It’s happened hundreds of times. When the presider said the words, “The peace of Christ be with you,” we all responded, “And also with you,” and then we stood up to pass the peace to one another. “Peace be with you.” “And with you.” Over and over, grasping each other’s hands, giving one another a hug, gently smiling, reaching out. It happens this way every week on Wednesday evenings in my seminary chapel.
But this week, just an hour earlier, our buildings and the entire campus surrounding us had been on lock-down. Our doors had been shut and secured. Office lights had been turned off. Some were crammed together in a basement study room; others were crouched behind metal file cabinets. Those of us in the chapel closed our doors and continued to prepare for worship, unsure if anyone but ourselves would be able to come. I removed myself from the musicians practicing so that I could listen for the sound of approaching gunshots.
I’d received the email as the worship group rehearsed – there were reports of a shooter; everyone on campus should shelter in place. It was an hour before we were given the all clear, though we were told that one building remained under lock-down. At the time we began our worship service, we didn’t yet know that the whole situation had been prompted by a hoax report. So when helicopters continued to circle as we sang our opening song, and when sirens blared by as we said the Prayers of the People, I felt a prolonged sense of anxiety.
Then, near the beginning of the Communion liturgy, after the confession and pardon, we engaged in that ancient ritual of passing the peace. In that moment, it felt like a subversive act, a site of resistance to the atmosphere of violence we all breath. “Peace be with you,” said with both concern and sincerity. “And also with you,” spoken as we met each other eyes and touched each other’s hands.
Earlier, in her sermon on John 12:20-26, Dr. Nancy Bedford had exhorted us to look for Jesus in resistance to the “worldly” ways of empire and to follow in Jesus’ paradoxical and life-giving way. And even earlier in the day, thousands of teenagers had peacefully left their classrooms and demanded gun law reform, even in the midst of adults’ reprimands. Peace is not easy.
The Christian call to practice peace in the midst of what Jesus calls “the world” – the network of power centers that rule through military and economic might – is not new. The American worship of war and weapons is not the first imperial force Christians have had to contend with. When Jesus said the words “Peace be with you” in his resurrection appearances, he was offering a peace that flew in the face of Rome’s militarized “Pax Romana,” which ruled through subjugation and false security. Christ invites us into his radical peace, and it is not peace of passivity or of resignation. It is an active peace that reaches out in the midst of fear and violence and says, “I see Christ’s presence in you. I extend Jesus to you. I have chosen to give my life for your well-being.”
The later news that the report of an active shooter had been hoax does not change the poignancy of our passing the peace nor the world’s need for our witness. We still live in a profoundly broken world. We live in a world where, as my colleague Alexa points out, it was reasonable and likely for us to believe that someone had obtained a gun, shot their girlfriend, and intended to do further harm with it. We live in a world where others have had to go through a similar experience, whether hiding in their schools from a gun or in their neighborhoods from a bomb. We live in a world where violence is a punchline.
For all these reasons and more, Christ continues to call us to give our lives for the cause of peace that passes all understanding. Perhaps that is why we pass the peace every Sunday – to turn this ancient liturgy into muscle memory, so that our practice of peace will always be stronger than the world’s way of violence.