Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and author, published a book in 2011 called The Better Angels of Our Nature. In this book, he argued that almost every form of violence, including war, was on the decline. Not the first to make this argument, thinkers since the Enlightenment period believed that scientific progress and rational thinking devoid of religious dictates would lead to a less violent and more peaceful world. Pinker stated in a 2014 interview that war was becoming as likely "as throwing virgins into volcanoes to get good weather."(1)
I wonder how Pinker might address the current state of conflict and violence in our world? From the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, to the criminal drug violence in Mexico and Central America, to the civil war in Syria, and the violent killing of African Americans right here in my own country, violent conflict is a gross and lamentable aspect of human society. And while I can point to conflict raging from the Congo to the Philippines, I don't need to look much further than my own backyard to know that conflict is a daily struggle. Within local communities, within families, and within ourselves, we are at war. Our wars may not be fought with sword or gun, but we often pursue a violent agenda with our words and our actions. Simple disagreements turn into aggressive power struggles, and we find lethal weapons to cut down or wound our perceived antagonists. I would love to see Steven Pinker's thesis be proven true, but the reality of violence within human beings and in our world do not support his claim.
Given the ubiquity of conflict, I can be tempted to believe it was simply wishful thinking when Jesus spoke of peacemakers at all in his 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 quickly embroiled in conflict. 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."(2) After all, once his cousin John the Baptist was imprisoned, Jesus stated, "[F]rom the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force."(3) Indeed, like his cousin, he too would suffer violence against himself, being falsely accused, tortured by Roman soldiers, and then crucified with two criminals.
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 an absence of conflict, though certainly it was that. And shalom was far more than peacekeeping. The Hebrew understanding of shalom implied a holistic sense of well-being for individuals, communities and nations. To have shalom and to offer the blessing of shalom to others indicates a harmony in relationships, between individuals or nations, and is understood to be God's good gift for God's people. It also carried 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 blesses all those who advance peace because in being peacemakers, they are engaging in the very deepest activity of God. They are living out what it means to be 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, and who carry that saving work into the lives of others.
That 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.(4) As medical workers and eye-doctors, the team went to the remotest parts of Afghanistan to bring shalom by caring for and bringing healing to the Afghan people 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 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."(5)
I cannot help but wonder if "the better angels of our nature" might be more visible if we saw the work of making peace as offering nothing less than God with us. F.W. de Klerk, who with Nelson Mandela helped bring an end to apartheid and ensured a peaceful transition of power in South Africa stated: "In our quest for peace, we should constantly ask ourselves what we should do to create conditions in which peace can prosper."(6) As one who claims to follow Jesus, I am invited to continually assess whether as his follower I am doing what is necessary to create conditions in which the shalom of God is on display and prospering.
The blessing of Jesus on peacemakers seems particularly poignant in our contemporary world—a world in which violence and conflict are too often on display. 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 peacemakers like 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 our 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) Nikita Lalwani and Sam Winer-Levy, "Is the World Getting Safer?" Foreign Policy, January 12, 2020. Accessed 7/18/2020.
(2) "The Death of 10 Members of the Nuristan Eye Care Team," International Assistance Mission, November 13, 2010. Accessed 7/18/2020.
(3) Matthew 5:9.
(4) Matthew 11:12.
(5) Libby Little, "A Small Version of the Grand Narrative," Christianity Today, August 2010. Accessed 7/18/2020. Italics mine.
(6) F.W. de Klerk, Acceptance and Nobel Lecture, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, (Nobel Foundation), Stockholm, 1994.
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