Perhaps the best we can hope for is a kind of “inner peace” that begins and ends with us as individuals, and which helps us cope with the chaos around us. If a broader transformation of society lies outside of the realm of our effort, then at least we can work for an interior one that brings enough personal happiness to help us feel that life is worth living for us and those close to us.
But this is not the peace of Jesus. Shalom, the biblical word for peace, means much more than an absence of conflict or an inner equilibrium. For Jesus (in continuity with the entire Jewish tradition), shalom consists of a right relationship with all things. This peace begins with God but is inseparable from a peace with neighbor and the whole creation. Certainly we can always strive for a peace with one’s truest and most intimate self. Yet the goal of God’s shalom does not end with our inner lives, but the reconciliation of all things in Christ.
This is God’s kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus and given as a mission to the church to enact through the power of the Holy Spirit. Not content to simply zap all things into a spiritual and heavenly reality, God chooses to embody his kingdom, giving it flesh and bone in a people. It is these people, broken and blessed, vulnerable and divinized, who will be not the answer to the question of peace on earth, but the saving community which makes a space for the Trinity to do their redemptive work in the world.
This certainly was Jean Vanier’s vision when he began the L’Arche communities. Vanier began L’Arche as a way of liberating people from the horrors of institutional life. Yet gradually he discovered that God had plans for this adventure in faith that extended far beyond the confines of the homes where people with and without disabilities shared life. L’Arche was to be a “sign” for the world that through the help of the Holy Spirit humanity could ultimately choose life over death. “L’Arche is not a solution to a social problem, but a sign that love is possible, and that we are not condemned to live in a state of war and conflict where the strong crush the weak.”
My own time in L’Arche helped me see how this shalom is truly possible here and now. And it was those persons with developmental disabilities, “core members” as they are called in L’Arche, who led me to see how this peace can be embodied in our world. One of those people is May, someone who I used to live with in L’Arche Daybreak.
Now, if you would have told me twelve years ago that May was eventually going to be my teacher in manifesting God’s shalom, I would have laughed in shock at you. For May was someone very hard for me to live with, primarily because her personality was so different than mine. I could (and too often would) get highly annoyed by practically everything that she reveled in. And she knew it too! I could not help but believe that she drew much delight in recognizing when her behavior would drive me crazy.
Yet May was also capable of kindness and compassion toward others. And it was at those moments that I could see a possibility for communion with the “other” more powerful than the conflicts which so often marked our lives together.
Let me tell you about one day at the supper table. It was Lent, and as a spiritual discipline all the L’Arche Daybreak houses were asked to spend some time each day that year praying and reflecting on the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. After reading part of a story on violence in Palestine, I could see in May’s face the pained expression she reveals when she hears about situations of suffering.
She then asked me a question: “Why do people in the Middle East fight so much?” Perhaps naively taking a stab at an answer I replied, “Maybe because they are so different, May. They cannot recognize the other person as a member of their group, so they perceive them as a threat which they need to get rid of in order to feel secure.”
From this (all too) simple answer I then realized that this same threat from the “different one” so often marked the conflict between myself and May. Yet we could still sit down at the table together (with others very different from us) and share a meal together. Every time that we ate with one another we committed ourselves to building and fostering God’s shalom, reconciling with those who live across the “dividing wall.” In this way, L’Arche embodies in a very real way through its “culture” how enemies become friends and strangers neighbors.
So then maybe peace is truly possible after all. If May and i, so utterly different and strange to each other, can sit down at the banquet table, perhaps Jews and Muslims (and everyone else radically different from us) can too. Can we open our hearts and lives to let the Mays of our communities in so that they can transform our vision about what it means to be a Christian or a citizen or a human? As a church, may we let God make us to be a “sign” for the world that love truly is possible, and that without honoring the lives of the most vulnerable among us we ultimately betray our own humanity.
Jason Greig was a Student Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network when he wrote this article in 2012.