Busting 5 Peacemaking Myths

If you know anything about me, you probably know that peace is a big deal for me. You probably know that one of the Christian traditions that’s had an important influence on how I think about following Jesus is the Peace Church tradition of the Anabaptists. You probably also know that I advocate for nonviolence and you probably know my wife Osheta’s first book was even entitled Shalom Sistas. So, for some folks, it comes as somewhat of a shock when I weigh in on matters of social justice in politics. Some folks are surprised and dismayed when I call out racism, misogyny, or economic injustice. They sometimes accuse me of violating my own emphasis on peace. They might see me making comments or statements about public policy and ask “How does peacemaking fit into this?” This question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what biblical “peace” means—one that I once unfortunately had as well. But, thankfully, through study of the Scriptures, through learning from wise mentors and biblical scholars, and through my own advocacy with and for those who experience injustice, I’ve been disabused of many unbiblical ways of thinking about peace. And now it’s one of my favorite subjects.

So, in this piece, I’m going to be dispelling five common misconceptions about peacemaking while talking about what peacemaking in the Way of Jesus is really all about.

In the NIV, Matthew 5.1-12 reads:

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

It’s possible that some of us are so familiar with these words that we have trouble hearing them anymore. For example, I’ve observed that many of us invest our own understanding of “peacemaking” into Jesus’s use of the term here. There was a time not all that long ago when I had unknowingly invested peacemaking with my own faulty assumptions. I confused Jesus’s way of peace-making with what I’d been taught, which was all about peace-keeping. So the first myth I’m going to bust is the myth that peace-making is the same as peace-keeping.

1. Peace-keeping isn’t Peace-making

For starters, we tend to lightly skip over the connection between peacemaking and persecution right here in the Beatitudes. Jesus was a peacemaker and yet he was also persecuted. Jesus concludes the beatitudes with the fact that the prophets were also persecuted, so his disciples are in good company. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a peacemaker too, and obviously he was persecuted. This is where people get stuck. How can a prophet also be a peacemaker?

The misconception is that prophetic speech, such as speaking up for the oppressed, calling out injustice, isn’t peaceful. Maybe it’s cold comfort that this isn’t just a modern-day misconception. People in Jesus’s day had this misunderstanding too. Here’s what Jesus says to address this misunderstanding in his day:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matthew 10.34-36)

See, Jesus is differentiating his peace from a common misconception of peace: going along to get along. Jesus is saying his peace is also a sharp and poignant truth! And the truth divides. When we’ve committed to Jesus Christ, it may mean some folks won’t be on our side anymore. The truth that Jesus is the Messiah who brings God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is a divisive truth. It’s good news to those who embrace Jesus as their king; it’s very bad news to those who reject him and his kingdom. It’s good news to those who look around at the world and recognize that it’s broken, unjust, in need of renewal. It’s bad news to those who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo from which they benefit.

Jesus teaches that the truth of his kingdom divides like a sword and that some who end up on the other side might be members of our own families. Nevertheless, Jesus calls for our allegiance. Once a wannabe disciple said he would follow Jesus after burying his father. Jesus’s response was, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Mt. 8.22) Jesus was a peacemaker, and yet Jesus’s peace was confrontational and a lot of us don’t like confrontation. We would rather avoid it. Unfortunately conflict-avoidance isn’t peace-making. Here’s how Osheta puts it:

“It’s been a year of embracing my calling as a peacemaker and owning the conviction that peacemaking is more than gentle words and a humble attitude to avoid conflict when prophetic words and righteous indignation burns hot in my chest. If I do all I can to avoid conflict, then I’m simply a peacekeeper, not a peacemaker. Sometimes I forget we’re not called to be peace-keepers—the children of God are made of sterner stuff than to merely keep the peace—no, Jesus challenges us to be peacemakers.
 The difference is subtle, but subversive. Peacekeeping maintains the unjust status quo by preferring the powerful. Peacemaking flips over a few tables and breaks out a whip when the poor are exploited. Peacekeeping does everything to secure a place at the table. Peacemaking says all are welcome to the table, then extends the table with leaves of inclusive love. Fear drives Peacekeeping. Love powers Peacemaking.”

