“Each of the beatitudes presents a challenge to a world that prizes power, success, and greatness. Among them all, the beatitude of peacemaking is perhaps the most counter-cultural.” – Robert Ellsberg
The primary question I want to address is the broader possibility that Jesus came to offer a very different logic, a different understanding of realism, that contrasted dramatically with the culture and reality of his time. And because our world is not really all that different, it contrasts with our reality as well. And if that troubles us, well, it should trouble us. It troubles me. But if we call ourselves Christians, I think that tends to mean that we are a people called to see things from a different perspective–you might call it God’s perspective–which in so many ways depart from the logic and realism that we generally take for granted.
Perhaps the most systematic account of this different way of seeing and acting occurs in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These several chapters in the Gospel of Matthew lay out a moral vision that contrasted in so many ways with the religious and civil codes of his time.
Six times Jesus repeats the refrain: You have heard it said… but I say unto you….. so when Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said,’ You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
People don’t hate their enemies because the law tells them they should; it is an attitude deeply ingrained in human nature. And so when Jesus says to “love your enemy” he is proposing a revolution in values, a way of looking at the world that utterly breaks with the logic of justified violence, retaliation, and retribution.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with an even more condensed version of Jesus’ message—a series of blessings, the so-called Beatitudes —that outline the values and attitudes that should characterize his disciples.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the pure of heart.
Blessed are those who mourn.
They represent values that stand in vivid contrast to the prevailing values and ethos of our world.
That was dramatically true for the context in which Jesus preached on the Beatitudes, in an occupied colony within the Roman Empire–a world that literally worshipped power, that made a fetish of cruelty and violence, and disdained anything weak or powerless.
In the midst of that world Jesus outlined a completely different set of values. What does it mean in such a world to value the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, or the peacemaker? These are values that make absolutely no sense in terms of the value structure of his time. They are literally a kind of blasphemy against the gods of empire and the social order.
Blessed are the poor in spirt? What does that mean in a culture driven by consumption and acquisition, an economy fueled by indulgence and waste? Blessed are those who mourn? What does that mean in what Pope Francis calls a culture of indifference, in which the mass suffering of strangers or the extinction of fellow creatures doesn’t affect us?
Yet we have become so accustomed to this litany of beatitudes that it no longer disturbs or challenges us.
And in that context, what are we to do with the most troubling of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers. What does this mean?
Often, Christian armies on both sides of a war justified their cause by invoking the very same criteria. (Sadly, that is the actual case with Ukraine and Russia.)
And yet at various times in history there were men and women who managed to recall this forgotten gospel note. Until recently this was largely confined to the so-called peace churches, including the Mennonites and Quakers, who taught that there was that of God in every person, and that it was therefore impermissible to take another human life.
For the most part, such peacemakers absented themselves personally from the call to war, but they did not interfere with the larger machinery of death.
But we are living now in a different era of war, and that also means perhaps a different era of peacemaking. Henri Nouwen spelled this out very directly:
He wrote: “On August 6, 1945, the day on which the atom bomb was first used in war, peacemaking came to mean what it could not have meant before: the task of saving humanity from collective suicide.”
Among Catholics, the person who did more than anyone else to change this was the American Dorothy Day, who died in 1980. The founder of the Catholic Worker, she was truly a woman of the beatitudes, who not only embodied these values but pointed out their social implications and their radical challenge to the present world.
She called her program “a revolution of the heart,” a revolution that must begin in the present with each one of us, but might then spread and inspire others to build “a new society in the shell of the old.”
For Dorothy Day, the key text of the gospels was Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25: that whatever we do for the poor or those in need we do directly for him.
She believed that the solution to social and economic problems must begin on the spiritual level, with the capacity to see others, especially those who were poor and hungry, as our brothers and sisters. She believed it was important for some people to make a start, to exemplify new values, to help build a new culture.
Among those who believed Dorothy Day was not the crazy one was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who at the time was one of the best-known spiritual writers in the world.
He wrote a book called “Peace in the Post-Christian Era.”
He was referring to the situation of a society that formally makes loud appeals to Christian values while pursuing policies that are utterly contrary to the spirit of Christ.
“Whether we like it or not,” he wrote, “we have to admit we are already living in a post-Christian world, that is to say a world in which Christian ideals and attitudes are relegated more and more to the minority. It is frightening to realize that the façade of Christianity which still generally survives has perhaps little or nothing behind it, and that what was once called ‘Christian society’ is more purely and simply a materialistic neo-paganism with a Christian veneer…. Christianity, in a word, is everywhere yielding to the hegemony of naked power.”
The great philosopher and proponent of alternative economics, E.F. Schumacher, spoke of what he called a Great Convergence–the convergence between the timeless wisdom of our greatest spiritual teachers and the practical survival of the human species. What has been considered practical, effective, and rational, has been shown to mask a kind of mass delusion.
This is evident not only in our preparations for nuclear doomsday, but in our calculated passivity in the face of climate change.
As much as in the time of Dorothy Day or the time of Jesus for that matter–we face a crossroad, a fork leading in different directions: a world of peace, mercy, solidarity, care for creation–or we accept the way of greatness, power, domination of the weak and of the earth
In this situation what is the calling of the peacemaker?
A peacemaker is not someone who has an easy answer for every social conflict. Nor is it someone who simply tries to avoid conflict or proposes passivity in the face of injustice or aggression. Peacemaking is not just a matter of opposing war.
In a world that lives and breathes the logic of justified violence, the peacemaker is someone with imagination–someone faced with two options who sees and chooses the third. Someone, when faced with the message that this is the way it has always been done, is able to say the way it has always been done does not work. There has to be a different way. The peacemaker is someone who dreams and envisions something different, and in that imagination makes it possible.
It is up to us—to make the words and vision of Christ visible and credible in the world we live in. Woe to us, if history records that we found this difficult, and so did not try. As the theologian Dorothee Soelle wrote: “Sin has to do not just with what we do but with what we allow to happen.”
The Beatitudes are a call, an invitation, to join Jesus on the path of discipleship—they are calling us to a new way, a way that doesn’t just flow against the tide of the world, but also flows toward a different world, a world animated by different values, different priorities, different dreams. And as with any great journey, we create that path by walking it.