I’ve been blessed to live in the same state with a very great writer,poet environmentalist, pacifist, Christian farmer named Wendell Berry. Wendell has a wonderful little book which came out in 2005 entitled Blessed are the Peacemakers which I had occasion to read recently. In style it is much like the writings of Fred Buechner. It involves only 23 pages from Berry, and then a quotation of selections from the Sermon on the Mount. Berry freely admits that besides Jesus, he has other influences, including yet another Kentuckian who once lived at Gethsemane Abbey— Thomas Merton. You will sense the influence of both of these in some of the quotes from Berry’s little book in the next few posts. I decided since the phrase ‘Prince of Peace’ most often shows up at this time of year, trotted out for Christmas, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the meaning of being a follower of the Prince of Peace, especially while we have this year been in the process of bombing the daylights out of Iraq and Syria.
Berry begins with the following salvo— “Especially among Christians in positions of great wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian’….From this accommodation has proceeded a monstrous history of Christian violence. War after war has been prosecuted by bloodthirsty Christians, and to the profit of greedy Christians, as if Christ had never been born and the Gospels never written. I may have missed something, but I know of no Christian nation and no Christian leader from whose conduct the teachings of Christ could be inferred. One cannot be aware of both the history of Christian war and the contents of the Gospels without feeling that something is amiss. One may feel that, in the name of honesty, Christians ought either to quit fighting or quit calling themselves Christians.” (pp. 3-4).
While one may find some of this a bit too strident, I have to say that on the whole, I believe he is right, and especially when it comes to American Christians he is simply pointing out an obvious blind spot. When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ he really didn’t mean ‘blessed are the warmongers’. For a person like myself, a life-long Methodist who takes seriously his Biblical and Wesleyan heritage (remembering that Wesley spent a double digit number of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount in his Standard Sermons) trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount in America has been….. well…. trying….difficult, almost impossible.
My father was not happy when I agreed with my Quaker friends in High Point N.C. in 1968 and decided I could not support the Vietnam war, or for that matter any war that has been fought in my lifetime (all of which have been undeclared wars, none of which meet the standards for a just war, much less the standards of the Geneva conventions). And yet my father was a good father, a veteran of WWII who loved me and went with me when I went to get the conscientious objector papers at the downtown post office. As things turned out, I did not need to fill them out (but I still have them), as the draft board did not get to my number, 192. But they got to many of my friends’ numbers when I was in Chapel Hill in the early 70s, and it changed or ruined their lives.
It honestly has just astounded me in the last three decades how many good Christian kids have, without a flinch of conscience, marched off to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere. I don’t think they got the memo about what the Sermon on the Mount actually says on things like non-violence, love, forgiveness, non-resistance, loving enemies and the like. Jesus intended for his followers to imitate his own behavior, not that of Caesar and his legions.
If only for the sake of putting the emphasis on the right syllable, Christians ought to be going out of their way to distinguish themselves from their more bellicose neighbors and friends. They ought to be setting a better example of the more excellent way of loving one’s neighbors, even one’s enemies, and I’m pretty sure when Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean love them to death at the point of a gun. For me this means three things at the personal level: 1) I can’t serve in the military, except perhaps as a medic or maybe a chaplain, although I am not even sure that might not be too much of a compromise; 2) it means I must spend my life on positive Gospel tasks, not negative destructive ones. My focus and life style and views must be entirely different from that of perhaps the majority of Americans on these matters; 3) it means that I must support those Jesus says are blessed— the peacemakers.
It has of course become fashionable to ridicule the efforts of organizations like the United Nations as they try to broker peace agreements, cease fire agreements, peace accords, using diplomacy. It is all too common to laugh and speak about the ineffectiveness and ineptitude of such efforts. Perhaps it might be worthwhile before going that way to ask whether these aren’t the very sorts of efforts and persons that Jesus was calling blessed, in the very violent world he lived in. Think on these things.