24 August 2016

peace and war

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Jesus once spoke a blessing upon those who would work to bring about peace in this world. This was no starry-eyed platitude, expressing the niceties of a beauty pageant or second-rate political campaign. It was rather a declaration set within the context of God's kingdom making its way into our present experience. The notion of peace was central to the Jewish concept(s) of the messianic kingdom that was to be established on the earth (Isaiah 9:5–6; Zechariah 9:9–10). And so, Jesus is commending those whose lives will demonstrate the reality of God's rule by working to bring about peace.

We should remember that Jesus also commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5:5), and so would envision the peace of God's reign to come in the context of justice in our world. So, again, this peace cannot be taken on the level of throwing pennies in a wishing-well, but rather the demonstrable outworking of the ethics of God's kingdom in a way that establishes peace and righteousness as a reality for the poor and oppressed among us.

It is interesting that Jesus would give to his followers the task of establishing a righteous peace in the world, for he lived in a world that was saturated with systems and images of worldwide peace. The empire that ruled the day would idealize a Pax Romana (Roman peace), an achievement that was believed to validate the Roman's right to rule, so given by the gods who had blessed their expansion and influence. In many ways Pax Romana was indeed a great accomplishment, especially in a world that had never been without constant tribal wars and conflict among regional leaders. And to bring about such peace not only gave demonstration to the superiority of Roman culture, it also demonstrated the legitimacy of Roman power.

The Romans believed that peace was established when their empire was able to conquer a region and put down any rebellion that opposed their rule. Perhaps this was the first example of the peace-through-strength model of governance (though that phrase has taken some variation throughout history). The idea of Pax Romana was not pursued as some utopian desire for worldwide friendship, but rather for the unashamed benefit of Rome itself, especially those in positions of power and leadership within the empire.

When Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers, he is making a summons to do so in contrast with the powers that be in the world – those who would so narrowly-define peace as 'we win, you lose' and use their might to get their own way. And Jesus does not teach us this in the context of running empires or influencing the masses. Instead, his words are spoken to the few that will follow the demands of discipleship and will work in their interpersonal relationships to transform individuals with the presence of his kingdom of righteous peace. He knows that this will not bring an immediate change to the culture – empires are not toppled overnight – but he also knows that politically-enacted change will not endure.

In the current political climate of American evangelicalism, the notion of being a peacemaker has taken a back seat to a gospel driven by influence and cultural significance. We have been convinced that we are in the throws of a crisis, and that the only way forward is to get as much control as we can as quickly as possible. Obtaining this sort of power is how we can save ourselves, keep the world from disaster, and establish our peace.

When we examine the current state of our presidential political campaign, there are many within the church who are choosing to find the one person who will secure this sort of strength within our government to establish the nation we think is best for ourselves. Never mind the moral failures, disregard the dishonesty, and look past the plans that isolate us from one another, our behavior appears to say that there are more pressing matters today than whether or not we will live for the gospel. Perhaps once we have secured our own liberty and peace, then we can consider Jesus' teachings of love for one another. It is much easier to join movements that fight for power and control of a nation than to be a people who carry the transformative change of the gospel to individuals who are hurting, poor and oppressed.

It seems that everyone wants to speak about where we go from here, and how we are going to make this work (or which of these is the lesser-of-two-evils). But nobody is interested in examining how we arrived at this point in the first place – our willing dismissal of the gospel is not a recent development, but rather a pattern of disregard that has been building to this moment of national moral crisis. This is why a church can be looking for conquering leaders and militant solutions, despite the fact that our Lord told us to speak and act in a radically different way.

The church needs to lay down the world's weapons of war, and become people who work for God's rule to take its place, one life at a time. Peace and life are found in this kingdom, not in the poor copies we have tried to make for ourselves. The Romans did not have a monopoly on running empires of military might, and we still must make the choice of which kingdom we will choose to be a part of, even if we self-identify as Christians. Our nation will not return from this brink until the people of God can return to the message of the gospel.

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