No peace apart from justice

Sep 21, 2015 by

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Today is the International Day of Peace. Yesterday was recognized in many faith communities as Peace Sunday, and I had the privilege of delivering the sermon with a good friend of mine at Slate Hill Mennonite Church in Camp Hill, Pa. It’s funny, because although as a Mennonite, “peace” has always been a core value of mine, I don’t often think of myself as a “peacemaker.” In fact, I believe many times — in both our churches and our broader society — the pursuit of peace apart from justice makes us complicit in preserving unjust systems and allowing oppression to continue.

We saw this during the civil rights movement, when there were those who sought to preserve a fragile “peace” without addressing the gross injustices that were causing people to take to the streets, and at times, resort to violence. We see it today across the country, where people lament the “rioting” that has occurred in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere — yet refuse to acknowledge the deep-seated injustices imbedded in our criminal justice system, and the ways that communities of color are systemically marginalized. We cannot hope for peace — nor should we — unless we first acknowledge the realities of systemic racism in our society, and take intentional, ongoing action to dismantle this system of oppression.

For many of us who are white, these are uncomfortable truths to hear. Yet these are the realities that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is calling attention to. Many white people question the name #BlackLivesMatter, asking don’t #AllLivesMatter? And of course, they do — but the purpose in adopting the #BlackLivesMatter slogan is to point out that although all lives should be equally valued, it is clear that black lives are not. There is a consistent pattern of unarmed black people being killed, which can no longer be ignored. This idea that “black” equals “dangerous” or “criminal” is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of our society and our criminal justice system that it has deadly results. #BlackLivesMatter does not exclude white lives — rather, it invites us to really listen to the hurt, anger and frustration that communities of color are expressing, and join together to call for racial justice.

We also saw this during the civil rights movement, when white people marched side-by-side with people of color. I would venture to say that the civil rights movement was the original #BlackLivesMatter movement – advocating for black people to be equally valued under the law and by white Americans. When Martin Luther King Jr. led the sanitation workers on strike, they wore signs that said “I Am a Man” — directly challenging the status quo, in which a black man was not recognized as equal to a white man; where the basic humanity of people of color was denied.

Listening to the voices of #BlackLivesMatter, what many would say is today’s civil rights movement, can be challenging because it forces white people to acknowledge our own privilege. I often think about how I have the privilege of turning “off” when I leave the office. I don’t have to think about racism once I’m off the clock — I don’t have to be aware of my race when I walk down the street. My whiteness will never have the same kind of negative impact on me that blackness or brownness has on people of color. Because of that, I must continually challenge myself to keep my awareness turned “on” — to critically observe, listen and engage even when I don’t have to, or I don’t want to.

As a white person, I must choose to be an ally every single day. It is not a word that I use lightly — and as my friends at the Women of Color Network recently reminded me, being an ally is not a state of being but something that I must continually aspire to. I must turn in my ally “card” each night, and earn it all over again the next day. Racial justice work is a constant process of examining myself for those unconscious attitudes and behaviors that contribute to racism, educating myself by reading, talking with and listening to others, and taking opportunities to speak up and take action.

One of the most powerful articles I have read recently is “I, Racist” by John Metta. Published shortly after the Charleston, S.C., massacre, the author writes about why it is difficult for him — as a black man — to talk with white people about race. Please read it. He closes the article with this challenge: “All the Black voices in the world speaking about racism all the time do not move White people to think about it — but one White Jon Stewart talking about Charleston has a whole lot of White people talking about it. That’s the world we live in. Black people can’t change it while White people are silent and deaf to our words. . . . White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?”

That is our challenge, my challenge. To speak up even when it is uncomfortable, unpopular or risky. To use my voice even when I am unsure of what to say or how to say it. To interrupt someone who is using their position of power to perpetuate racism. To challenge the ways that racism is imbedded in the institutions and systems that I am a part of. To not let my desire for preserving “peace” supersede my charge to eliminate racism — but rather, to see racial justice work as my way of being a peacemaker.

Amanda Arbour lives in Harrisburg, Pa., where she attends New Hope Community Church. This first appeared on her blog, Along Cracked Sidewalks.

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