by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 11:6-9; Matthew 3:1-12
Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of an active power greater than violence. Peace is brave, it can even be impolite, and it can sometimes produce nonviolent conflict when peacemakers confront injustice. Conflict avoidance is not peace.
Are you familiar with the series of paintings by 19th century Quaker minister Edward Hicks called “The Peaceable Kingdom”? (Share copy of painting.) What bothers me about these winsome paintings, based on Isaiah 11:6-9, is the stillness of the human and animal figures in the numerous versions on this theme Hicks created over many years. The figures of the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion, and the other unlikely playmates, including a human child not far off, are all motionless. Yes, I know these visual representations of Christ’s Kingdom are paintings, so of course they are motionless. But paintings can suggest movement and the figures by Hicks are especially still, even rigid. The wide-eyed lion and leopard who stare straight ahead seem frozen, and the one creature who suggests any action is the lioness whose raised paw indicates she’s in mid-movement, but the human hugs her so close it’s as if he grips her in a headlock. Hicks’s stylized depiction of the peaceable kingdom makes me wonder what kind of peace is possible in an active, messy world where you and I live.
I mean, we look so peaceable sitting here together in neat rows right now. But who knows what kind of turmoil we might set into motion once we start moving and interacting? Scary.
But who wants to live in a world where creatures are sedated into peaceful Stepford Beings who avoid tension at all cost and are willing to sacrifice deep and honest relationships for the guarantee of no conflict? Who’d want to pay that price for peace? Who wants to be the lion or the lamb in a peaceable but still-framed world where the creatures don’t eat one another (great), but neither do they interact with one another (not so great). Passive peace allows us to avoid conflict, but we do so by avoiding engagement with others in meaningful ways.
However, active peace that exposes us to the risk of conflict with others may be worth that risk. Peacemakers who are equipped with empathy, curiosity, patience, resilience, and self-care just might promote and experience deep peace that can survive instances of disagreement and conflict. Passive peace prizes the mere avoidance of violent words and actions; active peace, which is riskier, develops among people who create diverse relationships through honesty, active listening, creativity, compassion, forgiveness, and community.
While only the most misguided people intentionally delight in and provoke conflict, it’s neither possible nor healthy to flee from all disagreements and differing opinions. Justice can’t be done if we’re silent about injustice. New perspectives from people who disagree with us are a gift we often refuse. Church folks especially can conclude that the Jesus-y way to handle conflict is to avoid it, even though Jesus sometimes fomented conflict and displayed anger. He called people out. And his cousin John the baptizer, of whom Jesus was probably a disciple originally, was absolutely incendiary. As our Gospel lesson today reveals, when many Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, he called them a “brood of vipers!” (Matthew 3:7). Not a recommended strategy for growing a movement or, in our time, a church. In fact, churches have too often explicitly or implicitly taught conflict avoidance rather than peacemaking and real conflict transformation.
So the designers of the common lectionary we follow in our scripture selections have, I think, chosen well for this second Sunday of Advent: balancing the idyllic vision of peace from Isaiah with an vigorous, counterintuitive picture of peace from our Gospel lesson. Fusing both Isaiah’s lofty dream and John the Baptist’s scathing sermon might show us the path toward the kind of peace you and I might not simply dream about or preach about but live into. Both Isaiah and John helped form Jesus, the “Prince of Peace” (to use a title early Christians borrowed from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah).
But let me not misrepresent Jesus, or Isaiah, for that matter, as less challenging than John. Prophets all, they, too, confronted the powers that be. That’s what prophets do. Matthew’s gospel links John and Jesus with the same confrontational message: “Repent for the kingdom is at hand,” and both John and Jesus addressed their opponents as a “brood of vipers (Hare 19). In all four gospels the story of crazy and cantankerous John the Baptist paves the way for the central story of Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’s birth. But all four canonical gospels tell the story of John, Jesus’s kinsman, announcing Jesus’s mission. Today’s gospel reading is key to understanding Jesus. From the beginning, Jesus’s role in the salvation story is fraught with conflict.
