The theme for this year’s Lenten services is The Beatitudes, specifically as they are given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, which you’ve just heard. They are the opening section of the so-called Sermon on the Mount.
Up to this time in Matthew’s Gospel, the only thing we have heard Jesus say is, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” This gives the Sermon on the Mount greater significance because it is the opening salvo and statement of Jesus’s alternative way of living. Keep in mind that when Matthew talks of the Kingdom of Heaven it means the same thing as the other Gospels that say Kingdom of God. This does not refer to life after death or to the end times, but is about life here and now on earth.
So, after announcing that the Kingdom has come near, Jesus makes this series of statements that turn conventional wisdom and custom upside down. As Marcus Borg summarizes it, these statements suggest a “life of compassion, justice, and peace, grounded in God as disclosed by Jesus. It’s what life would be like on earth if God were Lord and the current lords of the earth were not.”
Instead of blessing the heroic generals who have conquered the Mediterranean world, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
What are peacemakers? Notice that they are not peacefeelers — nor are they peace talkers or peace thinkers. Peacemakers make peace. Make is an active verb. It suggests that action is required. Have you ever tried to make peace between two friends who are on the outs? Dangerous work, isn’t it? The two you try to reconcile may team up to turn on you. How much more dangerous and tricky must it be to make peace between goups or nations? Why even bother? Probably we go on trying because the alterative to peace is hell.
I assume you all know the current situation in the Middle East, and how many people have tried to be peacemakers there just in our own lifetimes? Consider this quote from Herman Goring after WWII:
Naturally the common people don’t want war . . .; that is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along. . That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country. [God and Empire, JD Crossan.
That’s much of the problem, isn’t it? And both sides in a conflict do the same thing, demonizing the others in ways that tend to keep the conflict going. And what about the costs?
Consider this. Our 775 billion dollar defense budget is twice as large as it was under Dwight Eisenhower (adjusted for inflation). It is five time greater than China’s, “our nearest competitor for this dubious honor, and constitutes over 40 % of the world’s entire military spending.” [Sojourners, Feb. ’13 p. 16]
And now listen to what Eisenhower had to say back in 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone, it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
John Dominic Crossan, in a book called God and Empire draws a continual contrast between the realities of the Roman Empire and the possibilities of the Kingdom of God. He notes that the Pax Romana, the peace that the Roman Empire established across the Mediterranean world, was won by victory in war. Rome relied on peace through victory, as do all empires, and they maintained it with the might of the their legions.
The problem is that peace gained through victory never lasts, because violence begets violence. Yes, the legions were able to keep everyone in their place for some years, but not forever. When people are defeated, invaded, and ruled from afar, when the flow of goods is from them to the seat of Empire and the flow of force is from there to here, rebellion is sure to follow.
What Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God is peace through justice. This is a peace that does not use violence. As Pope Paul VI said: ‘If you want peace, work for justice.’” [Howard, P.98]
Working for justice is something everyone can do, because there are so many ways of going at it. Working for justice means working for a community and a world in which everyone has enough, everyone has the same opportunities for education, growth, and social mobility, and everyone has work.
Working for justice in the legal system is a subset of this and means working for a system that is fair and impartial and working for a system that is restorative rather than retributive. A restorative justice system works to restore criminals to an appropriate place in society rather than just punishing them. The prime example of this approach can be examined in the way the government of South Africa handled the former rulers and perpetrators of great atrocities during Apartheid.
They chose “to redress wrongs not with blanket amnesty or Nurenberg type trials, but a third way. . ., and granting amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of crimes committed.” This approach was championed by Bishop Desmond Tutu based on the African concept of Ubuntu, an acknowledgement that when one person is harmed, all suffer.
Violence certainly seems to be escalating in our society. Whether it really is or just seems to be due to the 24 hour news coverage we now endure, I don’t know. Many people are more afraid than they used to be. Those of substance retreat to gated communities. Others build safe rooms or install alarms in their homes.
Can you believe these numbers? In a recent Sojourners Magazine, the editor Jim Wallis pointed out:
- There are more gun dealers in the US than there are McDonalds.
- Last November the FBI fielded 2 million gun purchase requests.
- There are 310 million people in the US and 280 million guns.
People are arming themselves even though it’s well known that having a gun in the house is much more likely to cause death or injury in the family than to save them from intruders. Only fear can explain this.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Several commentators mentioned that seeing ourselves as children of God is the first step to becoming a peacemaker. If we see ourselves as children of God, then it becomes evident that all people are our siblings. How can we hurt them, revile them, shun them, kill them? How can we stand by when our society leaves large numbers of children hungry or homeless. How can we stand by when our economy puts people out of work?
When we see ourselves as children of God it’s easier to be like Jesus, to know that the only real security we have in this life is God’s love for us. That can free us from fear and also from the pointless scrambling for other means of protecting ourselves, which ultimately fail anyway.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us several specific ways of making peace: be reconciled, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. There’s a group that talks about Just Peacemaking, which is both a theory and a practice, based on these teachings. Their practices give us some clear ways to practice peacemaking in our communities.
You can google Just Peacemaking, which by the way doesn’t mean “only” peacemaking, but rather means non-violent, just as in justice, peacemaking. Here are some of their practices.
Support nonviolent direct action. Based on the practices of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. this might include boycotts, strikes, marches, civil disobedience, etc.
Take independent initiatives to reduce threats. Several friends of mine live in the Marshall area. When large groups of Hispanics moved in there was a lot of tension in town. The city organized multiple groups of women, each one half and half, who met regularly to talk, to share their stories and their difficulties. Out of this came not only friendships, but a clear realization of their commonalities.
Use the proven methods of cooperative conflict resolution. You have to talk to make peace. There are methods for doing this that help you be tough on the problem but not tough on the people involved.
Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness. Whether with a friend or with another nation, this sets the stage for reconciliation.
Foster just and sustainable economic development. How many wars are fought over access to resources? How many terrorists have no hope of being able to raise a family because of economic conditions?
Reduce offensive weapons and the weapons trade.
Everyone can find something in the list that they can do. We don’t have to solve all the peacemaking problems in the world. Each of us can do our part. We can work, we can donate, we can resolve to learn and practice peacemaking in our families and neighborhoods.
We are children of God. We must imagine the world as God imagines it, as a place of compassion, justice, and peace, where God’s people can live without fear, with enough to meet their basic needs, and surrounded by a web of rich relationships. The Kingdom of God is here. With God’s help let’s live it into reality. AMEN