Saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace – Jer 8:11
Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with nine “Beatitudes” that readers often unfortunately reduce to platitudes. The seventh, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” for example, can sound like a call to passivity and placidity: “Blessed are those who accept life with serenity, remaining calm, preserving calm, spreading calm.” Both the context and a careful examination of the central term “peacemaker” suggest, however, that such an understanding misapprehends the fundamental thrust of Jesus’ teaching. The “peacemaker” beatitude marks a shift in the beatitudes from a focus on the blessed attitudes that characterize citizens in the Kingdom of God (poverty of spirit, teachability/meekness, purity of heart, etc.) to an emphasis on behavioral expressions of these attitudes, expressions that will likely and ironically elicit “persecution” (mentioned three times in vv 10-12). Placidity does not elicit persecution. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peaceful.” More to the point, it is easy to read Matt 5:9 and allow the concept of “peace” itself to misdirect one’s attention away from the active force of the term “peacemaker.”
Of course, on Jesus’ lips even the term “peace” implies much more than passivity and placidity. Jesus very likely spoke the beatitudes in Hebrew or, even more likely, in closely-related Aramaic. The Hebrew/Aramaic term translated “peace” שלם refers, primarily, not to the absence of strife, as the English term “peace” often implies. Instead, it denotes a condition of wholeness, wellness, and balance: things as they should be. Many relationships not characterized by open strife nonetheless fall far short of wholeness, wellness, and balance. Jesus’ peace is not a negative condition (absence of war), but a positive condition of well-being.
In other words, Jesus pronounced blessed those who recognize when things are not as they should be and undertake active measures to make peace in these situations. Jesus did not bless the kind of “peace-keeping” efforts that merely intervene between warring parties to separate them, preventing open hostility. Such efforts may produce (temporary) absence of war, but they rarely result in well-being. Jesus blessed those who intervene to bring reconciliation and restoration.
Intervening in situations to make peace is risky and dangerous. One or more parties may not welcome the intervention, especially not the party most responsible for the lack of peace, the party that will be required to change most. Peacemaking may evoke persecution. The ministry of the Prince of Peace led to the cross. Yet, since the Son of God came to make peace, the children of God manifest their kinship when they, too, seek to make peace – even if it costs.
At this point, a Baptist theologian/preacher might normally extrapolate from Jesus’ beatitude a call for the church to identify instances in the world in which “there is no peace” and to engage actively in peacemaking: poverty, hatred, racial discord, injustice of all kinds, etc. In last week’s blog, I noted that the kairos-time of now has revealed the fissures that fracture American society. It has also revealed that these fissures run deep even in the church. Might it be that, before the church can effectively make peace in the greater world, it must address internal disharmony?
For example, through a former student, I know of a local congregation in danger of open hostility compounded by the good services of social media. During, and after, the recent presidential campaign, church members – deacons and Sunday School teachers – divided into partisan camps and launched verbal assaults on one another via Facebook®. On Sunday, they “worshiped” together in an atmosphere of passive aggression. The ministerial staff knows about the situation (many of them utilize social media, too, after all) and has discussed it. In the end, however, the staff has concluded that it would threaten “peace” to address the partisan hostility lying just under the surface of Sunday morning’s passivity – they have opted to preserve ‘peace’ where there is no peace.
Admittedly, the issues dividing even the church come with potent emotional force: reproductive ethics, sexual ethics, race relations, and economic justice top the list. All of them are powder kegs. Many of them seem to resist black-and-white analysis. The staff of the example church rightly senses that making peace in their context will be risky and dangerous. Nevertheless, the status quo begs the question as to whether this church or any other can be effective as ministers of reconciliation, ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:18-20), bringing the Gospel of peace to the world while disharmony and distrust prevails within the church itself.
I am not confusing harmony and unity with unanimity and homogeneity. The issues that divide the church (and society at-large) are complicated and nuanced. It will be impossible to achieve total agreement. At the same time, however, I hear voices from all sides that express more misunderstanding about the positions of others than reasons for their own stance. Partisans attribute to their “opponents” bad faith, amorality or immorality, and heartlessness or headlessness. The church needs “people of good will” and great courage to open avenues of understanding and trust. Christians should be able to talk about areas of disagreement without doubting the sincerity (and Christianity, in some cases) of those holding contrary positions.
Incidentally, true dialogue requires openness to the possibility that someone else may have a point.