In a week . . . no, a month . . . no, a year . . . no, a decade . . . saturated with terror that has been tinged, if not triggered, by religion, it hardly seems possible that the most disturbing bits of “content” stirring in my mind would be a comment made by one of my students as the San Bernardino, CA shootings were—unbeknownst to those of us in the bubble of a university classroom—unfolding on Wednesday and a phone call from a friend on Thursday morning. But it is of course in the most personal corridors of our lives that terror does its most insidious work, with gunfire and explosions taking aim at the various senses of safety and common sanity that allow us to walk through life every day.
In my class, an introductory freshman course called “The Christian Tradition,” a group of students had just done a lovely presentation on peacemaking in the Christian tradition. They moved thoughtfully from the Beatitudes’ insistence on peacemaking as a core teaching of Jesus, to the more conflicted Christian “just war” philosophies developed by Augustine and enriched by Thomas Aquinas, and on to the compelling example of sacrificial peacemaking offered by Archbishop Oscar Romero. It was good work, and later, when I got back to my desk and saw the news of the latest mass violence, I would likely have been grateful that my students had on their minds the ways in which Christian commitment calls us to peacemaking regardless of personal risk, had it not been for a discussion that occurred after the presentation.
The students had posed a question to the class that built not only on their discussion of Archbishop Romero’s refusal to be silent in the face of political oppression of the people he served, but also upon the links that they had highlighted between economic justice, environmental justice, and peace. “How,” they had asked, “do you think Christians today should be involved in political life in the service of peacemaking?” It was a good question that I was sure would provoke rich reflection, so you can imagine my surprise when the first student to respond insisted, “Well, in the United States, the idea of ‘separation of church and state’ really means that religious belief should have nothing to do with politics. So, you know, you should be a peaceful person on your own, but your religious views really shouldn’t be a part of politics.” A number of students nodded in agreement.
I was dumbfounded, quickly and gently correcting the student’s errant understanding of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which of course has nothing to do with how citizens do or do not draw upon their religious commitments to engage the political process. Certainly, though, my student cannot be blamed for having absorbed this perversion of thought from recent conservative critiques of Pope Francis for being “too political.” As Jeet Heer wrote in the New Republic, conservative pundits from George Will to Pat Buchanan insist that “the proper role of the church is promoting individual salvation and social morality, a mission Francis is jeopardizing by advocating for political change.” And GOP candidates, with their expressed Christian faith, have joined the chorus, granting the Pope authority over the spiritual realm, but not the political one.
I happen to know that the student in question is not particularly conservative in his political views otherwise. But he is among the generation of young adults who grew up during the waning days of the Culture Wars, warily watching as the Religious Right ratcheted up the shrillness of political discourse. Given my student’s experience of twenty-first-century politics, it’s unsurprising that he (like other young people in his generation and the one just before it) is suspicious of religious incursions into the political process. It’s no wonder he’s created a Constitutional fantasy to formalize a general disdain for religious cooptation of politics. And it’s no wonder that this fantasy encourages him to reject any form of religious participation in politics—like speaking out against systemic mechanisms of violence and injustice: advocating for sensible gun regulations; protesting police brutality against people of color; demanding equality for women; insisting on a distribution of wealth that allows the poor access to sufficient and healthy food, safe shelter, education, and healthcare; and acting as engaged citizens to restore and protect the natural environment.
I also happen to know that the student in question was the beneficiary of 12 years of education in private, Jesuit schools. Though he now identifies as agnostic (like a growing majority of my undergraduates), he was raised as an Episcopalian and reported in a “religious autobiography” at the beginning of the quarter that his family went to church reasonably regularly. He’s had lots of exposure to religion, most of it through a reasonably progressive lens. What’s more, he’s a smart kid. So how, I wondered as I walked back to my office after class, did he come to such a cockamamie understanding of the role of religious commitment in political life?
