#22  Jesus Expects His Followers to be Peacemakers

ORIGINALLY, THIS WAS NOT one of the chapters planned for this book. But in the process of writing the previous chapter, I became aware of how closely related are the ideas of simple living and peacemaking. In looking back at exemplary Christians through the centuries, most of those most interested in simple living were also interested in peacemaking, and many of those most interested in peacemaking were also interested in simple living.

In that connection, through the years I have also become increasingly cognizant of how there seems to be a significant economic factor behind most major historical events, including, and especially, wars. In spite of all the high-sounding rhetoric, wars are almost always fought for economic reasons, at least in part.

In his State of the Union message in January 2002, President George W. Bush referred to three countries as “the axis of evil.” Those three countries were Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. The next year war was launched against Iraq, and there have been repeated rumblings about a future war against Iran. While the government of North Korea has often been renounced, however, until briefly in 2017 there has been little talk of going to war against that country. What is the difference? It is hard to deny that the abundance of oil in the Middle East and the scarcity of oil in North Korea was likely the major reason Iran and Iraq were targeted and North Korea was not.

If population pressures, the need for natural resources, the desire for markets are all factors lying behind most wars (a generalization that, admittedly, some historians would disagree with), it is not hard to understand that an emphasis on simple living is closely related to peacemaking.

St. Francis Again

Murray Bodo is a Franciscan priest and the author of several books about Francis of Assisi.  His best-selling book is Francis, the Journey and the Dream, which has sold over 200,000 copies.[1] When I read that book a few years ago, I was most impressed with the chapter called “Francis before the Sultan.” It is a historical fact that Francis participated in the fifth crusade, first called for by Pope Innocent III, the pope that blessed Francis in their historic encounter before the papal throne in 1209. Ten years later, in the midst of the crusade, Francis went to Egypt, the main site of the fighting, and ended up having another historic encounter, this time with Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt and the leader of the Muslim forces fighting against the Christians.

Bodo conjectures that it was there before the powerful Islamic leader that Francis voiced his widely-known and oft-quoted prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Whether Francis actually was able to articulate that prayer before the sultan is not known, but it is quite certain that his purpose for risking his life to see the Muslim leader was with the intention of making peace. Following Jesus, for Francis, meant not only living a simple life but also seeking in every way possible to be a peacemaker.

Paul Moses, a journalist who became a university professor, has written The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, a book about that dramatic meeting of Francis and Malik al-Kamil.[2] In his fascinating book, Moses mentions that Francis’ “devotion to Lady Poverty has always received more attention than his peacemaking efforts. The two, however,” he goes on to assert, “are closely linked since, as Francis knew, wars are so often fought for economic gain.”[3]

Francis did not succeed in ending the Fifth Crusade. But he did engage in a time of dialogue with the Muslim leader, talks that seem to have gone on for several days. And, as Moses significantly points out, Francis clearly showed Sultan al-Kamil “what it meant to be a true Christian, a holy person who truly believed Jesus’ call to love the enemy” (p. 145).

Peacemakers are not always successful, but as I discuss in a later chapter, the New Testament word for success is faithfulness. Francis was faithful to the teaching of Jesus. Today, many Christians seem to be more prone to follow the government’s call to war than Jesus’ call to peace. For Francis, though, following Jesus meant to go against the popes who had called for the crusade and against Cardinal Pelagius who was the hands-on leader of the Crusaders who fought in Egypt during the time Francis was there. [4] For Francis, following Jesus meant actively seeking to be an instrument of peace.

Other Examples from the Past

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were others who believed, and lived, very much like Francis and his band of friars. One group centered around a man whose name is sometimes given as Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant in Lyon, France, who gave up his wealth and embraced a life of voluntary poverty.[5] His followers, who are known as Waldensians, came to be known not only for their simple lifestyle but also for their pacifism and their refusal to take oaths.

