by Tiffany C. Chaney—

The peace of Christ be with you always.
And also with you.
Please share a sign of peace with those around you.

Typically this exchange of peace in Lutheran worship results in a time of sharing enthusiastic hugs and handshakes with neighbors in the sanctuary.

Once I was in a retreat setting where we seemed to share the peace disproportionally more than normal. We engaged in this practice, not just at the prescribed time, but many times during the gathering. I don’t shy away from meeting new people, and this wouldn’t normally be an issue for me. I am not typically opposed to smiles, handshakes and even mutually-agreed-upon hugs.

Now I was the only person of color in this group, which I have experienced frequently. But in this particular setting something was different. From the moment I walked in the door, I felt put on display. At times throughout the experience, I felt like a museum exhibit. At times, my personal space felt violated. Interwoven with the feelings I experienced were repeated calls to share the peace.

This experience caused me to think deeply about what it really means to “pass the peace.” Oftentimes when we share the peace during worship, we reach out only to those people closest to us or those with whom we are comfortable offering a friendly handshake or hug. But this practice in our liturgy calls for more. ELCA worship materials describe the sharing of peace in this way:

Sharing God’s peace is not simply offering a friendly hello to those sitting around you. Sharing God’s peace is not a time for catching up on news with your neighbor or for reminding someone about an upcoming meeting. Sharing God’s peace does not require each worshiper to offer a sign of God’s peace to every other worshiper present.

The “exchange of peace” (also commonly called “sharing the peace” or “passing the peace”) is an act of reconciliation that serves as a transition point between the Word and Meal portions of the liturgy. As stated in The Sunday Assembly:

The exchange of peace is a ministry, an announcement of grace we make to each other, a summary of the gift given to us in the liturgy of the Word. This ministry we do to each other is far greater than a sociable handshake or a ritual of friendship or a moment of informality. Because of the presence of Jesus Christ, we give to each other what we are saying: Christ’s own peace. Then, having been gathered by the Spirit around the Risen One present in the word, we turn to celebrate his meal (The Sunday Assembly: Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship Volume One, Augsburg Fortress).

This time in our liturgy is an opportunity. We exchange the peace, reaching out to one another and engaging in this act of reconciliation as we prepare to be guests at the table Jesus prepares for us. This serves as model for how we are called to live in our world today. I believe that if we as Christians are going to get to the place of true reconciliation, according to God’s standards, we need to be sure that the peace we share, the peace we offer others, isn’t just quiet. Peace and quiet are not the same thing. In a March 1956 sermon, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that peace is not merely the absence of tension, but also the presence of justice. King said a peace that is boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, issimply obnoxious. He wrote:

If peace means this, I don’t want peace: 1. If peace means accepting second class citizenship, I don’t want it. 2. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. 3. If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace. 4. If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

King also said that peace is “the presence of positive good.” This is the kind of peace Jesus stood for, lived out and called us to in our communities—a peace rooted in justice, goodwill, fellowship and a radical love for all.

Are you sharing the quiet?

So how does this relate to our liturgical practice of exchanging the peace? Well, when we share the peace with those around us, when we bid them the peace of Christ always, let’s consider: Are we passively reciting a line about peace? Or are we actively committing ourselves to be vessels through which Christ might bring about that peace? When we bid people the peace of Christ always, are we willing to be a voice in our church, community and world, speaking out about the broken and oppressive systems that may have robbed them of peace? Or are we complacently keeping our mouths shut?

I found myself pondering these questions when I was surrounded by simultaneous expressions of peace and feelings of tokenism. I wanted to ask these questions both for myself and for other people who may have felt similarly in spaces of worship, who (like me) welcome authentic peace, but are harmed by polite quiet. But I didn’t just want to ask these questions of other people. I also wanted to ask them of myself.

When you share the peace with a woman of color who may or may not be the only person of color present during the worship service, are you willing to share in the dismantling of the oppressions that keep women of color bound in the world and the church? When you share the peace, are you also willing to share your disagreement at your church’s call committee meeting with the person who refuses to interview a woman or a person of color? If not, are you really just sharing quiet?

When you share the peace with a young adult who slipped into the pews of your congregation and identifies as LGBTQ, are you willing to share in the dismantling of the oppressions that keep them bound in the world and the church? When you share the peace with someone who has asked to be referred to with the pronoun “they,” are you willing to honor their identity by addressing them as requested, and also help to correct others when they insist on using incorrect pronouns for the individual in their absence? If not, are you really just sharing quiet?

When you share the peace with a person living in poverty, are you willing to share in the dismantling of the oppressions that keep them bound in the world and the church? Are you willing to also stand alongside them at a Poor People’s Campaign rally, calling for better wages for their work, health insurance for their children and housing for them to live well? If you can’t get out and about, are you willing to ask your elected officials to make the needs of poor people a priority? If not, are you really just sharing quiet?

If we are not actively participating in bringing about restorative justice for those around us who are hurting and oppressed, is the peace we offer simply quiet— simply a polite intermission in our worship?

A sign of peace

When we extend our hands for a shake or our arms for a hug or bow or make another sign of peace, we look into the eyes of God’s beloved, our sibling in Christ. We have an opportunity to share a sign of peace that is not rooted in a polite quiet, but in a love for neighbors that is so strong it compels us to commit ourselves to seeking justice for them, even when it makes us uncomfortable, especially when it costs us something.

In that space wedged between Word and Meal, we share and receive peace. We are welcomed to the table of peace. We are sent out as the body of Christ to seek peace in the world. Our peace-seeking requires courage and boldness. We are called to stand in the gap for our neighbor and make amends where harm has been caused. In this way, we are called to share the love that God in Christ first shared with us. This is the fruit of our faith.

The peace of Christ be with you always.

The Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney serves as associate director for African Descent Ministries for the ELCA and as pastor developer of Gathered by Grace in Montgomery, Alabama. She also serves as System Director of Business Development for Baptist Health in Montgomery.

This article is from the July/August 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.

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