2 Peter 3:8-15
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The message I am about to offer takes its title from one of the many quotes of the great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” The presence of justice. So, for Martin Luther King, Peace cannot exist without Justice. People can get along with each other, and they could not fight; there could be no violence, but as long as some people are oppressing others – as long as one person does not get justice – there can be no peace. Peace requires justice. Before we can even begin to talk of peace in the sense that we all just get along with each other, we have to have justice.
I have great respect for Dr. King. In fact, if I could ever add anything to the canon of Scripture, it would probably be something of King’s writings. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I agree with him. Justice is necessary for peace. It makes sense – it is unreasonable to call for your opponent to stop fighting back as you slowly beat them to death. We have no right to cry “peace, peace!” when we ourselves are oppressing others. I am quite sure that if we were on the other side of the oppression, or if we have ever known what it feels like to be held in a constant state of belittlement or torture, then we should conclude that such an existence is not peaceful at all.
So, if justice is required for peace, we have to figure out what justice is. Well, the technical definition of justice is everyone getting what they are due. Now, this is purely my own theological perspective (as it was King’s), but I believe God knows exactly what everyone is due, and it is our job to figure that out. We do this by reading Scripture, by using reason, by interpreting our own traditions and values, and finally through our own experience – we in theological circles call these four things the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Many of us, when confronted with an unjust situation – whether it be from our own life or from a story we’re being told – have a visceral emotional reaction. “That’s not fair!” we scream at the TV, either out loud or silently in our hearts. Then, through using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we eventually arrive at our own conclusions as to whether justice was served in that situation. We go to Scripture, we pray, we acquire all the evidence we can and apply our reasoning skills to it, we most certainly bring our own experience to bear on the situation. Individually, we may not all arrive at the same conclusion. But, collectively, I do believe we may in time discern an objective, universal notion of justice to which we should all aspire, and which, according to both King and myself, is required to have true peace. And this universal notion of justice is rooted in God.
C.S. Lewis makes this wonderful point in Mere Christianity – he says that before he became a Christian, he was a staunch atheist. And what convinced him of the existence of God was the fact that he had any sense of justice at all. He knew that without God, there’s really no point in arguing over whether something is fundamentally right or wrong, fair or unfair, because the world just is. But because the world lives, and moves, and has its being in the very body of God, and because God radiates justice, we as human beings are able to perceive whether or not something is “just”. Not whether or not it is just for somebody – have you ever heard somebody say “that’s not fair!” when they didn’t get their way? No, we are constantly attempting to understand what an objectively “just” world looks like – what God’s reign of justice and righteousness looks like. And, remember, until that happens, we can have no true peace.
And this brings us to our text today. Up ‘til now, I admit, it’s been fairly heady. But we need to be clear on these two points before we go any further – true peace requires justice, and justice is a universal notion rooted in God that can be known. Now, according to Peter, this justice will be a reality in the new heaven and new earth. God’s righteousness will be at home. This is the final culmination of God’s plan for the universe, where everyone will be found at peace. This is the end-goal of the universe, the thing for which it is ever striving. And now, more than ever, we are waiting for it. Because, if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, justice is not present this Advent season. Not here, at least.
I’m going to speak quite candidly now, and I want you all to understand something. What I say is grounded in my own Wesleyan Quadrilateral – it comes from my experience and my reasoning, in conversation with Scripture and tradition. It is not meant to be a political statement – I am politically unaffiliated; I believe in voting for and saying things that I believe are right and grounded in God’s will for the universe. So, with that in mind, please hear the following:
I grew up believing that racism was a thing of the past. I was born in 1990 – and before you ask, yes, I really am 24 – and I learned about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement growing up in school. I learned about it as a thing of the past, that racism was wrong, and that we are now a post-racial society. And although most of my classmates were white, I did not perceive in myself any bias that would make me behave differently toward my peers of a different skin color. I’m not sure why, but I guess I just thought that once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, America was no longer racist. My parents, my extended family, and everyone else I interacted with gave me no indication that it should be otherwise.