2. Avoiding Conflict isn’t Peacemaking

Do you see how this mistaking of peace-making as peace-keeping is closely related to the myth that peacemaking is avoiding conflict? This might be a particular struggle for those of us who have been culturally conditioned to avoid conflict. Maybe you grew up in a family that “just didn’t talk about those things.” Or maybe you grew up with an abiding fear that if you rocked the boat or stepped out of line in any way, you’d lose everything. You could be shunned, you could become an outcast, you could lose the people who mean the most to you: your family. So, you learned to do everything in your power to avoid conflict.

This is like growing up in a home with an alcoholic or abusive family member and everyone in the family would rather keep silent about it than confront that person. There’s a strong belief that everything will be better if we just don’t upset that person. So, the disease or the abuse gets worse and worse. That’s not peace-making.

Jesus never shied away from confronting the social ills of his day. Jesus accused religious leaders who were considered holy and well-respected of being hypocrites who abused their power to prey upon vulnerable people. Mark 12.38-40 says,

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Or how about the woes Jesus pronounced upon the rich?

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6.24-26)

Yikes! Calm down, Jesus! Someone is going to call you a Socialist! The idea that Jesus was ever “meek and mild” is some kind of weird modern domestication of his prophetic voice. Anyone who simply reads the Gospels can see that Jesus was anything but meek and mild.

3. Neutrality isn’t Peacemaking

Not only do we sometimes mistakenly associate peacemaking with conflict avoidance, we also sometimes mistakenly associate Peacemaking with Neutrality. This mistake was a particularly attractive one for me. Neutrality can carry with it an air of superiority. It’s like that old analogy of people holding different parts of an elephant in the dark and trying to describe it. Each person is wrong because they only perceive one part of the elephant. The person who mistakes peacemaking for neutrality imagines themselves the objective observer who sees the entire elephant, unlike those poor souls stuck in the dark. What’s even more ironic is that this posture of neutrality is often described by its adherents as “humility” when in fact it’s the most arrogant position of all.

But when we follow Jesus, we end up in the places where Jesus ended up, with the people that Jesus end up with. And the more we love like Jesus loved, the more clearly we can see why Jesus identifies with those who society overlooks, the afflicted, the imprisoned, the disenfranchised. We realize that Jesus himself wasn’t neutral. He came to seek and save the last, the lost, and the least. He didn’t come for those who think they are well; he came for those who know they are sick.

Jesus is the Word incarnate, God in the flesh! And yet he came as a poor peasant member of a conquered and occupied people group. He lived his life on the margins of society not the seat of power. He didn’t have to die on a cross as a criminal, but that’s the life of love he chose. Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up wealthy and privileged. He didn’t have to die in a Nazi concentration camp, but that’s the life of love he chose. The reason Bonhoeffer set aside his power and privilege to identify with the powerless is because he was a follower of Jesus.

Elie Wiesel was a survivor of one of those Nazi concentration camps that Bonhoeffer opposed. And Wiesel went on to become a prolific and awarded author. He once wrote this:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Peacemaking is messy and requires courage. We’re not called to sit on the sidelines or fade into the background. We’re not called to preserve the status quo or business as usual. We’re called to be peacemakers. Dr. King understood this too and once wrote:

“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who prefers a negative peace (the absence of tension) to a positive peace (the presence of justice).”

4. Having No Boundaries isn’t Peacemaking

But someone will say, “T. C., doesn’t peacemaking entail listening to one another and seeking to understand each other?” Of course! I think hearing one another’s stories is a vital part of peacemaking. When we hear one another’s stories, it can build our empathy for one another. We might find important common ground that helps up move toward one another. I see an example of this in the life of Jesus when he dialogued with the Pharisee named Nicodemus, who came to him at night. Jesus didn’t rebuke him as he regularly did the other Pharisees who publicly tried to trap him. No, he received Nicodemus and spoke with him directly yet graciousness. But there are a couple critically important caveats that need to be inserted here.

Peace-making doesn’t mean having no boundaries. It’s psychologically unhealthy for a person who has experienced significant trauma to continually subject themselves to re-traumatization. Our calling to be peacemakers doesn’t mean we have to constantly relive our trauma by listening to people who hold dehumanizing, toxic, or abusive positions. It’s not peacemaking to be a sponge for toxicity. It’s not peacemaking to be a doormat.

