As a historic peace church, how do we understand the meaning of “true” peace? As we reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we can see how our understanding of peace amidst race relations has changed over the years.
If we look back to the time of slavery, we can see that Brethren were ahead of their time. Before the civil war, Brethren had already decided that slavery was against their beliefs and went counter to Scripture. Even in the 1700s, Brethren were holding yearly meetings, now known as Annual Conference. Statements against slavery can be found in minutes from these yearly meetings as early as 1782 when the Brethren unanimously decided that members of the denomination could not purchase or keep slaves. As a denomination, the Brethren “outlawed” slavery 80 years before the end of the Civil War, well before the Civil War was even a thought. As the years progressed, they also decided that those joining the denomination had to release their slaves, and members of the denomination could not accept labor from other people’s slaves. The statements were expanded on and reaffirmed throughout the 1800s.
There is no true peace without justice.
However, were the Brethren advocating for justice? Were the Brethren abolitionists advocating for the end of all slavery? In short, the answer is no. While the Brethren were against having slaves of their own or using slave labor, very few Brethren participated in actions to free others’ slaves. They did not pursue the freedom of all slaves. They simply restricted their own use of slaves, seeing slavery as sinful, which was still revolutionary in their time. But should they have done more? Should the Brethren have participated in anti-slavery efforts for the whole country, in addition to their own personal choice of not holding slaves? The Brethren’s stance worked toward the absence of tension between the Brethren and people of color, but was it true peace if it wasn’t advocating for justice of all?
As we move forward in history to the Civil Rights Movement, the Brethren’s story shifts. Many Brethren participated in various anti-racist efforts, working toward justice for all Black Americans, including 200 Brethren who participated in the March on Washington. Below are several stories of Brethren during the Civil Rights Movement:
Lunch Counter Sit-ins
While a student at Fisk University, Paul Laprad participated in nonviolent, peaceful sit-ins at the lunch counter. However, those sit-ins were often marred by violence and beatings in response to their protests. As a young white man, Paul received some of the most severe beatings because he was standing—well sitting—in solidarity with his fellow Black Americans.
MLK in Chicago
Tom Wilson was a pastor in Chicago, Illinois. During his pastorate, he worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for two years. Jim Poling, the assistant pastor of First Church in Chicago gives the account of walking into the church, and there was Martin Luther King Jr. standing in the office at his desk. Tom Wilson and Dr. King worked toward open housing and eliminating the slums of Chicago.
A group of Brethren including Ralph Smetzler and Juniata College faculty and students went down to Selma, Alabama following Bloody Sunday, a march where civil rights activists were attacked during a march. The Brethren went to Selma trying to promote peace between the white and black communities. During one of the following marches, there was so much violence in a counter protest that two of the faculty from Juniata were injured.
Each of these stories is about peaceful action promoting justice for Black Americans. Instead of simply trying to work toward an absence of tension between Brethren and Black Americans, many Brethren worked alongside Black Americans and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for equality —for justice.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
The irony is that justice is found through the tension. If we only seek the absence of tension as peace, we avoid tension and see the lack of tension in our own lives as peace. True peace is not the absence of tension. True peace is found working through the tension as we advocate for justice.
So as we reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a few questions to ponder in our current day and work toward anti-racism:
(1) Which efforts from the Brethren were more in line with seeking true peace for Black Americans?
(2) Which efforts align more with how we are currently seeking peace as individuals and as a denomination?
(3) And regardless of our answer above, is there more we could do?
This post was written by Alexandra Toms