Why is peacemaking so hard?
During Lent this spring, our faculty preached through the Beatitudes, which also form the basis for Trinity’s Community Values. Below is an adapted version of Tutor in Pastoral and Ministerial Studies Rev Dr Helen Collins‘s sermon on ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’. You can listen to the audio of this sermon here. (Bible journalling artwork below by Trinity student Amy White.)
A few years ago, I came across my daughter playing in our living room with Disney princess dolls, and I thought I’d get involved in the game. Sleeping Beauty was lying on the bed, and I asked my daughter, ‘Oh no! How did this happen?’ She exclaimed, ‘The witch! The witch cast a spell! What are we going to do?’ To which I replied, ‘We need a prince to come and save her!’ Upon hearing this, my daughter dropped her toys, put her hand on her hip, and said, ‘Mummy! This princess is in charge of her own destiny! She doesn’t need a prince! She has an alarm clock!’ Slightly taken aback, I thought, ‘Wow, a precocious 3-year-old feminist…that’s my girl!’
So far in the Beatitudes that we’ve looked at, the promises have all been to experience a particular virtue or state—they will inherit the earth, they will be shown mercy, they will see God, they will be comforted, they will be filled. But today’s passage is different: ‘They will be called children of God.’ God will say to the doers of this particular blessed state, ‘That’s my boy. That’s my girl.’ God will recognise something in them that is his very own character and being and life. And so, what is it that will make them recognisable as ‘children of God’?
‘Blessed are the peacekeepers?’ No, that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are the peaceful ones, those who like there to be harmony and wellness, who keep their heads down and don’t rock the boat or cause too much of a stir.’ Instead he says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ There is something active and engaged about the peacemaking that Jesus pronounces as blessed, that God himself recognises as something of his own character and being.
Peace is both our potential and our destiny
So what is this ‘peace’? Well, perhaps it’s helpful to set it in the wider narrative and context of scripture. In Genesis 1, that wonderful creation story of God having made a world which is good, harmonious, full of abundance and creativity, we see that at the culmination of the narrative, God rested. Creation rested. It spontaneously and joyfully enjoyed the wholeness and rightness of God’s created order, of living in harmony together. It’s a wonderful vision of creation at peace.
We know that sin and disobedience brought fractures to that peaceful creation. We see Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden and covering themselves in their shame. We see God pronouncing a curse upon the serpent and declaring that there will be enmity between the serpent and the woman, between humanity and God’s other creatures. We see that there will be enmity between men and women, as Eve is told, ‘Your husband will rule over you.’ We see broken relationships extending to the whole created order, as humanity have to fight with the land to make it produce food. And we see, ultimately, a fractured relationship between humanity and God as they are expelled from the garden and prevented from enjoying the closeness that they knew with God in the beginning. What began with peace and wholeness ended through sin and disobedience, fracturing relationships in every possible way. So, ultimately, that peace was lost.
But we also know, praise the Lord, that this is not the end of the story. Even before the birth of Jesus, we see in Isaiah 11 a vision of the lion with the lamb, the child and the asp playing together—a vision of renewed and restored relationships in creation, a vision of peace. That prefigures the vision we see in Revelation 21-22 of peace restored, relationships healed and mended among every tribe and nation and language, as God renews creation and dwells with his people.
We see from this sweeping arc of scripture that peace is both our potential and our destiny. Peace is what we were made for, it is what Creation was intended to be—at peace with itself and with its Creator. And we see that our destiny is for that restored peace, that rightness, wholeness, abundance, and blessed good life.
So, why do we struggle with peacemaking?
If this is what we’re made for and this is what we’re destined for, why are we not very good at peacemaking, in the meantime? Well, obviously sin and disobedience continue to be rife in the world, in the church, in our lives, and thus we maintain these fractured broken relationships that came about from the Fall.
But I want to explore two particular reasons why I think the Christian church struggles with peacemaking. The first is that, I think, we often misunderstand what we mean by ‘peace’. When we talk about being peacemakers, we often equate peace with an absence of conflict. This is how the world understands peace. When we talk about wanting to see world peace, what we mean is an end of war, an end of fighting. That is a start, but it’s far short from the vision that we’ve just outlined in scripture of the wellness, rightness, goodness, and restfulness of creation. That vision of peace is significantly different from simply not fighting with each other, yet so often in church this is what we settle for when we think in terms of peace. This can lead us to appeasement, which I would consider to be the disease of our church at this time. We don’t want to engage in conflict. ‘For peace’s sake,’ we say, ‘just don’t go there. Don’t upset things.’
