January 13, 2008

Pursuing Peace
Matthew 5:9

In a letter to the editor that appeared in The Patriot News on January 5, Andrea McCormick of Harrisburg expressed some of her concerns about the way many people practice their religion. “I am an atheist,” McCormick acknowledged, and “I do not need the belief of any deity that has caused hatred and grief all over the planet.” McCormick is entitled to her opinion, of course, but it is striking, to say the least, to think for a moment about her conception of God—“a deity that has caused hatred and grief all over the planet.” Truthfully, I don’t need a god like that either. Fortunately, the Bible doesn’t give us one.

McCormick, possibly, has never read the Bible carefully. Or perhaps she simply heard isolated stories of a god who waged wars and killed little children, stories separated from their wider context in which a vastly different depiction of God emerges. Or maybe, just maybe, McCormick has watched enough Christians over the years fussing and fighting that she’s been left with only one logical conclusion—God must be evil, violent and thoroughly uncaring as well.

The prophet Isaiah paints a much different picture, as we noticed during Advent. In a series of dreams and visions, Isaiah saw God working to deliver his beloved creation from the evil hole that we ourselves have dug. One day, the prophet announced, the Kingdom of God will be fully established—the mountain of the Lord will rise above all others—and peace will reign on earth once again. In the meantime, God is already bringing life and peace to people everywhere through his son, Jesus, the “shoot growing up out of the stump of Jesse.” Now, we who have experienced the peace of God are sent on a mission to proclaim good news to the oppressed and release to the prisoners. In a world thoroughly familiar with retribution, getting even, holding grudges, returning evil for evil, and solving disputes violently, we are called to begin announcing and modeling “peace.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus declared. And this is how we have framed the same calling in our 8th core value: “Pursuing Peace: We value all human life and promote forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

It seems to me that there are two foundational misconceptions about Christian peacemaking that need to be dismissed right off the bat. First of all, peacemaking is a calling and a commitment rather than a disposition or personality type. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peaceful” or “Blessed are laid-back people who never get riled up about anything.” My mom was like that—easy-going and all. The angriest I ever saw her was when a neighborhood boy ran through our garden, and even then she yelled out, “Please don’t run through there!” Nothing much upset her. Jesus also didn’t say “Blessed are those who avoid conflict at all costs and sweep any hint of tension under the carpet.” Jesus isn’t referring here to some sort of “cheap peace.” He is speaking to all of his followers, people of all types and temperaments, and calling us to be peacemakers.

And second, peacemaking goes well beyond renouncing violence and involves creative and courageous action. Peace, in the biblical sense, is not simply the absence of conflict and war. Peace is instead the presence of the fullness of God. When someone greets another person in Israel today with the word “Shalom,” he is not simply saying, “I hope nothing terrible happens to you today.” He is saying, “I hope your life will be rich and full of good things.” To make peace, then, involves more than hiding on the sidelines and hoping for the best. Peacemaking requires our keenest insights and deepest commitments so that we can somehow introduce an often unsuspecting world to godly alternatives to violence. Blessed are the peacemakers.

If we take this calling of Jesus seriously, we will engage in peacemaking on at least these four levels. We will, first of all, work to ensure that our own interpersonal relationships are in order. We live, work and play with people of all varieties, and our relationships inevitably go sour from time to time. Sometimes they go sour for reasons that cannot be altered. A good friend of mine in high school, for example, became a Christian the same time that I did. My parents rejoiced. Mike’s parents kicked him out of the house. Nothing short of renouncing his new-found faith would appease his parents, and Mike couldn’t do that. Sometimes you just can’t fix relationships. Sometimes the issues are too complex or the other person is unresponsive, and there is little that you can do other than acknowledge it, pray, act as lovingly as possible, and walk away.

But often you can fix relationships. In many instances, someone does the wrong thing. A passing comment is misunderstood. Personality differences get in the way. Vague e-mails conjure up faulty impressions. Busy schedules lead to feelings of neglect. And before long, what begins as a minor annoyance takes on mountainous significance. Even the strongest of human relationships go through seasons of fragility, and they need to be attended to. Much the same thing can be said about our more casual relationships as well. Fences often need to be mended. Pride swallowed. Apologies offered. New levels of understanding gained. Genuine compromises agreed on. We are peacemakers when we do whatever is reasonable and within our power to be at peace ourselves with the people we live with, work with, and play with.

But peacemaking only begins with our own relationships and moves out from there. We engage in peacemaking, secondly, when we help other people who are in conflict work through their issues and come to resolution. We may find ourselves aware of some dispute going on between others, and we are in a position to help. Perhaps other members of the family are always at odds. Maybe colleagues at school or work have butted heads and seem unable to sift through their differences. It will surely cost us something—time, at the very least. But peacemakers are moved by broken families, quarrels, ruined friendships and disputes and seek to bring healing to damaged relationships, even those in which they themselves are not directly involved.

