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How Reading the Beatitudes One More Time Changed My Faith
By Matthew Paul Turner
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 Matthew Paul Turner
All rights reserved.
a peace at a time
Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9 NIV)
BLESSED ARE ...
The Sermon on the Mount is a mouthful. The words of Jesus bewilder me sometimes. Seriously, blessed are the peacemakers? What was he thinking? There are few things more difficult for me than making peace, keeping peace, or even pursuing peace. I'm much better at creating mayhem or stirring up trouble or writing recipes for calamity. But peacemaking? That's not one of my natural talents. Why couldn't Jesus have made it easier for us humans? For instance, why couldn't he have said, "Blessed are the selfish"? That I could handle.
But Jesus didn't make it easy. In fact, nothing I read in Matthew 5 seems simple. But when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," he raised his expectation for humanity. And when I consider this world or even how I live my own life, I can't help but wonder if he raised the bar too high.
As difficult as it might seem, Jesus wanted the people of his time to live their lives as conduits of peace. And not just any kind of peace—his kind.
When Jesus first spoke those words, I can only imagine how many blank and awkward stares he got from the crowd. Sure, there were probably people sitting on that mountainside who were awestruck and humbled by his words—probably many of them. But I can't help but believe there could have been a few who didn't know what to think about Jesus at first. There had to be some people who were thinking to themselves, What is Jesus talking about? This guy's a good speaker, but he's saying all kinds of things that go against the teaching of Moses and Elijah. Others may have said, "This man's nothing but a bloody liar." (I imagine that last guy with a British accent.)
Of course, I can't be certain that there were hecklers and skeptics at the Sermon on the Mount. But I know how the messages of Jesus rub people the wrong way today; I can only imagine they must have done the same back then—even at the beginning of his ministry. One thing I do know is that every time I think about—really think about—his call for me to be a peacemaker, I get annoyed; I get angry; I get frustrated. Why? I get this way because no matter what I am doing—good or bad—the words of Jesus rub up against my human nature. They are like salt against my freshly overbitten fingernails. Peacemaking is some of the hardest living I have ever had to do.
There are certainly times when I wish that Jesus had said, "Blessed are the selfish."
The Peace Sign
Jayden, a good friend of mine, has been an activist against the war in Iraq since it began in 2003. Long before hating the war was popular, my friend was proudly in the minority. Whether I agree with her point of view or not, it's hard to argue with someone who has her kind of passion. She demonstrates it beautifully by simply believing wholeheartedly in her cause. My friend loves the idea of peace more than any person I know.
Even though, in my not-too-often-humble opinion, she and her peace friends go a little overboard once in a while (and I've told her that, too), we've come to a mutual understanding. We don't always agree on politics and such, but we are determined not to let our social differences disrupt our personal love for each other. And between you and me, she's sometimes kind of hard to get along with.
But despite the work it sometimes takes to be friends, I have a lot of respect for the uphill struggle my friend is involved in on behalf of peace. She goes to meetings about peace, makes phones calls to voters about peace, and attends rallies to support peace. And I just love it when she goes to rallies. But I have a little confession to make: I look forward to her going to rallies, not because of her passionate stance and what she might accomplish, but because every time she attends one of her rallies, she always returns with hilarious, nonpeaceful stories.
On one occasion she returned from a rally with a story about one of the guys from her "peace club" throwing a bucket of paint at a police officer. Her friend, of course, was arrested. Another time, while marching in a nearby city, she and a friend of hers led the entire parade down the wrong street. Her peace friends were furious. In fact, a few of them got so mad that they left the rally right then and there. But my favorite story was the time she tripped and fell down right in front of a White House guard at the largest of all antiwar demonstrations. The guard, a large African- American man dressed in uniform, actually helped her up off the ground while the rest of her group continued its march. My friend eventually caught up with the others, but it was too late. They had already passed the spot where they got as close to the White House as the authorities would let them, and to her frustration, she missed out on meeting Martin Sheen.
Jayden thrives when she talks about peace, and she always has a new story or concern.
"Oh, I was so disgusted today, Matthew," she said to me a couple of years ago. When my friend tells stories, I like being in the same room. Phone conversations aren't nearly as fun. She gets very expressive. Her hands move up and down. Her face gets red. It's hard not to laugh a little when she gets hyperpassionate. And on this particular day, her emotion and passion were out in full force.
