In 2003, when my grandpa died, I found myself overwhelmed by just how much I was going to miss him being in the world. My grandpa and grandma, as many of you have heard for the hundredth time, packed a small trailer and moved to Mexico in 1964 to raise abandoned children.
I spent a lot of my life around my grandpa, and he had a huge impact on how I think about the kind of sacrifice people who follow Jesus should always be prepared to make. When I travelled with him, from the time I was seven years-old until he died, I always felt like there was no situation he couldn’t handle—car breakdown, a flap with customs and immigration, unforeseen illnesses … it always felt like if Grandpa were there, nothing could get too hopelessly out of hand.
So, when he died, a very real anchor in the universe for me came loose. I considered him a heroic figure.
But that opinion wasn’t universally shared. As a young man, raised among 10 brothers, a marine fresh from his experiences in World War II, my grandfather proved to be a sometimes hard father. My uncle, my mom’s brother, as the only boy, took the brunt of the punishment his father meted out. My mom also had her share of trauma from her childhood.
Toward the end of his life, my grandpa expressed his regret to me about the severity of his parenting philosophy, and told me that if he could go back and do it again, he would have been a different kind of father.
Unfortunately, he never told his own kids any of that before he died. So, when it came time for me to do the eulogy at my grandpa’s funeral, it was made known to me that some of his children were anxious about the fact that I might somehow whitewash my grandfather’s legacy—that I would paint him only as a hero, neglecting to be honest about the fact that he had a darker side that most people who revered him knew nothing about.
What was I supposed to do?
I wanted to be honest in talking about my grandpa’s life, but I also know that a eulogy isn’t the time to trot out evidence for the prosecution. Moreover, there actually was a great deal of good that he’d done in the world—good that I thought—and still think—is worth emulating.
But the whole experience highlighted for me the complexity of stories and how they get told.
Even if everyone agrees on all the facts, it still matters who tells the story. Indeed, it matters which story gets told, doesn’t it? Because if you only tell the approved version, not only will a less than accurate picture emerge—but the approved history can fly in the face of what actually happened.
Think about the aftermath of the Civil War and the differences between the North and South over how the story of that devastating war was fought gets told.
Historians, after looking through the sources at the time, share a consensus view about the fact that the Civil War was prompted by violent disagreements over the rights of landowners in the South to own slaves. There were other contributing factors to the tensions that developed, but historians agree that without slavery, there would have been no Civil War.
But that wasn’t the story that got told in the former Confederacy until more than 100 years later. Immediately following the war, the South promoted a version of the story of the war that has come to be known as the myth of “The Lost Cause.” This version of the story, promoted by “white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and social uncertainty, created and romanticized the ‘Old South’ and the Confederate war effort, often distorting history in the process.”
According to Carolyn Janney:
>Lost Cause proponents have stressed the primacy of states' rights and the constitutionality of secession, and have cited the secession crisis—along with political squabbles such as tariff disputes and broad claims about the evolution of different societies in the North and South—as the cause of the war—instead of slavery. At the same time, Northern abolitionists have been portrayed as provocateurs and slavery as justified in part as an institution that eventually would have died of its own accord. The historian Alan T. Nolan has called this reading of history "outrageous and disingenuous," suggesting that it was the dispute over slavery that actually caused the secession crisis. Nolan and other historians have further noted that many Southern politicians viewed slavery to be, in the words of Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, the "foundation" and "cornerstone" of the Confederacy.
>Slavery, meanwhile, is sentimentalized in the context of the Lost Cause. Following the war, white Southerners told stories of the happy slave … who appeared as part of the family. "Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition," according to the 1908 edition of the textbook History of Virginia by Mary Tucker Magill. The 1964 edition of Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis Butler Simkins, Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones, and Sidman P. Poole was not much different. "A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes," the authors wrote. Such statements are not supported by modern scholarship, which suggests that many slaves were desperate to escape their often harsh conditions both before and during the war, when they became refugees. In fact, escaped slaves helped to precipitate national political crises such as the one surrounding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The recent fight over the removal of Civil War statues in the South is a vestigial product of the myth of The Lost Cause, over the claim that confederate soldiers are an important part of our history—which, I suppose they are, but not because the things they fought for deserve to be cast in bronze, and displayed prominently in public places—a constant reminder to people of color that a significant portion of the population of the United States at one time felt like it was better to kill and die to retain the right to own other human beings than to let those human beings live free.
It matters who tells the story and which story gets told, doesn’t it?
Jim Crow wouldn’t have been possible, but for the myth of The Lost Cause.
The one who gets to name things, who gets to give the “authorized” version of events is the one who holds power … a dynamic with which Jesus as a Galilean in Roman occupied Palestine would have known all too well.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus is still in the middle of giving his farewell speech to the disciples. They’ve just celebrated the passover feast, which will be Jesus’ last supper with his friends before his date with the Roman executioner.
