“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
But what about when there is no peace? What about when the very nature of your existence stems from a history of violence? What about when the state has deemed your heritage illegal? Where then can we see peacemakers? Where can we see God’s blessing when the people attempting to foster peace are being attacked?
From May 13 to 19, Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road LLC, led a pilgrimage sponsored by Greenville University. On May 14, she brought the group of 20 pilgrims to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
This memorial was created by the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (eji.org). The initiative’s work within the memorial and the Legacy Museum is to answer the call to remember what has happened in this land. Remembering is an act of peacemaking. There can be no peace if we do not acknowledge the atrocities that our people have committed.
This museum was particularly difficult for me as a young, biracial woman. My father is black, and my mother is white. As I walked through the memorial, I could not help but think about the legacy I carry. My father might have been lynched 50 years ago for having the audacity to love and marry my mother. I am a recipient of the legacy of the Loving v. Virginia trial. I hold within my body the direct legacy of a hard-won war. I embody the faith of my parents that a better world is possible, yet I do not feel as if there is peace.
My parents would be considered peacemakers. They bridged the racial gap in their families and convinced their parents that their relationship was one that would last. God reconciled the animosity between black and white in my parents’ relationship, at least for their immediate context. But we still have to bear the knowledge of what it would have meant for my parents’ relationship even 50 years ago. How can we begin to consider peace when we do not have the boldness to declare truth?
The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, states this: “The role of the church in supporting slavery, being silent about lynching and terrorism, and justifying racial segregation has never been acknowledged.”
The curators of the museum are correct. However, while Christians throughout the church have been complicit, I would add that the section of Christianity that has been silent about these matters has largely been that of my white family. We are so afraid of acknowledging our sinful past that we simply wish to hide it under the facade of colorblindness so that we can move forward. But there can be no peace if there is no repentance. What if our witness is compromised because we are unwilling — and at times unable — to admit that white supremacy is real and affects our good news to the world? We cannot truly become peacemakers and reconcilers without acknowledging truth (1 John 3:18). We will have no peace without justice. As Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
We love our neighbor by participating in acts of justice. To join this work requires an intentional look at our past complicity, even if we were only complicit by our silence.
My intention is not to force my white brothers and sisters to feel guilty that they were born into the majority. However, if we can only respond in defensiveness to truth-telling, we may not be secure in our faith in the God of the oppressed. Peacemaking is a gospel mandate. I posit that peacemaking will require us to look intentionally at our collective past and see that there can be no peace until we repent and pay reparations to the groups that we have disadvantaged despite our call to love our neighbor. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall bring God’s truth to the world and be called children of God.
Currently, the Christian church in the United States sits in what one of our trip’s speakers called a “precarious peace” — the limbo where we exist without acknowledging hard topics. This is where the church sits when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in injustice. I do not believe that it is possible to fully participate in God’s healing and peace without engaging in truthful conversations.
Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson says that truth and reconciliation are sequential. We cannot move forward until we acknowledge the truth. If we are to be the peacemakers whom God has sent into this broken world, then we must be willing to realize and repent of the ways that we have not only been complicit but have actively participated in maintaining unjust systems in a world that badly needs the hope of the gospel. As my friend Dominique DuBois Gilliard says, “It’s not up to us to do everything, but everyone has to do something.”
To become peacemakers, we must also become truth-tellers. This will be a hard and sometimes heartbreaking journey. But Jesus commanded us to die to ourselves as we follow Him (Mark 8:35, Luke 9:23). When we follow the path of the suffering Messiah, we will truly be able to become the children of God. May we resist the temptation to settle for a precarious peace and may we be bold enough to declare the truth to the spaces God has given us to inhabit.
Lexi Baysinger, a graduate assistant for Greenville University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, helped organize the “Justice Ministry Pilgrimage: The Gospel and the Politics of Race” alongside Lisa Sharon Harper and Free Methodist elder Ben Wayman, who holds Greenville University’s James F. and Leona N. Andrews Chair in Christian Unity. Baysinger is pursuing a master’s degree through Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s college student personnel administration program.