Listening to the voices from both sides of our “continental divide” does little to encourage hope for a peaceful resolution to the current climate of hostility in the U.S.
Inevitably, most of us find ourselves aligning with one side or the other, and the stakes of the conflict are high enough that there is little room for being casual about it.
Conflicts such as the ones that have developed in our context over the past few years can escalate to the point that collaboration, cooperation and negotiation become impossible; the only course seems to be to use all available means to vanquish the opposition.
People of faith understandably align themselves with the side of a conflict that best fits their beliefs and presuppositions, and faith becomes “weaponized” in the struggle for one’s cause.
Outside observers probably wonder how the principles of Christian faith can be employed in support of radically different positions on such issues as those that currently divide us.
Insiders wonder how sincere friends and family can see their faith supporting mutually conflicting positions.
An effort to discern “what’s wrong with this picture?” has led to some reflection on various contexts in our history where conflict has been a dominant feature.
At the time of Christian origins, there was significant political and theological conflict within Judaism and between Judaism and its surrounding culture.
Nearly two centuries earlier, the encroachments of Hellenistic culture prompted what we know as the Maccabean revolt (167-160 BC), which was a violent response to offensive excesses of Antiochus IV.
The Gospels reflect the conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over the relation of faith and culture and interpretations of the Torah. The Zealots advocated overthrow of the Roman presence as a way of being faithful to the covenant.
During the rise of national socialism in Germany between the two world wars, Christian theologians both challenged and supported Hitler’s hyper-nationalism and his proposals for dealing with the “Jewish problem.”
These examples are among many that remind us that the faith journey often travels through a conflicted countryside, and our present challenges are but another expression.
Is there a way for a faith perspective to be “peaceful” and at the same time be a responsible participant in efforts to bring faith to bear on crucial issues that divide us?
The portraits of Jesus given us by the gospel narratives present him not as taking sides in the specific conflicts of his time but as offering an alternative way of thinking and living which, if embraced, would lead to a resolution that would transcend a victory by either side.
He discussed ethical issues and matters of theology with both Pharisees and Sadducees, and he evidently had among his first disciples one of the Zealots (Simon).
When presented with a dispute, he directed both parties to a reoriented question that pointed to a higher dimension of a common good.
The “way of peace” is a frequent description of the life to which followers of Jesus are called, and yet the call is also to be a clear and courageous witness to the prophetic voice of “doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
“Modeling peace” in this sense doesn’t seem to be acquiescence to whatever the situation is in order to avoid conflict.
Rather, it means a clear and forthright affirmation of a way of living and relating (and of structuring society) that respects the dignity of persons and gives priority to the needs of others, especially those who face special challenges.
Sometimes this affirmation is a direct challenge to opinions, policies and practices that are believed to be contrary to these principles, and it is impossible to avoid conflict.
Still, are there ways to “model peace” while engaging in deliberations fraught with such differences of belief?
Perhaps the answer lies in the partnership of goal and manner.
Peace seems to be served best when the various perspectives on it allow themselves to be refined by each other rather than pursuing a winner-take-all effort for one to prevail.
This doesn’t mean that one cannot argue passionately for one’s perspective, but it does mean that the goal is the “wholeness” of “shalom,” rather than victory and dominance of one over the other.
Suggesting humility as the manner of such confrontation is not just an “aw, shucks” kind of self-effacement.
Rather, it is an honest realization of the partiality of understanding at any given time of any dimension of life, and thus is the direct opposite of arrogance.
Maybe “modeling peace” is summed up best by Micah’s admonition of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. If more of that were being done, we might be looking at a situation with no less passion and commitment, but with much less hostility.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.