The heart of Jesus’ message is the desire for peace.
At one level, Jesus called people to follow him as a path to finding peace with God. Yet, at a more pragmatic level, Jesus called people to be at peace with one another.
Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) we find one of Jesus’ most forthright statements on the subject, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of what has been named the Beatitudes or blessings—those pithy sayings that stand as the most important ethical values Jesus lays out—peacemaking must assuredly be a core value and action for Jesus’ followers.
Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also mirrors the life of Jesus, who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?
The kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires nonviolent responses to evil.
One of Jesus’ most controversial statements is also found in the Sermon on the Mount. “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one” (Matthew 5:39).
While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling, and perhaps even ridiculous.
But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is forthright.
If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to “turn the other cheek” as an essential part of being nonviolent peacemakers?
The answer lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness, not retaliation.
The central message of Scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world.
But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty.
God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.
Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness and, therefore, our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful, both as individuals and as nations.
We believe revenge is a necessary part of justice. When we are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers, even to the extent that we make wrongdoers pay for their sins against us in ways that cannot be justified.
But is this the message of Jesus?
Gandhi said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
While the message of the world is that vengeance is right and that making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Jesus, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action: forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the necessary action that lays the groundwork for making peace. We should not assume, however, that offering forgiveness to others means that those who commit wrongs should not be brought to justice.
We cannot simply overlook the wrongs committed by others, and we must name evil as evil.
But the passion for seeking justice cannot be fueled by the need for vengeance; it must be empowered by the desire to forgive, to bring reconciliation and to make peace.
While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us personally, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front.
The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and wars will never establish lasting peace.
The Christian community should condemn such hostilities because Jesus did not call his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies.
He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.
Two statements by Martin Luther King Jr. seem relevant to this topic: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows,” and “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.”
Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Peacemaking and peace building require us to work for justice.
As we continue to witness the violence and wars across our world, may we pray earnestly for peace.
And may these prayers lead us to action to find practical ways to make peace wherever we are.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Wilderness Preacher, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @WildernesPreach.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.