In this time of social division and strife, when tempers simmer just below the boiling point and violent speech edges closer to action, how should Jesus’ disciples conduct themselves? I use the term “disciple” rather than “Christian” because some who think of themselves as “Christians” don’t seem to be aware that being a disciple—a real follower!—of Jesus is the indispensable condition of being a Christian. Do I need to prove that this is so? Well, then, recall the words of Jesus after he washed his disciples’ feet:
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).
Or the words of John the beloved disciple:
“But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).
Or Paul’s oft-quoted plea for unity and humility grounded in Christ’s example of self-emptying:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).
Again I ask, how should disciples of Jesus conduct themselves in this age of division and strife? The answer to this question is not complicated. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays it out plainly. Be humble, meek, and merciful. Don’t speak evil to anyone or of anyone. Bless when others curse, love in situations where others hate, and seek peace when others foment strife. Pray, give generously, trust God, don’t seek honor, and don’t judge others.
In his seventh beatitude, Jesus says,
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
What would it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture at war? Sometimes we harbor an image of peacemakers as those who step courageously between combatants, placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace. In my view, this is a romantic and heroic picture that is just as likely to lead the “peacemaker” to an inflated and uber-righteous self-concept as to any real peacemaking. Perhaps we ought to begin our peacemaking with less fanfare. The first qualification of peacemakers is that they refrain from contributing to strife. Less romantic and heroic I grant, but essential nonetheless! Our first inclination when we think someone has insulted us or something we hold dear is to return fire. And when we disagree with a strong opinion expressed we feel the urge to “set the record straight.” Jesus urges us to not to be provoked. Truth is truth, justice is justice, and God is God even if the whole world rises up in blasphemy. The survival of civilization doesn’t depend on your sharp-tongued retort. Often, the greatest contribution to peace we can make is to hold our peace.
After we’ve learned the lesson of self-control, we can also contribute to peace by substituting blessing for cursing. Genuine peacemakers look for something good to say, some area of common belief or value to affirm with their would-be opponents. They do kind or merciful deeds instead of retaliating for insult or injury. They go “the second mile” (Matthew 5:41).
Here is the secret of the peacemaker: you cannot become a peacemaker until you attain peace within yourself. You cannot “hold your peace” unless you are at peace. You cannot give peace unless you have peace. Outbursts of anger and episodes of strife are but externalizations of division and strife within. Only by relying on God for forgiveness, acceptance, self-worth, and hope can we become immune to insult and provocation from without. Only by trusting God to judge the world with justice can we give up the anxiety that without our words of protest truth will languish. Only by giving the world into God’s care can we give up the feeling that without our frantic actions the world will fall apart.
In a culture at war with itself let us say it again, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”