There are very few things more desirable in this world than to simply live in peace … and there are very few things more elusive in this world than to simply live in peace.
To borrow from our Founding Fathers, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
For those who prefer to rely upon empirical data, consider the following statistics:
- Violence causes more than 1.6 million deaths worldwide every year. It is one of the leading causes of death in all parts of the world for persons ages 15 to 44.
- Terrorism is on the rise, with an almost fivefold increase in fatalities since 9/11.
- More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died since 9/11 in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined.
- Youth homicide rates in the U.S. are more than 10 times that of other leading industrialized nations.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, and for every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts.
- Nearly 1 in 3 students (27.8%) report being bullied during the school year. Bullied victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than nonvictims.
- One in six American women has reported being the victim of an attempted or completed rape, and 10% of sexual assault victims are men.
- When adding up the concrete costs to the average American taxpayer, it is estimated that violence containment spending costs $6 billion a day or $246 million an hour. That’s $7,000 for every man, woman and child each year.
And yet, it was to an equally violent and terror-filled world that the angels proclaimed:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Lk 2:14).
If you think it sounds too good to be true, you are not alone. It is a real head-scratcher, to say the least. Some might even call it a pipe dream. Here we are, more than 2,000 years later, but when we look around the world, not to mention our own families, neighborhoods, workplaces and, most troubling of all, our local churches, we are quickly tempted to wonder if something has been lost in translation.
Where exactly is this “peace on earth” that we were promised?
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus declared, “for they will be called the children of God” (Mt 5:9). In his Sermon on the Mount, our Lord made it crystal clear that the call to peacemaking is at the very core of life in the Kingdom. Without question, it is one of the clearest indications that we are, in fact, legitimate offspring of our heavenly Father.
The sobering conclusion is obvious: If this world has any hope of witnessing genuine expressions of true and lasting peace, it will only happen if we as Christ followers are willing and able to lead the way as imperfect yet passionate peacemakers. It is not enough to simply curse the darkness. We must light our candles for Christ (Mt 5:14-16).
As an evangelical Quaker, committed pacifist and registered conscientious objector, I must confess that it has been extremely challenging to flesh out my own personal practice of non-violent peacemaking. And nowhere has this been a greater challenge than in the context of the local church. As a pastor and superintendent, I have presided over more “holy wars” during the past four decades than I can possibly count. And I have made more than my share of mistakes in the process. I have also learned many valuable lessons along the way, mostly through trial and error as a student in the “school of hard knocks.”
I have discovered, first and foremost, that true pacifism (rooted in the Latin word for peace, pax) is anything but passive. It requires an extremely high level of strenuous, personal engagement, vulnerability and sacrificial service. As former World Vision president Bob Seiple once observed, “peace lovers” make every effort to avoid conflict, while “peacemakers” seek to actively resolve conflict. It sounds counter-intuitive, but we are called to intentionally enter the fray, armed with nothing more and nothing less than the very presence and power of the Prince of Peace himself. Instead of waging war, we are waging peace. The two are not just different sides of the same coin. They are diametrically opposed. As the Apostle Paul would remind us, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Co 10:3-5).
I have also discovered that peacemaking can be a very, very messy process. It is far from a perfect science. There are no silver bullets or magic wands at our disposal. “They all lived happily ever after” is a great closing line for a fairy tale, but it rarely matches reality. It only takes one willing party to forgive, but it requires at least two willing parties to reconcile. The achievement of lasting peace and mutual harmony in this fallen world is an extremely difficult, highly elusive and, in some cases, an overly idealistic expectation. Sometimes the best you can do is arrive at a mutual cease fire, at least for the time being. It usually takes a long time to build the thick walls of enmity and hostility, and it may take just as long to tear them down.
Finally, and most importantly, I have learned that at the core of biblical peacemaking is the concept of shalom, the primary Hebrew word for what we call peace. It refers to a state of ultimate well-being, where everything is right and good in our lives and in the world. It is the restoration of wholeness, not just for individuals, but for entire communities and for all of creation. And that can only happen when we are in right relationship with our Creator. Reconciliation with God through faith in Jesus Christ is always the first step on the journey to genuine shalom: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace” (Eph 2:13-14).
Make no mistake about it. The call to peacemaking is not an option for faithful disciples of Jesus. Peacemaking is at the very heart of God, it is at the very core of the gospel, and it is at the very center of the Christmas story. At the end of the day, we pursue peace not because it is popular, prudent or pragmatic, but because it is Christian. And we do so as a prophetic witness to Christ our King, whose “Peaceable Kingdom”has come in part and will one day come in its full fruition (cf. Isaiah 11:6).
I wonder where God may be calling each of us to wage peace today as we invite our Lord Jesus to “become flesh and dwell among us” in new and fresh ways during this Advent season? It may well be among our own families, amid strained or severed relationships with those who are closest to us, with those who make us feel most vulnerable and exposed. But if this call to peacemaking begins at home, it certainly doesn’t stop there. It compels us to restore right relationships with our wider network of friends, neighbors, co-workers and, yes, fellow believers. When we choose to walk down the hard path of Christian peacemaking, we will find ourselves standing on an increasingly credible platform for proclaiming the good news that it is actually possible to “live in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars” (George Fox, Derby Prison, 1650). And then maybe, just maybe, “peace on earth” won’t seem quite so elusive after all.
For those who long to put the “Christ back in Christmas,” peacemaking is a great place to start.