The Hard Posture of Peace
Jan 16, 2023 • By Rebecca Testrake
I have a confession to make: It is January 16 and I still have my Christmas decorations up. Furthermore, I have very little intention to put them away anytime soon. A transplant from Southern California now living in the Pacific Northwest, I find that the winter hours of daylight are not long enough for a body that craves the sunshine. So, I let myself enjoy the extra cheer and sparkle that my seasonal decorations bring. To be honest, some of my “holiday” decorations stay out year-round as reminders to the mystery and awe of existence. This morning, I found myself contemplating one of the said year-round “Christmas” decorations. It is a linocut print of the nativity with the following words on the bottom: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, And his name shall be called… Prince of Peace. — Isaiah”
Somehow, reflecting on that passage seemed fitting in conjunction with remembering that today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As a reverend and prophet of his time, Dr. King knew that peace must be brought about by hard work and sacrifice as he called for social justice. In 1968 in front of a California prison, he proclaimed: “There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice.” More than an inspiring figure, King followed Christ through non-violent struggle, upending culture and society as he championed for the marginalized of society, ultimately paying for his commitment of bringing about the Kingdom of God with his life—taken from him by the power structures that he threatened.
Is this the price of peace? Sometimes. Forces of injustice do not like being challenged, after all. And the title “Prince” implies a social order and kingdom directly in opposition to the establishment that encourages us to remain focused on “me”. It makes sense that current dominions would resist change when the belief is that change brings about loss. For those of us who are accustomed to being in places of advantage, the change that Dr. King longed for can shake our perceived foundations of security. I am reminded that I have more privilege than I might immediately think I do. Such is the danger of comparison. It’s easy to point at somebody else and say: “I do not have as much power or privilege or advantage or resources as that person.” It’s tempting to shift the responsibility from myself, but to do so is to reject the work required to bring about Justice and her sister, Peace.
So, what is this peace? It is important here to consider what this “peace” looks like. I believe it is significant that out of the words possible in the original language, the writer did not say that the coming Prince of Peace was to be the prince of quietness and relaxed ease (shalah), not a prince of calm silence or stillness (chashah), nor was this peace marked by undisturbed restfulness (shaqat). Certainly, this anticipated Prince of Peace did not emulate the later Pax Romana which relied on imperialism and domination. King also called out that a “peace” that is marked by the absence of tension but which is purchased at the expense of maintaining silence in the presence of injustice, exploitation, humiliation, or exclusion is one which has “been purchased at the price of the capitulating to the forces of darkness. […] It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the almighty God.” “But peace is not merely to absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace” (When Peace Becomes Obnoxious).
Instead, the peace offered by the Prince of Shalom (stemming from shalam) is marked by wholeness, completeness, and soundness. A state of existence that is independent from circumstances, it is the same in the face of strife as it is in rest. The words from the old hymn come to mind: “It is well, it is well with my soul.” We experience this peace when our relationships with God and others are in proper functioning alignment. As King observed: “Peace is the presence of positive good.” The results are physical.
As an artist-turned-theologian, I get excited when digging into the complexity and nuances of Scripture because that is when the tapestry of this great text become the most vibrant to me. As a theologian-who-is-still-an-artist, I deeply value what we understand the Bible to be saying because it shapes the theologies that we believe and consequently has physical implications for the people and world around us as we live out those beliefs. I say “we” because each of us has their own unique reading and understanding.
Advent may have come and gone and Christmas may be over, but the life of MLK reminds us that that the Kingdom of God has come but it is also still coming. We are people of simultaneously both the “now” and also the “not yet.” If we take Scripture seriously, we cannot forget God’s injunction of what a life of worship looks like: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV). We are called to be people who continue to seek justice for the marginalized, love mercy for others, and walk humbly with the Lord in recognition of our own finitude. We are invited to challenge the injustice of negative peace and called to resist the siren’s call of maintaining our own comfort. We are called not to be super heroes, but individuals within a collective movement to love our neighbors as ourselves. King reminded his listeners that we are not alone when he exhorted: “Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The anchoring for this moral arc was rooted not in hopeful thinking but in the creative, redemptive, and enduring work of God, as King explained in a sermon: “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Biblical religion recognized long ago what William Cullen Bryant came to see in the modern world: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again;’ and what Carlyle came to see: ‘No lie can live forever.’”
So, how does this connect to Spark+Echo Arts and our mission? At Spark+Echo Arts, we value the Bible and we value the creative, explorative process of making art (in addition to the outcome of Art itself). We believe that a myriad of diverse approaches and perspectives are important when engaging in this project. Art is not divorced from Justice. Scripture and Art both have the ability to comfort and introduce tension. We believe that our role in continuing the pursuit of justice is one of making space for all to come to the creative table regardless of background. Through the creation of art, we explore (and invite others to come with us while we journey through) Beauty and Justice, Goodness and Truth, Peace and Joy, Mystery and Immanence, Lament, Celebration. We are also still figuring it out. We invite you to figure it out with us.
Peace to you,