March 26, 2008

Announcing and Enacting Peace

2008 1509 page43 capHO ARE THE CHILDREN OF GOD? Who will inherit the kingdom of God? These were the questions heavy on the minds of the Jewish people when Jesus began His public ministry. There was a great debate among the various parties of the Jewish people about how God’s kingdom would finally be restored to Israel.
For the Pharisees outward, ritual purity was the way to please God and facilitate God’s reign. For the Essenes separation and isolation from the world were the way to usher in God’s kingdom. For the Sadducees practical accommodations had to be made: a strategic partnership with the Roman Empire was necessary to accomplish God’s ultimate ends. Finally, for the Zealots violent revolution was the only way. Through military might, the pagan empire would be cut down and God would reign, at last, in Jerusalem.
So when Jesus began His public ministry with the words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17), He had everyone’s attention. Whose side would He take? Each of these “special interest groups” wanted to claim this powerful teacher for itself. But one by one Jesus revealed that the kingdom of God did not conform to any of their ideas.
2008 1509 page43As the Pharisees quickly found out, Jesus would not conform to their ritual practices. Contrary to the Sadducees, Jesus would make no accommodation to Herod. Jesus’ habit of eating and drinking with sinners did not please the Essenes. And Jesus’ practice of nonviolence and teaching about peacemakers didn’t sit well with the Zealots.
Counterintuitive, and Then Some
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God (Matt. 5:9, KJV).
Like all the Beatitudes, and indeed Jesus’ whole teaching about the kingdom of God, this saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is deeply counterintuitive. Most likely directed at the Zealots and their supporters, this teaching flew directly in the face of their most-cherished idea—that the way to be a child of God, the way to secure your place in the kingdom of God as loyal and faithful—was to take up the sword and smite the pagan dogs who had dared to set their kingdom above God’s.
Jesus instead taught that those called “children of God” are peacemakers. Like so many of Jesus’ other teachings, this was 180 degrees opposite from conventional wisdom. How is anything going to get done in this world without a sword? Peacemaking is weak, powerless—or so it seems.
Jesus’ teaching, however, was not novel. He was simply picking up one of the most significant strands of Hebrew teaching and bringing it into the present, with a twist. Isaiah painted this divine vision perhaps more clearly than any other Old Testament writer.
Proclaim Peace
Throughout Isaiah we see that God envisions peace, shalom; not just for Israel, but for His entire creation.
Isaiah begins with a vision of the nations coming to Zion, the mountain of the Lord, where the Lord would settle their disputes so they could “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isa. 2:4).
Isaiah then pictures a day when God’s people, who have been walking in darkness, will see a great light. A child known as the “Prince of Peace” (as well as by many other titles) will be born. “Of the increase of his government and peace,” Isaiah prophesys, “there will be no end” (see Isa. 9:2-7).
In chapter 54 Isaiah describes the “covenant of peace” that will never be removed. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Isaiah, God’s people are described as messengers of this covenant of peace:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:7).
It is this remarkable and compelling vision of the peaceful reign of God over all the nations that Isaiah holds up as the purpose for which Israel exists.
He Is Our Peace
When the “Prince of Peace” was born in Bethlehem of Judea in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, Israel had languished for centuries waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy. Many had lost hope. Others, as noted above, had developed strategies to bring in God’s kingdom by force or cunning.
In the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke records the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14, TNIV), reminding us of the messengers (the Greek word for angel is literally messenger) of Isaiah 52, who bring good news, proclaim peace, and announce God’s reign. The Gospel writers wanted us to know that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Later New Testament writers highlighted these connections. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
Jesus Himself was the peace of God, come to mediate between the nations and create a lasting peace that will know no end.
When Jesus entered upon His public ministry, by saying, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17, TNIV), He 
created quite a stir. His description of the kingdom was remarkably similar to that of Isaiah’s and the other prophets.
This is why Jesus said that peacemakers—those carrying a message of good news, saying “Your God reigns!”—will be known as the children of God.
Peacemaking Today
As the church continually reevaluates and reconsiders its role in God’s plan, this beatitude, or blessing of Jesus, must not be taken lightly. It would be incorrect to see peacemaking as a minor part of God’s plan to restore creation. God’s shalom is perhaps the central theme of God’s creation-restoring work; the central metaphor throughout Scripture for the complete wholeness of creation, which God is restoring.
The messengers of God’s shalom—those described in Isaiah 52:7—are God’s colaborers. Look again at this prophetic text: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:7).
What is the English word for “those who bring good news”? “Evangelist.” An evangelist is one who proclaims the evangel, or good news.
And what is the content of the good news these evangelists proclaim? Peace, shalom, salvation from all one’s enemies, the reign of God!
So, peacemaking—announcing and enacting peace in our world—is evangelism. It is bearing the good news to a world awash in violence, war, poverty, disease, and every other injustice. The good news of God’s kingdom envisioned by the prophets (Isaiah most notably), fulfilled in the person of Jesus and taught by Him in passages such as the Beatitudes, is good news of God’s shalom gaining the upper hand in the world.
But how does God’s peace gain the upper hand in the world? And what is the role of peacemaking in all this?
Jesus’ way of achieving this peace is not the world’s way. In Jesus’ day the Pax Romana—the Peace of Rome—was widely heralded as the salvation of humankind. The Roman Empire proclaimed peace for the entire world. But it was a peace that came at the end of a sword, a peace achieved by violence. The Pax Romana turned out to be an illusion, because peace cannot ultimately be achieved through violence.
Jesus taught a different way. The peace of God’s reign would come on a cross—from the greatest display of self-giving love. On the cross Jesus put into practice the teaching of His sermon: love your enemies, do good to those who spitefully use you and persecute you, turn the other cheek, etc.
Rome’s way was peace through violence, or peace through victory. Jesus’ way is peace through justice. The two are radically different.* Rome’s way said that peace would finally come when all foes are vanquished. It was accomplished through military might. Jesus eschewed this kind of violence and militarism. Jesus taught that peace would finally come when righteousness, or justice, was the order of the day.
Making It Real
What does this mean for the church today? When the church reads this beatitude today, what do we hear?
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
2008 1509 page43First, it means that the gospel is fundamentally a gospel of peace. The gospel is pacifist by its very nature. The good news of God’s at-hand kingdom avoids all forms of violence to achieve its ends; including all forms of manipulation we might be tempted to use to achieve “gospel ends.” Taking our cues from Jesus’ example, we cannot proclaim peace violently. We cannot ensnare people into freedom. We cannot deceive people into the truth. We must use methods congruent with our message.
Second, the message of peace we proclaim is more than words. Peace is something we are called to enact as well. This is why the language of “peacemaking” is more helpful than pacifism, which implies passivity. There is nothing passive about the peacemaking Jesus calls us to in the gospel.
As the church considers its role as a witness to God’s kingdom, we must recognize that it goes beyond talking about God and His plans for the world. We must act in harmony with God’s plans. We must act in harmony with what we anticipate in God’s future. If we, along with Isaiah, picture a future in which nations beat their swords into plowshares, then the church must put its conviction to work and start beating on swords now.
Third, being peacemakers in God’s kingdom today means speaking and acting for justice for the poor, the outcast, and the war-torn. It means speaking out against unjust wars and actively working to bring wars to an end. It means speaking truth to power and holding power to account for the righteousness God envisions. In short, being peacemakers in God’s kingdom means being radically committed to overcoming evil with good.
What Do Faith and Politics Have in Common?
A brief story from our congregation’s ministry illustrates how we are coming to understand our role as peacemakers.
In June our church participated in several events that culminated in a town hall meeting with our elected city officials, in which we insisted that they pay attention to the housing crisis in Los Angeles that squeezes lower- and middle-income families. We stood with more than 1,000 residents of our town and spoke our truth to power. They listened and made commitments. We did that for the thousands and thousands of families mistreated by their landlords and unjustly evicted from their apartments. We did that for those who cannot afford to live in the community where they have grown up all their lives.
Many have asked why we do things like this—why our ministry is like this. We do these and many other things in our church and our community because we believe we are called to be those messengers with beautiful feet who proclaim peace—God’s peace—to our world. It is our evangelism—our witness—to the world that God’s way is a better way, and God wants people to experience life and freedom now, as well as some day in the future in the world made new.
Some have said the church shouldn’t get involved in politics. While I agree that partisan politics has no place in the church, we cannot escape the call of Jesus to affect our world for His kingdom. This is what it means to be peacemakers, to announce to the world, “Our God reigns!” and to enact God’s peace in tangible ways in the neighborhoods where He has planted us.
*God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.
Ryan Bell is senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church in southern California. He and his wife and two daughters live two miles from the church and are learning to be peacemakers in their local context.

