Toorak Uniting Church

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Disturbing the Peace!

Easter 7
Acts 16: 16 – 34
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
12 May 2013

 Whirlwind by Lisa Strazza
Whirlwind by Lisa Strazza

"I do not want the peace which passeth understanding,
I want the understanding which bringeth peace." ~Helen Keller

Many will have heard the name Rosa Parks:

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman who worked as a seamstress, boarded this Montgomery City bus in Alabama to go home from work. On this bus on that day, Rosa Parks initiated a new era in the American quest for freedom and equality.

She sat near the middle of the bus, just behind the 10 seats reserved for whites. Soon all of the seats in the bus were filled. When a white man entered the bus, the driver (following the standard practice of segregation) insisted that all four blacks sitting just behind the white section give up their seats so that the man could sit there. Mrs. Parks, who was an active member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, quietly refused to give up her seat.

Her action was spontaneous and not pre-meditated, although her previous civil rights involvement and strong sense of justice were obvious influences. "When I made that decision," she said later, "I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me." She was arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation, known as "Jim Crow laws." Mrs. Parks appealed her conviction and thus formally challenged the legality of segregation.

(from the Rosa Parks Bus: The story behind the Bus)

In a single moment Rosa Parks moved from being a peacekeeper to a peacemaker! She became a disturber of the peace.

Peacekeepers and Peacemakers:
If I was to make a confession this morning (I think I made a confession about something else in my life a few weeks ago, I must be in a confessing mood these days), it would be that by nature - the nature of my life and my personality - I am more a peacekeeper than a peacemaker. Of course that’s not a bad thing, the world needs plenty of peacekeepers but there is an important truth that I have learned in life and that is that from time to time, one must have the courage and tenacity to move from keeping the peace to being a peacemaker. That is, to bring about something new and different in our world…. We must make peace, not just keep the peace.

Now that doesn’t have to be any more dramatic than refusing to move from a seat in a bus when you are tired of bowing the knee to injustice, as Rosa Parks did. Martin Luther King Jr mentioned often, the main complaint he had from white supporters of the civil rights movement in the USA was that he moved too fast. Just let people come around to supporting the issues in their own time. That’s keeping the peace and also keeping the status quo. Peacemaking on the other hand demands action.

Australian’s Sit-in for Peacemaking:
But we don’t have to look overseas to see examples of making peace by refusing to keep the peace and just sitting down. Some will remember the story:

In 1966 all Aboriginal stockmen walked off Wave Hill pastoral station in the Northern Territory. Little did the white station owners know that the strike would become a precursor to land rights legislation which was passed almost 10 years later.

On 22 August 1966, 200 Aboriginal stockmen of the Gurindji people and their families walked off Wave Hill pastoral station in the Northern Territory, owned by a British aristocrat Lord Vestey.

Led by Vincent Lingiari, they set up camp in the bed of Victoria River. The camp moved before the wet season of that year and in 1967 the Gurindji Aboriginal people settled some 30 kilometres from Wave Hill Station at Wattie Creek (Daguragu), in the heart of their traditional land, near a site of cultural significance.

The Wave Hill walk-off was well supported and made headlines all over Australia. While the initial strike was about wages and living conditions, it soon spread to include the more fundamental issue about their traditional lands. The Wave Hill walk-off had morphed into a land claim. The Gurindji Aboriginal people were claiming that this land was morally theirs because their people "lived here from time immemorial and [their] culture, myths, dreaming and sacred places have been evolved in this land". This was the first claim for traditional Aboriginal land in Australia.

Nationally many people resisted the idea of handing back land to its traditional owners. But on 16 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed over title to the land to the Gurindji Aboriginal people through legislation and by symbolically pouring a handful of red earth into the hand of Vincent Lingiari —the first act of restitution to Aboriginal people and the start of the land rights movement.

(from Creative Spirits: Aboriginal people strike & walk-off at Wave Hill)

The Australian songwriter Paul Kelly penned his song. Here are a few of the verses from the song. I could sing it if you like:

From Little Things Big Things Grow.

Gather round people let me tell you're a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiarri
Were opposite men on opposite sides

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the pressure got tighter and tighter
Gurindji decided they must make a stand

They picked up their swags and started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now it don't sound like much but it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead and then in the town

Vestey man said I'll double your wages
Seven quid a week you'll have in your hand
Vincent said uhuh we're not talking about wages
We're sitting right here till we get our land
Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered
You don't stand the chance of a cinder in snow
Vince said if we fall others are rising

Then Vincent Lingiarri boarded an aeroplane
Landed in Sydney, big city of lights
And daily he went round softly speaking his story
To all kinds of men from all walks of life

And Vincent sat down with big politicians
This affair they told him is a matter of state
Let us sort it out, your people are hungry
Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

Then Vincent Lingiarri returned in an aeroplane
Back to his country once more to sit down
And he told his people let the stars keep on turning
We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent's fingers poured a handful of sand

That was the story of Vincent Lingiarri
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege cannot move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law.

Paul the Apostle of Peacemaking
Peacemakers not only change the laws but they change the hearts and minds of people. In fact, the great peacemakers have a vision of human life as unshackled from oppression, injustice and hopelessness. And they begin with an appeal to the human heart for compassion and kindness toward all people. While there is at times criticism of the Apostle Paul and his views on the place of women in the church and society, nevertheless it is he who almost single-handedly challenged the systems that subjugated and bound people to lives of enslavement to the time-worn religious ideas and the practices of his day. It was his move from being a peacekeeper, that is by persecuting the followers of Jesus because they were disturbing the peace, to becoming himself a disturber of the peace in order to bring true peace to those who lived in darkness and despair.

From his letter to the church at Ephesus we hear what is central to the Apostle Paul the Peacemaker:

For in Christ Jesus we find our peace; through his life and body he…has broken down the dividing wall - the hostility between us….Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who are far off and peace to you who are near, for through him we all have access in one Spirit of God, so you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God."

That’s what got him into trouble. Strange, isn’t it, that the great peacemakers of our world are at times seen as more dangerous than dictators, tyrants and power brokers around us.

Paul’s message and actions didn’t go down well in a Roman city that had as its motto Pax Romana, Latin for "Roman peace" or "Rome brings peace". That’s why Paul was arrested, because he spoke of tyranny with the words "The life, the message of Jesus brings real peace, not Rome or religion." So what did they do with this peacemaker?

When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Peacemaking can be a painful and costly experience. But if we are a people, a society or even a community and are to move forward and, particularly, be willing to listen to the Spirit of peace in our midst today, then we may need to experience a bit of discomfort and be willing to disturb the peace in the name of the one who gave his life for all humanity, so that all may live together in peace, hope and love.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.