Note: Joshua Saleem is Director of AFSC's Peace Education Program in St. Louis. In this piece he explores what we mean when we pray for peace. - Lucy
Since August I’ve seen banners, signs, Facebook statuses, and Tweets with the message “Pray for peace in St. Louis.” I’ve heard prayers for peace as people of faith gather in response to events in Ferguson, MO. In recent days I’ve seen an increase in the calls to pray as people waited for the Grand Jury announcement. I’m tired of hearing the calls for peace.
Let me be clear: I do not want violence, destruction, or death. I care about the well-being of all parties from police to protesters. However, when I see some call for peace I don’t think they understand it to mean what I understand it to mean.
What a good majority of St. Louisans want at this moment is “peace” in the form of safety and comfort. They want the protesting to stop. They want the threat of having their lives disrupted by peaceful civil disobedience removed. Peace, it seems, means things going back to normal.
That can’t happen.
The truth is Jesus did make people terribly uncomfortable. He didn’t come to make people feel safe. He did interrupt the status quo. He did agitate the religious and political authorities of his day. The prophets of the Old Testament were marginalized, condemned, and killed for speaking out against unjust and oppressive systems.When I read the Gospels, the life of Jesus, and the Old Testament prophets, which are the foundation and motivation for any social justice work that I do, I don’t read a lot about how the Prince of Peace came to make everyone safe and comfortable.
I see Jesus in Ferguson. I see him turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. I see him shaking the status quo and making people uncomfortable. I see him in the way that he engages with the marginalized of our society informing them of their inherent dignity and worth as image bearers. I see the way that this threatens those in power and I see their efforts to hold on to that power.
Peace is not going to fall out of the sky. Peace is made, which is why Jesus in his society-shaking manifesto the Sermon on the Mount says, “blessed are the peaceMAKERS.” Peace is built on the foundation of love, justice and equality.
So yes, pray for peace, but pray for a peace that is married to justice. Pray for a peace that seeks an end to oppression that is historically rooted in racism in the United States. Pray for a peace that means black lives matter as much as anyone else’s. Pray for a peace that shifts our reliance on man-made safety (i.e. war and violence) to true reliance on the Creator of all things. Pray for a peace that finds security not in amassing individual wealth but in the spiritual AND physical well-being of our neighbor.
Who is my neighbor?
It has long been my contention that St. Louis looks the way it does today because too many people of faith answered that question by saying “My neighbors are those who look like, dress like, talk like, and live like me.” They obviously missed the point of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37.
This is the essence of white flight. At a time when our community needs models of true racial reconciliation and healing, where is the church? Yep, they are in their segregated churches and communities having another panel discussion and praying for peace (in the form of safety and comfort).
Let us do more than that. Let us do what is right, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Let us seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the cause of the orphan, and fight for the rights of widows (Isaiah 1:16-17). Let us ensure that our actions, not just our words, against unjust systems speak of the faith we have in a God of justice (James 2:14-17). If we don’t, who will believe our witness? Who will believe in the God we say we serve?
Yes, absolutely pray for peace; it is so needed at this moment. But don’t mistake “peace” for your own comfort and security at the expense of someone else’s oppression.