How we can work constructively for peace while we are furious with the behavior of our own government
The first seven years of this new millennium have proven to be a challenging time for peacemakers. Wars devastated Sudan and the Congo and continue to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, while violent civil conflict grips Colombia and Myanmar/Burma. The U.S. invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, in particular, generates intense opposition both in the United States and internationally. Individuals passionate about peacemaking, who also happen to be U.S. citizens, face a particularly difficult dilemma. How do we work constructively for peace while we are furious with the behavior of our own government?
We now live in a world not unlike the one in which much of the New Testament was written. A single country with unrivaled military power dominates the political, economic and cultural tone for much of the world, while the chasm between the world’s wealthiest and poorest citizens continues to widen. Those of us who value justice and peace look around and become not only passionate about what’s happening, we often become angry as well. But passionate, angry peacemakers tend not to bring about positive change in their societies. Passionate, principled peacemakers do.
Here is where a letter written nearly 2,000 years ago has much to say to our generation and to our time. In his first letter, Peter writes to Jewish and Gentile Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor. This was not a letter written to a specific congregation with specific needs, but rather a letter to various groups of people with diverse challenges. Peter first stresses neither behavior nor beliefs but identity. He wants his readers to remember that they are “God’s elect,” “strangers in the world,” a “chosen people,” a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation.” Identity matters because 1 Peter is in large part a call to “live godly lives in a pagan society,” as the New International Version summarizes. As such, this letter could be appropriately written to Ana-baptist Christians at this point in American history.
In chapter two and the early part of chapter three, Peter offers guidelines for citizens, slaves, wives and husbands. But by verses 8 and 9 of chapter three, Peter is again addressing all believers.
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.”
As we continue through the remainder of chapter three, we can identify seven character traits that Peter is calling for in his readers. The first five are found in verse 8 and the remaining two are in verse 15. These are, in order:
Not surprisingly, these character traits are similar to Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” that we find in Galatians 5:22—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I would suggest that these traits—whether drawn from Paul’s list or from Peter’s—are the character traits that those of us who seek to be passionate, principled peacemakers must be developing.
I graduated from college in 1980 with a passion for peace and justice and soon became involved in the nuclear freeze movement. I even participated in a million-person, antinuclear march in New York City in 1981. But the organizing meetings left me cold. There was a lot of anger expressed towards President Reagan, and, although I shared the opposition to his administration’s policies, I was uncomfortable with the very personal antagonism that was evident.
Several years later I was drawn instead to the more faith-based Central American peace movements, where individuals went with groups like Witness for Peace to Nicaragua to put their lives on the line for what they believed.
We are effective as peacemakers to the degree that our character demonstrates the behaviors that we are calling for in the world. As Gandhi asserted, we must “be the change we wish to see” in the world. We are completely ineffective as peacemakers when we demonstrate the opposite of these character traits. When instead of demonstrating harmony we display destructive conflict, when instead of showing love we show hate, apathy in place of compassion, arrogance rather than humility, violence (including verbal violence) rather than gentleness and personal attacks instead of respectful discourse.
Three central character traits: I believe that three of these traits deserve special attention for the faith-based peacemaker: love, humility and respect. Let’s consider each of these in order.
The two greatest commandments—Jesus’ essential summary of all 10 of the Mosaic commandments—are “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus called us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength—to be completely in love with God. In my experience, that kind of love develops over a lifetime of slowly realizing that God is head over heels in love with us. We love God because God first loved us. Love for others, especially enemies, is then made possible by a deep acceptance of God’s unconditional love for us, and them.
The second core trait is humility. True humility connotes an honest assessment of not only one’s weaknesses but also of one’s strengths. In Romans 12 Paul suggests that one “not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” Humility is not self-debasement. It is rather a simple acknowledgment that I don’t possess all truth on any subject, that I “see through a glass darkly” even while I remain passionate about the truth that I do have.
Humility is primarily about attitude. Attitude is huge in conflict, because it communicates much more powerfully than the mere words that we use. As my wife often reminds me after I’ve said something hurtful or simply stupid, “It’s not what you said, David, it’s the way that you said it.” Our attitude always leaks out anyhow, so we might as well work at being genuinely humble—at accepting the reality that there are limits to what we know.
The third critical character trait of the peacemaker is respect. Webster says that “to respect” means “to feel or show honor or esteem for” or “to show consideration for.” Effective peacemakers retain respect for the parties with whom they work and the people with whom they interact. Sometimes we show respect according to the first definition, and sometimes it’s according to the second-—we show consideration for, or understanding of, their circumstances. To treat others with “gentleness and respect” also means that we may have to change our attitudes toward those with whom we disagree.
So how do we develop the character traits needed to seek peace and pursue it? The answer is found in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”
As we seek to follow Jesus—as we allow ourselves to be shaped in the image of Christ—we develop his traits. Although I have some interest in whether or not someone affirms all the right doctrinal statements about Jesus, I am passionate about whether or not we are attempting to actually live like Jesus. (A “disciple” is the active follower of a particular teacher, not just a passive adherent to particular beliefs about the teacher.)
What would it mean to live like Jesus, to be a “passionate, principled peacemaker” as he was? I believe that becoming a disciple of Jesus means that our character is increasingly shaped to be more like his. Jesus was known for his love for God, his love for neighbors and even his love for enemies—all the way to the cross. And Jesus predicted that his followers would be known for their love as well.
If we are to develop the traits of a Christian peacemaker, we need to “set apart Christ as Lord.” For Peter’s readers, this statement clearly meant that they were to follow Jesus, not Caesar. For us as well, it also means that we reject the system of domination and violence exemplified by imperial policies and commit to following Jesus instead.
God is at work transforming the world. If we want a more peaceful and just world, we need to become more just, peaceable and loving individuals and communities. Therefore, let us commit, with God’s help, to being the change we wish to see in the world.
David Brubaker is assistant professor of organizational studies at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va. This article was adapted from a sermon based on 1 Peter 3:8-17.
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