“Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Isaiah 40: 1-2
“The opposite of war isn’t Peace, it’s Creation!” –Mark Cohen in Rent
I learned something today. It unsettled me.
It started with a familiar song, one I have sung many times.
It is Well With My Soul
words by Horatio Spafford, music by Phillip Bliss
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Throughout Advent, we light candles, one candle each week, as a foretelling of the light that comes into the world through Jesus on Christmas. Each of the four candles are associated with a “fruit of the spirit,” and the second week of Advent is when we light the candle of Peace. For some, however, it’s known as the Bethlehem candle and is associated more with “Preparation,” than peace. I’ll get back to this and why I think it’s interesting in a minute. But just hold on to all that. 2nd week…peace AND preparation. OK. Now for the legitimately interesting:
When Horatio Spafford wrote in this hymn, “when sorrows like sea billows roll,” he was not being merely poetic. Spafford wrote this hymn in response to a tragedy at sea, when all 4 of his daughters died in a shipwreck. This is awful enough, but it was a devastating loss after many other devastating losses. Before losing all of his daughters, he had lost all his wealth in the great Chicago fire of 1871, having invested heavily in properties that were utterly wiped out in the fire. And the year before that, in 1870, Spafford’s son died from scarlet fever. This was a man who knew tragedy…on a Job-like level. And yet, the opening line of the song is not about sorrow, but “peace.” How can a man suffering such heartache go to peace before going to sorrow? And how is he able to hold the two of those together so well, knowing that “it is well with my soul?” A possible answer comes in the song’s fourth verse:
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
It’s not that Spafford knows peace, it’s not that he possesses some kind of serenity in the wake of tragedy; but rather it is God’s peace, flowing like a river, that attends to him…watches over him, waits upon him, looks after him, cares for him. When we hear the word peace, we think of “nonviolence” or “lack of conflict,” but the Biblical word “peace” has much more to do with these things–caring, healing, preserving forces–because it comes from the Latin translation of the Hebrew word “shalom.” We think of peace as passive, the absence of destructive forces, but shalom is a multifaceted word that is almost always ACTIVE, having to do with safety (not only nonviolence), welfare (not only non-destruction), and ultimately the hope of reconciliation (not only no killing, but mending). It is a beautiful, tranquil, powerful, healing force, which we attribute to God, and actively brings a broken world back together.
There’s a popular hashtag right now #NoJusticeNoPeace. It’s a phrase that’s been used among civil rights groups for at least the last 30 years or so (if you need a fun Google project, try to find the origins of the phrase)…I first heard it on an episode of the Wire (though, for the life of me I can’t figure out what episode it was). The notion of it is quite simple: where there is no justice, there can be no peace. I have used it in many tweets and Facebook posts the last couple weeks in response to the wide-spread reaction to protestors and rioters (not the same) in Ferguson and beyond. Many, including the President, have been quick to caution people about the need for “peaceful” protest and to keep calm and keep cool. #NoJusticeNoPeace is one way or articulating that when justice is not served then “peace,” as we commonly use it, can’t exist. Because when justice is not served, violence and oppression and unrest are all cultivated. To put it another way: Just because you don’t see people rioting in the streets, does not mean that everything is peaceful. It just means that you aren’t personally witnessing the violence and unrest that an unjust system is creating every day. #NoJusticeNoPeace is an important message to white America. It’s not a threat as in, “Give us justice or we will bring you violence,” it’s a quippy way of witnessing to the reality of non-white lives in America: Without a system that is just, black and brown people cannot know peace in their own lives.
Advent is the season we prepare ourselves for receiving the gifts of God in our lives. While it’s true that our systems and structures must be JUST for everyone in order for everyone to know PEACE…when we’re talking about God’s peace…almost the inverse is true: There can be no justice without Peace. In order to maintain a movement to transform unjust systems…we have to know God’s Peace…the kind that tends to us like a soothing stream…that cares for and waters us…that refreshes and unites us…a peace that mends us and reconciles us with one another so that we become capable of living differently. It’s only by allowing our cold and broken hearts–hearts that are so easily turned hostile and uncaring–to be soothed and healed by the Peace of God that we become capable of creating justice for others. Without properly preparing our own internal situation, we remain trapped in the world as it is; wanting, needing, fighting, struggling, consuming, decimating…searching outwardly for the things that will “fix” us, rather than allowing Peace to fix us from within. As long as we search for our value externally, we are forced to assert that there isn’t enough for everyone, and we find ourselves having to explain and defend why some people deserve more and better than others. We have to fix us before we can serve others.
It must be well with my soul, in peaceful rivers or on seas of sorrow, in order to walk with others into a brighter tomorrow.