Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity
of every human being?
In The Episcopal Church, whenever we baptize someone, the person about to be baptized (or his/her godparents and parents), along with the whole congregation, is asked this question, and I have long thought of these words as the most radical, and perhaps the most important, in the Book of Common Prayer. They say something powerful about how our church interprets the life of the baptized: as a life that is meant to be shaped by a deep commitment to justice and peace, rooted in a profound respect for the dignity of human beings. It is the last question that forms the Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant, and thus for me leaves the impression that everything said and promised beforehand leads precisely to this: the essential point of the Christian life in its outward motion.
What strikes me as radical about this question is that it is not directed toward the Christian community. It is not a promise that is made for or about a select group of people who believe a certain set of things, or belong to a particular group. It is a question that concerns all of humanity. It asks about justice and peace for all people, and of the dignity of every human being.
And the answer we are asked to give is, “I will.”
“With God’s help.”
I have been thinking about this question, and the shape it gives to the Christian life, as I have tried to take in all that has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Years ago, at the beginning of my ordained ministry, I lived not far from there. I have found myself having trouble reconciling my experience of living in that area with the images of the past couple of weeks. And it has made me realize, more than ever, the paradox inherent in that commitment to justice and peace.
The African American community in Ferguson, joined by many others in their community, nation, and around the world, are desperately thirsty for justice. While the details of Michael Brown’s shooting death remain under debate, it seems clear to me that there is no real way to regard what happened to him as just. And what happened to him has touched a nerve deep within the Ferguson community that goes far beyond this particular tragedy. It is being reported that in the last decade, the number of poor people in Ferguson has doubled. With that increased poverty comes increased frustration and anger over lack of opportunity, lack of power, lack of that human dignity that our Baptismal Covenant claims on behalf of all people everywhere. Michael Brown’s death is not only a tragedy in itself, but a fuse that ignited the pain, anger, frustration, and sense of powerlessness of so many in his community. And right now, it is hard for many in Ferguson to seek that justice while preserving the peace. Because peace, as so many of them have known it, has not come with justice or dignity. For them, peace is the maintenance of a status quo that leaves them disadvantaged.
And this is the case not only in Ferguson, but in so many places around the country and the world. Peace is too often experienced by those for whom there is little or no justice or dignity as the maintaining of a status quo that leaves them powerless and marginalized, with little opportunity and little hope. In such circumstances, resorting to violence can seem like the only option left to get the world’s attention, to make their cries heard, even when that violence leads only to more violence and horror.
In the face of Ferguson’s tragedy, and so many tragedies around the world, stands the Christian (or at least the Episcopalian) with this question: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” How do we strive for justice with peace, for peace with justice? How do we respect the dignity of victimized communities, of police officers, of those on all sides of a conflict? How are we to be Christ in the midst of all this?
In a previous generation, both Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. faced precisely these sorts of questions. They were convinced that justice had to be pursued by peaceful means if any authentic justice, any lasting justice were to prevail. They were absolutely committed to the dignity of every person, even those who reviled them. It cost them each a great deal. It also won much for those on whose behalf they waged their peaceful battles.
We are living in a time when many of the lessons of our own civil rights movement seem to have been forgotten. The racism that so many (probably white) people had thought was dealt with has been asserting itself within our society with more and more confidence over the past decade. It has become clear that while the civil rights movement freed us from legal forms of discrimination, it did not root out prejudice from the human heart. And what gives this prejudice new confidence is an increasingly unjust economic system, in which the gap between those who have and those who do not grows ever wider. The anger and frustration that has burst forth in Ferguson is not to be found only there. It lies beneath the surface of much of our society, and animates our public life. Like the dry landscape of California and the West, it won’t take much to set this country on fire.
If we would like to avoid that fire (and I’m not sure that we can), we should learn the lesson of Ferguson well: that peace must embody justice for all, and it must respect the dignity of every human being. A peace which maintains the status quo is a peace which cannot last, because it is a peace that cannot confer universal dignity.
The 21st century needs a new Martin and a new Ghandi. It needs us to be Christ in the midst of the suffering of God’s people. Who, it turns out, are all people.