My wife Heather is not a fan of January.
The antipathy goes back to her school days, when January meant not just returning to school, but returning without an escape hatch. She and her classmates faced a long, cold, bleak month without the enchantment of Christmas or the myriad minor holidays of February – indeed, hardly anything to break up the barren landscape of the calendar at all.
With, of course, one significant and recent exception.
I’ve written before that King Day is a curious holiday. It’s one of the few we have that’s dedicated to a person instead of an event. It’s a reminder of a fiery time, placed in the middle of a frozen month. (In many ways, the August anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech might be more appropriate.)
And it’s about the only time, other than Christmas, when we spend a holiday talking about peace.
Please don’t think that I’m just referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolence. That is an important part of his legacy and one that might have even surprised him at the beginning of his career, when armed guards and weapons for self-defense seemed to be an option worth considering. As we know, he finally made a powerful and famous choice to walk a different path, one that still inspires people today.
But that’s not what I mean by peace.
It’s a complicated word, really. A couple of my friends – one a pastor, one an author – like to point to the distinctions between two of the “peace” words, the Latin “pax” and the Hebrew “shalom.” The first, they note, is an end to open hostilities, a basic lack of violence. Under that definition, so long as you do not have war, you have peace, regardless of how resentful or conflicted the setting may be otherwise.
The second is something else. A “shalom” peace is a wholeness, a restoration of balance. Under that definition, peace is what you get when things are restored to the way they were meant to be. It has the broader implications of the English word “harmony,” of differences not clashing, but creating a more beautiful whole.
That’s a much more difficult goal to reach. But also a more embracing one.
One can have the first kind of peace and still have injustice, hatred and fear. In fact, “pax” is often just a breathing space between wars, the sort of thing seen in Germany of the ’20s and ’30s, where peace exists mainly because one side lacks the ability to act on its anger … for now.
The second kind—that’s the kind that echoes through King’s words again and again and again.
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”
“If you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …”
Not just the absence of wrong. But the presence of right.
That’s worth advocating. And it’s worth remembering. Even in the coldest, bleakest month in the year. Maybe even especially then – when are we more aware of the need for heat, for light, for the warmth of friends and neighbors?
The power to redeem January. Now that’s something.
And if it’s still a little difficult to rise in the darkened mornings and slide back to work or school – well, so be it.
After all, peace is a great dream. But no one ever said it wouldn’t require snow tires.