Here is a guest blog by my friend and colleague, Chris Walker, from a service held during The Perth Peacemaking Conference 2018.
Being Peacemakers (Isaiah 2:1-4 and Matthew 5:1-10)
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr Chris Walker at St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Perth, on 11 November 2018
Introduction—peace and shalom
Let me begin this message by acknowledging all those who have died in war. Remembrance Day goes back to the armistice signed on 11 November, 1918 which brought the terrible First World War to an end. King George V started the tradition of Remembrance Day in 1919. We rightly remember those who died in WW I and subsequent wars. For this message, I want to focus not on war but on peace and the things that make for peace.
Peace is a major theme in the Bible especially the New Testament. Unfortunately, whether it is people during the time of ancient Israel or people today, resorting to violence and war is all too common. At the beginning of the First World War H.G. Wells spoke about it as “the war to end war.” His phrase became well used to support the war. The idea of war to end war is impossible for peace negotiations necessarily follow. We do better to overcome war bynonviolent, peaceful means. As Christians I believe we need to give more attention to Jesus’ call for us to be peacemakers.
Peace is not simply the absence of war. The major part of our difficulty in achieving lasting peace in various places in the world is that the suffering, the injustices, the mistreatment of people are not overcome. The desire to dominate, the misuse of power, the aggrandisement of leaders for their own people and nations lead to using violence and war as their preferred means to their ends. It is hard not to despair about the possibility of lasting peace in places such as the Middle East, between groups that hate each other, and because of the common belief in the necessity for the use of violence and war to impose peace.
Nevertheless, Jesus wants us to be peacemakers if we are to be called children of God. Isaiah has the vision of people beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, of nations not lifting up swords against one another and not learning war any more.
The peace God desires for us is not just that there be an absence of conflict and war. Peace, whether between nations or in relation to individuals, tends in the English language to be understood in negative terms: the absence of conflict, the absence of civil disturbance, no longer being in tension with others, no longer disturbed within.
The Hebrew word for peace, ‘shalom’, is a larger positive word that takes several English words to adequately capture its meaning. It has to do with peace, fulfilment, wholeness, community, justice, unity, harmony, health, security and prosperity. Shalom holds together the spiritual and the material, the individual and the corporate, the human and the environment. It is a positive state of well-being for all.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” If we are seeking to follow the way of Jesus then being a peacemaker is not an optional extra. Note that the term peacemaking is an active one. We are to make peace, seek peace, recommend those things that buildpeace. It is not a passive stance of non-involvement, of refusing to participate in situations of conflict, of abstaining from action for fear of becoming caught up in the tensions.
Jesus does not call us to separate ourselves from the world in order to live our own lives of peace in secluded communities of like-minded people. While I have some admiration for people such as the Amish in the USA who do seek to live peaceful lives apart from the mainstream of American life, my own position is that we need to be more involved than that in the issues of the day. This is especially so if we live in nations that are democracies in which we can participate in public debate and vote for leaders.
Peace has various dimensions as I have detailed in my book Peace Like A Diamond. There I speak of five interrelated aspects to peace: peace with God, peace with oneself, peace with others, peace in society, and peace with the environment. The fullness of peace, shalom, has to do with all these dimensions of peace which includes care for the creation as well as peace with people.
Jesus promises that if we are peacemakers then we will be called “children of God”. An important component of peace is our relationship with God. If God is the source of all and wants to be in relationship with us, then we need to respond to God if we are to know peace. Peace with God involves recognising that we have to change from self-centred living to putting God first in our lives. Jesus’ life and ministry enabled people to enter the reign of God. In doing so they knew God’s peace. The extent of God’s love for us was evident especially in Jesus being willing to die on the cross for us, that we might be reconciled with God. We can know and live as the loved sons and daughters of God.
Those who do repent and respond to God through Jesus Christ in faith can know God’s peace in their lives. Let me give one example of this.
Anne was diagnosed with serious cancer. It was totally unexpected. She had gone to see the doctor about another health problem and had no idea about the cancer. Tests, however, revealed that cancer was growing in many parts of her body. Despite the shock of the diagnosis and what it would mean in terms of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a limited life expectancy, and moments of sadness and anxiety, she experienced an enveloping peace through it all. This was not denial but an awareness that despite everything God was with her and would continue to be so. She received the prayerful support not only of family but also of many friends and colleagues. Peace with God at this time was not a new experience. As a person of Christian faith, she knew peace with God and now experienced it at this time notwithstanding the unwelcome news.
Anne was a person known and appreciated by me. She had been the team leader of the Uniting Church ministry at Mt Druitt in Sydney’s west, a very multicultural, disadvantaged community with many aboriginal, Tongan and other people in the area. Often there were conflicts between people. She was a calm leader who people trusted. She enabled many to find a better life than if she and the ministry were not present. The ministry continues under the leadership another person who also has a similar heart for the people. They were and are consciously peacemakers and representatives of Christ’s compassion in the area.
War and Suffering
Peacemaking means seeking to overcome conflict which so often results in violence and war. We need to learn non-violent ways of dealing with tensions and reject the way of violence. We are now recognising the need to do so in relation to domestic violence. Domestic violence is never acceptable. Unfortunately, war is still regarded as acceptable. We have not learned from the First World War that the suffering, injury and death, the destruction and devastation done to the land, is not something we should continue to accept.
I saw the film ‘Testament of Youth’ based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain about the First World War. It highlighted the suffering she experienced as a woman because of the war in which her fiancé and brother were killed. She served as a nurse in France and nursed injured and dying German as well as British soldiers. The film concluded with her addressing a group of people pointing out the human suffering on both sides.
In our current context people can be casualties of war even when they have nothing directly to do with the conflict. I have friends whose son Jack was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) that was shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed. This occurred in the War on Donbass in an area controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
As well as civilian casualties and destruction, war and violence have led many people to become refugees. They often have horrific stories of needing to flee to safety having seen family members and neighbours killed.
All of this suffering highlights for me the unacceptable cost of war and the need to do all we can to find solutions to the issues leading to conflict.
I believe Christians need to make peacemaking an essential component of being a disciple of Jesus. The World Council of Churches has an important statement “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace”. It rightly says that the way to peace is by working for justice and reconciliation between people. War has been justified in the past by the ‘just war’ theory which speaks of limits to the way war should be conducted. In practice these limits are readily broken. What is needed is to work to overcome the issues that lead to war. We can seek shalom for all people. Christians can be at the forefront of doing so by endeavouring to ensure that grievances are heard, truth is acknowledged, and fair treatment is given to all people.
Let us then be peacemakers following the way of Jesus. Jesus himself rejected the way of the sword. At his arrest he told his disciples to put away their swords. He followed the way of suffering love and did not resort to violence. Even on the cross he cried out, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). People do know what they are doing when they resort to war. We need to challenge the justifications and call for non-violent responses. Nations should heed the United Nations more than they do. As we seek to be peacemakers we will be called children of God, sons and daughters loved by God as we align ourselves with God’s peaceful and loving purposes. Amen.
Chris Walker was formerly the National Consultant on Christian Unity, Doctrine and Worship for the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. He has taught theology in Adelaide, Sydney, and Perth, and served as a mission and education consultant for the church.
A Statement issued from the conference can be found at https://unitingforpeacewa.org/2018/11/28/perth-peacemaking-conference-statement/