In 1992 a young American Fulbright Scholar was murdered in a South African black township. Amy Biehl had been working passionately against apartheid but fell victim to the rampant political violence and racial distrust of the time. She had been working for peace.
What do we mean by peace? And why is it so dangerous and elusive? It can even be difficult today to know who really is on the side of peace.
In Ukraine, somehow just about everyone is the country feels they are being oppressed by someone: it’s all about Russia, or the United States and European Union, or the Kiev government, or the pro-Russian paramilitaries. Here it’s not even clear who the powerful are, at least among those who live in Ukraine. What does peace look like for any given Ukrainian today? It depends on whom you ask.
For Palestinians who believe their current situation is untenable and unjust, living “peacefully” with their neighbors means to cooperate in maintaining an oppressive status quo. If peace means the absence of violence, and if there appears no path to justice save the use of violence, then the idea of peace can become a roadblock to justice for Palestinians. The idea of peace can be used by the powerful to justify unjust situations. Indeed, the term itself has become contested. “Peace” has become a technical term specific to each group’s political agenda. And peace can be a synonym for social order and control.
Perhaps the term “peace” as a synonym for social control found its first and and most comprehensive use during the Pax Romana, the two centuries of military-backed stability of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ day. Then protests were seen as the seeds of social movements that could lead to more violent rebellions and so were quelled quickly. It’s simple to imagine why Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a crowd waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” -- all actions soaked through with messianic symbolism -- was seen by the religious and political authorities as the upstart teacher’s final offense. Rome would not tolerate such destabilizing nonsense. Thus Jesus’ crucifixion.
Which brings us to that first Easter day. That morning Mary Magdalene recognized the risen Christ and was sent to tell the disciples the good news. Yet somehow that good news didn’t keep the disciples from locking the doors out of fear for their lives: fear of soldiers instructed in the Pax Romana’s stabilizing agenda might well be searching for them. And doubt dulled their hearing of Mary’s story: how could the Messiah have been so easily crushed by earthly powers?
It is then that Jesus came and stood among them, speaking “Peace,” inviting them to let go of their fear. He showed them his wounds so that they would know that it was he, assuring them that he really had risen and inviting them to let go of their doubts. Then he said “Peace” again, asking them to trust that God was with them here and now.
Only then could Jesus share God’s mission with them, and breathe the Holy Spirit upon them so that they might carry out this loving mission of forgiveness and of reconciliation. A mission of peace that necessarily included forgiveness and reconciliation and could only take place free from fear and in honest conversation with doubt.
Thomas’ doubt, which mirrored that of his fellow disciples, demonstrates Jesus’ willingness to meet each of us where we are in our journey of faith and minister to us there.
So where are we in our journey of faith? What does each of us need in the way of reassurance from God so that, like Thomas, we may claim God’s love for us and proclaim this love to the world? When we remain in fear and doubt in our own locked rooms, we will not find peace.
Forgiveness is the way out of this locked room. God invites us to forgiveness’s door. There’s no better time than the Second Sunday of Easter to remember our rebirth into Christ’s freely forgiven risen life. But sometimes even though we know in our heads that God loves us and that God forgives us of our sins, we’re unable to really trust this truth enough to “allow” God to forgive us. We’re not really sure if God should let us off the hook yet.
But trust God. Be forgiven. Be made who are: a beloved child of God.
Because when we experience forgiveness, when we experience God’s grace entering impossibly into our fearfully locked rooms, forgiving others suddenly becomes possible. Possible, but difficult. Indeed, forgiving another may be the one of the most difficult things we’ll ever do, but it will free us from our victimhood and from the weight of our pain. As we realize that all share a common identity as “forgiven ones,” we realize just how much we all are in need of God’s reconciling love.
Easy Nofemela was one of the two men that killed Amy Biehl. Growing up, he had been taught to never trust a white person. After five years in prison, he stood before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and told the story of Amy’s death and expressed his remorse to Amy’s parents. But he believed that Peter and Linda Biehl had come to South Africa only to request that he and his accomplice be hanged for their crime. Instead, the two men were granted amnesty, a decision that was supported by Peter and Linda. They met a year later with the two men, who were now running a youth program in the township where Amy had been killed. They took the men out to dinner. In Linda’s words, “it wasn’t about pity or blame, but about understanding.” Over the years that followed, their conversations led to the men’s eventual employment by the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, organized by Linda and Peter to prevent youth crime in South Africa.
This is the sort of forgiveness to which we are called, forgiveness that signals the coming of God’s forgiving and reconciling mission in the world. This is the sort of forgiveness -- painful, painstaking, sharp -- that paves the world’s way to more peaceful, just forms of living together.
Peace is no sound bite with an agenda. It is a divinely-authored novel written and rewritten over many lifetimes and at the cost of many lives. Each of us has a life to give, and we are called to give our time and gifts to further God’s reconciling mission in the world. How will you give yours?
The Rev. Colin Mathewson