Reflections on Peace, Power and Prayer
The late 60’s: it was such a time of unrest… Kennedy, King and the Vietnam War.
Even at a very young age I was aware that my parents made an asserted effort to provide for and expose us to a diverse and peaceful community. I have considered how they were able to share the rich African American history, as well as the struggles of our culture, yet teach us to love and not hate. I realize that it was a choice they made, to strive for a life of peace and freedom by living their life in a way that honored what they believed. They believed and taught that if you want peace and freedom, you have to live it and give it. In their household their peace guide was Jesus Christ.
In my grade-school history books I read about wars—the civil war, WWI, where my dad’s uncles served and WWII where my own dad was in the army. In my teen and young adult years, I saw civil unrest unfold with freedom marches, assassinations and watching friends go off to fight a war in Vietnam. There were race riots spotted across the United States and peace rallies for the war and for civil rights.
We had not learned from history. I was so disappointed that yet another generation was at war – my generation. My high school youth group supported the local USO. It was clear these young people were a long way from home. The USO offered a place of peace, even for a moment, where they could escape the horrors of the war. Years later while in college in a city where two air force bases were still preparing and deploying military personnel to Vietnam, I was still hearing the horror stories of those military persons as my roommates and I would invite our friends who were in the military, and their comrades over for a home cooked meal—a bowl of chili and a game of dominoes. Most of them were only temporarily back in the states before returning to what seemed a never-ending war. Their stories of guerilla warfare were often shocking and their own fear was real.
In 1975 when the United States withdrew, there was no fanfare for the returning troops as it was after WWII. The Wikipedia Encyclopedia reports that 1.5 million military personnel were killed and 2-5.1 million civilian fatalities resulted in that conflict. The mentally and physically damaged troops returned to the United States to communities that had little support to offer them. There was a time of “calm” that followed this war but one might question it to be a time of peace. Though we might question whether this was a time of peace, there is no question that this was a time for peacemakers who had a deep faith in God.
On March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in a speech titled: “Remaining Awake during the Great Revolution,” Dr. Martin Luther King expressed the following which also included a quote from President John Kennedy:
I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. President Kennedy said on one occasion, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war.
I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order.
Below, I have recopied a few of the sentences from Martin Luther King’s quote above. You will see it modified with blanks selectively placed throughout the quote.
The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war.
I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in _______ has torn up ________. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the ________ people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending ___________ dollars to kill every ________ soldier. Every time we kill one we spend _______ dollars while we spend only _____ dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are _______ miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the ______ people when we have not even put our own house in order.
Today, a generation later, changing the location, dollars and other minor details, might the message be the same? Is there one who will stand to deliver this message to the nation today?
Concurrently while the war was raging in Vietnam, in the United States racism and segregation was alive. Children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of American slaves were still experiencing demoralizing racism generations after their enslaved ancestors were to be free.
Just a little over one hundred years earlier, before the emancipation, on sleepless nights Abraham Lincoln prayed for God’s direction and wisdom and clarity in his fight against slavery. He also prayed against the wishes of many that were benefiting from cruel and unusual treatment of enslaved humans of African decent.
In his 2nd Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln expressed the thoughts and prayers of his heart this way:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In a war that lasted from 1861 to 1865, Wikipedia Encyclopedia records over 620,000 soldier deaths and an undetermined number of civilian deaths as only part of the precious price paid to declare American slaves to be free.
In 1965, one hundred years later, during the first civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama the marchers made it only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Alabama State Troopers and officers from the County Sheriff’s Department, some even on horseback, attacked the 600 peaceful demonstrators with whips and clubs. It was a cruel attack that seriously injured many of the marchers. This day is recorded in historical archives as “Bloody Sunday.”
As a youth I remember quiet conversations about Martin Luther King, and the conflict was on the tongues of people across the nation. I remember the buzz around our church as Disciples pastors, black and white and other local political dignitaries in the San Francisco Bay Area made arrangements to join Dr. King in his next march.
Some years later, as an adult, I, along with my very young family shared a dinner evening with long-time family friends, Rev. Ray Sawyer and his wife Hazel. After dinner he pulled from his closet historical archives of his participation in the civil rights marches in the south. I did not know until then that he was one of the primary pastors who structured the participation of the Northern California Disciples. His wife kept a journal of newspaper articles and photographs as she combed the papers daily for news updates and progress during the civil rights movement. Rev. Sawyer told of the day he and his wife were home watching the television news and heard reports of the bloody encounter at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was convicted at that moment that he had to do something to demonstrate he was against such an awful act.