He tells the disciples that he’s going away, but that they shouldn’t be afraid, because God will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will abide among them, and who will teach them everything, reminding them of all that Jesus has said—which is no small thing—since to this point the disciples have understood very little of what Jesus has said, what kind of ministry he’s been engaged in, what is the nature of the kingdom Jesus has been announcing. So, having the Holy Spirit come along behind and help the disciples finally see what Jesus has been driving at all along … that will prove to be very good news indeed.
But what is the message Jesus has been telling them that the Holy Spirit will come along and clarify?
The very next thing out of Jesus’ mouth after announcing the advent of the Holy Spirit in our text this morning is a hint about what he’s been saying all along, but about which the disciples have remained largely clueless. He says:
>“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Jesus, as we’ve noted before offers up peace to his disciples. This peace is the shalom of the Hebrew Scriptures, which wasn’t merely some sort of internal serenity in the face of anxiety or the absence of hostilities. Shalom always assumed that peace is only possible when justice prevails. If people don’t have enough to eat, if the vulnerable are being taken advantage of, if the rich and powerful game the system so that they benefit at everyone else’s expense—even if there is no violence—it’s not the kind of shalom Jesus is speaking of.
How do I know that?
Because Jesus contrasts shalom with another kind of peace. He says: “I do not give you [peace] as the world gives.”
So when Jesus sets up this contrast between the shalom of the new kingdom with the “peace” that “the world gives,” the disciples knew automatically what kind of “peace” Jesus was talking about.
Rome had its own brand of “peace.” As the first century unfolded, when Jesus was still a little boy, Caesar Augustus declared his reign to be a season of peace throughout the Roman Empire.
Do you remember this peace?
It was called the “Pax romana”—the Roman peace.
The Pax Romana has been touted in Western Civ. courses since time immemorial as one of the great gifts the Roman Empire offered to the world. Roman peace, as this telling of the history goes, brought stability to an unstable world. It was a time when, according to historians, “Rome's citizens were relatively secure, and the government generally maintained law, order, and stability.”
That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Law and order, stability. What’s not to like about the way the story of the Roman Empire gets told?
This story of a total peace that achieved security is the one most of us have learned as the story of the Pax Romana.
Well, it turns out, this Roman peace did produce great benefits … which went almost exclusively to the wealthy and powerful. All that lovely law and order, all that enviable stability? It came through horrific political repression for the purpose of ensuring the kind of security necessary for the folks in power to retain power.
But, as Klaus Wengst has pointed out, the irony of the Roman claim of a Pax romana is that it “produced terror and uncertainty, and then offered itself as the guardian of peace.” Augustus was said to have kept 100,000 legionnaires battle-ready at all times.
Do you want to know how the Pax Romana felt like to the bottom 99% in Rome? The Roman historian, Tacitus, tells a different story from the one we’ve been assured is history:
>[We] have sought in vain to escape [the Romans’] oppression by obedience and submissiveness. [They are] the plunderers of the world … If the enemy is rich, they are rapacious, if poor, they lust for dominion. Not East, not West has satisfied their hunger … They rob, butcher, plunder, and call it “empire”; and where they make a desolation, they call it “peace.”
To anybody living in first century Palestine, the Pax romana is “peace as the world gives” peace—a peace that makes a desolation of the land, that fills the coffers of the wealthy, and puts a boot on the neck of the poor and the vulnerable.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus wants to draw a contrast with the narratives the world tells—one in which the powerful use words like “law and order” and “stability” as a cover for their rapacious appetites.
So, when Jesus offers a different kind of “peace,” a shalom that is unlike the kind of peace the world gives, he’s telling the story of peace in a way completely alien to the story of peace that Rome told about itself. Jesus wants to tell the story of a new reign of peace that doesn’t rest until justice is available to everyone.
Roman peace rigs the system to benefit only the folks who were already born on third base. But the shalom Jesus gives is a different kind of peace; it draws the defenseless to his breast and extends a healing hand to the despised.
Roman peace views anyone who’s at all different as a potential threat, an incipient enemy of the kingdom. But the shalom Jesus offers sees those the world has called “other” and places them at the center of the life of a new kingdom that embraces the vulnerable and the stranger.
Roman peace ensures the wealth and security of the “one percent.” But the shalom on the lips of Jesus secures justice for those who’ve lived their whole lives without being able to take justice for granted.
The story that we have to tell about the reign of God Jesus announces is a story that conflicts with the story of empire that’s been common to almost every land throughout history—a story of peace dipped to its elbows in the blood of the innocent and the oppressed.
Because the peace that Jesus offers, the shalom of God, accounts first for the people who’ve lived so long on the underside, out of sight, silenced by threats and violence.
It’s a story about peace, not as the world gives peace, but a different kind of peace: the peace that God envisioned when creating the world.
It’s the story of peace that—though it rarely gets told sufficiently—would, I suspect, satisfy both my uncle and my grandfather.