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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Peace, peace, when there is no peace

The mural depicted here is from the Kansas State House in Topeka, and shows a raging, almost maniacal John Brown, the fiery abolitionist, with a Bible one hand, and a rifle in the other. The fuel for Brown’s violent rage was the institutionalized violence and injustice of slavery. Even for those who believe violence is a useful tool in the service of justice making, Brown engaged in violence in ways that were not rational, sometimes raiding (jayhawking) the farms of Missouri residents (the nearest slave state) who had no slaves.

Brown is a complex person, and while I don’t condone his violent choices, I admire his intense opposition to institutionalized violence. And while his raid on Harper’s Ferry was a tragic fiasco, his death by hanging was a catalyst in the coalescence of northern opposition to slavery. What is a Mennonite pastor to think about such a fellow?

My abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist ancestor, Quaker minister Thomas Frazier, likely would not have condoned Brown’s violence, but some of his fellow Iowa Quakers provided Brown with critical support. Frazier and other Quakers were quite willing to violate the Fugitive Slave Act, which got them in trouble with the law, but going into slave states and bringing freed slaves back across the border was another matter. Brown and other raiders would do so, and once slaves were across the border, Quaker Underground Railroaders were willing to help out. The relationship between the likes of John Brown and the likes of my great, great, great, great grandfather, were complex. While they disagreed on methods of confronting slavery, they shared abhorrence of that form of institutionalized violence. Those Quakers seemed aware that peace in the abstract was not peace at all.

Some of the most surprising conversations in my life were with those advocating an armed struggle against oppression in the Philippines. I say surprising because it seems like another life time. As a pacifist these discussions quickly focused on my position that armed struggle against oppression is wrong. Always. The return from my interlocutors was my pacifism is rooted in privilege and is a luxury, enjoyed  on my part by failing to confront the institutionalized social, economic and political violence against the poor of the Philippines, which is to say the majority of the people. Furthermore my place of privilege is sustained by violence. My pacifism is both disingenuous and hypocritical.

Those conversations do not change my conviction that a “refusal to bear the sword” is the faithful Christian ethic. But they do make me highly suspicious of peace in the abstract, of cheap peace, as if we are morally pure just by throwing the word around. Without a context, the word peace becomes not only weak, but dangerous, in that it can be used as a mask hiding greater and deeper violence than that which it claims to oppose, or build barriers to conversations which might increase understanding.

As long as peace remains nothing more than an abstract concept, it isn’t peace at all. As Jeremiah and Ezekiel would say, it amounts to shouting peace when there is no peace.