"You will not believe this, Matthew," she said. "There we were, trying to have a peace rally, a peace rally, mind you, when all of a sudden about fifty people from who the heck knows where begin forcing their way through the police line. It was awful. I got sprayed with some kind of police gas; lucky for me, I had my back turned, so it hit and stained my jacket. And I wasn't even doing anything wrong. It was all of these other people rushing the line. I was trying to spread peace, and they were making a ruckus. I'm almost positive it was a bunch of right-wingers trying to make our peace rally go sour. It had to be ... and of course, the news cameras only cover the crazies. Oh, it turned into a huge mess."
"That sounds very peaceful," I said, hints of sarcasm seeping through my tone. "I'm sure sorry I missed that."
She just glared at me.
"Well, did anyone read your sign?" I asked, trying to change the subject. She had taken a great deal of time to create this rather cleverly designed sign that read, "GIVE US PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, HELP US STOP THE BEAST!" Believe me, I wish you could have seen that sign; I promise that the design was much more impressive than the slogan.
"Yes, a few people read it; I think a Washington Post photographer took a picture of me holding it. So, maybe I'll get close to the dream of what every peace activist longs for: I'll be on the front page tomorrow morning," she said, mocking herself. My friend then looked at me as though something were terribly wrong. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Do you think I'm crazy for doing this kind of stuff?"
"No. Why would you think that?"
"Are you sure?"
"I don't think you're crazy," I said seriously. "You're doing something you believe in, and I respect that. Now, I don't always think something 'peaceful' comes out of those kinds of things. I'm just not sure you can rally for peace. That's all."
"I know, Matthew; maybe you're right. Today was just awful."
"Do you think you helped the cause for peace today?" I asked.
"No, I don't think we did," she said. "I don't think one person was influenced by what we did today. Not one."
"But aren't you missing the point?" I asked. "Isn't the point of a peace rally to simply let the government know that you disagree with the way they are handling things?"
"I honestly don't know what the point is; I've just always done it—ever since I was in college," she said, laughing. "President Bush wasn't even at the White House today. So he didn't hear us."
"I'm sure Karl Rove will give him the message," I replied.
She stuck her finger in her mouth and pretended to gag.
"Let me ask you a question," I said. "Do you think Jesus would ever be at a peace rally?"
"I don't know. I mean, he was the ultimate peacemaker. But I think if he were to come to one, he'd have something to say about how we actually do it. Do you think he could find a way to make twenty thousand people be peaceful? I'm telling you, it's hard work, especially when we're all screaming, 'We want peace! We want peace!'"
"I'm sure he'd never go," I said.
"It just doesn't seem to be his kind of peace."
"I think it is," she said with confidence. "So do you think I'll be on the cover of the Washington Post tomorrow morning?"
"Maybe. It would be kind of fun."
Thoughts on War and Peace
I have had many conversations with Jayden (and other friends too) about protesting war and how it relates to the peace that Jesus asks us to make. But as much as my friends think they're fighting the good fight of faith when they protest, I'm pretty sure that the peace that gets yelled for and turned into clever slogans at peace rallies is not the kind of peace Jesus talks about.
When I lived in the Washington DC area, I saw several peace rallies. Watching them over the years, I became convinced that the peace demanded during those wartime gatherings is a one-dimensional type of peace. In other words, in nearly every case I witnessed, protestors were just looking for the kind of peace that gets one side (or both) to drop their weapons and retreat or not go to war at all. This is a type of peace, but it isn't the peace Jesus described.
The peace Jesus talks about doesn't come in the form of agreements or treaties or rallies. The type of peacemaking Jesus refers to in the Beatitudes is not simply about giving up; it's not about dropping weapons and returning home. I must admit, that kind of "peacemaking" would be a lot simpler. If all we had to do was wave a white flag in an effort to reveal that we've surrendered, I think more people would do it. But deep down, most people know in their hearts that peace is a lot more than silencing guns and harsh words.
It's certainly a good step when guns stop firing and people stop dying. But an act of surrender doesn't mean that peace has arrived. It just means somebody has given up. Giving up doesn't mean they're at peace. Laying down weapons, whether they are guns or words or fists, is a good first step toward knowing peace. But it's not the whole picture.
