‘Blessed are the peacemakers’

August 7 2022

Blessed Are the Peacemakers, for They Will Be Called Children of God" (Matt  5:9) | Bible Commentary | Theology of Work

Is there anyone who doesn’t hope for peace. I don’t know of any nation that doesn’t give at least lip service to the words inscribed on the front of the UN building in New York. ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares.’ Those words have sat there for over half a century, and how many of the nations that send members to sit in UN meetings have known even one decade when their people all sit under their own vines and harvest their own crops? What do they think they’re doing, all those wise men and women who debate the ways forward for the world’s countries – including their own? We might be forgiven for thinking: very little.

We might be forgiven for thinking that, but are we then shifting the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. Anybody’s but mine. It’s not my job to work for world peace.  Others will do that, somewhere other than the place I sit in. Just let me go on sitting quietly in my own garden and dreaming of peace, but don’t ask me to do anything about it. Is that where we’re at? 

I have a book by Virginia Woolf called ‘Three Guineas’. Three guineas was the fee then charged by lawyers in court hearings. The book explores the inequality between women and men in Virginia’s time, particularly because of women’s lack of access to education and lack of acceptance into the professions. Such as law. Emancipation was an important issue for Virginia Woolf. But the other motif running through that particular book written at that particular time – 1938 – was that it had a strong anti-war theme. Virginia Woolf’s theory was that the way the patriarchal society operated led to fascism and a willingness to use violence to keep the power in the hands of the rulers. That equation of patriarchy with fascism was one of the reasons why the book was so very unpopular among some of those highly educated ruling classes when it was first printed.

Eighty years down the track, and in a world which still has an unbroken sequence of wars in many parts of the inhabited globe, we still need the peacemakers, and we still don’t listen to them, and we still turn the ploughshares – the resources that should be used in the care of the earth and its inhabitants – we still turn those ploughshares into swords: into tanks and guns and bombs.

The prophet Micah had strong words to say about powermongers. In the chapters before our reading he fulminated against people with wealth and power – power to seize what they covet. People with power who want things badly enough, get them. The real enemies of the people of Judah weren’t foreigners, but their own leaders. The real enemies still are those who drive people from their homes.

Micah accused the rulers of Judah of turning their backs on Torah – on God, and God’s Law.  The Law says: do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, care for the widows and orphans. Unless the nation does this, there will be no peace. In this country we have supposedly based our living on something very like the commandments of Torah, but how much is our life as a nation based on the biblical tradition?

Of course, if you’re weaponless, you’re vulnerable. What if you do lay down your arms, and the others don’t? Risky stuff. The Quakers have laid down their arms, and they know all about the risks. The early, great, Quaker, William Penn, had a dream of a peaceful community. He founded Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, and opened it to all who wanted to come and live there with complete freedom of worship. In an age of religious intolerance, this was Penn’s ‘holy experiment.’ He did something else that was very radical. He bought from the Native Americans, the land that the Crown had granted him. The very idea that the land was not the Crown’s to grant got up the noses of a great many people.  If we look at our own history, we can see exactly what sort of hostility Penn had to endure. It we look at our recent history, we see that the same mindset is still around. Even in our churches, we still hear the mutterings about our two languages and two cultures and we still hear (from the pakeha side): ‘why should we be dictated to by a minority group’.

Penn had hoped that friendly relations between the settlers and the Native Americans would be established. There would be no need for either group to take up arms. But the dream did not endure. There came a time when a Governor declared war on the Native Americans, and the Quakers withdrew from government. Further down the track, the War of Independence brought special trauma to the Friends because of their pacifism. Quakers know about the cost of being pacifists.

Jesus had a vision of peace. God’s kingdom of justice, equity and peace for all. He left us guidelines for how to achieve the dream. We’ve heard the Beatitudes many times – Jesus’ extraordinary rules for living. We’ve probably heard them so many times that we find them comfortable and easy. We pull them out of context and lovingly render them as wall hangings, or on printed cards.  We forget how very uncomfortable they are, and we choose not to apply them to our daily living.

Some translations use the word ‘happy’ instead of ‘blessed’, which I think is a pity. Because, to be blessed is more than simply being happy. It means knowing that you are included in God’s new realm. Jesus doesn’t say we will be blessed some day. We’re not stacking up credits. Jesus says, we are blessed – if (and here’s the catch) – if this is how we live.  Nor is he talking about stuff. We won’t be blessed with abundance of things by being virtuous and good.  This is not a gospel of prosperity.

This morning, we’re concentrating on just one of these sayings. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ And I think about what’s happening all around the world: genocide, religious wars, terrorism, struggles for freedom, competition for oil – and I despair. How can I possibly make any difference?  Even in the local context everything’s about competition. Contestable funding. My application for a church grant has to tell a better story than yours, so that I get money for my project. My parish needs to hang onto its resources, because who knows when we may need them later. My charity has a better right to aid money than yours. Whatever sort of living this is, it’s not shalom.

And outside, in our city streets, there are barriers to peace. We are fearful of violence. Violence against children, against partners, against ourselves. We are fearful for our children. We are fearful for our older people living alone. We are fearful about shrinking resources and rising prices. We are fearful about natural disasters. And we take up weapons against our fears. We isolate ourselves from the problems. Not in my back yard. We won’t have the secure unit for teenage offenders, or the sheltered housing, or the skateboard park, or the student parties. We’ll move to a new neighbourhood. Fence ourselves in. Be very very busy. Be successful. And keep the problems out of sight.

Well, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. Not just keep a low profile and don’t ruffle the waters. Be peacemakers. Whatever Jesus meant by peace, it wasn’t anything passive. Jesus continually faced conflict, and he did indeed face it.  Yes he sometimes withdrew. But he didn’t go away to brood over the wrongs – he went apart to renew his strength by prayer and communion with God. To have a part in the peace of God we have to do something about it – we have to put energy into it. There’s a price to pay for peace, and it’s our choice what sort of a price we give. How can we, in our place and time, claim the blessing of being peacemakers?

Conflict resolution needs honesty. That doesn’t mean just speaking the truth as we see it. You know yourself how you react if someone says to you, ‘you look terrible,’ or, ‘my goodness, you have aged,’ or ‘what have you been doing to yourself!’ Or, to a community, ‘what’s the matter with you lot!” If that’s the only word spoken, no one feels particularly loved. We need the other part of the conversation – the part that says, ‘what can I do about it?’ or, ‘how can we work this out together?’ If we’re going to be serious about bringing God’s peace into this life, we have to speak truth with love and compassion. And when we’re at least partly to blame in any conflict situation, we have to be able to admit that we’re wrong, and ask for compassion from the other – and from God. That’s sometimes even harder than being the one who offers it!

We need to affirm that we answer the call to make Christ’s anger at injustice and inhumanity, poverty and destruction, hatred and violence our anger. We are called to act – with Jesus as our companion and co-worker. We affirm that our dreams for liberation, justice and peace are rooted in this world and nowhere else. We say all that – but we have to go and live it.

In the first sermon Jesus ever preached he said: ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’ Jesus lived his whole life in that knowledge. But we Christians go on acting as if the kingdom of God is ‘out there’ somewhere. We don’t believe the words of Jesus. If we did, then we’d recognise and own the divine in ourselves, and in every other person we encountered, and how could we then act with violence towards any? It’s all there in the gospels!

Rev Dr Barbara Peddie