The stories of the first Easter ring true in a different way this year, don’t they? There was no sense of triumph. People were not full of joy and confidence. The powers that killed Jesus were still loose in the world. The disciples had experienced the complete disruption of life as they knew it. They were living through an ongoing disaster. So they huddled behind locked doors. Confined. Isolated. Coping. Surviving. They were afraid, and for good reason. Then Jesus appeared. “Peace be with you.” I imagine he stood there for a long time, holding the space, en-fleshing the words. Peace isn’t merely something Jesus says. It’s who he is.
Jesus stood there, bathing the disciples in calm, holding them with love stronger than their fear. Then he showed them his wounded hands and side. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that the grace of God isn’t “cheap,” meaning that this grace changes us, that it asks something of us. It strikes me that Christ’s peace is not cheap either. This is peace that has felt the agony of the nails and the spear. This is peace that knows the heartbreak of being abandoned, betrayed, and mocked. This is peace that has endured the terror of death by suffocation. Nothing in all creation—no fear in our own minds, no threat outside our locked doors—can overcome the peace that has persisted and survived through death, even death on a cross.
Walk with me for a moment, along the mile of riverfront between Lowry and Dowling Avenues in North Minneapolis. A busy shingle factory sprawls beneath the Lowry Bridge spewing asthma-causing air pollution far and wide. Heaps of scrap metal inhabit whole city blocks. Light industrial facilities loom in concrete block buildings with ominously blank facades. On a recent family outing, we managed to get ourselves trapped in this wasteland tucked between the river and the interstate. Where the sidewalk faded out, we had a choice between traveling on the street or wading through thick, sharp crabgrass. It was clear that people are using this area like an unofficial urban campground, sleeping in the vehicles that line the street. One camper sat next to his rig in a lawn chair, keeping watching over a noisy generator. Garbage is everywhere—weird garbage. As we stood in a sprawling gravel lot strewn with shards of broken glass behind a grassy hill, I could easily imagine the dangers to body and soul that lurk here. Indeed, we soon found a makeshift shrine to someone who had died, leaning against the chain-link fence.
This year, we observe the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. To me, this milestone doesn’t feel celebratory. It feels somber, even chilling. Over these fifty years, we have lost half the bumblebee population and one-quarter of all songbirds. A half-century of careless farming and lakeshore development has sentenced to death almost all of the lakes in southern and central Minnesota. And of course, during these decades carbon emissions have continued to rise exponentially. Now we sit on the brink of global catastrophe.
Environmental racism is personal for me. Our rambles around the neighborhood show me, intimately, and persistently, that our collective failure to stop climate change is entangled with our collective failure to end white supremacy. This week, Minneapolis city council member Jeremiah Ellison penned an editorial for The New York Times. Ellison wrote: “Milwaukee, Chicago and New Orleans have all seen black people absorbing the full force of the outbreak. This virus is poised to rip through every black neighborhood in America.”
Ellison describes the long fight to shut down Northern Metals in North Minneapolis.
The courts seemed determined to give the company a soft landing. It had been given years to shut down, but when the deadline came, the company asked for an extension and kept operating. . . . Finally, on Sept. 23, 2019, more than 30 months after it had first been caught [lying about its emissions], Northern Metals was sent packing. . . . Northern Metals paid nearly $3 million in fines to the state, but just a fraction of that went to the people most harmed. Given their lifelong health issues, it was pennies when fortunes are owed. We’re now learning that underlying conditions like asthma can be a death sentence for people of any age if they come down with Covid-19.
Just as Earth day has not yet saved the earth the civil rights movement has not yet healed the harm of racism. Only reparations will do the job. And, as Ellison puts it,
In modern American politics, the concept of reparations is still more fantasy than viable policy option. Now, this pandemic is bringing forward the full horror of our inability to reckon with America’s history of racial terror. For many black people experiencing the disproportionate impact of this crisis, any solution will come too late; the consequences of our inaction are too final.
The earth is Christ’s crucified body. We live amid the wounds and the traumas. We live with the fears and the sadness. We live not knowing when this disaster will end. And we can live with hope. Because the earth also bears Christ’s peace in her body. The budding trees—peace. The wildflowers’ bright faces—peace. The graceful bones of river bluffs that remain despite the terrible scars on the surface—peace. The swift, strong river running through the valley—peace. The camper in the lawn chair petting his dog—peace. Children laughing in the sunshine—peace. Words of love for a friend, scribbled on a 2-by-4 memorial—peace.
“Peace be with you. As our Mother/Father God has sent me, so I send you.” When fear steals our breath, Jesus is our peace. When dangers beat on locked doors, Jesus is our peace. When the inequities this world fill us with outrage and despair, Jesus is our peace. His breath gives us life. His heart beats with ours. The peace of Christ is no cheap peace. With this peace in us, paralysis is not an option. This peace sends us, breathes us to be healers in a wounded world.
At our weekly gathering of ISAIAH faith leaders, Pastor Jan Wiersma said this:
The journey outward into public action is only effective when it is fed by the journey inward, to God, to our best and truest selves, to the place where Spirit teaches without textbooks and nurtures in silence. Today, we are given permission to be more than voices crying in a wilderness of fear. We are invited to be what we preach. . . . Abandon the asking of unanswerable questions about the future and take comfort that there is meaning in this moment. Give up blaming those responsible for injustice; bend your own life along the arc that tends toward justice. Cease beating on the walls of the halls of power and enter through the door; take your place. Power is your birthright, too. Let go of your fear of dying and rest in the love that held you before your birth and will carry you when life is done. Stop saying prayers, and become a prayer.
Peace be with you. Amen.