I started my day today with a cup of coffee and a re-reading of MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Every time I read this letter, something new stands out to me, and this morning, it was the term “negative peace” which King defines as the absence of tension (as opposed to positive peace which he defines as the presence of justice). Human history is long, and my lifetime is miniscule in comparison, but never in my short life have I witnessed a year more full of calls for negative peace than the one we just shared. And as I pondered that, some other words came to the front of my mind. “They have healed the brokenness of my people superficially, saying ‘peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.”
True peace does not exist in the face of injustice. The absence of tension is a band-aid that keeps falling off and exposing our wounds over and over until we decide to finally heal them. But the tricky part is this – negative peace is far easier to achieve than positive peace. It requires merely that we remain silent in the face of injustice. Negative peace is everywhere. It is the church that harbors sexual predators while silencing its victims in the name of peace. It is the family that tells its children not to share its secrets of abuse in the name of peace. It is the organization that pays settlements to those injured in return for their silence to keep the peace. It is every single one of us every time we try to silence someone for speaking truth by accusing them of sowing division or hatred when in fact they seek positive peace. They seek the presence of justice. It is not those seeking justice who are responsible for division. Where there is injustice, there is already division, and that division will never be overcome by silence. Those who are not ready to walk the road of positive peace could at least stop being a roadblock, crying out for negative peace, to those who are ready and willing to walk the harder path. That would a true gift of service to honor MLK.
There is much to learned from the leadership and scholarship of MLK, but it requires that we go beyond the single, out of context quotes and memes we share once a year on this day. They are beautiful and true, but we should treat them like the jacket copy for a book. We should let them invite us in to his more complete body of written and spoken words, and dig unflinchingly into the wisdom he offers within, wisdom we can contextualize and apply to our lives today. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a great place to start if you’ve never read it in its entirety.