Centuries later, some Christians in and around Zurich, Switzerland, began to hold several views similar to those of the Waldensians (and similar also to those of Francis except for his loyalty to the Catholic Church). Simple living, refusal of oaths, and pacifism were key emphases of the “Swiss Brethren,” who in January 1525 performed the first baptism of adults who had already received infant baptism. This was the beginning of the movement of Christians who came to be called Anabaptists (meaning re-baptizers) by their opponents called.

In the present day, the Anabaptist tradition is most clearly seen in the Mennonite churches in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Named after the Dutch reformer Menno Simons,[6] this group rejected the extremes of some Anabaptists who used violence. Rather, they emphasized the pacifist position, and that has been a hallmark of their churches through the centuries. The Mennonites are one of the three so-called peace churches in the U.S.[7]

Peace Advocates in the Present

Although most Christians seemingly agree with the “just war” theory that goes back to the time of Augustine, there are now some Christians in many denominations who are outspoken opponents of war and ardent advocates of peace. This is true even for some who are members of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been the most heavily involved in “holy wars” in the past, particularly the Crusades from the end of the eleventh century until the thirteenth century. (Of course, until the sixteenth century there weren’t many other Christian groups.)

Before he converted to the Orthodox Church in 1988, Jim Forest was a Catholic for some twenty-five years, and during that time he founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship.[8] There were many notable Catholic pacifists before Forest, of course: one thinks particularly of Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker,[9] Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk,[10] and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the pacifist Catholic priests who were often in the news during the Vietnam War.[11]

And the work for peace continues with the activities of younger Catholic peacemakers. One of the most active at this time is John Dear, a Jesuit priest, who was awarded the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2010.[12]

There are also a number of Christian peace groups, such as the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, to which I have belonged for many years. Members of these fellowships are not all pacifists, but all are committed to seeking non-violent ways to end regional, national, and international conflicts.

While first working on this chapter I made a blog posting on the “Top Ten Christians,” the people after New Testament and early church times, but now deceased, whom I at that time considered the “best” Christians in history. In looking back at that list, I realized that they all, to varying degrees, espoused Christian pacifism.

Then, I began thinking about composing a list of the “top ten” living Christians. In some ways, that was more difficult, but, again, for the most part those who made the list are strong opponents of war and are active in peace and justice activities.

To give just one example, two people I considered when I first started working on the latter list were Nelson Mandela (who was still alive) and Desmond Tutu. Those two South Africans were agents of peace and reconciliation in the midst of a harsh social system of oppression. Tutu, who became an Anglican archbishop, fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1984, as did Mandela, who was given the same award in 1993.

Mandela and Tutu are good examples of Christians who are living faithfully according to the teachings of Jesus Christ by seeking peace and reconciliation. They were active peacemakers in South Africa in much the same way the late Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the United States—and it is no surprise that King, too, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[13]

Peacemaking as Love in Action

One of King’s notable books contains fifteen sermons published under the title Strength to Love.[14] Two sermons appearing early in the book are “Love in Action” and “Love Your Enemies,” and then the final sermon is “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” Those sermons sum up well what everyone needs to realize about love, which is at the core of the Christian faith.

Christian pacifists, such as Francis of Assisi as well as the descendants of the Swiss Brethren and the other pacifistic Anabaptists, do not base their peacemaking activities upon the optimistic belief that people are basically good and that peace can result from that goodness if people just tap into it and talk to each other in a rational manner. No, Christian pacifism is primarily based on Jesus’ teachings about love.

Christian pacifism does not necessarily “work” in every case. You might say it didn’t “work” for Jesus. It didn’t work for numerous Christian martyrs through the centuries, people who out of obedience to Christ were willing to shed their own blood rather than to be engaged in killing other people. They took literally Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

And so to the present time, many of those who take Jesus’ teaching seriously refuse to support war, for they do not see how it would be possible to love their enemies if they were also seeking to kill them through warfare.