By the time I was driving home on Wednesday evening, listening to news that was saturated with stories of the latest shootings, my musings became more focused, more frantic even. How have young people come away from years of religious education, from years of worship participation, from hours in my own religious studies classroom, not understanding that peace (the “Peace of Christ”) is the heart of Christian teaching and a practice that undergirds nearly everything—from faithful care for creation, to economic justice, to the rejection of violence as a solution for personal, familial, social, or political disagreements?
Has our drive to amplify the awe inspiring, socially reinforcing, personally enriching beauties of the tradition—through so many pub theology gatherings, dinner churches, wilderness worship hikes, and pet blessings (all conducted in the hope of staving off the ever-present reality of the numerical decline in church membership)—caused us to turn away from the productive challenges of Christian teaching that sometimes result in suffering and genuine sacrifice? Are we trading in the provocative promise of Christian peacemaking, which can be so hard to swallow in a world so often filled with terror, for a smooth, latte-flavored Christian congeniality?
The stakes here are remarkably high, and they have nothing to do with whether the institutional Christian tradition continues or dies out. They have, rather, to do with whether we lose the foundational language of peacemaking in an increasingly globalized Western world—a world in which, as journalist Chris Hedges put it some years back, “violence has become the primary form of communication.” When this communication is left unaddressed by a counter-narrative of peacemaking and justice, it gains the power to walk into our everyday lives, to walk into the pathways of our imaginations, and shape our interactions with the world.
I was reminded of this fact quite powerfully this morning when my friend—let’s call her “Holly”—called from back East. She was worried because her 14-year-old daughter, “Ivy,” had declined Holly’s invitation to go Christmas shopping at the local mall.
14-year-old girl? Shopping mall? No thank you? Holly knew something was up, so she began to ask about potential sources of discomfort: Mean girls? Junior high crush gone bad? Ivy was characteristically unforthcoming. Eventually, however, she cracked.
“I know it sounds dumb,” Ivy said, her voice more timid and childlike, Holly told me, than she had heard in a long while, “but I’m afraid we’ll get killed.”
“Me, too,” Holly didn’t say to her daughter, but confessed to me. She had assured Ivy that they were safe. But, she worried with me, “these things aren’t just happening in big cities anymore. It’s everywhere. How can I really tell her we’re safe? How can any of us do anything to stop all of this? I just don’t know what to say to her.”
A person of deep, if quirky, faith, Holly struggled to find some spiritual language that might comfort her daughter. “It was so lame,” she told me. “I mean, I said, ‘God will protect us.’ But what does that even mean? Does God have a semiautomatic weapon to fire back with? ‘Cause he didn’t use it in San Bernardino. Or Colorado Springs. Or Sandy Hook.”
The students in my class had shared Archbishop Romero’s famous teaching, “Each one of you has to be God’s microphone. Each one of you has to be a messenger, a prophet.” But my friend had lost her voice as both as a Christian and as a mother.
And why would that not be the case when the language of peace—the real language of peace that comes not out of personal comfort and fulfillment but out of humility, generosity, and sacrifice, even—is increasingly muted in our tradition? When we fuss over whether young people understand our basic creeds and customs more than we question the convictions we hold most deeply and which are often the most painful to live out?
How can we tell our children—tell ourselves—that peace is possible if we do not know how to articulate our own role as peacemakers in the world?
We stand now, as a Church, in a season of waiting and hope—a contemplative silence too often filled with beautifully packaged appeals to personal, private, domesticated versions of “comfort and joy” that were never part of the Christian story. My prayer this Advent is that we will all begin to wake from what seems an indulgent slumber to learn and teach together about Christian peacemaking, to speak of peace from the soul of the Christian tradition, and to act as God’s blessed peacemakers in the world. This, Oscar Romero insisted moments before he was martyred in 1980, is the heart of God’s call to us: “We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.”
May we let an awakened struggle for peace be our gift to a world whose daily traumas live in our own hearts, in our homes, in our communities, and in our churches.