The following is the text of my speech from the annual C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest at Bluffton University. The contest took place on March 28th, and my speech earned first place.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...[God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor...to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4.18-19 NRSV). Luke 4 depicts the inauguration of Christ’s ministry; Jesus boldly unrolls the Isaiah scroll and at once proclaims the gospel, exposes the bankrupt system of the world, and liberates all people. In this text and throughout Scripture, word is inseparable from action. The Word has become flesh, and the words proclaimed by this embodied Word do the concrete work of unbinding captives, restoring sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4.18). At the center of the Christian faith stands this claim, that the proclamation of a true word is a catalyst for the concrete transformation of the world— thus, proclamation is an act of peacebuilding. And this task of proclaiming peace has been entrusted to you and me, who have been commanded by Christ to "go into all the world and proclaim the good news" (Mark 16.15). As a biblical studies major and peace and conflict studies minor, my academic interests and my call as a Christian peacebuilder stand at this intersection between Scripture and shalom, proclamation and peacebuilding. Tonight I would like to invite you to consider with me this radical claim that the act of proclaiming peace is truly a locus of peacebuilding.
First, I will establish the connection between word and action, proclamation and peacebuilding. Second, I will expose the contrasting proclamations of the world and the gospel, which constantly compete for our allegiance. And third, I hope you will join me in celebrating places in our global community where words of peace truly have created a world of peace. For as we proclaim the gospel of Christ, our true words make manifest the true world of God's peaceable kingdom.
First, let us examine the relationship between word and action, recognizing that to speak peace is to build peace. According to Paulo Freire, a word is the interplay between "reflection and action," and these two elements must be held in tension. He argues that "to speak a true word is to transform the world.” Thus, for Freire, proclamation presupposes praxis; to proclaim peace is to practice peace and vice versa.
Walter Brueggemann also addresses the intimate connection between word and action, emphasizing the relationship in Scripture between the spoken word and the created world. In his book The Prophetic Imagination, he argues that "all social reality...spring[s] fresh from the word.” For this reason, the content of our proclamation becomes the context in which we live. And according to Brueggemann, it is the prophetic peacebuilder’s responsibility to legitimate a radical alternative to the proclamation of the empire, in turn bringing forth a new world.
Peacebuilding scholar Lisa Schirch asserts that transforming worldviews is the key to changing the world for peace, since the way we understand the world directly impacts the way we act and react in situations of conflict. Therefore, this task of proclaiming Christ’s gospel of peace as a legitimate and radical alternative is essential; for if we are to transform conflict, we first must transform minds for peace.
We see this intimate connection between word and action, proclamation and peacebuilding, in Christ's own words in Luke 4. Jesus proclaims release to the captives (Luke 4.18) and speaks healing, just as God created the universe by the nonviolent power of the word. As Christian peacebuilders, we are commanded to do the same-- to go into the world and proclaim the gospel, at once transforming the world for peace.
Next, if we are serious about speaking words of peace, we must understand the contrasting proclamations of the world and the gospel. For many of us, the proclamation of the world invades our mind before our feet hit the floor each morning. Our alarms go off, we grab our smart phones, and with one touch the headlines echo in our ears. Death and destruction, violence and fear, power and politics. We call this proclamation news, but do we call it gospel? As I wrestled with this question, I created a Wordle, or a visual representation, of five of last week's top news stories on CNN. Word size is determined by frequency, so this literally paints a picture of the world's proclamation.
What does this tell us about the world in which we live? Let's examine the largest words, the words that appeared most frequently in last week's headlines: “Zimmerman, House & Senate, shooting, police, PTSD, [and] soldiers.” Here we have the name of a man who killed an unarmed African-American teenager, surrounded by a cloud of power, fear, and violence. This is the proclamation of the world, a hegemonic rhetoric of death and power, filled with facts but void of truth.
In contrast, this is a Wordle of Isaiah 61.1-3 and Luke 4.16-19 (TNIV), two texts that are central to the prophetic call to proclamation. This image represents the radical alternative of a truly biblical worldview. Here we see the words "proclaim, LORD, Spirit, instead, good news, annointed, freedom, [and] favor." Friends, this is a radical subversion of the world’s rhetoric of death. At the center of this proclamation stands the name of the Creator and the invitation to proclaim the gospel as the "instead"—the alternative— to oppression, death, and violence. As Christian peacebuilders, we might be surrounded by the empire’s rhetoric of death, but we are nourished by and called to proclaim this life-giving rhetoric called gospel. Tonight, we are faced with this challenge: which word will we proclaim? Which world will we create?
With this in mind, I would like to turn now to one example in our global community where words of peace truly have built a world of peace. In the midst of the rhetoric of violence and nationalism surrounding the U.S. war in Iraq, just this month here at Bluffton the proclamation of our Iraqi international students truly did build a new world of peace; as they vulnerably and courageously shared their experiences of the war on a student panel, the power of their words broke down barriers and built the understanding necessary to pursue the common goal of shalom. Let me be clear that as a citizen of the United States, their stories were not easy to hear, and I left with a new sense of responsibility for the ways in which my nation's actions have devastated the lives of my friends at Bluffton and around the world.
But despair did not have the last word that evening. At one particularly powerful moment, a student from the United States asked the panel what their dreams were for the future of Iraq. In unison, the Iraqi students replied, "Peace." A bold word of hope confronting the seemingly hopeless world of violence. In that moment, proclamation and peacebuilding were one and the same. This is the task of proclamation according to Walter Brueggemann— to expose the status quo and propose a radical alternative, to dismantle the imperial rhetoric of death and legitimize the new rhetoric of God’s kingdom— words of life, words of peace, words of hope.
In closing, may we always remember that to speak a word of peace is to build a world of peace. Recognizing the undeniable connection between word and action, may we embrace Christ's call to proclamation as a call to peacebuilding. Striving to subvert the hegemonic rhetoric of empire, may we always choose to proclaim the radical alternative of Christ's peace. And celebrating the places where proclamation truly has created a world of peace, may we always have hope.
Go in peace, knowing that the world has been transformed by the true words spoken in this place. Go in peace, trusting that Christ's word of life holds greater power than the world of death. Go in peace, to proclaim a world of peace. Amen and thank you.
Barrett, Ted and Deirdre Walsh. “Standoff in Congress threatens highway construction funding.” No pages. Cited 22 March 2012. Online: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/21/politics/congress-transportation-bill/index.html?npt=NP1
Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
CNN Wire Staff. “Sanford, Florida, police chief steps aside ‘temporarily’ in fallout from teen’s death.” No pages. Cited 22 March 2012. Online: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/22/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=us_c1 .
Djau, Umaro. “Renegade soldiers declare power seizure in Mali.” No pages. Cited 22 March 2012. Online:http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/22/world/africa/mali-suspected-coup/index.html?hpt=hp_t3
Feinberg, Jonathan. “Wordle.” No pages. Cited 22 March 2012. Online: http://www.wordle.net/
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Schirch, Lisa. Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian, 2005.
Shaughnessy, Larry. “Army reviewing PTSD evaluation program.” No pages. Cited 22 March 2012. Online: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/21/us/army-ptsd-evaluation-program/index.html?hpt=us_c2
Verello, Dan. “Occupiers clash with police in New York; 6 arrested.” No pages. Cited 22 March 2012. Online: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/21/justice/new-york-occupyarrests/index.html?hpt=us_c2