Christians often find themselves in a bind when they seek to follow Jesus’ teaching in a country that has declared war. Fortunately, this country has made allowance for “conscientious objectors,” but that is not an option for Christians in some countries—and it is not always easy to “get off the hook” that way in this country. And by “getting off the hook” I don’t mean to imply that no service is required of those who are pacifists. In lieu of military service, other types of activity are required, and generally positively embraced by COs.

There is one more important point that needs to be recognized here: pacifism does not mean “passivism,” and many peace activists talk about the necessity of waging peace.[15] Real peacemakers are not passive. They are not cowards who sit on the sidelines while others are out in the “real world” doing all the “dirty work.” People like Dorothy Day, M.L. King, Jr., John Dear, and many others have made it quite clear that peacemaking is hard, dangerous work. And most of the people who want to be “good” Christians fall far short of the example that people like them have set.

In a world where Christianity has often been entwined with war and warlike activities, in the past more than in the present, people like Day, King, and Dear challenge us to realize that Jesus expects his followers to be peacemakers. This is another “true thing” that everyone needs to recognize.

[1] (Second ed., Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1988; first published in 1972). Bodo (b. 1937) became a Franciscan in 1955 and has been leading pilgrimages to Assisi since 1976.

[2] (Doubleday, 2009). Moses (b. 1948) joined the Journalism faculty at Brooklyn College in 2001.

[3] Pp. 37-38. Perhaps that was especially true of most wars during the Middle Ages, including the war between Assisi and Perguia, in which Francis had fought, and became a prisoner of, in 1202.

[4] Cardinal Pelagius (c.1165-1230) was the papal legate dispatched by Pope Honorius III to lead the Fifth Crusade at Damietta in Egypt; it is widely recognized that he made a poor strategic decision in turning down peace offers made by al-Kamil.

[5] Waldo’s dates are uncertain, but he was born around 1140 and probably died around 1218, although he may have died much earlier. He had gathered a large number of followers, sometimes called the Poor of Lyon, by 1170, more than a decade before Francis’ birth.

[6] Simons (1496-1561) was a Catholic priest who converted to the Anabaptist expression of Christianity in 1536.

[7] The other two are the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose beginning is traced back to George Fox in mid-seventeenth century England, and the Church of the Brethren, which originated in Germany in 1708 and is sometimes called the Dunkers or German Baptist Brethren. In the U.S., their Annual Conference of 1935 made the church’s position on pacifism clear by declaring that “all war is sin.” Currently, the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS) is in the process of becoming a peace church.

[8] Forest (b. 1941) was also a key member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for many years, including his service for more than a decade (1977-88) as Secretary General of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

[9] Day (1897-1980) started The Catholic Worker in the early 1930s, and she is another good example of one who greatly emphasized both justice for the poor and under-privileged people of society and world peace through non-violence.

[10] Merton (1915-68) grew increasingly insistent on nonviolence and peacemaking. David W. Givey’s revised book The Social Thought of Thomas Merton: The Way of Nonviolence and Peace for the Future (Anselm Academic, 2009) explores Merton’s evolution in that direction.

[11] Daniel (1921-2016) and Philip (1923-2002) were both Catholic priests who engaged in extensive nonviolent protests in opposition to the Vietnam War.

[12] Dear (b. 1959) has written some twenty-five books on peace and has been arrested at least seventy-five times for civil disobedience as he protested war and violence. He has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008.

[13] When King (1929-1968) was awarded the Peace Prize in 1964, he was the youngest person to ever receive that prestigious award.

[14] First published in 1963, this book was re-issued by Fortress Press in 1981 with a foreword by Coretta Scott King, the widow of M.L. King, Jr.

[15] I first became aware of this idea probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s as it was an emphasis of Sojourners. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of that magazine, is also the editor of Waging Peace: A Handbook for the Struggle Against Nuclear Arms (Harper & Row, 1982).

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