Let There Be Peace

Psalm 33:16-21, James 3:13-18, Matthew 5:43-48

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, Grand Rapids, MI; 6/18/17



It is right and good that we celebrate our history and reaffirm our commitment as a Just Peace church. But why, when it seems so painfully obvious that peacemaking is in our Christian DNA, should we need to? It is our core identity as followers of the Prince of Peace.


We need to come together to consciously celebrate, recommit, and remember who we are. And, because sustaining the longing for peace, sustaining the work for peace, is mighty difficult! That is because it is countercultural. It is not what we see people and institutions doing around us often enough. People in economic realms of power do not seem overwrought with the desire to do the things that make for peace. People in places of political power do not act as though the things that make for peace, especially the common good, provide their job description.


But we cannot just point the finger out there; it is also the church. For how many churches is doing the things that make for peace-not just in our souls, but in our world-a main activity and identity? Indeed, there is a large segment of the Church that supports Christian imperialism. They use their version of Christianity to justify waging war on other countries, on other faiths, even on the poor, the foreigner, and the most vulnerable. Even though a cursory reading of the Christian Scripture will tell you that is NOT what Jesus would do. Alas, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, "Everyone in the world knows that Jesus and his teachings were non-violent, except Christians."


And how many, in the name of Christ, have substituted a kind of aloof "peace in our soul" for the peace with justice in this world? But I think it is a sign of faith-a painful one-that so many of us are not at peace, but rather we are deeply distressed in our souls because we see, in our land and our world, so much action and rhetoric that is the opposite of what "makes for peace." We know that there cannot be peace in our soul, if there is not peace in our society. We know that there cannot be peace in our soul if there is not peace of mind and body ... for the Palestinian, that her home won't be destroyed by an American-made Caterpillar bulldozer, or for the child in Aleppo that his home won't be destroyed by a drone-dropped bomb, or the Mexican child born in the U.S. but whose parents were not, or for the woman with a pre-existing medical condition, or a father who works full time but can't make enough to feed his children.


You are right, in your heart of hearts, we are called to be makers of a Just Peace. And no accommodation to modernity, supposed national security, free enterprise, or frustration should we allow to obscure that identity.


It comes from the part of the Hebrew Scripture that Jesus and the New Testament community focused on, the part that we see in some of the Psalms and the Prophets. Especially as Israel gained national identity and military power, they were reminded, as in Psalm 33, that, "A king is not saved by his great army, a warrior is not delivered by his great strength, and that the war horse is a vain hope." When kings saw themselves as privileged by power, rather than servants of God's people, the prophet Isaiah reminded them of what the true leader was supposed to be like: "The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth." He goes on to give us the poetic vision of the reign of harmony such a reign produces, "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain."


This is what Micah promises the nation that follows the Lord: "People will come to them, nations will seek their counsel, they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war any more, but each shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig tree and no one shall make them afraid."


The early Christian church has the angel heralds in the birth narrative announce "Peace on earth, good will toward all," upon the birth of Jesus. That Prince of Peace blesses the peace makers, he enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, a sign of the one who comes in peace. And, he weeps over Jerusalem. Why?


In a Palm Sunday Sermon, Fredrick Buechner put it like this:


"'Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord,' the cry goes up. There is dust in the air with the sun turning it gold. Around a bend in the road, there suddenly is Jerusalem. He draws back on the reins. Crying disfigures his face. 'Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace.' Even today, he says. Then the terror of his vision as he looks at the city that is all cities and sees not one stone left standing on another. 'Because you did not know the time of your visitation,' he says. Because we do not know what he comes to give. The things that make for peace, that is what he comes to give."


What makes for peace? It is many things, but I submit that chief among them is the pursuit of justice and equity, the call to love one's enemy, and longing for peace. That is, wanting it above other things.


The pursuit of Justice. At the General Synod in 1985, our denomination wisely declared itself as a "Just Peace" church. We are not talking about "peace" as the absence of conflict, but as Shalom, the presence of well-being. If there is no justice, there is not peace. As Dr. King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Of course there need to be larger police forces, security checks, and military occupation when people are desperate for equality, respect, food and shelter.


But neither does justice alone make for peace. Blind justice-justice without mercy-is no more than an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Jesus did not simply say, "Blessed are the peacemakers." In the same sermon, he said, "Blessed are the merciful." If we cannot temper justice with mercy, there is no peace, for justice and vengeance then look a lot alike.


That does not mean we allow injustice to perpetuate. It does not mean one doesn't confront and hold the perpetrators accountable. It does not mean we allow those who benefit from oppressive systems to continue in unaccountable privilege. But it does mean not holding malice toward those who have wronged us, as individuals, but particularly as a nation and as peoples. For mercy often means holding others accountable while providing the space for them to admit accountability, to be forgiven, and forge a new way together. This is so well exemplified by the Christian inspired Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after Apartheid, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


Love your enemy, make for peace. Jesus' command to "love your enemy" is a uniquely Christian burden, and I believe our gift to the world. Jesus makes that command later in the Sermon on the Mount, the same sermon where he blesses the merciful and the peacemaker. How can we see someone, a former enemy, as human without love? How can we ever break the cycle of violence, retribution, and hatred that gets perpetuated for generations, without love? As I said, this is a Christian burden and gift to the world for peacemaking.

This came clear to me when I heard Rabbi Donniel Hartman speaking a while back about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He spoke of his hatred for the enemy; Palestinians whom he saw as bent on murdering Israelis. And he seemed to nurse that hatred. He said, maybe a little sheepishly, "I am glad that I don't have the Christian burden of loving my enemy." But, you see, I wish he did. I wish he did have that burden, and I wish we Christians would take that burden more seriously. If he did have that command, maybe he would have to struggle to see the Palestinians in a wider context to see that, from experience, it is the rabbi's nation that is the occupier and the aggressor, the murderer. Maybe he would be able to make peace and security for both of them as a common cause. Maybe with the burden to love, especially the enemy, one can at least stop feeding on hate. That command, an essential element for making peace, is our Christian gift to the world, but do others see us exercising it, that it becomes a light to the nations.


Longing for a Just Peace is elemental to achieving it. In that same Sermon, Jesus doesn't just bless the peacemakers, he blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to long for a just peace. This is hard work. If it doesn't occupy a central place in our soul, we will not sustain it. If it is not central to our longing, to our petition of God, we cannot sustain it. Not all of us can be on a picket line or get to a congressperson's office. We can all hunger and thirst for it. (It was President Eisenhower who said, "One day the people of the world will want peace so much that governments are going to have to get out of their way and let them have it.")


We can all do some of the things that make for peace. We can all wage peace. And peace needs to be waged. It has to be waged in our attitudes and actions. It has to be waged in our fervent prayers and political action. It has to be waged through open hearts and open hands. It has to be waged in letters, petitions, coalitions, and contributions. It needs to be waged with sisters and brothers here and halfway around the world. It has to be waged by supporting and encouraging those doing the work when we cannot do it ourselves. It has to be waged by holding hope and the vision of God's just and peaceable realm for all.


My friends, this is sacred work. It is blessed work. For I ask you, what else, what else is really worthy of our time, our energy, and our risk-taking. For what else should we spend ourselves in God's name? May it be so. Amen.