issue header 2008 1509 46

2008 1509 page46 capEFORE I KNEW WHAT THE BEATITUDES were, I knew there was something powerful and unique about a person who can build harmony among dangerous people. Jesus called these people peacemakers. I call them heroes.
I’ve always wanted to be a hero. When bad guys were mean to children and made people sad, I wanted to be one of those with the ability or talent to alter victims’ surroundings, and stop others from crying.
In chaotic times heroes have the power to conquer evil. Their words, actions, and thoughts are always about justice, love, and peace. Their focus is cooperation and unity. Never do they think of personal gain, only about the good of others.
Great people who have influenced history—Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., Sister Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and others—embody the collective conscience of peace and altruism. Many political leaders forget that true peacemaking always works selflessly for the common good.
Jesus understood that true peacemakers are blessed because their mind-set is like God’s. He said peacemakers were the real children of God.
I admire heroes: the kid who steps in front of a bully who’s picking on a smaller kid, the activists in war-torn countries who march for peace, the aid workers in developing countries who bring comfort and support to those who suffer.
Christ encourages us to follow His lead in battling the chaos in our small part of the universe. Like the above historical heroes, we have to step out of our comfort zones and right the wrongs nearest to us. Love and treat others as we want to be treated, giving the gift of peace. This kind of peace doesn’t come naturally, but we find it when we take our cues from the Prince of Peace—the world’s only true hero.
Juan-José D. Garza, a junior political studies major at Columbia Union College, is also Student Association president.

