We spend most of our lives imagining peace, don’t we? If we’re lucky, we catch pockets of peace in the right conditions. Around the fire, snuggled in with loved ones safe and sound, a great book and a mug full of something nice. Walking in the woods, the symphony of birds, bugs, water, and waving trees crescendo, lifting our Spirits to God. Peace is the sense that we are aligned, our hearts beating in time with the pulse of the universe.
Peace can be relative, though, right? Some pockets of peace we grab at are simply desperate cries for relief: a break from the chemo treatments, a day off from incessant responsibilities, a positive bank account at the end of the month. How many of us spend our lives looking for a peace we can grab in the short-term while fearing that a true peace, an enduring peace, a dependable peace, is nothing more than a myth told to keep us from philosophical nihilism? If there can be no peace, why believe in anything?
The world tends to hate the spokespersons for peace. In fact, most of them are assassinated. Or executed. And for those of us who are students of peace, those of us who understand that peace is a way of life and a fundamental orientation toward the world, we know why this happens. Spokespersons for peace often make the comfortable feel afflicted, and help the afflicted feel comforted. Purveyors of peace seem to not know their proper place in society, and what does the world do when a person does not know their place?
The world crushes such a person.
Mark’s gospel begins with a bang. The narrator tells us that we’re about to hear the story of Jesus, who, according to various manuscripts, is the Anointed One and the Son of God. Before we can ask how Jesus is anointed (like a priest, a prophet, a king?) or how he is Son of God (through adoption, like the Davidic kings? through biological fact?), we are told about a voice shouting in the wilderness. The narrator of Mark erroneously credits the words to Isaiah alone. But the first half of the passage is from Malachi 3:1. You may be asking, why does this matter? Why, indeed.
During the prophet Malachi’s time, despondent and dispassionate priests oversaw the Temple duties. The numbers of the faithful were dwindling and true worship of God—love of thy neighbor—was fading. Malachi was infused with the Word. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the Temple.” Malachi, of course, was the messenger.
But this is not a gentle message. Malachi is warning the priests that purification is coming. They are about to be upended because they have not been good stewards of the people or servants of the Temple. Quoting Malachi 3:1 as you walk out of the wilderness, locusts in your teeth and beard, wild honey on the hair tunic you wear, a rope coated with all manner of detritus tied around the waist, this is the way to make an entrance that gets you killed.
In 1971, the FBI began their file on John Lennon. Senator Strom Thurmond warned President Nixon that Lennon and other activist-artists were putting together a concert tour as a way to target Nixon for the ’72 election, the first one to allow 18-year-olds to vote. The tour would follow behind Nixon’s campaign stops, culminating in a three-day festival in Miami, site of the 1972 GOP convention. Efforts were begun to deport Lennon as a result of his 1968 marijuana possession charge.
The pressure to deny Lennon his green card intensified, even after he was shunned by others for not being Leftist enough. Ever the artists, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono held an April Fool’s Day press conference in 1973, declaring themselves the first citizens of Nutopia, a conceptual country with “no land, no passports, only people.” You became a citizen by “declaration of your awareness to Nutopia.” Citizens were ambassadors and thereby had diplomatic immunity.
Think of “Imagine” as the national anthem of Nutopia. The lyrics were largely written by Yoko; a book of poems she wrote years before and a prompt to John to write about a place of evolved consciousness provided him inspiration for a song that is beloved around the world.
When John the Baptizer burst onto the scene and started screaming about the forgiveness of sins that comes not from the Temple, not from empty rituals, not from the elite who cared more about themselves than God, he was as good as dead. When he proclaimed an eternal forgiveness that is equally ours and not ours, we must imagine that he was proclaiming a peace that comes from knowing that he was forgiven. John offered the peace in the moment, pocket peace for which we grab. So powerful is that pocket of peace, we Christians still act it out, this washing away of sins with water. But we do so because of the promised coming of a lasting peace through the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
What John the Baptizer and John Lennon both proclaimed, in their own ways, was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity.” A peace that is not contingent upon the rules and regulations of religion; a peace that is not controlled by power brokers, or dangled in front of the people as a way to make them subservient and obedient. A peace available to all who are brave enough to not settle.
“Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”