Text: Matthew 5:1-12; 6:24
Every religion, every nation, every politician, every preacher, almost every individual has an idea about what peace is and what it is not. The Buddha says, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” Indeed, many Eastern religions take this view: that peace begins within each heart and until we attain inner peace, there is no outer peace. Christians are a bit more eclectic in their views on peace. Some of us choose to focus on Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Yet others, who also call themselves Christians, will recite the words found a bit later in Matthew where Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Some people believe that if nations could come together around an understanding or philosophy of peace that we could attain world peace. Others think that just to talk about peace isn’t enough. That we must work at it. Take for instance Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote on the front of the bulletin: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Almost without exception, political figures all around the globe seem to define peace as power. Yes, throughout America’s history, this link between power and peace has dominated our approach to being pseudo peacemakers. If we honestly reflect on the American way of peace, it seems to me that we have been comfortable talking about peace as long as we held the power to protect ourselves fully if “some other” threatened our peace.
Noted Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in his book, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go, recounts a story he heard several years ago related to the American way of peace. William Casey, the head of the CIA, had just died. He was a good Irish Catholic, and his good Irish wife was on TV that evening. Around that time the newspapers had already begun to discover a lot of corruption in the CIA. Mrs. Casey said that anyone who raised questions about her dear husband was committing “blasphemy.” Rohr writes, “As a good Irish Catholic, she surely must have known the definition of blasphemy. Blasphemy doesn’t mean defaming the CIA, but defaming God.” Then Rohr reflects, “When a country makes itself God, then it can’t hear the Gospel. We use Christ to prop up our own nation-state, and then we use the Church to bless the nation-state and its illusions…The real religion of America has always been America regardless of whether one was Protestant, Catholic, or Jew.”
Yes, America fancies itself as being a Christian nation. What politician doesn’t invoke the name of God or tout their Christian values when trying to get elected? On our money, the greatest symbol of power in our culture, are the words “In God We Trust.” And what president hasn’t felt obligated to end a speech with the words, “God bless America.” But Rohr is right; the real religion of America is and has always been America. We have put more belief and trust in the American ideals of power, prestige, and possessions than we have in the principles and ethics embodied in any religion or faith. And I am wondering on this Peace Sunday what chance we have at truly being peacemakers if we continue simply to buy into this way of thinking and living.
Abraham Johannes Muste was a socialist active in the pacifist movement, the labor movement, and the US civil rights movement. At the end of his life, Muste took a leadership role in the movement against the Vietnam War. Fellow peace activist Andrea Ayvazian tells of Muste standing outside the White House every night during the Vietnam War, holding a candle, regardless of whether it was raining or not. One evening, a reporter approached him, and asked if he really thought that by standing outside the White House holding a candle night after night, he would change the policies of the country, to which Muste replied: “Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not doing this to change the country. I do it so the country won’t change me.” From that experience he wrote, “We cannot have peace if we are only concerned with peace. War is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a certain way of life. If we want to attack war, we have to attack the way of life.” What is that way of life that we must challenge? The way that has us believing that the only way to keep our nation safe is by building our military power; that the only way to be rich is by building our financial portfolios; that the only way to satisfy our hunger is by hoarding our food; and that the only way to peace is to make sure we hold all the power. Yes, when a country makes itself God, then it can’t hear the Gospel:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
We are living in a time when the greatest threat to world peace is the reality of nuclear war. Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate quest of the love of power, and the opposing theological message must be that we truly believe in the power of love. Forty years ago at a place called Woodstock, a wild guitar-playing rock star sent out the gospel message when he said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” The history of the nuclear age is accented with the heroic efforts of ordinary people doing small things with great impact-people like Sally Lilienthal. At age 62, when most people were preparing to enjoy retirement and looking back on their accomplishments, Sally decided to tackle the biggest issue of the modern era-the threat of nuclear war. She founded Ploughshares Fund in 1981 with next to nothing, and set about building an institution that would make its mark on the world. When asked what made her do it, she replied,
“The possibility of a nuclear war was the very worst problem in the world, I thought, and I just felt I had to do something about it. It was really as simple as that. But what could I do? I certainly knew nothing about nuclear science-I still don’t-and I knew nothing about physics and very little about weapons. But I thought that if a lot of people felt the same way I did but didn’t know what to do about it, we might get together and search for new ways to get rid of the nuclear weapons that we knew were threatening us all.”
Sally helped build Ploughshares Fund into one of the largest foundations making grants in the peace-and-security field, helping bring about monumental achievements like the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons of mass destruction; the establishment of the first Russian non-governmental organizations with influence over the public, media, and policymakers, and the lock-down of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. She incarnated the belief that an individual with vision and commitment can mobilize support for a cause that will make the world a better place. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
As the church, and as people of faith, how do we begin to live into our identity as peacemakers? Perhaps we begin by asking good questions. Questions like: How do we communicate about conflict? Are we practicing deep listening? Is prayer a priority? How do we confess, forgive, reconcile? In an article entitled, The Search for a Peacemaking Culture, Amanda Hendler-Voss writes,
“Jesus’ final days offer a powerful witness to peacemaking. On the eve of his betrayal, Jesus broke bread with the one who would betray him. Embodying servant-hood, he washed the feet of each disciple. In the garden, Jesus wrestled with God in prayer…[And now] The church re-enacts the final supper to remember that all are welcome at God’s table to a meal that fills our deepest hunger for communion. We acknowledge that no act, however violent or repugnant, is powerful enough to separate us from God’s love. We repeat Jesus’ prayer, asking God to forgive us as we forgive others. The table of reconciliation is a central location for peacemaking. We must guide our children to God’s table and break bread with friends and adversaries. We must remember the significance of the forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation that God hold out again and again.”
When a country makes itself God, then it can’t hear the Gospel. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters…” I wonder, what religion will we choose in the days to come-America or the Gospel? Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.