I have been trying to practice the recommendation from Paul in the Bible, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” a verse from Romans 12:18. I have been trying to practice this verse for as long as I can remember now, maybe back as far as 2007, when I began to encounter people less like me than I had previously, people who believed differently, worshipped differently, understood life differently. Before that, I had been patient with other people but also kind of certain it was my job to convert them to my way of thinking; through argument and reason, I’d show them the way.
As far as it depends on you, live at peace. I aspire to be a person of peace. In moments of crisis I want to be a calming force, a presence that soothes rather than stirs the embers. I want to, as far as it depends on me, live at peace.
But several weeks ago, a family member became enraged at a Facebook post I shared about flags and patriotism and empathy and race. The rage bubbled out and spewed forth and then foamed over into the next day, in the form of text message threats. I locked my doors. I blocked his Facebook account. I changed my privacy settings. I spent the night at my in-laws, all the while wondering whether I was overreacting. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought as I packed up my slightly panicked and bewildered children. Better to be safe – I thought as my head jerked toward our front window at every passing car, aware of his access to guns, aware of his uncontained rage, aware of his inability to hear my pleas – but we’re family, how can you say such things? Where is this hate coming from? – better to be safe than sorry.
Now it is weeks later and I have been unable to write anything besides these Bible devotionals about Elijah on the mountain, wailing to God his fear and anxiety and being answered by the still small voice, questioning him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I have been unable to write anything besides these Bible devotionals about Jesus healing blind men on the Sabbath and the Pharisees, angry and planning Jesus’ arrest for violating their rules about work on a Saturday. I have been unable to write anything besides these Bible devotionals about Jonah and Nineveh, Jonah fuming and wishing for his death because God was so generous and merciful, so graceful and benevolent, and he just knew it, he just knew God was going to forgive the Ninevites.
I have been unable to write anything else, because all I have wanted to write about was my fear and my anxiety that this family member might in his anger and uncontrolled rage do something, something he would regret, something we would regret, and I, in my fear and anxiety, could do nothing, can do nothing, because of my fear and anxiety.
But it was just a Facebook post, the rationalizing side of me says.
Until it is not just a Facebook post, the creased forehead side of me says.
Weeks removed from this Facebook exchange, I feel more settled and distant from that anxiety, less afraid. I feel more clear headed to ask the question, what does it mean from this seat to, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone?” Is it possible to live at peace with a person that makes you feel unsafe?
I keep returning to the words of Desmond Tutu in The Book of Forgiving and his fourfold path to healing: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. My family member sprayed over 100 hateful, angry comments on my Facebook thread, from “f*** every single one of you I hope you burn in hell” to “But go ahead keep poking the bear because that’s how you get shot.” He reached out directly to my mother-in-law threatening to “kick our asses” if we didn’t “straighten up.”
My family member’s words made me feel physically threatened and afraid for myself and my family. His actions made me nervous about speaking my mind and sharing my thoughts, even when those thoughts have been checked and measured against the love of Christ.
This is the short story, this the named hurt. So what of granting forgiveness?
Weeks before our last exchange, my family member asked me on Facebook, what is grace? And in that moment my heart cracked open for this aggressive, sarcastic, argumentative Facebook friend. What I want most for him is to feel that grace, to be able to live in that grace, to direct his life and his steps by that grace. I want him to be freed from the hatred and rage that prompted the volley of comments.
But since that exchange a month ago I’ve been silent and afraid.
Until now, when another angry young man has gunned down a church of people gathering together, committed to living a life of peace, as far as it depended on them. Who could have spoken up then? What more could be done on behalf of that angry young man to prevent that rage from spilling over? How might we strive to live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on us – and to keep from isolating ourselves from those who think differently than we do?
I don’t know where the rage comes from. My guess is that it’s a place of fear. I don’t want to operate out of my own fear. I want to operate in the freedom of Christ. I want to forgive. I want myself and my family and my extended family and him to live at peace.
As far as it depends on me.