Reflections on peacemaking: Reading Matt. 5.9 and James 3.18 with Stanley Hauerwas and Mr. Rogers

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May 13, 2013 by jmar198013

Blessed are the peace-makers; they shall be counted the children of God. (Matt. 5.9 Knox Bible)

Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts. (James 3.18 CEB)

“Peacemakers” is term that the church has had a difficult time pinning down. The Greek back of the word is εἰρηνοποιοί (eirēnopoioi), a compound word derived from the word for peace (eirḗnē) and the verb poieó–to make or to do. Its presence in one of the Beatitudes is instructive. I have previously written of my discomfort with performance-based readings of the Beatitudes; that is, of reading them as entrance-requirements, as commands, as virtues we are to attain for ourselves. Thus my caution:

The Beatitudes [5.3-12] have often been taken as “entrance requirements” for the kingdom of heaven, or as virtues to be attained. The result is that they are read as commands, rather than blessings. Yet Jesus is speaking blessings. The Beatitudes are words of welcome and congratulations to those who already are poor, mourning, meek, hungry, or persecuted. Jesus is describing what he sees when he looks at his disciples, and assuring them of God’s blessing. The point is, Jesus isn’t telling people to go out and attempt to be poor in spirit, or peacemakers, or to get themselves persecuted. He is naming the kind of people who will be present in communities assembled around himself. And he is honoring them by extending God’s welcome to them.

That being said, what I don’t want to do is leave anyone with the impression that if you are not naturally a person who wages peace, you are let off the hook. For these words are descriptive of those who inhabit the church. In other words, I think it a mistake to say, “Let’s go out and be peacemakers.” Rather, I would suspect that those who would conform their lives to the way of life described in the Sermon on the Mount will find themselves transformed into peacemakers as a consequence of God’s work among them. It is not a matter of obeying a command to become a peacemaker or striving after an abstract virtue called “peacemaking.” Rather, it is a matter of our participation in the life of the risen Christ, who is our peace and who is our virtue. Peacemakers is who we become when we conform our lives to the Sermon on the Mount, which is the form of Jesus’ life with us.

  • When we are willing to be reconciled to those with whom we are angry instead of trying to solve our conflicts with harsh words and murderous violence, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 5.21-26).
  • When we are disciplined to remain faithful to our marriage covenants rather than abandoning our partners, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 5.27-32).
  • When we are committed to telling each other the truth without apology or equivocation, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 5.33-37).
  • When we are determined not return evil for evil but repay evil with good, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 5.38-42).
  • When we love and pray for our enemies and welcome strangers into our lives, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 5.43-48).
  • When we are content to practice righteousness for its own sake, and not wear our piety as a badge of honor, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 6.1-18).
  • When are willing to store up heavenly treasure by giving to the needy rather than hoarding treasures on earth, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 6.19-23).
  • When we are determined to pursue God’s kingdom and justice first, rather than our own security, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 6.24-34).
  • When we are able to confess the poverty of our own lives before judging others, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 7.1-5).
  • When we allow God’s care of us to determine our care of others, we are being transformed into peacemakers (Matt. 7.6-12).

This does not mean that we are trying to earn favor with God. We are not pursuing a Christian merit badge in “peacemaking.” It isn’t “works-righteousness.” Rather, it is a determined living with Christ in the presence of the world that makes time and space for God’s Spirit to transform us into peacemakers. It is opening ourselves to do God’s will that his name might be glorified; it is preparing a way for the reign of God, in our lives and in the world. Stanley Hauerwas describes this process in a most insightful way:

Peace takes time. Put even more strongly, peace creates time by its steadfast refusal to force the other to submit in the name of order. Peace is not a static state but an activity which requires constant attention and care. An activity by its very nature takes place over time. In fact, activity creates time, as we know how to characterize duration only by noting that we did this first, and then this second, and so on, until we’ve either gotten somewhere or accomplished this or that task. So peace is the process through which we make time our own rather than be determined by events over which, it is alleged, we have no control. (Living Gently in a Violent World: the Prophetic Witness of Weakness, with Jean Vanier, p. 45).

That “peacemaking” contains a verb is an obvious signal that peacemaking requires activity; we do peace. Just as surely as the world wages war, the church wages peace. Peacemaking names the practices of our lives that make room for God’s presence and reign, that sow seeds of God’s kingdom and justice. It is fitting that those who practice peace are called children of God. For the practices of a peacemaking people named in the Sermon on the Mount are based on God’s dealings with us through his Child Jesus, who is said to be the visible image of the invisible God (Col. 1.15). The practices of peace create space and time for God to mold is into the image of his Child Jesus so that we may bear a family resemblance to God and be called his children. Thus, we can also read the gracious initiatives of the Sermon on the Mount as vehicles for our transformation into the image and likeness of God. We need to read them as verbal icons for how God has spoken to us through his creative Word Jesus (John 1.1-5, 14, Heb. 1.1-3), especially through his Cross.

