Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life
“Blessed are the peacemakers…”
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 3/30/2014
Based on Matthew 5:9 & James 3:13-18
Each week we close our service with a Benediction, which is a word of blessing as we leave this time of worship, then we form a circle of sorts (the fact that it is always a very peculiar looking circle holds a great deal of theological reflection in its self) joining hands and we sing a little chorus with these words: Wider and wider, our circle expands. As to the world we reach out our hands. Led by the Spirit, we’re learning to bend. Loving, and growing, and loving again. At the end of this song we close with the words Shalom and Salaam! Shalom coming from the Jewish tradition and Salaam from the Muslim greeting. The reason that we say both is in keeping with one of our core values of “inclusion.”
The traditional body action used with Salaam is that of a low bow and the hand placed on the forehead. This gesture places the person giving the greeting in a submissive posture and elevates the person being greeted. Both Salaam and the Jewish Shalom are words for Peace, yet not in the same understanding that we use “peace” in our language. These two ancient Aramaic words translate into a description about the well being of God’s people, of all God’s people, from the richest to the poorest, from the most agile to the lame, from the brilliant to the slow of mind. Shalom is about justice, living out the truth of God’s kingdom. The Beatitudes for Today, by James C Howell So when we say Shalom or Salaam, we are using the word peace, not in the sense of absence of conflict (which is our modern day understanding) but rather in the promotion of well being to those whom we say it to.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. For many people the idea of peace means no fighting. Yet one can live in the absence of fighting and not experience peace. Think of a home where there is no equality between the spouses, where one perceives themselves as being in authority over the other, there may be no fight because the spouse of lower stature has kowtowed to the other, bringing the appearance of peace because of no conflict, when in reality, there is the devaluing of the one spouse.
A common understanding of being a peacemaker means working at ending a war. I remember signing my first petition at age 14, protesting our military involvement in Vietnam. Yet to be a peacemaker by the definition that Jesus speaks of in this seventh Beatitude, Pope Paul VI in 1972 highlighted saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
I want to share a reflection by Anne Sutherland Howard, author of Claiming the Beatitudes. She writes: It’s taken me decades to learn this (Pope Paul VI’s remark about working for justice). I used to think that peacemaking simply meant ending war. As one who came of age in the Vietnam War, with my two brothers watching their draft lottery numbers, staying in school to avoid the draft, and ultimately getting drafted and serving in the National Guard, the war and the body count on the evening news was front and center in my family’s daily life. My heroes were Father Daniel Berrigan and his little brother Philip both being on the FBI top ten list of most wanted because of their dramatic protests against the war. I saw peacemaking as stopping that war: “Blessed are the peacemakers” meant “Blessed are the war protesters.” A decade or so later, with Vietnam over, the Cold War was heating up with the massive weapons buildup of the early 1980’s. I was working for an interfaith nuclear disarmament group, and I saw peacemaking as ending the nuclear arms race: “Blessed are the weapons protesters.”
“But a rabbi’s question helped me see that peacemaking is something more. I went to talk with Rabbi Leonard Beerman one day in the early 1980’s when I was discouraged, feeling that it was futile to protest the nuclear arms race when the nuclear stockpiles rose higher each day, and every day our country sold more and more weapons to more and more economically undeveloped countries. “Our efforts are so puny and nobody cares, nobody listens, nobody can change anything. Why do we bother to keep working for social and political change?” I asked him.
Rabbi Beerman listened, as he always listened to my questions and complaints, and in his gentle, quiet way reached into his desk and brought out a picture of his new grandson, Matthew Benjamin. He asked to see a picture of my new baby son, Benjamin Michael. He told me to think about these two little boys who would graduate from high school in the year 2000. He told me to think about what we owed them. And then he asked me, “if we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?”
From that rabbi, and that question, I began to learn about shalom, about what we human beings owe to one another as children of God. As President Dwight Eisenhower had said back in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” Claiming the Beatitudes, pg 98-100
Once the Christian Church became the legitimate state church by Roman Empire Constantine, the church has dealt with the ethical arguments for and against war based on either pacifism or “just war” theory. The just war theory was codified for the church by St Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century in an attempt to answered the question, “When, if ever, is it justifiable for a Christian to participate in war?” The tenets of just war say that war can only be waged (1) as a last resort, (2) by a legitimate authority, (3) to redress a grievous wrong, (4) with reasonable assurance of success, (5) to establish peace, (6) with violence proportional to the injury suffered, and (7) with weapons that discriminate between combatants and civilians. These tenets were challenged by Baptist Theologian, Glen Stassen’s 1992 book “Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace”, moving from “Should we go to war?” or “Should we go to this war?” to “How can we prevent war?” Claiming the Beatitudes pg101
How do we say “Yes to peace?” After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, any attempt to ask this question was labeled by our Government as being “unpatriotic” and “anti-American”. Yet as Christians we need to hear the call from Jesus for transformative living. Jesus challenged the accepted practice of “an eye for an eye” with “You shall not kill”, because he saw that revenge only brings more revenge. In the Epistle of James we read: For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. The lack of peace stems from basic human nature of envy and selfish ambition. Out of this nature we nurture fear, hatred, jealousy, revenge, dishonesty, basically all the elements that lead to a non-peaceful existence.
Is it actually possible to say “yes to peace?” South African leaders determined that the only way to move forward in the post-apartheid era would be to form a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission. All over South Africa, victims and perpetrators told their stories; women faced policemen who had murdered their husbands and children and told of their agony. Henchmen who carried out vile orders admitted their guilt. Justice was meted out, and yet the most astonishing moments of reconciliation, which would strike many of us as implausible, happened – because the truth simply had its day out in the open.
The Hebrew understanding of justice is not about the good being rewarded and the bad being punished, nor is it about fairness to the individual, but rather health to the community. (Mishpat) Justice occurs when the poorest in a community are cared for. For those who have questions about the “appropriateness” of our burrito breakfast sandwiches that we give to the day labors once a month, we are doing justice, we are caring for the poorest in our community, not questioning the legality of their presence, but relating to these men as one child of God to another. In our walk of Harambee with Georgia and her family in Greeley who suffered total loss of home in last Septembers flooding, we are practicing peacemaking, for we are working out justice with a family who became a part of the “least of these” in our extended community.
How do we say “Yes to peace?” It starts with what we do locally, by working for justice, which means bringing about health to the community. As Rabbi Beerman asked, “If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?” James end today’s reading by saying: Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. His brother Jesus tells us: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Peacemaking isn’t about stopping war – it’s about working for justice – the bringing about health to the community – to the world community. Amen