A few phone calls later Disciples congregations and individual members joined in affirmation and support, and donations were coming in that would enable them to send a group of Disciples pastors from Northern California to join Dr. King in his cause of freedom and justice. Rev. Sawyer recalled that for a few days he slept at the phone as it rang both day and night with calls of donations, many were very small, but he had a hand-written accounting of each one. When all was combined they had enough. Enough to send physical support to fight for the cause of peace. To those in the delegation who were of Euro-American decent, their march guide included a paragraph that instructed them to place their own bodies between the hostile crowds and the Negro marcher if they saw physical conflict about to happen. Ray Sawyer expressed that they were all willing to take physical blows to protect the other marchers. In late March of 1965 Martin Luther King in his speech titled, “Our God is Marching On” spoke these words:
“Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it. There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.
The confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight. President Johnson rightly praised the courage of the Negro for awakening the conscience of the nation.
On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. From Montgomery to Birmingham, from Birmingham to Selma, from Selma back to Montgomery, a trail wound in a circle long and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness. Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. So I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.”
In this speech Dr. King spoke of another man, the president, Lyndon B. Johnson who was also a man who understood that along with the power he was given as President, that he was also accountable to a much greater source. In 1965 President Johnson also expressed his support that “we shall overcome.” Excerpts of his own expressions follow:
But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed–more than 100 years–since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than 100 years ago that Abraham Lincoln–a great President of another party–signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.
A century has passed–more than 100 years–since equality was promised, and yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise, and the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come, and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we wasted energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?
And so I say to all of you here and to all in the nation tonight that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all–all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor.
And these enemies too–poverty, disease and ignorance–we shall overcome.
At this point, only four leaders of peace have been mentioned. There are many more. Prayer, hope and calculated response through open lines of communication with God seem to be instrumental in achieving a course of instruction and direction toward peace. What these leaders hold in common is an understanding of the power of God. Above, you will find that Martin Luther King actually incorporated a prayer in his speech when he said: “The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war.”
Abraham Lincoln’s expressions above make it clear he understood with the power that he had as president that he also answered to a higher source. He clearly reflects it in this statement: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lyndon Johnson expresses his hope to do right in the eyes of God this way: The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come, and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.
I would not be surprised to know that all three of these peace leaders spent time in the Word and may have reflected on Jesus’ words in John 16: 33 where He says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
We are informed that in this world we will have trouble, but we are also reminded that the world has been overcome through Jesus and His instruction will lead us to peace.
To prepare to write this essay, I combed through books, resources, scriptures and biographies to look for the one connecting thread … a hopeful thread that would lead to an answer for peace. As I was shaping this collection of my reflections, thoughts, hopes and prayers I was not initially aware that this year, 2008 was the 40th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. Historical briefs cropped up in the news on most network stations and there were documentaries with deeper content on many of the Public Broadcast and History channels.
I was blessed to be reminded of the mountain top speech, and heartbroken to be reminded of that awful gunshot that took the life of Dr. King. On the day that Dr. King was murdered, surely there could not have been peace in his household. Across the United States it appeared that peace was shattered as riots broke out all over the nation.
For a period of time there was truly civil unrest and there seemed to be no peace, but then change began to happen. A spark of awareness of the horrors of racial injustice had been ignited, and the spark became an ember and communities began to warm to the changes that were necessary to help bring about a more peaceful nation. I was, during the 40th anniversary telecast, also reminded of the King family, and Dr. King’s oldest son who made an intentional effort to come face-to-face with the man accused of killing his father to establish with the accused, peace and forgiveness.
I question today, some decades later if the ember will ever become a flame or if we have become comfortably compliant where we are in the strife that encircles progress toward reconciliation. Has the ember become but a spark again in our negligence to fan and fuel a torch for peace? I have to admit to some worry today of discord when race is being used by the media and politicians as fuel to stir unrest and dangerously divide communities to create conflict for a media story of interest or to further ones position in a political race.
I was stirred again, when I heard Barack Obama’s speech on race as he ventured to share his own personal life history of living in many different cultural communities, making him the person that he is, and finding his own personal place of “peace” accepting all that God has made him to be. I am confident that he recognizes the importance of making every effort not to step backward on the decades long journey toward racial reconciliation.
So, where does “peace” begin? Peace begins with each individual and ones own self-examination of what that means in our lives. In the New International version of the bible, from Genesis to Revelations the word “peace” is referenced 247 times. Peace is something that from the beginning, generations have been searching for… fighting for… seeking. Peace is also fragile. It must be aligned with faith, hope and love.
We have been informed as mentioned above when Jesus said: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In this world peace will be challenged.
Peace is such a gift from God and so often we take it for granted, or sometimes miss its blessing as we live our lives each day. I can liken it to a fine china plate. If it is handled with great care it can be shared in good company and filled with good things. If it falls and breaks into many pieces, its repair can seem hopeless… in the same manner, one slip and so quickly “peace” can seem to leave us.