For example, this is particularly true for our sisters and brothers who are part of minority groups. It’s not being a peacemaker for them to be constantly subjected to the views of people who further stigmatize, stereotype, or denigrate their identities.

James Baldwin once wrote:

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

For those who publicly propped up the oppressive power structure of his day, Jesus had only words of judgment. He publicly called them to repent or face the judgment of God. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jesus wasn’t a peacemaker because he was also a prophet! And don’t make the mistake of thinking that modern-day prophets aren’t also peacemakers, simply because they call the rulers and powers to repentance.

5. Bothsidesing isn’t Peacemaking

Sometimes this false dichotomy between peacemaking and the prophetic call to repentance leads people to the false notion that Peacemaking requires us to ignore facts and create false moral equivalencies. This is also known as Bothsidesing. The reality is that very often two sides of an issue are not equally right or wrong—one side is just wrong. And the compulsion to find “middle ground” can lead people to destroy peace rather than make it. Remember this: “Half way between truth and lie is still a lie.”

Isaac Asimov was a brilliant scientist and prolific writer who taught at Boston University. He once received a letter from an english literature student named John who wanted to school Asimov in science. The letter-writer objected to Asimov’s assertion that modern science had made important advancements into understanding the nature of the universe over previous eras. Asimov writes,

“The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. “If I am the wisest man,” said Socrates, “it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal. My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

The mistake John makes is the same mistake many still make today when it comes to peacemaking. They think that “Both sides” must be equally right or equally wrong, and that the best position is to pretend we aren’t wise enough to know the difference. But as Asimov demonstrates, this is utter foolishness. Truth is not so elusive that we cannot stand on the facts in front of our faces. And, to be honest, those who often make this argument against biblical peacemaking cherry-pick the “truths” that they find obvious and the truths that inexplicably can’t be known by anyone. How convenient that we just can’t know if a policy is racist, but we can for sure know if a policy is economically sound?

Esau McCaulley is an African American Anglican priest and professor at Wheaton. He studied with N. T. Wright in Scotland for his doctorate. He writes about this in his new book Reading While Black:

“What, then, does peacemaking involve and what does it have to do with the church’s political witness? Biblical peacemaking… involves assessing the claims of groups in conflict and making a judgment about who is correct and who is incorrect. Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of righteousness. Housing discrimination has to be named. Unequal sentences and unfair policing has to be named. Sexism and the abuse and commodification of the Black female body has to end. Otherwise any peace is false and unbiblical. Beyond naming there has to be some vision for the righting of wrongs and the restoration of relationships. The call to be peacemakers is the call for the church to enter the messy world of politics and point toward a better way of being human.”

One of the reasons why we often make these mistakes about Peacemaking is because we have faulty mental models. Here’s one of them. We imagine that the divisions we need to overcome are horizontal on the same plain. Some are over on one side of the plain—let’s call it the Left side—while others are over on the Right side of the plain. In this mental model, the division that exists is on a horizontal spectrum. This imagines that if we can just “meet together in the middle” we’d have peace. But the fundamental problem with this mental model is that we aren’t all on the same plain, whether Left or Right.

This mental model presumes that everyone is on equal footing, having equal status relative to others. But that’s not the biblical model. In the biblical model of peace, some are unjustly disadvantaged and others are unjustly advantaged. They aren’t starting on the same plain; some hold a position in society above and over others. So the way to peace in the biblical model isn’t merely meeting in the middle, it’s the high and mighty being brought low and the downtrodden being uplifted. Shalom isn’t achieved until everyone is brought to the same level, regardless of where they fall on the “Left” or the “Right.”

It’s a little early for Advent readings, but Mary the mother of Jesus has something to say about how Jesus brings peace to the world:

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1.46-55)

The Shalom of God isn’t just people agreeing to disagree or maintaining a truce. No, the Shalom of God is when God’s dream for humanity is realized: All of humanity reigning together on God behalf as God’s representatives, stewarding the earth’s resources as the gifts they are, caring for all God’s creatures as precious, honoring one another as fellow divine image-bearers, and sharing resources with one another in a society that celebrates our God-giving diversity. Everyone belongs. Everyone has all they need. Everyone lives out of the fullness of God’s life in and through them.

Peacemaking confronts everything short of God’s dream and builds toward the day when God’s Shalom is fully established on earth as it is in heaven.

Watch this sermon on YouTube