversely, when those who are ‘flourishing’ are primarily in the centered category, that is at the expense of someone else. That is not life; that is death. If human flourishing, in any context – a church, a whole denomination, a business structure, a social strata, the justice system – if it is homogenous, that is not life. That is privilege, and someone else is paying for it… That is death masquerading as life. That is bad fruit pretending to be good fruit.”
One of the ways Christian communities follow the way of Empire (domination) rather than the way of Jesus (shalom) is by using power – explicitly or not, intentionally or not – to benefit those in the center. This social arrangement is maintained by our refusal to see the cost to those on the margins: we choose blindness when we insulate ourselves from the harm, discredit those naming the harm, numb ourselves to avoiding feeling the pain of that harm, use spiritual narratives to justify the current order of things, allow our fear to paralyze us, avoid risking our privilege – the list goes on. We may refuse to hear the cries of those suffering under our oppression; however, those cries will be heard. They rise up in stubborn hope and radical trust, and they move God to be-there, to respond, to liberate.
In the wilderness, where wolf and lamb typically operate as predator and prey, we are invited to see with prophetic imagination the possibility of peace. In the desert, where Empires announce domination as “good news” of “peace,” we are urged to hear the voice crying out, “Repent, for the kingdom has come near!” and “Prepare the way of the Lord, makes his paths straight!” There are so many voices crying out, not least of which is the LGBTQ community. As Jen Hatmaker said, “I don’t know what will compel the Church to heed the suffering of the LGBTQ community by its straight-centered doctrines. If the suicide rates, self-harm, mental health trauma, ostracization, broken families and broken hearts don’t move the Church to reconsider ‘life’ in this community, nothing will.” Will we dismantle the ways of Empire and follow our Liberator in making peace? Even when peacemaking means liberating others from us?
The Jesus Mary sang over in her womb is the Liberator who “emptied himself… humbled himself” to respond to our cries in flesh-and-blood solidarity. She praised God, “He 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” This is the way God shows up: the Word becomes flesh, God-with-us, God who is-there, and confronts the way of Empire even to the point of death on a cross, exposing the Empire’s false gospel claim as the bringer of peace, as savior of the world, as our great benefactor.
To close, I’ll offer my paraphrased words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny their ways of power-over that harm so many and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to protect their privilege paid for by the powerless will lose it, and those who offer their wholehearted selves for my sake, and for the sake of the real good news, the good news of real shalom, will enter flourishing life. What does the way of Empire profit you when it cannot deliver on its claims? Its promises are bankrupt – there is no profit! You end up paying the Empire with your life and the lives of those you sacrifice to try to save your own.”