An Inconvenient Incarnational Peace

Real peacemaking doesn’t start with abstract concepts for me, but with faces.

I see faces of children in Salvadoran refugee camps and Mothers of the Disappeared I met in 1989. I see U.S. war veterans: Debbie, Jim and Miguel, who willingly served their country and came home emotionally, spiritually wounded. Jim was a parishioner who still suffers from nightmares about his time in Vietnam. I see Evan, Sandy and Andrew, ROTC students whose character, loyalty and discipline are so admirable, but who could end up a tragic statistic. I see the tears of my colleague Karen, speaking determinedly and agonizingly about her only child, Ken, who was killed in Iraq, in an effort that his life and death not be forgotten. As a mother of an only son myself, her story strikes painfully very close to home. When I think of peacemaking, I see their faces.

This is why I believe Christian peacemaking must be relentlessly incarnational. Jesus’ teachings and the Hebrew Scriptures are saturated with real people – Abigail, Puah and Shiphrah, the friends of the paralytic, the Syrophoenician woman – an invitation to meet the Divine in each of them. Today the Word becomes flesh and we meet the Holy in tiny babies who have no home to keep them warm, families who run from state-sanctioned violence, and vulnerable young men and women who face torture and death at the hand of the empire. It is through these real faces that God calls us to peacemaking. Once we invite them into our lives, we cannot help but realize that we owe them better than the world we currently have going.

While our stance for peace must be passionate, so must our love. So our work and prayer need to not only reach across borders and oceans or the aisles of Congress, they must also reach across our congregations and our communities—into the vulnerable intimate spaces of day-to-day relationship.

But incarnational peacemaking requires us to stretch our hearts and minds even wider. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he didn’t only mean those whom our government has labeled enemies; he meant those with whom we personally disagree, as well. While our stance for peace must be passionate, so must our love. So our work and prayer need to not only reach across borders and oceans or the aisles of Congress, they must also reach across our congregations and our communities—into the vulnerable intimate spaces of day-to-day relationship. We are quick to call on national or world leaders to use diplomacy and negotiation, but much slower to do that same hard work ourselves in terms of talking with those with whom we disagree. As a parish pastor for twenty-five years, I preached plenty of fiery peace sermons, but, like many clergy who were advised in seminary not to cultivate conversations that might stoke disagreement, I avoided personal conversations on controversial topics like a plague. This was not just a mistake as a pastor, it was a failure in peacemaking, too.

Recently, I had the privilege to witness what can happen when the hard conversations are undertaken. A few months ago at Santa Clara University, where I teach bible and theology classes to undergraduates, I helped organize a panel to discuss (not debate!) the presence of the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) program at our Catholic university. A Jesuit scholar explained how both just war theory and pacifism are part of the Roman Catholic tradition. A captain and training officer for ROTC related why he thought it was important and beneficial to have ROTC at our school. A pacifist from the local Catholic Workers house explained why he believed it to be a contradiction in terms of Jesus’ teaching to support an ROTC program at a Catholic college.

I served as moderator to this ranging discussion, which was something of a challenge for me. Remember, I have dodged this sort of vexed discussion for a quarter of a century. Last fall was no exception. I thought up multiple excuses for not showing up. (I did have the sniffles, after all!) But I came in the end, and what happened that evening was nothing less than extraordinary. Each panelist shared honestly, listened thoughtfully, and did not get defensive. They found common ground and raised good questions, even regarding their own perspectives. The ROTC officer acknowledged, for instance, that he did not understand what “loving your enemy” meant in war, but he knew that in the midst of combat one’s loyalty to the man or woman on either side of you was paramount, and an embodiment of faithfulness and courage. In the Q&A at the end of the discussion, the audience—a mix of military, peaceniks, students, and faculty—followed suit. I have never been more hopeful about the prospects of peacemaking in my life. One student stated it best, “If discussions like this were carried out on a larger scale and in other settings, I can confidently say that the world would be a better place.”

Why, in all my years of parish ministry, had I never attempted such a discussion? What was I so afraid of? What possibilities for authentic peacemaking have I squandered? Do I really not trust the image of God in every human being that can and will reveal wisdom beyond our imaginations? Incarnational theology keeps peacemaking real, grounded in actual faces and concrete relationships, and only by recognizing that divine image will we find the path to peace.

What possibilities for authentic peacemaking have I squandered? Do I really not trust the image of God in every human being that can and will reveal wisdom beyond our imaginations?

Of course there is more to peacemaking than thinking about faces and talking in safe quarters with those with whom we disagree. We need action, too.