The only other place in the New Testament where this word ‘peacemaker’ comes is in Colossians 1:20, and it refers to God himself when it says, ‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or in heaven. He made peace through the blood of his cross.’ The peacemaking of God that we are called to replicate is a peace that rolls up its sleeves and gets involved in the mess and brokenness—that risks the outcome of potential crucifixion. It is a peace that engages with the brokenness and the struggle. It’s not a peace that says, ‘Oh well, that has nothing to do with me, let’s just keep everything nice and calm.’ Peace is not an avoidance of conflict—that’s a false peace.
“The peacemaking of God that we are called to replicate is a peace that rolls up its sleeves and gets involved in the mess and brokenness—that risks the outcome of potential crucifixion.”
Again, in Isaiah 11, this Messianic figure—this Prince of Peace we’re told in Isaiah 9—comes to bring this vision of creation living harmoniously together. How does he do this? Through judgement, striking the earth with the rod of his mouth, slaying the wicked. This is an active type of peacemaking that isn’t afraid to risk the potential danger that comes to the one who engages with it. Jesus says in Luke 12:51, ‘Do you think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, not peace, but division.’ I’m not saying that we ought to pick fights, to start conflicts in order to make peace. But it’s about recognising that the gospel is divisive. Jesus causes conflict because he wrestles with our self-enthronement, our sinful desire to be in charge of our own worlds—that causes conflict. Peacemaking is about recognising conflict and not running away from it; it’s about engaging with it, taking some of the responsibility upon ourselves, even if it is nothing to do with us. Being peacemakers means identifying with those who are at loggerheads with one another and seeking to make peace in that context, just as God did through the blood of his cross. He engaged in the fray in order to see that peace realised. True peace often means engaging with conflict in order to see the fullness of the vision of peace for which we are destined.
A second reason why we struggle with making peace is that we tend to associate peace with homogeneity—sameness. As long as we all agree, then we’re at peace with one another. We tend to think of peace as ‘order’. And this is, again, never truer than in our churches, where we can become cozy clubs of sameness, and because we all agree and get on, then we think we are inhabiting the peace that God spoke about. But actually, I want to say that this vision of sameness is again a false peace. Peace is about seeing justice restored. It is about wrestling for the fair distribution of power so that no one group is oppressed by any other group. To be peacemakers is to hear the voice of the stranger, to engage with the position of the other, to understand their experience, to see how maybe even my life choices and the way that I live cause them not to be at peace. Where there is an absence of peace for any, there is an absence of peace for all. When we look back at Genesis, I don’t think the harmony and peace of right relationships also meant a complete sameness of perspective and outlook. And similarly when we look ahead to the vision of Revelation—I don’t think that people of every tribe and nation gathered worshipping before God means everyone agreeing about everything. Peace is recognising that there will be differences, that this is how God created the world, this is what he pronounced as very good. It’s about genuinely hearing those differences, engaging with them, seeking out the voice of the stranger in order to allow our world to be expanded, and recognising each other as fellow brothers and sisters before our differences of opinion.
This can all feel overwhelming. How on earth do we become peacemakers in a world so full of fractured relationships? Stanley Hauerwas, in The Peaceable Kingdom, talks about ‘the grace of doing one thing’—what is the one thing that you can do today that will bring God’s peace closer? What’s the one thing that you can do this week to see this wholeness, rightness, fullness, and presence of God realised in peaceful relationships in your life? Imagine a church where, when someone offended you, you didn’t immediately go to all your friends and moan about it, but then think, ‘I’m not going to do anything for peace’s sake—I don’t want to cause problems or rock the boat.’ What if we participated in a church where when somebody did challenge or upset us, we were able courageously (but humbly and graciously) to address it with them, face to face, and not bring everyone else in? What if we were in a church where when we witnessed division between people we didn’t just think, ‘Well, that’s their problem—let’s gossip about it because it is quite interesting,’ but we risked the rejection of getting involved, of trying to make peace to re-establish harmonious relationships. What if we were part of churches that weren’t afraid to challenge deeply held practises, to risk the stranger coming in to change what we do, in order to realise peace and be this family of God we see envisioned in Revelation? What one thing might God be prompting you to do today? Are you aware of an absence of peace, of rightness of relationship, of wholeness, of the presence of God somewhere in your life, or in your church? What is the one thing you could do to live that imagined future that we work towards?
Blessed are those who risk the temptations to appeasement and order and cozy sameness, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in the conflict and struggle for peace, motivated by a vision of a creation fully reconciled to its Creator, in wellness and goodness and life. Blessed are they—for to them, God will say, ‘That’s my boy. That’s my girl.’ Amen.
Rev Dr Helen Collins is Tutor in Pastoral and Ministerial Studies. Her PhD, which she completed at Trinity, was a practical theology study examining the experience of charismatic worship and motherhood.
Listen to the entire faculty sermon series on the Beatitudes by clicking here or by visiting Trinity_College_Bristol on SoundCloud.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2018 Trinity News.