But conflict remains a challenge for Jesus’s followers, for most folks, I suppose. Many groups vacillate between either avoiding conflict through various unhealthy means—-or exploding. Churches are especially bad at dealing with conflict. Many of us expect conflict should not even exist in churches and run off at the first sign of differing opinions. Conflict avoidance people find it hard to do church, even with the nicest of church folks. Others want to use the Church to work out resentments and anger and control issues. But most of us—-not just the overly sensitive or overly combative—-have had little practice in what used to be called “conflict resolution” but some now term “conflict transformation” and thus have missed an opportunity for deeper relationship.
This sermon is not the time to teach conflict transformation. But you may be interested in knowing that Open Table’s very first community outreach initiative provided conflict transformation training in our public schools in partnership with The Quest for Social Justice, on whose board of directors I then served as president. The Quest later merged with the Mobile Area Interfaith Conference. But as Open Table was getting started, we and The Quest saw a need for conflict transformation training in our public schools as violence seemed to be increasing especially among middle schoolers. We proposed to sponsor a day-long teacher workshop on conflict transformation for the middle school counselors in the Mobile County Public School System and brought to Mobile two certified Conflict Transformation trainers. These counselors then trained select teachers at their respective schools in conflict transformation. Later some of those teachers developed a training program for selected students to, under staff supervision, lead mediation training for student peers who were in conflict. Three of us from Open Table received training at that time along with the school counselors.
Dealing with conflict in healthy ways is a challenging skill that can be learned. And conflict is not inherently destructive. John the Baptist is impolite for the sake of genuine peace. Jesus engaged in conflict for the sake of love. Peace is not merely the absence of violence but is also the active pursuit of enduring justice. John the Baptist spoke truth to power. As did Jesus. Of course, we know how their lives ended. So there is great risk for those who confront the powerful.
But there is also great power when people of peace come together for justice. I close with a true story, an Advent story, that began on Dec. 2, 1993, in Billings, Montana, “when a brick was thrown through the window of 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s bedroom window. The brick and shards of glass were strewn all over the child’s bed. The reason? A menorah and other symbols of Jewish faith were stenciled on the glass as part of the family’s Hanukkah celebration. The account of the incident in the Billings Gazette the next day described” the investigating police officer’s advice to Isaac’s parents to remove the symbols, which troubled Isaac’s mother. How would she explain this to her son?”
“Another mother in Billings was also troubled as she tried to imagine explaining to her children why they couldn’t have a Christmas tree in the window. She remembered what happened when Hitler ordered the king of Denmark to force all Danish Jews to wear Stars of David. But the order was never carried out because the king himself and many other Danes chose to the wear the yellow stars. The Nazis lost the ability to find their ‘enemies.’”
“There [were] several dozen of Jewish families in Billings.” Maybe this kind of tactic would deter more violence there. So the concerned mother called her pastor, Rev. Keith Roney of First Congregational UCC, and asked what he thought about having their church’s children make “paper cut-out menorah’s to put on their windows.” He spread the idea to other pastors in town. The police chief was asked about the danger of the action. He replied, “There’s greater risk in not doing it.” Soon hundreds of homes had menorahs on their windows and after the local paper carried the story over 6000 homes in Billings were decorated with menorahs. When Isaac Schnitzer’s mother went for her morning run, she was always accompanied by a group of friends.
But when a sporting goods store put on a large billboard, “Not in our town! No hate. No violence. Peace on Earth!” someone shot at it. When townspeople organized a vigil outside the synagogue during sabbath services, bricks and bullets shattered windows at the Catholic high school which had just put up a marquee reading “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends.” Many more violent acts for a long time continued targeting families and groups who stood up for the Jewish members of the community. But they eventually waned.
The next year families all over Billings “took out their menorahs at Hanukkah again to reaffirm their commitment to peace” (Hartsig 21).
Let us now reaffirm our commitment to peace.
Spirit of Peace, we long to heal the fractures in the world around us and within our own souls, to learn from one another the ways of living fully alive, to transform those parts of ourselves and our world that block our making contact with deepest reality, to discover the courage within us to take steps to stop violence in us, in our homes, in our nation, and violence that we do to our very planet. Amen
Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993.
Hartsig, Jo Claire. “Shine On in Montana” in Engaging Our Conflicts: An Exploration of Nonviolent Peacemaking. Ed. Ken Preston. Oakland: Pace e Bene Press, 2009.