  • When we seek to be reconciled to those with whom we are in conflict instead of killing them, we are imitating God who calls us to be forgiven by and reconciled to him through his Child Jesus that we have murdered (Matt. 5.21-26).
  • We are faithful to our marriage covenants because the Cross is God’s covenant faithfulness to us in Christ (Matt. 5.27-32). God has not abandoned his covenant with us, neither should we abandon our covenant with our partner.
  • We tell the truth without apology or equivocation because God has told us the truth about ourselves through Christ and his Cross (Matt. 5.33-37).
  • We turn the other cheek because God has turned the other cheek in Christ’s Cross (Matt. 5.38-42).
  • We love our enemies and welcome strangers into our lives because God has loved us as enemies and welcomed us who have been estranged through the Cross of Christ (Matt. 5.43-48).
  • People who are told by Jesus that we stand before God as debtors in need of daily bread (Matt. 6.11-12) are gifted with the freedom to pursue first God’s reign and justice by sharing with the needy instead of seeking to secure our lives by hoarding treasures on earth (Matt. 6.19-34).
  • We are freed from the burden of judging others when we confess our sins in the comforting knowledge that any judgement that needs to be made has been made already in the Cross of Christ (Matt. 7.1-5).
  • Our care for others should be determined by God’s care of us (Matt. 7.6-12). Christ has revealed to us that our Father is generous and knows how to give appropriate gifts (Matt. 7.7-11). We who would give what is holy to dogs and pearls to pigs (Matt. 7.6) are trained to care for others appropriately by taking stock of the gifts that God has given us.

Living faithful to the Sermon on the Mount is a process that transforms us into peacemakers who can rightly be called children of God because it means that we are sharing in the life of God’s Child Jesus, through whom God has made peace with us (2 Cor. 5.17-21; Col. 1.19-20). It is not, again, about earning a merit badge in peacemaking. Indeed, it may well be that our initial forays into the practices of peacemaking will be abysmal. I suspect this is why God calls us first to be reconciled to our brothers, to be faithful to our marriage covenants, and to tell the truth to each other (Matt. 5.21-37) before we go trying to nonviolently resist those who seek our harm and love our enemies who may want to kill us (Matt. 5.38-48). Our practices of peacemaking in the church, in our families, and in our neighborhoods create the time and space necessary for God to form us into the sort of people who will not strike back but will feed a hungry enemy and water a thirsty one. This is why we practice peace. Practice may not make perfect, but even imperfect practice yields progress. Even a flawed performance may create time and space for God’s Spirit to transform conflict into the peace of his reign. Disciples live in a constant feedback loop with God as we perform the scriptures and are then given deeper insights into their meaning. One of the meanings of being the church is being a people who believes more will be revealed. I do not mean by this that we receive new revelation; but rather, that as we live together with Christ in confrontation to the world, we are given deeper insights into what it means to live faithful to God. An story I recently stumbled upon from the ever-pertinent Mr. Rogers (who was perhaps the gentlest peacemaker of his generation) may provide some clarity to what I am suggesting:

[A]t the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation – a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet, as well as each person, and who, little by little, will love us into being more that we ever dreamed possible.

When I was a seminary student taking my first homiletics course, one Sunday I heard the worst sermon anyone could ever give…I thought! A substitute preacher had come to our church and, in his sermon, went against every rule that we had been taught in class. As he finished, I was ready to give him my unspoken failing grade; but I happened to look at the woman who was sitting beside me. With moist eyes, she turned and said, ‘That preacher said exactly what I needed to hear.’

Well, that service turned out to be one of the most important times of my life. Obviously, something had happened between that preacher’s poor sermon and that woman in need. It hadn’t happened to me. Of course, I had come there in judgment – not in need.

Ever since that day, I have recognized that the space between a person who is doing his or her best and a person who has come in need – that space is holy ground. The Holy Spirit can use whatever we offer to speak to another person’s heart. So whenever I make a television program or give a speech or just talk with a neighbor, I realize that all I need to do is give the best that I can, and God will translate it into whatever is needed most.

The practices of peacemaking create time and space for God to transform conflict into friendship, to mend what has been torn. This is why Jesus tells us to give to whomever asks and lend to whomever lacks (Matt. 5.42); because even those–perhaps especially those–who would strike us, sue us for our the shirt off our backs, and compel us to carry their burdens, are people in need. When we do our best to respond to their need, we are creating time and space for God’s Spirit to fill their lack; and hopefully, to transform us in the process. This is the “holy ground” of which Mr. Rogers spoke. Practicing peace creates holy ground.



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