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Heart Beating for Peace

By Rev. Brian A. Tillman

How can I advocate for reconciliation and peace?

When there is justice, there will be peace. Identifying ways of bringing justice to the oppressed restores us into right relationship and delivers peace.

As a middle school student at a school where almost all of the black kids in my grade could sit at one lunch table, I read a short story by Edgar Allen Poe titled, The Tell-Tale Heart. In it, a man agonizes while the police are in his home. He has killed an older man who lived in the same boarding house because the older man had features he despised. He planned carefully how he would kill the older man, and executed his plan perfectly. He dismembered the body and hid the pieces beneath the planks of the floor. He is so confident in the perfection of his crime that he encourages the officers to stay longer and brings in chairs for them to sit down in the very room where he killed the old man. While the officers are talking, the killer begins to hear the beating of the heart of the dead man. He hears it loudly and distinctly. He tries to ignore it, but it won't stop beating. He thinks the officers can hear it too. They can't hear it, but he thinks they must be deaf because the loudness of the beating heart is excruciating. The agony goes on and on until he can no longer take it. He declares:

"But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

I'm not an advocate of violence. I'm a student of the Civil Rights Movement and the tactics of Mohandas Gandhi. There are some other things I'd toss in the "not an advocate box". Silence and inaction in the face of injustice and oppression would get tossed in the box right after violence.

I am an advocate of racial reconciliation, as written about previously. I am also an advocate of peace. I'm concerned, however, that peace is grossly miss-defined and inappropriately aimed. Most often when I hear people use the word peace, it sounds as if the true aim is towards the silence of the oppressed. "If you would just be quiet about your experience and the systems working against you, then the rest of us can have peace." I have no interest in deceitful peace.

In the book of Jeremiah, God is angry because the people and even the priests and prophets have "dressed the wound of God's people as if it were not serious. 'Peace, peace' they say, when there is no peace."[1] The anger of the Lord was elevated because of the dismissal of oppression and the lack of movement towards justice for the oppressed. This is exactly what I see in the United States right now.

We hear people, pastors, and even bishops declaring peace, but doing so without declaring justice. They fail to recognize that any path to peace must include justice. Anything short of the pursuit of justice is simply dressing oppression as if it were as small and insignificant as a papercut. Racism is no papercut. Sexism is no papercut. Oppression of people because of who and how they love is no papercut. Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexual assault are no papercuts. Yet, we keep seeing those unaffected by the injustice talking to the oppressed about peace as if we are in control of our own injustice. Why is that? If peace is what is desired, the oppressed are the wrong audience. Perhaps these peacemaking efforts should be directed towards those in power. They are the ones who hold the reigns of oppression.

If peace is the goal, it cannot mean silence or inaction from those who endure the injustice. It cannot mean allowing the absence of tension or continuation of injustice. That's not peacemaking. That's not even peacekeeping. You can only "keep" the peace once peace is already delivered. People of color, as a larger group, have been sitting at the table of peacemaking. We have not sat down to negotiate small insignificant progress. We have not sat down as inferiors, but as equals. We've been waiting for our white Christian brothers and sisters to join us at that table of equality.

Those who perpetuate injustice can have peace when they stop the injustice. It's in their own control. What they often ask of us is to grant them absolution because their own hearts are at war with what they've done or benefit from unjustly. Their internal war is not with the oppressed, however. It's with God.

Like the character in Poe's short story, the beating of the hearts of those who endure injustice are getting louder and louder. They do not diminish for deceitful cries for peace. The only remedy is justice. When there is justice, there will be peace. If you want peace, work towards justice and racial reconciliation. Until then, I pray that you never stop hearing the beating hearts of those who reside beneath the planks. They beat for peace. They beat for justice.

What white people can do to become peacemakers:

  • Dip yourself in chocolate or caramel. Intentionally place yourself in a place where you are the racial minority. You will find that there are many places for you to go. I'd start in the black church. Sit down and listen to the beating hearts. Ask yourself, why have I never been here before? Why are all of these people here instead of some place else? Are there systems at play that keeps these people where they are and how do I benefit from that?
  • Find a black service organization, join it, financially support it, and go to meetings to listen to the beating hearts.
  • After listening at these two places, look for someone willing to spend more time talking to you. Find others as well. Listen to their beating hearts. You must not assume that we all think the same.
  • Start talking to the people closest to you and share what you've learned in your experiences in these places. Then, take them with you. Ask them to listen.
  • Don't be an ally. Be a co-conspirator. This is a time where collusion would be a good thing. Start to attack systems of injustice in our society.

If you do these things, you will be on the path to making peace.

"Therefore, let us pray that those who work for peace in our world may cry out first for justice."[2]

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God."[3]

The Rev. Brian A. Tillman serves as the chair of the Commission on Religion and Race in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC and also serves as the executive pastor at Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta. He often hashtags to: #ResistToReconcile

[1] Jeremiah 6:14

[2] Book of Worship 435 (Quotations from Letter from the Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.)

[3] Mathew 5:9

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