Brother Andrew addresses the concept of peace in his book Light Force. Writing about his experiences in the Middle East, he makes an argument that's intriguing to a lot of people but controversial to many more. He suggests that true peace is not possible anywhere, in any situation, under any circumstances, without Jesus. Treaties do not bring true peace. Wars do not bring true peace. There is no true peace without Jesus. It's impossible. Brother Andrew reminds us that the Bible calls Jesus the Prince of Peace. If he's the Prince of all things peaceful, surely he is needed in a situation for peace to even be an option (Brother Andrew and Al Janssen, Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire. Grand Rapids: Revell, 2005).
I struggle with that idea, mostly because I want peace to be possible everywhere. I want the Iraq War to be over. I want Israel and Palestine to get along. I want Democrats and Republicans to work together for the good of our country. But I also know what it takes for there to be peace between my wife and me. Peace is hard to come by.
In most cases, we humans really don't have a clue what peace is like. We have an idea—an idea that gets presented to us by historians, the media, and others. But I've learned that if I want to have any chance at being a maker of peace in the world around me and in my personal life, I have to know peace when I see it.
Before my journey began, I only knew when I didn't see it.
A BIGGER LESSON ABOUT PEACE MAKING
When Jesus was here on earth, he was the greatest of peacemakers. He achieved a popular following because he made peace by calming seas, casting out demons, and healing broken hearts. When he brought peace into people's lives, he wasn't simply ending their painful circumstances. In other words, he didn't just help them out of their problems—he made them whole again. Those people Jesus impacted experienced a fullness they had never imagined was possible. That's what the peace of Jesus is about—filling up a person and making him or her whole. But is that kind of peace possible for everyday people like ourselves?
It's easy for Jesus to do such things. He only had to walk into a situation, and peace would occur if he deemed it appropriate. He didn't have to say anything or do anything miraculous; many times his presence was enough to bring peace and calm to the lives he touched and the situations he encountered. His life on earth was about bringing wholeness to the lives of people.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson actually uses the word wholeness in spots where other translations use peace. The word wholeness implies that the peace we pursue through Jesus—as well as the peace we make through Jesus—is always about reconciliation.
It's about a human being finding true completion.
Peacemaking is not simply about having working relations between two countries or two entities or two people. Sure, that might be a small part of what Jesus was trying to communicate, but like most of his core messages, the peacemaking that he talks about has more to do with the condition of human hearts. He doesn't expect us to just put down our guns; we have to take many more actions for peace to be possible. He knows that out of a person's heart come actions. Those actions are a reflection of what's going on inside of us. It's the old "what goes up must come down" theory, but this time it's "what's inside will eventually come out."
Throughout history, world leaders have struggled to balance the relationship between war and peace. It's easy to look back over history and remember the great wars. Wars stick out in history like large black blotches on white paper. Memory is long when peace is unavailable or fails to exist. Jesus knew that about nonpeace; he knew that the stench of unrest and war wreaks havoc on a society's well-being. But the struggle to make peace is not a macro problem. It almost always begins with an individual heart.
As we know all too well, peace is a struggle for humanity in general, in all levels of life—work, family, and relationships. Wherever people exist, finding peace is problematic. And so often, just as a glance back in history reminds us quickly of our ancestors' mistakes, we often see that the most vivid memories in our own personal history are ones where peace is nowhere to be found. This is true in my own life, at least. In fact, it has been within the confines of Christian culture that I have suffered the most effects of nonpeace.
Pause and Reflect
Do you know someone who has actively pursued being a peacemaker?
How do you think your current understanding of peace is different from Jesus' understanding of peace?
Peace, Love, and Christians
Sadly, it's hard for me to remember a time when my father would not come home from the deacons' meetings at our church angry, frustrated, or confused. My dad had been a deacon at our church for as long as I could remember. As I scan the memory of my childhood faith, I find it difficult to remember a peaceful meeting occurring among those seven men who had been voted in by the church membership to manage the direction of the church. They struggled to get along.
The majority of those seven men, men I respected as an upstanding, ten-year-old, born-again Christian, quarreled more than led. If it wasn't the pastor, it was the building fund. If it wasn't how the church's money was being spent, it was the politics of the church. Sure, the men treated each other with respect when they were in front of the church body, but behind closed doors, issues and religiosity separated them.
Excerpted from RELEARNING Jesus by Matthew Paul Turner. Copyright © 2009 Matthew Paul Turner. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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