Where I live, I often see banners, signs in windows, and bumper stickers on cars with the message: “War is not the answer.” While I more or less agree that armed conflict rarely solves the problem of human violence, I am also very aware that a propensity towards violence and aggression are often responses that seem normal for most people. Perhaps this explains why in 2010 over thirty-five major conflicts were happening around the world, some of which have been going on since 1950. The United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting a thousand battlefield deaths or more per year.(1) Looking at these numbers of wars around the world would indicate that violent conflict seems an inevitable aspect of being human.
Of course, one doesn’t need to look much further than one’s own backyard to know that conflicts large and small are a daily struggle. Within local communities, within families, and within ourselves, we are often at war. Our wars may not be fought with sword or gun, but we often pursue a violent agenda with lawsuits and slander, our words and our actions. Simple misunderstandings turn into aggressive power struggles, and we find lethal weapons to cut down or wound our perceived antagonists. War may not be the answer, but solutions to the reality of violence in our hearts and in our world are not easily forthcoming.
Given this propensity towards conflict, I can be tempted to believe it was simply wishful thinking for Jesus to speak of peacemakers at all in his famous Sermon on the Mount. I am tempted to hear his pronouncement of blessing for these peacemakers as an impossible ideal for one such as myself so easily offended and so quick to defend. But Jesus was surely aware of the violent predilections of human beings when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). After all, once his cousin John the Baptist was put into prison, Jesus was the one who said, “[F]rom the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, like his cousin, he too would suffer violence against himself, being falsely accused, tortured by Roman soldiers, and then crucified with two criminals.
So what did Jesus have in mind when he pronounced blessing on the peacemakers? From within his own Jewish context, peace, or shalom, was far more than the absence of conflict, although it would surely include that. Shalom implies a holistic sense of well-being for an individual or a nation. It means harmony in relationships, between individuals or nations, and it is understood to be God’s good gift for God’s people. It also carries the meaning of salvation, wholeness, and healing—both for the people of Israel, and for those who would be blessed by Israel through her witness and proclamation. Peace is the well-being and prosperity of life that results from fully reconciled, healed, and harmonious relationships with God, others, and all of creation.
Jesus pronounces blessing on all those who advance peace because in being peacemakers, they are engaging in the very deepest activity of God. They are behaving as God’s children. Thus, Jesus identifies them as “the children of God” because they are imitating God’s divine work in the world as they live shalom and invite others to experience it. Peacemakers are those who receive God’s saving work into their lives, as ones who have found peace with God, and then make peace in the lives of others. The apostle Paul echoes this call to be peacemakers in his letter to the Roman believers in Jesus: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
This is exactly what Tom and Libby Little were doing in Afghanistan for over thirty years, until Tom was murdered, along with nine others from his team, on Thursday, August 5, 2010.(2) As medical workers and eye-doctors, the team went to the remotest and often conflict-ridden parts of Afghanistan to bring shalom through medical mission. In an article written just prior to receiving the news that her husband had been murdered, Libby Little spoke of their years as peacemakers, suffering as God’s servants in a war-torn world: “God blessed those occasions and visited us with his power. His amateur followers, stricken with stage fright, forgetting their lines, were acting out in miniature something of his own Grand Narrative—Immanuel, God with us.”(3)
The blessing of Jesus on peacemakers occurs in a world where violence indeed continues. This reality, at the very least, is implicitly acknowledged as Jesus extends blessing on those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness. As in the case of the Little’s, and in our own daily conflicts and warfare, peacemaking often involves the hard work of enduring, and sometimes suffering violence, without giving in to the human desire to take retaliatory violence into our hearts and hands. Those who pursue peace are blessed as God’s children, imitating the action of the Father to bring the children peace.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) “The World at War,” http://GlobalSecurity.org, November 11, 2010.
(2) “The Death of 10 Members of the Nuristan Eye Care Team,” International Assistance Mission, http://iam-afghanistan.org/, November 13, 2010.
(3) Libby Little, “A Small Version of the Grand Narrative,” Christianity Today, August 2010.