We find “peace” in the good things in our everyday lives. An occasional call from my niece in college could bring a peaceful moment in my day. Good news about a college rally or making the Dean’s list meant there was progress and the future was looking good. An unexpected phone call from my sister, however, with the news that her daughter had passed away in her sleep at the college quickly rearranged all that was peaceful before the call. The shattering of peace was not one-dimensional, but truly it had a ripple effect that impacted the peace of people in many communities. Her family at home and extended family, her dorm family, the student body of a Christian college, the staff and professors, and the family and friends of each of these groups as they shared the story.
As with the china plate, when “peace” seems to shatter and there seem to be few options, we still have choices. We can sweep all the pieces up and throw them away, or gather the broken pieces and carefully work to put them together again. The latter process does take time to find where the pieces match, and of course, the plate, though put back together, will not be exactly the same, but it will be whole again. Though it may not hold another meal, it can be displayed as a model and reminder that we must take care with things that are precious.
Peace, or lack thereof is about power. Power is about accountability or lack thereof.
As I have reflected on peace, and a number of events that give pause for thought over the last few hundred years, I want to remind the reader that “peace” has been a most desired “commodity” (commodity because it has been paid for with a price) for thousands of years. Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 9:6, and we sing of (in Handel’s Messiah) the coming of the “Prince of Peace.” In short staccato notes, voices from soprano to baritone harmonize in singing the message (KJV):
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
It is recorded that Jesus Christ, before he was crucified, spoke of peace to his disciples (John 14:25-27 (CEV)) when he said:
I have told you these things while I am still with you. But the Holy Spirit will come and help you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place. The Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of what I said while I was with you. I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn’t like the peace that this world can give. So don’t be worried or afraid.
The “Prince of Peace” leaves h is followers with critical information that I believe we may take too lightly today. “I give you peace the kind that only I can give.” Is there another kind of peace that is not recognized for it’s unique dimension? I like the way the Amplified Bible translates and expands this passage, and it is translate this way:
But the Comforter (Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, Standby), the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name [in My place, to represent Me and act on My behalf], He will teach you all things. And He will cause you to recall (will remind you of, bring to your remembrance) everything I have told you.
The “Holy Spirit” is also translated as “Intercessor, Advocate and Standby,” which reminds us that we are always connected to God. This translation also reminds us that Christ left information that the Holy Spirit is active (“He will teach you all things,” and “He will cause you to recall everything I have told you.”).
We are so familiar with Christ’s instructions to “Let not your heart be troubled,” but the Amplified Bible’s translation expands the understanding of that passage to be: “Stop allowing yourselves to be agitated and disturbed; and do not permit yourselves to be fearful and intimidated and cowardly and unsettled.”
I think of those peacemakers who were agitated, disturbed and unsettled before they made some major historical decision. Lincoln pacing in his office, Martin Luther King with his head in his hands and so many others. It is not likely that at anytime they were thinking of their decisions as the creation of a “historical moment.” It is likely they were truly in prayer, and connected with the “Intercessor and Advocate – the Holy Spirit.”
The Apostle Paul in his writings also shared what I believe are core elements, design and instructions on peace. In Philippians 4 (cev), beginning with the 2nd verse, Paul’s instructions are written this way as he writes to encourage Christ’s followers:
Euodia and Syntyche, you belong to the Lord, so I beg you to stop arguing with each other. And, my true partner, I ask you to help them. These women have worked together with me and with Clement and with the others in spreading the good news. Their names are now written in the book of life. Always be glad because of the Lord! I will say it again: Be glad. Always be gentle with others. The Lord will soon be here. Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer20up your prayers and requests to God. Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will control the way you think and feel.
Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise. You know the teachings I gave you, and you know what you heard me say and saw me do. So follow my example. And God, who gives peace, will be with you.
And so as I close this writing, I also open with a greeting of peace. I hold in my heart that every day is a new beginning. We should not argue, we should help each other and be gentle with each other. We sh ould be glad and not worry. We should recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit and pray about everything, offering up our requests to God. Now, as we go forward to live into this relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, let us be glad – yes! Paul writes, “Be genuinely glad!” Is this the “secret” to the understanding of the peace that passes all understanding?
I believe that some true advocates for peace may have known the “peace that others do not understand”. I am reminded of those who stood before many and shared expressions of transition, such as “I am no longer afraid…”. In Paul’s writings to the Philippians, he encouraged the people to make every effort to agree and ask that they not argue. This is an indication that there will be differences of opinion in our lives, but it should not stop progress toward peace. Let peace begin with me.
I leave you with what is written in Matthew 5:9 (CEV):
God blesses those people who make peace. They will be called his children!
Lonnie Graves served as a Director of Women’s Ministries in the national office of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where she also directed a Leadership Development program. She has been a trainer, speaker, presenter and keynoter at many events across the United States. She has directed national and local travel experiences for groups, and also outside of the United States to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She is currently an adjunct instructor at Heald College, and a part-time instructor at the University of Pacific in California and continues as a communications consultant and curriculum developer. Lonnie is also a published writer and photographer.