In 2007, shortly after President Bush announced the Iraq War “surge,” I was one of 222 people arrested for kneeling in prayer in front of the White House during an ecumenical Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. I was surrounded by people who were my teachers and inspiration. When released from our short jail stint, we gathered in a church basement for hot chocolate and prayers. I gave a hug to Fr. Louie Vitali, a Franciscan who seems to spend more time in jail than out of it, and told him what an honor it was to be arrested among saints like him. Without missing a beat he replied earnestly, “Diana, we don’t need saints right now. We need prophets.”

Fr. Louie’s prophetic imperative extends the incarnational grounding I see as the root of Christian peacemaking. Indeed, of Christian life in general. Christian peacemaking requires prophets, more specifically, it demands courageous, tenacious and creative prophetic resistance.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is a story of prophetic resistance. Jesus’ execution was in large part the direct result of his saying “No” to the sin and death rife in political, social and religious structures. Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire, whose qualities of cruelty, corruption, and violence are rampant in our own time, in our own country. This was done in collusion with the existing religious institution, which like many religious institutions today had lost its bearings while accommodating the popular culture.

But the story doesn’t end there. The resurrection is God’s resistance to the powers of death, God’s ultimate act of civil disobedience. The powers-that-be said, “Die,” but God said, “Live!” The powers-that-be said “No” to Jesus’ way of compassion and justice, but God resisted the rules of the game and said “Yes!” When Paul argues that in baptism we have died with Christ and will be raised with Christ (Rom 6:3-5) he calls us to join this human-divine resistance movement now!

Prophetic resistance means saying “No” to the unbridled powers of death in our world, and “Yes” to God’s power of life. We must actively and publicly expose and confront the idols and lies that surround us. Henry David Thoreau observed that, “there are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.” Prophetic witness requires strong, visible words and action that resist the way things are and imagine a different world.

What might this look like in 2018? I’m no national strategist, but I offer three thoughts. First, we need courage. “Be not afraid” is a biblical phrase we usually employ for comfort. But it is unequivocally a commandment as well. Fear is an epidemic that exhausts and paralyzes us. Far from easy solace, “Be not afraid,” commands us to stop hiding under our sheets or shaking in our boots and instead get organized to do something! The words also advise that that “something” will necessitate courage. Be warned, well beyond petitions and hashtags, prophetic peacemaking involves risk.

Next, prophetic resistance must be tenacious. If you prefer a more biblical word, substitute steadfast. We can’t stop. In little and big ways, with mustard seeds and marches, we need to continue to resist the powers of division and death that surround us.

Prophetic witness is not about success. It is about faithfulness. There are plenty of movement roadmaps that tell us we need “wins” to keep people going, but the Jesus movement doesn’t abide by such models. We are in this for the long haul. Archbishop Oscar Romero put it well, “We must continue saying, though it is a like a voice in the wilderness, no to violence, yes to peace.” Our prophetic peacemaking must be persistent, dogged, steadfast, tenacious.

Finally, we need to be creative. The Women’s Marches of 2017 set a high bar for inspired civil resistance. The imagination involved in costumes and banners was fabulous—and, not for nothing, fun. If we make it fun, more people will catch the vision! We’re all looking for more of that in the Women’s March this year. So we have to call on artists and poets, musicians and dancers and street theater. Break out of the molds. Think beyond rallies and vigils. Invite children and youth to teach us new ways.

The hurting world before us cries out in such heart-breaking and urgent ways. We surely need much more than the ideas for thinking, praying, strategizing and acting for peace I’ve shared here. But my prayer is that relentlessly incarnational peacemaking and courageous, tenacious and creative prophetic resistance help us to set our bearings for a faithful resistance to the powers of harm, hatefulness, and inequity in the world. As the German poet Gunter Eich implored us, “Be inconvenient, be the sand / and not the grease in the gears of the world.”

Diana Gibson

Diana Gibson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and served as a parish pastor for churches in California and Australia for 25 years. She received her Doctorate of Ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary where she studied with biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann. Diana currently teaches theology and scripture using feminist and liberationist approaches at Santa Clara University. She is cofounder of Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, a grassroots interfaith organization based in the San Francisco bay area.

Cover Image: Mobilus In Mobili, Women’s March on Washington (January 21, 2017). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 1: Staff Sgt. Robert DeDeaux, Shaking Hands (April 2, 2011). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 2: Shawn Musgrave, Veterans for Peace – Memorial Day 2012 (May 28th, 2012). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license. Cropped.