issue header 2008 1509 48
2008 1509 page48 capHERE I LIVE IN CENTRAL FLORIDA the average low for December is a delicious 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This is quite a change for someone who grew up in Maine with ice storms and snow days.
I vividly recall one northern winter night as a child. Around midnight my mom and dad gently shook me awake. To a youngster who was sent to bed strictly at 8:00 p.m., midnight was a magical, forbidden hour. I bundled up. As I stepped out into the night, I discovered a freshly fallen blanket of glistening snow. We drove to a nearby state park, and with a full moon illuminating the naked trees, our cross-country skis drew the first tracks on the snow’s blank canvas. To me, that all-pervasive, ethereal calm is the essence of peace.
A Definition
The word “peace” appears multiple times in the Bible. One of the most famous is when Christ turned the raging Sea of Galilee into a late-night landscape much like my docile, snow-covered park.
In several places the Scriptures delve much deeper into the concept of peace by highlighting what it takes to create it. Biblical teaching specifies that peace does not descend magically upon passive observers. It is not the happy result of patient expectation. It is brought about by people called “peacemakers.” In many translations of the Bible, the only time “peacemakers” occurs is in Matthew’s Gospel: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” While “peace” evokes quiet calm and tranquillity, “peacemaker” is active and assertive. Someone who makes peace is an involved participant, not a docile bystander.
2008 1509 page48The apostle Paul draws our attention to Christ’s example of peacemaking in the events surrounding His death. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
Peacemaking, then, involves dismantling walls. It involves active destruction of obstacles. It can be tumultuous. And, in some cases, making peace comes at a very high price.
In his description of Christ’s crucifixion, Matthew colors in the dramatic details of Christ’s peacemaking efforts. He recalls the scene at Golgotha: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Matt. 27:50-52).
A centurion standing guard, perhaps driven to his knees by the shaking earth and flying debris, sees the tumultuous upheaval that surrounds Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and exclaims, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (verse 54), echoing the beatitude. When barriers fall all around him the centurion sees a peacemaker in action.
Peace, then, is achieved by breaking down barriers. Peacemaking is not the absence of war; it can be violent, messy, active, and loud. Christ said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Peace must be made—carved out by attacking those things that separate.
Practical Matters
In Christ’s day peace was hampered by social, religious, ethnic, and economic divides. More than 2,000 years later, the landscape has not changed much. Our generation is rife with conflict and division, whether it is in the Middle East, the Sudan, the Balkans, East Asia, or Jena, Louisiana. Making peace out of these circumstances is a messy, complicated, and difficult challenge.
One thing is certain—such conflict cannot be eased by bystanders, observers, and armchair critics who simply hope for a solution. Such strife calls for divinely inspired peacemakers who are willing to take a stand and get their hands dirty.
In August and September last year, thousands of saffron-robed monks took to the streets to protest the oppressive economic policies of their country’s military dictatorship. According to the United Nations, Myanmar (Burma) is among the 20 poorest countries in the world, and government policies have only widened the gap between the privileged ruling few and Myanmar’s impoverished citizens.
Even as police beat the monks and opened fire during their protests, the monks’ numbers swelled. Brave citizens, in response to the courage of their spiritual leaders, joined hands, forming a human barrier between the soldiers and the monks as they marched for change. In October 4,000 monks were arrested, disrobed, and shackled in an attempt to quiet the protests.
The situation in Myanmar is extremely complicated, and there are no immediate solutions. But these monks understood that secluded, meditative silence would not bring about change. They understood that peacemaking is not always peaceful.
In recent years the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to those who worked to tear down barriers that, left unchecked, often lead to war. The 2006 Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus, who founded Grameen Bank, an organization that provides micro-credit to the poorest inhabitants of rural Bangladesh. The Grameen Bank Web site notes: “Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty.”
Albert Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to combat the effects of climate change on our water supply and population growth, both high-risk factors for conflict.
This same kind of peacemaking can be played out on a local scale each day as well. In our churches, communities, schools, and homes we can tear down racial, religious, economic, social, and educational divides. Blessed are those who tear down walls between rich and poor, Black and White, Christian and Muslim, old and young, for they shall be called the children of God.
Have we Seventh-day Adventists, as individual believers, bloodied our hands tearing at the stones that divide society? Have we led the charge to tear down the walls and shake the earth? Or have we mistaken silence and passivity for peacemaking?
The vision of this stunning beatitude is that everywhere Seventh-day Adventists go, walls should tumble and the earth should shake. We should be the foremost makers of peace in the world—so adamant about it, so dedicated to it, so active, effective, and aggressive in the face of inequality and injustice, that as the veils tear and the rocks split, those who watch will be compelled to say, “Surely, these are the children of God.”
Stefanie Johnson is the comptroller at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences in Orlando.