Making peace is hard work. In part that’s because peace results from justice.
And let’s be very honest with ourselves. Everybody wants justice for themselves. The rub comes when pursuing justice for others changes the world that we’ve grown accustomed to. When attaining peace for someone else disturbs the peace that we take for granted.
When George Floyd died at the hands of police in Minneapolis, protests spread across the country. For many, his killing exemplified a centuries-old pattern. Brown-skinned people navigate a world of dangers invisible to their light-skinned neighbors. A world where jogging while black can make you a suspect. Even a murder victim like Ahmaud Arbery.
Some protestors are carrying a familiar sign. “No justice. No peace.” An old bumper sticker adds, “Know justice. Know peace.” More specifically, other signs read, “Justice for George Floyd.”
If we limit the demand for justice in the Floyd case to ensuring accountability—securing a just punishment—for those responsible, we may achieve a temporary cessation of egregious violence. But we won’t know peace. That’s because peace comes only with a deeper form of justice. It comes with a transformation of our world’s deep logic.
We human beings self-organize into higher and lower, inside and outside, privileged and deprived. As writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kaitlin Curtice stress, the American version of this logic is white supremacy.
If, like me, you’re white, you might take offense. After all, you don’t hate people with dark skin. But white supremacy goes deeper than your or my personal attitudes, the friends we have, or even our political affiliations. It’s a deeper logic.
Let’s take just one example, setting aside for now killings by police, incarceration rates, and hate crimes.
Blacks and Hispanics are denied mortgages much more frequently than whites. And those who do get a mortgage tend to receive a higher interest rate than whites with a similar financial profile. Paying more for the same house is a long-term economic disadvantage.
Justice—a justice that restores God’s creation—respects the dignity of every human being. There are no insiders and outsiders. No one seeks privilege at the expense of anyone else. We are all in this together. You love your neighbor as yourself because you know in your bones that your well-being is inseparable from theirs.
This is the justice that brings peace. And that kind of justice can feel like an unachievable aspiration. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Jesus came to bring to this world. And what Jesus sends us into the world to pursue.
In John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus appeared to his friends. They were cowering behind locked doors for fear of violence. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”
He wasn’t saying, “Stay calm and carry on.” While following Jesus can bring with it an inner tranquility in even the most harrowing circumstances, he was commissioning his friends to something more. He sent them into the world as peacemakers. Or more accurately, he sent them to participate in the peace that he is bringing. Here’s how he put it:
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
Jesus sends his friends—he sends you and me—into the world to bring peace by working for justice. The work of restorative justice—the justice that heals the world—begins with forgiveness. And forgiveness starts with listening, listening especially to voices that feel the pain of being dismissed and disregarded for generations.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” His point was that riots distort true protest, but they still bear the same crucial message.
And when we begin to listen to unacknowledged pain instead of reacting with with indifference, denial, or violence, we are taking a first step in the direction that Jesus points us.
Hearing voices like those of Martin Luther King, William Barber, Louise Erdrich, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and John Lewis—hard as it may sometimes be—draws you and me into a divine healing process. Into the work of the Holy Spirit. The work of justice. The hard work of peace.