At the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus makes nine statements that would be enough to offer us a guide to living the way God would have us live even if they were the only extant words of Jesus we had. Each statement promises blessings if we live according to what is demanded by Jesus. Unfortunately, his demands are not easy, as he tells us that to find blessings we must be poor, be mournful, be meek, hunger for righteousness, be merciful, and endure persecution in the name of Jesus.
One of these sayings, however, strikes me as particularly important for our world today and for the church’s call to live according to Jesus’ standards. In the seventh Beatitude Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of these important ethical values, peacemaking must assuredly be a core action for Jesus followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also reflects the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?
The kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.” While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling. But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is very straightforward. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to turn the other cheek as an essential part of being peacemakers?
The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness. The central message of Scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.
Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful. Our culture tells us that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a group, or as a nation are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers. But is this the message of Jesus? According to the Sermon on the Mount, no.
Gandhi, one of the greatest followers of Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Christ, and Gandhi calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action ”forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that leads to peacemaking.
While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and the warmongering we witness today from both our nation and those we call our enemies will not establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus never called his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.
Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” God’s coming kingdom can bring lasting peace into the world, but only when we seek justice for all, for our neighbors and our enemies.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
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