Text: I Corinthians 8:1-13
On the morning of October 14, 1964, Martin Luther King, sleeping in an Atlanta hospital room after checking in for a rest, was awakened by a phone call from his wife, Coretta Scott King, telling him that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Although many in the United States and abroad praised the selection, segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor called it “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” Presenting the award to Dr. King in Oslo, Norway, that December, the chairman of the Nobel Committee praised Dr. King for being “the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence. His is the first to make the message of brotherly love a reality in the course of his struggle, and he has brought this message to all men, to all nations and races.”
In his speech accepting the award, Dr. King said, “We’ve been in the mountain of war. We’ve been in the mountain of violence. We’ve been in the mountain of hatred long enough. It is necessary to move on now, but only by moving out of this mountain can we move to the promised land of justice and brotherhood and the Kingdom of God. It all boils down to the fact that we must never allow ourselves to become satisfied with unattained goals. We must always maintain a kind of divine discontent.”
I want to use Dr. King’s words this morning to talk with you for a few minutes about peace. And in so doing, I want to talk about the idols of peace that I believe we have created, at least in the Western world, and how those idols are actually keeping us from realizing the ideals of peace.
When it comes to the great architects of peace—Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Tolstoy—if you read their writings you will find that they all have one thing in common. They all believed in the possibility of a world where there was the absence of violence. Not the absence of conflict. Not the absence of difference or difficulty. But the absence of violence. It was an ideal that they held as a conviction from their faith traditions and an ideal that they were willing to sacrifice their bodies and their very lives for.
While these great architects of peace were trying to live out an ideal—the possibility of a world without violence—I’m afraid that as a people today we have become more focused on idols of peace rather than the ideals of peace. This thought came to me as I was reading the lectionary texts for today. None of the lectionary texts assigned for this day specifically had anything to do with peace and just as I was about to give up on the lectionary and choose another scripture for this Peace Sunday, I read again the Epistle reading—I Corinthians 8. As I read it for a second time something clicked for me and I thought: idols come in all forms for all kinds of things. Paul is talking in this particular passage about idols of food. But I wondered: What about our idols of peace?
This passage in I Corinthians is not the first time the biblical narrative has dealt with the concept of idols. As you well know, it runs throughout the biblical narrative. It is such an important topic with God’s people that it made it into Moses’ top ten list of things God requires. And actually is it the first of the top Ten: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Exodus 20:2-5) You shall not make for yourself an idol.
Idol worship, though, is not just limited to religious concepts. It can also refer to a social phenomenon where false perceptions are created and worshiped. Idols are enticing to us. They reflect our fantasies and our admirations and hold our devotions. We craft them exactly as we want them. We don’t have to grapple with understanding or deciphering, because we make the idol in our own image. It belongs to us, it is ours to control and to regard or disregard. Yes, idols entice us. But why? Because idols allow us to trade substance for stuff.
So, with that introduction, what are our idols of peace? There are four that I want to name this morning as we set our minds to thinking about peace. The first is the idol of happiness. We are a culture obsessed with finding our “happiness.” Advice on how to be happy is everywhere. A Google search for “happiness” yields 75 million results, and nearly 40,000 books on or related to the topic are available for purchase on Amazon.com. While the depth and zeal of our current obsession with being happy may be unprecedented, happiness is an ancient, time-honored pursuit that can be found in the thoughts and writings of the great philosopher’s like Aristotle. Whereas Aristotle believed that happiness was the by-product of a life of virtue, we have come to associate happiness with a more vague metric of “feeling good.” Rather than thinking in terms of living virtuously, we’ve come to idolize happiness more with the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure.
Peace, at least the kind of peace that our faith talks about, does not equal happiness nor does it equal the absence of conflict or difficulty. The kind of peace that our world is in desperate need of holds the pain and suffering of the oppressed—victims of hate and war—before us so that we can see the reality of such violence. This idol of happiness would have us believe that creating peace is a warm, fuzzy, feel good experience. But in truth, pursuing peace is often anything but warm and fuzzy. The pursuit of peace often means sacrifice. It will most likely involve conflict and difficulty. And if we want to pursue peace, we might just need to melt down the idol of happiness.
