With violent conflict breaking out all over the world—especially in that wartorn arc from Libya, Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and Pakistan, plus parts of Africa, with tense rumblings in East Asia—it’s opportune to recall one Beatitude from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
We cannot but note that the Lord quite pointedly cited peacemakers, not peacekeepers. Sadly, keeping the peace has often meant building up armaments to maintain the balance of power or undertaking military action to perpetuate the dominance by a major power or a ruling class.
Ten years ago, did not an American-led coalition invade Iraq to safeguard the world from weapons of mass destruction which, it was argued, may end up with terrorists? And in our part of the world, we see increased Chinese and American deployment, which the Japanese look poised to join, with the aim of matching forces on opposing sides and, thus, keeping the peace.
Yet in fact, instead of eventually pounding swords into plowshares, military buildup and conflict often only store up tension, fear and animosity which can ignite war with a careless shot or a moment of miscalculation. Especially when keeping the peace really means keeping up its pretense and downplaying or denying conflict and smiling even in the face of brewing animosity.
Take the seemingly cordial relations between America and China (they even have annual “strategic partnership” meetings). Or the sectarian seething expected to fade as Arab Spring freedom spread, but still swells the ranks of extremist forces like Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
Is it really peace we keep?
While peacekeeping may deny conflict, peacemaking addresses it or the potential for it. And Christians would be no stranger to the clash of opposites. Jesus came into the world with a sword to battle evil and sin, and His life saw constant struggle, culminating in the bloodletting of Good Friday.
After the merciless scourging of our Lord, at the time and in itself a form of capital punishment since no one was really expected to survive a Roman type of scourging which literally opened up a man’s back, did not the Jewish hordes say to Pilate, “Crucify him!” meaning, “Finish what you began!” Bring this affair all the way up to its denouement in crucifixion! And that bloody conclusion was visited as well on the early followers of Christ, as witnessed in ancient Rome’s arenas.
No, in a reversal of all that, Jesus proclaimed, “Happy are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God.”
For sure, it’s not because peacemaking is easy. Those who truly labor for peace know more than anyone else that it’s a messy business, marked by pain and frustration, demanding compromise and, hardest of all, forgiveness. It has involved rolling up one’s sleeves and going down, getting really dirty, in every manner of uncomfortable position.
Facing and addressing conflict
Peacemaking is not like that; it is not passive. It is a matter of struggle that ought to engage us all the time. The witness we give to peace, is it merely about eschewing resistance, or refraining from bearing arms? Or does it also involve actively working for peace, cracking our heads in consensus-building around alternatives to pulverizing one another with weapons of war?
Peacemaking can lead to some real nightmares, whether we’re thinking of distant lands in conflict, or local dust-ups at home or in the church. The frictions that break out in our families are often the toughest to deal with. It’s much easier and less stressful to pretend everything is okay.
Unfortunately, conflict that’s not dealt with eventually takes it toll. Families can be ripped apart just as ruthlessly by everyone’s neglect as by open rebellion. Eventually they are left with no choice but to put on the yoke of subjugation spoken of by the Prophet Jeremiah, referring to the conquest by Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar. So it is today, with unyielding battles eventually end when one side decimates the other.
Thus, the peacemaker avoids that worst-case scenario by seeking harmony, even one that includes non-violent protest against injustice. The oppressor, while spared the ravages of war, is still made aware of his abuses and excesses. And the peacemakers thirsting for justice and righteousness shall in time be satisfied, as God embraces them as His own, while meting out justice against the unjust.
‘My yoke is easy’
That peacemakers must stand between warring factions, persuade them to set aside their arms and talk, decry abuse and injustice without retaliating, and otherwise strive to pacify a world of power blocs — clearly, this task isn’t easy. So why does Jesus say, as read at last Friday’s mass for the Sacred Heart: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
In Jesus’s time, a yoke was actually a double-yoke, for oxen always worked in tandem—we never wear it solo! And peacemaking precisely works toward the sharing of burdens and problems, whether it be in our homes, in our church, in our workplace, our school, among friends or enemies, or even in some distant place on this globe.
Moreover, Matthew writes that God teaches us through Jesus how to bear ills with grace and dignity, gentleness and humility, because we work with Jesus. We pull, and he pulls alongside of us. Thus, he assures us at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age!” It’s my yoke you wear, he says, the yoke of peace.
Thus, Christ’s gentleness and humility is not the avoidance of conflict, but the calm amid the raging storm. There, as we willingly wear his yoke with him, we find God’s rest.
(Fr. David is professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University and the University of Santo Tomas.)