Negative Peace, Biblical Justice and the Abundant Salvation of God

This morning I was confronted with my strong preference for “negative peace.” I dislike disruption. I dislike anger. I dislike conflict and I dislike confrontation. I dislike tension and miscommunication and defensiveness. I dislike the potential for breaking relationships. I dislike the possibility of being disliked. I prefer “negative peace” all of the time.  

When I think about the work of racial justice and reconciliation, especially in the South - which is my home - the two biggest strongholds I encounter in myself and in others are one, a preference for negative peace and two, a narrowly defined interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I had some hard conversations yesterday about white supremacy and reconciliation. They were good because this is how reconciliation happens – we come to the table and we hash it all out. But the conversations were hard and they left me spending much of the day either napping off my emotional exhaustion or worrying about whether or not I’d lost credibility amongst people who I view as friends. This morning, as I journaled and prayed through these relational fears, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King came to mind from his letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963. He wrote this letter to a group of white clergymen who told him that his movement was causing too much disruption and division. Here’s what Dr. King said that response:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards Freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;”

In our time, however, it’s not just the white moderate who is more devoted or ‘order’ than to justice. It is also the Black moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ and social climbing than to justice. It is also the first-generation immigrant to America and acquires some level of privilege, but remains more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. I don’t say this to demean anyone’s experience. I say this to call us all to higher standard – myself included.

In addition to hearing the words of Dr. King in my soul this morning, I also heard the aggressive and uncomfortable words of Jesus who said that he did not come to bring peace, but division. While I haven’t done a thorough exegetical study of that passage to be sure that I am getting its context correct, I hear those words in my soul nonetheless. What did Jesus mean? Division? Never. Right?

I also think of when the gospel was first preached in Ephesus – see Acts 19 and 20. There was a riot. Clashing kingdoms. Division. In scripture? Yes. What is that about? Again, I don’t want to draw too many quick conclusions about what these passages mean, but I do want to draw attention to the tense, divisive ferocity that may occasionally characterize the Christian life.  

This brings me to my second point which is about a gospel that is too narrowly defined. In many mainstream evangelical spaces, the gospel is defined as the very good news that Jesus came, lived a perfect life, died on a cross, was resurrected on the third day and that because of his great sacrifice, now we have freedom, forgiveness of sins and eternal access to our Creator. This is true. And this is very good news. I believe it wholeheartedly; I made a personal decision to follow Jesus almost nine years ago and like a sweet wedding my vow, I would say yes again and again and again.

But in scripture, we find that in the abundance of God, the gospel – the good news – is so much more than personal decisions to follow Jesus. In Mark 1:14-15, Jesus is explicit about what the good news is. The good news is that the kingdom – God’s beautiful, good dominion over all things – is at hand. "Repent and believe that the kingdom is near." In Luke 4:16-20, Jesus preaches his first sermon in which he declares that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, and the recovery of sight to the blind. Let’s not think that these are just metaphors. As the story continues, Jesus goes on to liberate not only peoples’ souls, but their bodies. Their physical bodies.

Jesus cares about justice. He cares about evangelism. He cares about performing miracles. He is a relentlessly loving and unapologetically free force in the universe! We serve an abundant God who has lavished his love upon us – not just through an individualistic, personal salvation but through a collective salvation that is body, soul, mind, earth and community. He is restoring all things. He is making all things new!

We don’t need to parcel out what the biblical priorities are here. We are called to a King and a kingdom. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne (Psalm 89:14.)

It’s both/and folks.

So…after yesterday which was full of hard conversations that left me reeling and left me feeling a little insecure, I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to say no to negative peace because I want to say yes to God’s invitation for us to be a peculiar people of justice. It is my desire that the Southern church would stop its ranking system of biblical priorities. The abundance of God’s love and the whole of scripture make room for righteousness and justice. And how beautiful is it that when we truly say yes to Jesus, we are invited into both.

Much love, fam. Comment below.


Bethaney WilkinsonComment