How can we be peacemakers in a violent world?

  • People walk past destroyed buildings Oct. 5 in Aleppo, Syria (CNS/Abdalrhman Ismail, Reuters)

National Catholic Reporter's series on peacemaking has been engaging and challenging.

World peace itself, however, remains mostly a dream, and it seems to have been ever thus, from when metaphorical Cain murdered metaphorical Abel.

It's easy to give up on peacemaking and become not simply skeptical that peace is possible but downright despairing. Still, I was glad to see this question in Tom Roberts' article describing the NCR series:

What, then, is the ordinary Catholic to do? Figuring out how to be a peacemaker in everyday life is mostly, one could argue, fairly dependent on individual effort. Even there, the way is not always crystal clear.

I would add this to Tom's question: What is an ordinary Protestant or other kind of Christian to do?

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Part of the answer is that all of us need to be clear about human history. Voltaire, in his Essai sure les Moeurs, sounds depressingly cynical, but his observation is hard to dispute: "The history of the great events of this world is hardly more than the history of crimes." Among those crimes I would include most wars.

And when we think about wars and where they come from, it's hard to describe them better than these words from England's first poet laureate, John Dryden, in the 17th Century: "War is the trade of kings."

That's certainly the conclusion I would draw from a 2011 book I've been reading recently: Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Page after page is filled with accounts of war in and over the holy city -- wars started by kings, by queens, by sultans, by emperors, counts and princes.

As Montefiore describes a modern scene at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Muslim family in charge of the keys to the church says to the priests when the door is unlocked, "Peace." And "'Peace!' they reply optimistically."

But the city has known little peace in its long, unstable history and, if I were to guess, it will know little in the future because war, the trade of kings, can be profitable and often is easier to wage than peace.

As I write this, the list that Wikipedia keeps of current wars around the world runs to 54. Some don't amount to much but some, like the war in Afghanistan, have been going on a long time with high body counts. Without looking up all these wars, I could have named perhaps half a dozen of them, but I couldn't have gotten close to the total of 54.

If the late French historian and philosopher René Girard was right that violence and war is rooted in what he called "Mimetic Envy," which causes us to blame scapegoats, the hard truth is that humanity is in for many more wars. Still, it's reassuring to discover that when Girard read the Bible, he concluded that it was the only literature in which that cycle of violence consistently gets broken by forgiveness, compassion and love. That realization drove Girard to embrace Christianity.

So perhaps we've found an answer to Tom Roberts' question about what we are to do to become a peacemaker in a violent world: Live by biblical standards of grace.

You don't need to tell me that such a goal is impossible to achieve. I'm a Presbyterian. I know that. In our Reformed Tradition we even have a doctrine called "The Total Depravity of Humankind." That name is a little misleading in that it doesn't say we are incapable of good. But it does suggest the fragility of human will to stay on the right course.

Despite that, our calling is clear: As we live in what a Trappist monk friend of mine calls "the heart of a rival empire," we can be peacemakers against all odds simply by showing an affirming flame, by not giving up, by enduring. That's our Christian job description. Let's get to work.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's website and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. E-mail him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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