Are you going to a candlelight service tomorrow evening? There’s something about singing “sleep in heavenly peace” in a darkened church with candles glowing all around that makes me feel like maybe everything will work out, that maybe peace is possible.
Often after we’ve sung “Silent Night” and the minister has blessed us with “go in peace,” I often don’t want to go home. I want to linger where I feel safe, where I feel at peace. Kind of like I feel when the alarm goes off in the morning. It’s cold out there and life is a struggle, but under the covers I’m cozy and warm.
Recently, the world has felt a little colder and darker than usual. In the past, living in the burbs made us feel safer. Not a gated community for sure, but a lot better than the gang-banging West Side. Now we’re not so sure.
Some politicians, as you know, are trying to play on people’s fears, blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks and promising to build a wall to keep those drug-dealing Mexicans out of our country.
It seems to me that many of us yearn for a simpler “It’s a Wonderful Life” kind of world in which nobody gets killed, and life is like a PG-13 movie. I know I do, but I also know that kind of longing makes me vulnerable to demagogues who make promises on which they can’t deliver.
Maybe candlelight services do more harm than good, especially if they encourage us to wish on a star that is a million miles away and is too busy twinkling to care about our need to feel safe. Maybe we need to get used to the fact that there is a degree of risk in living and figure out a way to live well in the midst of uncertainty.
Exhibit A: Jesus was born in what amounted to a homeless shelter, and the Holy Family had to become refugees in Egypt to escape Herod’s paranoid insecurity.
Exhibit B: Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former adviser to the U.S. State Department, recently wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine, “Occasional terrorist attacks in the West are virtually inevitable, and odds are we’ll see more attacks in the coming decades, not fewer. If we want to reduce the long-term risk of terrorism — and reduce its ability to twist western societies into unrecognizable caricatures of themselves — we need to stop viewing terrorism as shocking and aberrational, and instead recognize it as an ongoing problem to be managed, rather than ‘defeated.'”
Exhibit C: Brooks argues, “We can’t keep the bad guys out. All borders are permeable. There aren’t enough guards in the world to monitor every inch of coastline or border.”
Exhibit D: Brooks writes, “Besides, the threat is already inside. The 2005 terrorist attacks in London were carried out by British citizens, the Boston Marathon attack was perpetrated by a U.S. citizen … and the Paris attacks appear to have been carried out mainly by French citizens. Every country on earth has its angry young men.”
Brooks goes on to make seven more points in her attempt to convince us that we’d better get used to living in a world where bad things sometimes do happen to good, innocent people and that any politician who says otherwise is either living in a fantasy land or is a demagogue playing on our fears in order to gain power for him or herself.
So what are we do? I’m a Christian, so I’m going to that well for an alternative to fear but I’ll bet my next paycheck from the Forest Park Review that the Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditions can come up with something similar.
First, something Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was later executed by the Nazis, said in a speech in 1934, five years before Hitler’s armies invaded Poland.
“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. Peace means to give oneself altogether to the law of God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.”
Second, this from the speech Dr. King gave in Memphis the night before he was killed: “And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. … Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
Third, on 9/11 the TV cameras showed everyone running away from the burning Twin Towers except for a few firemen who were walking toward them.
Bonhoeffer, Dr. King, the New York firefighters — all of them understood that peace is not the absence of danger outside of you but the presence of a calm strength inside. The baby in the manger, after all, grew up to take on the religious and political leaders of his time.
That night of his birth, the angels said to the shepherds, “Be not afraid.” What they were asking those shepherds to go and see, I’m pretty sure, was not a cute baby but one who would grew up to both show us how and enable us to live in the real world with strength and purpose and a peace that passes understanding.