Never Settling for False Peace

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Best Practices for Peace in 2015. Read other perspectives here.

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14-20).

Never settle for false peace! Here is a New Year's Resolution that might be possible to keep past January and might actually make a difference. So, where is the catch? For starters, this resolution may rub religious types the wrong way, as it seems to go against what large numbers of people think religion is.

For many people, religion means things like "making nice," mediating conflicts, and dreaming of reconciliation, harmony, and peace. "We should all try to get along and care for each other," is the short summary of the Christmas Eve sermon I heard in 2014. According to popular belief, this is the meaning of loving others as ourselves, including gays and lesbians, the needy, people of other faiths, and everyone else.

Religion, in other words, has come to mean something like being kind, loving, and respectful, or being positive rather than negative, without wasting much time reflecting on the roots of conflict and without putting up much of a fight against anything or anyone. As a result, many religious communities are now much more adept at repressing conflicts than at dealing with them.

Refusing to settle for false peace goes against the grain of this sort of religion, which means that making such a resolution does not come without some effort. As people of faith, we need to learn again what it means to follow the prophet Jeremiah's example of refusing to say "';Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." We need to distinguish between love and the repression of conflict, and to become more honest about the serious conflicts of our time.

I am hopeful that this can be accomplished past January 2015 because not having to play the game of false peace can relieve people of tremendous burdens. Not having to make nice all the time, not having to acquiesce to callousness and injustice, not having to pretend that there is harmony when there is not — all these things are liberating in the long run. Children are often better than adults at getting this, but if they can, so can we.

A burden is lifted when we begin to realize that becoming more peaceful may not be the way to peace. Many of us find it counterintuitive to act peaceful when our communities are full of injustice and strife. But what if true peace comes not from merely acting peaceful but rather from fighting what prevents peace? Ending shallow efforts to reconcile and create harmony while oppression persists may feel strange at first to those of us whose families and religious communities taught us merely to act peaceful, but it is liberating in the long run.

We lift another burden when we give up the common misunderstanding that generic nonviolence and pacifism are the way to peace. Many participants of the Civil Rights movement understood that nonviolence only makes sense in conjunction with resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not a matter of keeping peace at all costs but of resisting injustice in ways that do not perpetuate the violence of the system. This insight was liberating to African American communities, which realized that using the violent tools of the system would only get them killed. For the same reasons, it can still be liberating to the 99 percent today.

Growing numbers of people are getting tired of false peace. They resonate with the chant that has in recent weeks been picked up again by the protestors in Ferguson: "No justice, no peace." There are simply too many attempts to make us settle for false peace. Government officials want us to settle for false peace when they refuse to hold police accountable for rampant acts of brutality. Corporations and the media want us to settle for false peace when they accuse workers who speak out for justice on Black Friday of poisoning the Christmas spirit. Churches want us to settle for false peace when they tell us to support the poor and needy without addressing the forces that produce poverty. Refusing to settle for false peace means fighting what stands in the way of true peace.

Some Christians might object that making peace conditional in this way goes against the spirit of Jesus. Yet the one who promised us his peace (John 14:27) also talks about struggle: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!" (Luke 12:51). Refusing to settle for false peace brings to light divisions that are normally covered up. When workers start to organize, for instance, they are usually accused of waging class warfare, even though the struggle originates when pressures on workers increase and salaries and benefits are slashed while profits continue to grow. There can be no true peace without bringing to light the divisions that false peace seeks to cover up.