Practicing Peacemaking

Biblical injunctions to be “peacemakers” (Matt 5:9) and “ambassadors for Christ” to whom “the message of reconciliation” has been entrusted (2 Cor 5:19-20) sit uneasily with events happening in the world. As I write this reflection, words like Ferguson, Islamic State, Gaza, and Ukraine-Russia dominate the news and haunt water-cooler conversations.

Other forms of brokenness, no less horrifying or real, lurk in the shadows: domestic violence, estranged families, school shootings, massacres of Christians in Iraq, and the all-too-common conflicts that divide people from each another in relationships, workplaces, communities, and in polarized politics across our land.

What could it possibly mean to practice peacemaking in such a world? To be ambassadors for Christ, and own the scriptural claim that the message of reconciliation has been entrusted “to us” — not to anyone else? The world desperately needs Christians to walk the walk and not only talk the talk in hortatory sermons or other pious rhetoric. I have too often delivered sermons about forgiveness and reconciliation, and about peacemaking, that may have been rhetorically solid but got lost in the words and failed to offer specific guidance for what these practices mean in daily life.

There are inspiring figures, past and present, who have walked the walk and borne a faithful witness – national leaders like Abraham Lincoln, international figures such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, and contemporary witnesses like Maggy Barankitse in Burundi. And there are countless others in our own communities whose commitment to being ambassadors for Christ have healed relationships and built bridges across divides. As the novelist George Eliot noted, “That things are not so ill between me and thee, is half owing to those who lived faithful lives, and rest in unvisited tombs.” It is a shame we don’t visit their tombs often enough, and an even greater shame if we don’t learn from their faithful witness.

In order to practice peacemaking, we need to shift our default mindset, participate in specific activities, and cultivate specific traits. Our default mindset needs to shift from thinking that violence and conflict are the underlying realities of our world to a Christian mindset that the beginning and end of our world is a story of peace. God created the world out of love for the sake of love, and in the wake of human sin and evil redeemed the world through Christ so that we might discover afresh new life in Christ and the peace that abides. And the reign of God to which we bear witness points to the fulfillment of God’s creation, a time when there will be no more violence, no more suffering, no more tears, for God will be all in all. Peacemaking is at the heart of the gospel.

And yet, this Christian mindset is regularly challenged by events in the world, by our own complicity in destructive violence and brokenness as sinful creatures, and by the contraction of our imagination. We thus need to practice peacemaking in and through specific activities. On a daily basis, we are called to be peacemakers in our most intimate relationships. In extremely difficult dynamics, this may mean learning to pray that we could learn to “love our enemies” while protecting ourselves from harm. Often it means learning skills that enable us to find a third way beyond “my way or the highway” or simply “giving in” to the other. And in any interpersonal dynamic, it involves skills of empathy and emotional intelligence to engage the other(s) from their perspective as well as our own.

More broadly, we are called to be peacemakers in our communities. This calls for skills of leadership, not because of an official position we may or may not hold, but rather because any person can build bridges that sustain and renew broader communities — sometimes in small and hidden ways, ways that often sow seeds with far greater import and impact. Those called to be in official positions — pastors, leaders of organizations, and the like — have an even greater calling to use their roles, influence, and power in the service of healing and renewing communities and institutions. We need fresh and imaginative approaches to leadership, whether of ordinary people or in large institutional contexts, in which “peacemaking” and “bridge-building” are integral to the vocation and even priorities. This is as true within congregations and “social sector” organizations as it is for businesses and government.

The most challenging issues come to the fore when we think about what it means to be peacemakers in relationship to local, state, and national governments, and large-scale violence and conflict. There are long traditions of debate and disagreement among Christians (and others) about whether intentional violence and killing is ever justified. The majority traditions of the church have concluded that wars are sometimes justified, while a minority voice has called the church to “christological pacifism.” In either case, though, both just-war thinking and pacifism presume the vocation to be peacemakers — and rarely in contemporary America do we in the church, much less Christians in the midst of national debates, exhibit the disciplined thinking of “just-war approaches.” But following Jesus and “practicing peacemaking” requires of us nothing less.

Jesus’s and Paul’s injunctions about practicing peacemaking, and being ambassadors for Christ to whom the message of reconciliation is entrusted, require us to shift our mindsets and engage in different practices. They also call us to develop traits of character that will enable such peacemaking to become “second nature” to us. Protestant Christians have for too long ignored or even criticized “ritual” and “habits” as being too Catholic and works-righteousness. In so doing, we have missed fundamental features of Christian life and distorted what it means to be human. Jesus’s calling to Peter in Matt 18:21-22, that he must be prepared to forgive his brother or sister not just seven times, but 77 times, points to the centrality of habits and making this commitment a way of life. Recent research in the neurosciences reinforces this insight, showing that the more we practice certain ways of living and seeing, the more our brains are rewired in those directions.

The traits we are called to cultivate are described beautifully as “the fruit of the Spirit” in Gal 5:22-23. Peace is mentioned prominently there, alongside love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What we often miss, though, is that we don’t get to pick and choose. We can only cultivate one of these traits if we are committed to all of them. Paul doesn’t say “the fruits of the Spirit are”; …the wording is singular…”: the fruit of the Spirit is….” If we want to cultivate a trait of peaceableness, we will need to learn patience, and generosity and all the rest. Similarly, if we want to learn to be loving and joyful, we will need peace and faithfulness and gentleness, etc.

Right after Paul lists these traits and describes them as comprising the singular “fruit” of the Spirit, he says “there is no law against such things.” That is a striking phrase. Paul seems to be implying that “you might think there is a law against such things, as rarely as you see any of them practiced.” But, he suggests, you can go ahead and cultivate them – they really are legal!

We have all glimpsed how wonderful life can be when we participate in communities where peacemaking is a default mindset, where activities are undertaken to preserve, renew, and extend peaceableness, and where people are cultivating the various dimensions of the fruit of the Spirit. And when we glimpse that life that really is life, we long for more of it.

The challenge is whether we learn to embody such peacemaking and lead others toward such commitments, or whether we keep waiting and looking for others to do the hard work. Maggy Barankitse witnessed firsthand the destructive effects of violence, being tied to a stake and compelled to watch a militia massacre 70 friends and family members. But Maggy, committed to the God of Jesus Christ and to being a peacemaker, didn’t despair or harbor desires for revenge. She recommitted herself to being a peacemaker, rebuilt her village, and called it “Maison Shalom.” Through her leadership thousands of children have been fed, clothed, educated, and equipped for hope-filled life and leadership, and other outposts of “Maison Shalom” now exist, not only throughout Burundi, but also in Rwanda and Eastern Congo.

When I asked Maggy recently how she sustains her commitment to new life in Christ, and to being a peacemaker, she told me that every day we need to rededicate ourselves to life with God. She then told me the prayer she prays every morning, a prayer that has become my own, a prayer that nurtures the mindset, activities, and traits of being a peacemaker: “Lord, let your miracles break forth every day, and let me not be an obstacle in any way.” May it be so.

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