Several years ago a major conflict arose in the church in New York City. One member of the church board was causing considerable division in the congregation, and another person and I were invited to come and mediate the situation. Jacob, the man who went with me, was far more experienced than I was at that time, and I’ll never forget how he handled the matter. When we arrived at the church, Jacob asked if we could first meet with the contentious board member. Both Jacob and this board member were of Indian dissent, so they shared some cultural connections. After the man shared his side of the story, he looked at us, expecting our support and encouragement. To his surprise, Jacob looked him right in the eye and said, “This is the church of Jesus Christ we are talking about here. Who do you think you are to place yourself above the church?” I was stunned. I too had sensed that the board member’s attitude was self-serving, but I was caught off guard by Jacob’s directness and courage, especially coming from a small and somewhat frail man. To this day, that board member remains a changed man, humble and involved in leadership in that same congregation.

Thirdly, we engage in peacemaking when we are moved by the hatred and violence all around us—near and far—and prayerfully find strategic ways through which to respond. We fail to understand our theology of peace—our 8th core value—if we think about it only in terms of war. Don’t misunderstand me. We believe that war is part of this violent world of ours and not part of the Kingdom of God, so we want to do everything possible to encourage our leaders to resolve international conflicts in non-violent ways. At the same time, we want to engage in non-violent acts of love ourselves in war-torn areas of the world. We are not naïve—we don’t expect in this age that all of the nations of the world will lay down their arms and build schools and hospitals instead. But we do want to be human illustrations of the Kingdom of God so that people around the world see alternatives to their warring ways.

Some years ago, former President Carter came to the college for the first of what are called the Religion and Society lectures. Carter presidency, as many of you may remember, was marred by the take-over of the American embassy in Tehran. After the lecture, President Carter had lunch with the entire faculty in the college dining room. During the question and answer period that followed the meal, I asked him this question. “President Carter, I know that you are a professing Christian and that you take the Bible seriously. Given that the Bible tells us that we can have no greater love than to lay down our lives for others, did you ever consider offering yourself to the Iranian authorities in exchange for the American hostages?” He simply responded, “It wouldn’t have been politically expedient.” Can you begin to imagine how the world might have responded had its most powerful citizen offered himself in such a way?

But peacemaking goes well beyond our attitudes and actions concerning war. Peacemakers work to reduce domestic violence and intervene on behalf of both the abused and the abusers. Peacemakers advocate on behalf of people who are victims of unjust public policies. Peacemakers speak out on behalf of innocent people who are systematically killed, whether unborn babies here in the States or children playing with left-over cluster bombs in war-ravaged lands around the world. Peacemakers, once again, are moved by the hatred and violence all across the globe, and we see it as part of the Gospel of Christ to speak and model good news where there otherwise is none.

And finally, we engage in peacemaking when we, as a community, develop an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation that permeates the very fiber of our church. The first three peacemaking activities can, as you might guess, be done by all of us individually; that is, independently of each other. But what a powerful witness it can be for an entire congregation to be working together in and for peace. A church that is engaged in peacemaking activities in this community and beyond. And a church that is at peace with itself. One of the saddest commentaries on so many churches these days is that they are characterized, not by peace, but division, not by reconciliation and compassion, but by judgment. In some churches, everything goes. In other churches, nothing goes. What a horror it is to see a church at war with itself.

I was involved a few years ago with a mediation team that went to work with a church that was caught in the middle of intense conflict. The other team members and I spent hours and hours meeting with an endless number of people and making final recommendations, and at the end of the process we held what was intended to be a healing service. I was asked to preach on the theme of forgiveness, and I did. The air in the room that night was so thick that you could almost cut it with a knife. After the sermon, we set aside some time in the service for people in the congregation to share with each other. At one point, an elderly man who had been at the center of the conflict came to the mike and said, “I need to offer an apology to the congregation.” We breathed a sigh of relief and felt encouraged, but then the man continued, “I must apology to the congregation for being an incapable board member, because if I had done my job well, we never would have invited this pastor to come here in the first place!” The pastor was sitting just across the aisle from him. A church at war with itself has nothing to say to a warring world.

Christian peacemaking, in short, is an entire way of looking at life and our calling. At the heart of peacemaking lies the conviction that we who follow Jesus are citizens of a new kingdom characterized by peace and justice. One day, the Bible announces, that kingdom will overwhelm our present world, and all hatred, violence and war will disappear for ever. At the moment, however, that kingdom is gradually infiltrating our present world through the work of the Spirit in and through the lives of Christ’s people. We need to decide, then, whether we will live according to the values of that kingdom or the values of our present world. In the Kingdom of God, peace and forgiveness are common languages—those are the new clothes for us to wear. Gone are the old garments of revenge-seeking, grudge-holding, and sword-wielding violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who work to ensure that their own interpersonal relationships are in order. Blessed are those who help those around them work out their differences in godly ways. Blessed are those who bring hope and peace to this violent world of ours. And blessed are those who work together to build congregations that model the peace of Christ. They will be called children of God.”