Sunday, July 22, 2012

Blessed Are the Peacemakers?

Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
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Do we believe him?

When we worry that our city streets feel hot and desperate, one solution is to buy a handgun and keep it close.

When we fear for the future of democracy, one solution is to stockpile guns.

When we learn there are nations that hate us, one solution is to vote to build more bombs.

If our goal is increased violence, those solutions just might work.

But if our goal is peace, we might need to rethink.

In the garden of Gethsemane, confronted by palace guards, Jesus calmly waited for arrest. When Peter grabbed a sword and swiped off a guard’s ear, Jesus picked it up and put it back. Luke, the doctor, the meticulous researcher, is the only gospel writer to record the replaced ear. Did it happen? I believe it did, a small, sweet miracle to remind everyone present, and all who would hear the story: God’s power has nothing to do with swords, with guns, with bombs.

For the first three centuries of the Christian church, a hallmark of the Christ-follower was a willingness to face persecution, punishment, even death, rather than pick up sword or stone in self defense.

A quick survey of early church writers reveals a wealth of wisdom regarding the call to peace:  “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier,” wrote Tertullian.  Clement of Alexandria agreed: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” According to St Basil the Great, “Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker.”

The early and unanimous witness to peace began to shift during the period following the dramatic conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine. Faith became allied to political power in a way that has plagued the church ever since. Over the years, theology has too often been twisted to fit the needs of the ruling regime, and compliant Christians have found it easiest to go along. We can trace the sad history of unthinking acquiescence through the crusades, Papal persecutions, Inquisition, colonial conquests, witch hunts, the alignment of the German establishment church with the agenda and actions of the Nazis. When church leaders confuse obedience to God with the quest for political power, when everyday Christians follow along rather than face group-think disapproval, disaster is never far away.

And so we find ourselves confronted with groups claiming “Biblical values” and “Christian convictions,” yet wholeheartedly endorsing ever-higher expenditures on weapons of every kind, despite the fact that our current defense spending outranks, by five to one, the next country in line.

Spend a minute contemplating the current global distribution of military expenditure. Then consider: does the US dominance of the military scene make us safer? Or does it make us a more compelling target for those who oppose us?

As I puzzle over this issue, I see two questions worth pursuing. The first is spiritual: As a Christian, should I be supporting guns and war?

The second is pragmatic: If the US is already spending more on defense than the next fourteen countries combined, double the investment of the remainer of the world, surely some of those resources could be spent in other ways?

I’m tackling the first question this week; I’ll pick up the second in a future post.

Blessed are the peacemakers?

For centuries, theologians have argued the idea of a just war, and some faith traditions have outlined clear teaching about proper reasons and limits for war. The Catholic Catechism of 1992 offers an apologetic for just war:
"All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. Despite this admonition of the Church, it sometimes becomes necessary to use force to obtain the end of justice. This is the right, and the duty, of those who have responsibilities for others, such as civil leaders and police forces. While individuals may renounce all violence those who must preserve justice may not do so, though it should be the last resort, 'once all peace efforts have failed.'"
Some church traditions have nothing at all to say about war, violence, peace, as if somehow those topics are extraneous to the Christian faith. Some prayerfully, or less prayerfully, issue statements dependent on current situations or the prevailing political climate.

Some church and parachurch groups seem consistently hawkish in a way I find  disconcerting. The home page of the Biblical Patriot network offers a sad example, somehow equating guns, violent self-defense and angry rhetoric against national leaders with “Biblical foundations” and “conservative values.”

Sadly, that loud voice has captured the spotlight, to the extent that many people I know, Christians and those alarmed by what they know of Christians, believe that somehow Biblical values endorse and affirm violence and guns.

From what I know of the witness of Jesus, nothing could be further from the truth.

from A Journey for Nonviolent Change
Faith traditions that are strongly for peace are much less likely to attract attention, but their witness has been strong around the globe as they combine quiet, faithful service with an unswerving opposition to war.

The Mennonite Church, through the work of the Mennonite Central Committee, supports a global network of sacrificial peacebuilders providing help in farming, water supply, schools, medical aid:
"As followers of Christ the Prince of Peace, we believe His Gospel to be a Gospel of Peace, requiring us as His disciples to be at peace with all men, to live a life of love and good will, even toward our enemies, and to renounce the use of force and violence in all forms as contrary to the Spirit of our Master." 
In their 1970 statement on war, The Brethren Church again affirmed
"We seek . . .  to lead individuals into such intimate contact with Jesus Christ, our Lord, that they will commit themselves to Him and to the manner of life which He taught and exemplified.
"We believe that such commitment leads to the way of love and of nonviolence as a central principle of Christian conduct, knowing full well that, in so doing, violence may fall upon us as it did upon Jesus." 
The Quakers, since their origins in the 1650s, have continued to speak firmly against war, insisting, as they insisted again in a joint statement in 2002:
"We know from history that acts of violence only breed further violence.
"We also know that the terrifying spiral of violence and hatred can be interrupted by acts of creative nonviolence, conflict resolution and courageous love. The real path to global security lies in a stronger global civil society based on increasing trust and respect, the rule of international law, and the removal of the roots of violence and war."
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.
In thinking about war and peace, I came across a speech given by Father George Zabelka, chaplain for the bombing crew that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. Zabelka spent the remainder of his life wrestling with the idea of a “just war,” repenting for his involvement in the death of so many innocent people, and seeking ways to make reparation. His speech was given on the fortieth anniversary of the bombing he condoned and is well worth reading in its entirety.  Here are a few of his conclusions: 
There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.
The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus. 
All countries are interdependent. We all need one another. It is no longer possible for individual countries to think only of themselves. We can all live together as brothers and sisters or we are doomed to die together as fools in a world holocaust.
Each one of us becomes responsible for the crime of war by cooperating in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military. This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for the weapons. . . Silence, doing nothing, can be one of the greatest sins.
Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.  
As I listen to the quiet voices advocating for peace, I hear echoes of scripture, and of Jesus' example of peace in the face of threats and rage. His early followers sang when persecuted, prayed and offered forgiveness when faced with violent death. There was no cry among first century Christians to fight back, to defend the faith with arms, to further religious freedom through enslavement to violent means.

What do I take from this?
  • Now, more than ever, churches, denominations, and individual Christians should think carefully about a theology of peace and war, and be clear about where justification of violence will lead us.
  • Christians who promote ever-increasing investment in defense need to rethink their loyalties, the source of their safety, and their blatant misuse of the term “Biblical values.”
  • As an agent of peace, I’m called not just to advocate for peace, but to demonstrate it in my actions and interactions, even with those with whom I disagree.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Do we believe him?

The Road to Peace, Gilad Benari, 2006, Israel

This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.