Texts: “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov * Luke 1:18-25 (waiting in silence)
“No justice, no peace!” This slogan has been a staple at protest marches for years. It also describes the type of peace heralded by angels at the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus.
Caesar had proclaimed “Pax Romana” or “Peace of Rome” soon after he began his 40 years of imperial rule. His Peace would persist for more than 200 years, from the time of his ascension to the Roman throne in 27 BCE through the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. During these 200 years, the Roman Empire was stable, and no outside power threatened its might. But no matter how impressive The Peace of Rome seemed then or now, it was not peace with justice.
Rome’ peace was built on conquest and the oppression of its workforce, many of whom were slaves; and it was maintained by the army with an iron fist.
At the first Christmas when the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all,” they are not praising Caesar’s peace. They are heralding the coming of Caesar’s opposite – a divine child who represents the hopes for peace with justice of people who are as humble as this tiny infant.
In the centuries since, the church has proclaimed Christ over Caesar, and over the Czars, Kings and Kaisers who succeeded the Roman emperors. We claim that sovereignty rests not with monarchs on their thrones, but with the Risen Christ who lives within the hearts of followers of a Way of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
But just because the church proclaims Christ over Caesar doesn’t mean we now enjoy peace with justice. Jesus and his friends didn’t overthrow Caesar in the First Century. And today in the 21st, we continue to struggle with war. So, where is the peace that the angels announced 2,000 years ago?
This morning, I reflect on this question against the backdrop of today’s two readings and on our November theme on refugees here at Mill Woods United.
I am grateful that the Future Steps Team proposed that we read the book “Homes: A Refugee Story” in November and that we used three Sunday mornings to reflect on its themes of war, migration, and welcome. I am especially glad that on November 3, we heard the thoughts of Winnie Yeung, the Edmonton teacher who wrote “Homes,” which tells the story of Abu Bakr and his family as they fled from Iraq, to Syria, and finally to Edmonton in 2014; from Junaid Jahangir on November 17 who told of his family’s flight to Pakistan amid the deadly partition of India in 1947 and of his experiences as a gay Muslim learning to cope and thrive in Edmonton since 2001; and from our Office Administrator, Liliana Angel, who on November 24 told us the story of her family as they fled as refugees from Colombia in 2009 to a new life in Edmonton. I found all of them informative, moving, and inspiring.
Edmonton is a relatively peaceful and just place. This is not to say that we don’t have our share of violent crime and acts of discrimination based on sex, race, and cultural background. Unfortunately, we have far too many of these. But compared to other places and times, most of us feel blessed to live here.
But our November theme on refugees reminded me of how the injustice and violence of the wider world is also relevant to life here. Canada may never have had a civil war, but people from India, Syria and Colombia have fled war to come here and they bless us with their presence and many contributions.
People living in British-controlled India in the years preceding independence in 1947 probably expected only good things as Britain finally left the sub-continent after hundreds of years of imperial rule. Unfortunately, the existence of divisions between Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities allowed racist nationalists to rip the country apart in a convulsion of violence and death. Both India and Pakistan were born with wounds from their colonial past and with new wounds caused by misleaders who exploited tribal divisions for political gain.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the people of Colombia probably had hopes for economic expansion and social development. Unfortunately, outside meddling in Colombia — first in the context of the Cold War and then in the disastrous War on Drugs — sparked more than 50 years of violence there. This violence has warped the lives of millions and caused the deaths of tens of thousands. This includes the violence that led to Liliana to flee with her family to Edmonton ten years ago as refugees.
In 2010, the people of Syria probably were pleased as they reflected on years of economic growth and on the fading of memories of past conflicts with Israel. Unfortunately, as the Arab Spring revolt challenged the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad in 2011, the existence of communal divisions between various strands of Islam and Christianity in Syria allowed leaders like Assad and others to turn the Arab Spring into a civil war in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions have fled their homes as refugees.
These civil wars include untold horrors and trauma. A tiny silver lining, at least for us, is the arrival of refugees in Edmonton who become a blessing to the city’s economic, cultural, and social life.
But could the type of civic conflict that we heard about on three Sundays in November happen here as well?
The situation to our south provides a cautionary tale. The election of the current US President three years ago was aided by a Russian assault. It was an ideological and not a military assault, but its results have been devastating. It has threatened the rule of law in the US and weakened the ability of the world to tackle issues like climate disaster and weapons of mass destruction.
In 2016, Russian Internet trolls and bots exploited racial divisions in the United States to foment fear, misinformation and anger on social media platforms. The US was vulnerable to this attack because, just as Canada is far from healing the wounds of colonialism involving its First Nations, so the US is far from healing the wounds caused by 400 years of slavery and racial discrimination.
There are many reasons to desire a world in which women as well as men, gay as well as straight people, and those with ancestors from all corners of the world can live together with equality and peace. One of them is that continued social divisions make us vulnerable to cynical manipulations by nationalists that can lead to violence as in India in the 1940s and Syria in the decade that is just ending.
In the church, we work for peace with justice. We do so to act upon our values of love, kindness and hospitality. This work can also inoculate us against the irrational hatred that can lead to violence.
As Junaid Jahangir’s ancestors and as Liliana Angel’s and Abu Bakr’s families learned, often the only thing one can do in the face of violence is to flee to a safer place. And I am happy that Canada is a haven to so many refugees and other immigrants who have created a wondrous tapestry of cultures here over the last 60 years.
But is there anything a church can do to counter the forces that lead to civil wars in places like India, Pakistan, Colombia, and Syria?
I think so; and I end with some thoughts about about how using words and refraining from using them that can help us in the struggle for peace with justice.
When Zechariah questions the Angel Gabriel’s news that he and his wife Elizabeth are to become parents, the angel strikes him mute for nine months. Elizabeth accepts the situation more calmly, but she too goes into seclusion for five months.
Sometimes in the face of fearsome or awe-inspiring events, all we can do is stand mute. Things like war, revolution, or impossible births can overwhelm us. In those cases, we may need to sit silently or spend time in solitude as we search for stability and a new ground from which to act.
An opposite tack is taken in the poem “Making Peace,” by Denise Levertov. It suggests that we can make peace in the same way one writes a poem – by sensing a rhythm, shifting towards it, and exploring its metaphors as one speaks and acts.
Levertov also promotes long pauses as a way to detach from desires for profit and power and as part of the work of creating an energy field more intense than war. She suggests that our words and actions can create a vibration of light that can help us create the world of peace and justice/love we want.
I believe that all of these ideas — of silence and solitude, of standing against hateful speech, and of using our words and actions to create a vibration of light — are valid ways to join with the angels at Christmas to proclaim the coming of peace with justice.
Living as we do with the wounds of colonialism still so painfully evident among us, we are vulnerable to nationalist and racist manipulations like those that have devastated Syria and that have brought the US to the brink.
But with our ears open to sacredness in the dark and silent nights of Christmas; with our hearts open to people of backgrounds very different from our own; and with words of equality and justice on our lips, we can stand against the trolls and racists who would exploit tribal divisions to foment injustice and war.
Christmas remind us that peace with justice is our birthright. Indeed, it is reason that Love comes down at Christmas.
So I pray that as sing Silent Night again this Christmas Eve, we will find comfort and joy in the sure hope that angelic voices will join us with their refrain: “No justice, no peace!”
May it be so. Amen.