The second idol is a sibling to the first one. I have named it the idol of inner peace. There is nothing wrong with inner peace. I’m actually all for inner peace. But our individual inner peace will not bring about peace in our world—not the kind of peace that our faith talks about. I know that some of the great spiritual thinkers are quoted as saying that peace comes from within, and that we shouldn’t seek it from without. But as we think about peace in our world, I tend to lean on Albert Schweitzer’s wisdom that “Until [humanity] extends the circle of human compassion to all living things, man [and woman] will not find peace.” The kind of peace that our world needs right now is not something that we possess. It is not individual or private. It is something that we share, that we work toward together, that binds us one to another. Peace, if anything, is about our relationships to and with one another—even when and especially when our relationships are difficult. We cannot go in our closets to find peace. The peace of Christ that our faith talks about is about how we live together; how we live within our differences and our diversity without harming one another—it is that image of the lion and the lamb lying down together. To call inner peace an idol most certainly will be subjected to criticism. And yet, it is my conviction that the pursuit of peace must take us outside of ourselves and consider what it means to live in peace with one another.
The third idol that I want to name is the idol of inevitability. This idol would have us believe that violence and people killing one another are inevitable and we can’t help or stop either. We look at the violence all around us and it is hard to not be overwhelmed. It is hard not to think “there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop the violence.” It is hard not to think “only God can get us out of this mess.” And so in despair we throw our hands up and we say, “this is just how the world is and there is nothing I or we can do about it.” The evil in the world shines and polishes this idol so that our eyes are blinded by it. The inscription on this idol is deeply writ, “Violence is inevitable in our world and there is nothing you can do about it.” And yet, the great voices of peace all had one thing in common: believing in the possibility of the absence of violence in our world.
The fourth idol is what I am calling the idol of the mind. This idol tells us that world peace is an idea rather than an action. This idol encourages us to talk about peace—to engage it as an exercise of our mind and intelligence. I will say the same here as I did with the idol of inner peace. I am not against talking about peace. Peace conferences, peace forums, peace summits are important. We need to talk about peace. And yet, when we leave our conservations of peace lying on the table or in words written on paper we have created yet another idol that keeps us from pursuing peace with our bodies, our very lives. Peace calls us to but our bodies on the front lines along with our minds. It’s not an either/or but a both/and.
This weekend I saw the movie Selma—the movie that tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama. For me, the most moving scene in the movie is a jail scene with Dr. King and his trusted and closest friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy. As Dr. Kings sits in a jail cell wondering where the civil rights movement is headed, and at what cost, his friend and cellmate, Rev. Abernathy listens compassionately. Dr. King laments about how tired he is, the cost of the lives being lost, and all for what, he asks. When Dr. King finishes his lament, Rev. Abernathy responds by putting his hand on Martin’s shoulder and saying to him, “we can do this path by path and stone by stone. We build the path as we can.” And while I can’t remember if these next words came before or after Rev. Abernathy’s words, somewhere in that dialogue Dr. King says, “we must continue to disturb the peace.” And with those words, I remembered Dr. King’s words as he accepted the Noble Prize for Peace—“It all boils down to the fact that we must never allow ourselves to become satisfied with unattained goals. We must always maintain a kind of divine discontent.”
Unattained goals. What greater unattained goal for our world than peace? If we aren’t willing to challenge our idols of peace, we accept them, and we lose sight of our real, unattained goals. We must cultivate divine discontent. This is not the kind of discontent that says, I need an iPhone 6, because an iPhone 6 would make me happy. This is the kind of discontent that says my stuff can never make me happy, because I can’t be happy when my brother and my sister do without their basic needs. This is the kind of divine discontent that says I cannot attain inner peace by withdrawing from the world, but only by wading into the world because inner peace is not silence or calm, but connection and belonging. This is the kind of divine discontent that will not let us be proud of intellectually sound pronouncements of peace that we make standing high on platforms on one side of the fence while we offer nothing, risk nothing to reach for those standing on the other side. Yes, we must cultivate divine discontent. And don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that we must be miserable. (After all the pope said we can’t always look like we are walking into a funeral.) I mean just this, that we must be honest. We must keep our eyes and our hearts open. We must keep our spirits ready so that our bodies will be willing to work for peace. And finally, we must be willing to admit that we can and must do more for peace.