In the past 4 years or so, however, I have become acutely aware that my assumption of a post-racial America is not, in fact, a reality. On the night that Barack Obama was elected president, Twitter exploded with racist comments from all over the country, and I was shocked. Most of the tweets were from young people – people even younger than myself, who had supposedly grown up in our “post-racial” society – calling Obama the “N-word” and saying he did not belong in the “white” house. Then in subsequent years the reactions to Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and Eric Garner came, among many others; racist comments from all corners of the nation, including the authorities involved, and even today it continues. Donald Sterling is not an anomaly. I have had close friends directly experience racism in a church setting – they did not get a youth ministry job because of their race. I have read personal accounts from friends of my friends on Facebook, accounts of being stopped by police when they had committed little more than a traffic violation, and yet they were insulted and degraded because of their race, placed in handcuffs, and their car was searched illegally. I did not want to believe it because I, like many of you, wanted to believe that this country is better than that; that all of our failings are in our past and that we are a shining city on a hill, a beacon of light in a fallen world, proclaiming liberty and justice for all. But the more I experience; the more comments I hear and read; the more relationships I have with real people who are experiencing injustice, I have to acknowledge that we, as a society, are living a lie. I cannot claim that we are living in a post-racial society because, deep down, I realized something else:
I, too, have always been afraid of black people.* Not the black people that wore the right clothes – suits and ties and all that – but those who chose to wear hoodies, backwards hats, and sagging pants. I have to admit that I am still instinctively afraid of those types of people. And, yeah, I might also be afraid of white people who choose to wear similar clothing, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I know I am more afraid walking past a black person on the street with sagging jeans than a white person in similar garb. I have an implicit racial bias, drilled into me over the years, and it takes a lot of effort to fight that bias. And if I have that bias, despite my commitment to anti-racism efforts and my attempt to be a force for reconciliation in a broken world, I know that plenty of others around me, including those we count on to serve and protect us, have it as well.
We can keep trying to deny it. We can keep coming up with excuses. We can keep living the lie that justice is present. But if we are really honest with ourselves, we know this is not the case. We must instead accept the fact that our society is in a constant state of growth, and that 50 years, in the long history of black oppression, is a miniscule amount of time in which to become “post-racial”. As a society we have collectively discerned from God that racism is unjust. Now we must acknowledge that systemic racism still exists in this country, and we must work to fight against it. It does nobody any good to deny other people’s experiences of injustice outright, because we know that our justice system is not perfect – we are not, after all, yet living in the new heaven and new earth where God’s justice and righteousness reign forevermore. We are a work in progress.
So what does that mean for us? We’ve taken the long way around, because I want it to be clear that injustice is persistent in our society, and if we really want true peace, that is going to have to change. If we really want to live in the new heaven and new earth, then we are going to have to help inaugurate the presence of God’s eternal justice here on earth. Our text today says, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?” I believe this tells us two things – the first is that we are actively involved in bringing about the day of God, because we are commanded to hasten it. Not just to wait for it, but to hasten it. That means that we are helping God to build the Kingdom here on earth. The second thing is this: that God’s reign of justice and peace does not come without conflict. It does not come without destruction. In any fight against injustice, there is always tension. Change requires conflict. If we want to experience true peace – the kind of peace that only comes in the new heaven and earth – then we must be willing to pass through the fire.
Advent is a time of change. It is a time of injustice; it was never meant to be a time of peace. Advent is the time when we look forward to peace, when we expect it, and by expecting it I mean that we actively work to bring it about. Because peace doesn’t come until Christmas Day. It does not come until God steps into the world. It does not come until the old order of injustice is dissolved in fire and passes away into dust, and the new world, the new society is allowed to rise from the ashes. For now, we wait; longing for, hoping for, and, hastening the presence of justice.
*Growing up, I was always taught that “African-American” is the politically correct term to use for persons of African heritage living in the United States. However, I have had a number of close friends inform me over the years that they would rather be called “black” than “African-American”, since it was not them, but rather their ancestors who came from Africa. They, however, are full-blooded Americans. Consequently, I have chosen to use the term “black” to refer to a specific racial group rather than “African-American”. While some black people are African-Americans, some are simply Americans, or Africans, or Europeans, or Asians, etc. That said, if you feel I have misrepresented your experience in any way, please let me know. My ears are always open.