Pentecost Blog #35: What does true peacemaking look like? (Reflections from a naive journeyman)
By Joel Chan
I’ve always thought that I made a natural peacemaker. I enjoy thinking about things from different perspectives; it comes naturally to me. It also takes a lot to rattle me emotionally. I share these opinions about myself not to brag, but to give you a sense of (the naive) place from which I started in my thinking about peacemaking.
I thought these qualities were sufficient for the job of a peacemaker. Critically, I thought peacemaking looked like people agreeing and compromising over differences of thought, and coming to a shared consensus of the world. I assumed that everyone recognized their limited perspectives, and were open to changing. I now know, in practice, how seldom these conditions are true, particularly for the kinds of contexts in which Christ calls us to be peacemakers. I’ve also (somewhat painfully) come to a deeper understanding of what true peacemaking looks like, what it demands of us, and how it actually happens.
I’d like to share a bit more about these views, first by sharing the experiences that shaped them, then describing those views in a bit more detail, and finally reflecting a little on their implications for working together for God’s kingdom in the context of immigration policy.
Over the last 6-8 months, I have in varying capacities attempted to bridge divisions between people with differing theological and political beliefs, specifically, gender roles and the issue of race-police relations. The divisions turned out to be painful: in some cases, it caused the people involved to lose respect for each other, and in other cases, it led to painful conversations about leaving the church over their differences. Both issues were enflamed by the events and conversations surrounding the recent Presidential election.
I watched these divisions play out with a heavy heart, especially since I was very close to those most involved. So I set out to try and make peace. My goals were to 1) get each side to see their opponents as image-bearers, with views that were not as bad as they thought, and consequently 2) foster unity. My peacemaking attempts involved a range of activities, from extensive one-on-one conversations (online, in-person, and by email), group conversations, book discussions, and collaboratively planning and running an Agora Forum series on race and police relations.
In the end, I wasn’t quite sure I had made a difference. I seemed to have achieved very little of my goals. For example, during the Agora series, I was heartened by the effort from both sides to attend and listen to each other. There were no blow-ups in person. However, I saw very little evidence that anyone had changed their positions, either intellectually or emotionally. Some of the people who were considering leaving the church ended up deciding to leave.
Reflecting and praying over these experiences, and putting them in conversation with Scripture, I have come to see that peacemaking is harder and slower than I thought.
True peacemaking is HARDER than I thought
The phrase “the peace of God that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) has taken on new meaning for me. I’ve come to believe that the church is a radical experiment in diversity that — by all accounts of what should be humanly possible — should fail.
The only requirement for being in the church is a commitment to Christ: not cultural affiliation, socioeconomic status, or even denomination/theological tradition or political ideology. This means that Christians within the same church may (whether they know it or not) have very substantial differences on some of these dimensions.
Sometimes these differences flare up into conflicts, and peacemaking becomes necessary. In these instances, the differences tend not to be simple differences of thought that are more easily resolved, or considered less essential to what it means to be a Christian (e.g., how much should we rely on liturgy in a worship service?). More often, the differences that divide us are theological and political beliefs that have deeper implications of values, for what we consider good vs. evil. Is it right that women are excluded from being elders? Should governments be able to decide that criminals should die? Is it right that there are racial disparities in treatment by the police? Are there any circumstances under which abortion is a morally acceptable action? Those are not beliefs that we hold lightly; and people who hold different beliefs are not just different, or even mistaken: we’re driven to see them as bad, as obstacles, or even outright threats to the Good. It was these sorts of differences that were at the root of the divisions in which I tried to make peace.
In light of the nature of the differences at play, it’s not surprising that peace and unity in the church should be seen as a sign of God’s supernatural power at work. That’s why one of the key markers of true Christian community is that we actually love each other (John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:14). Yes, that includes the people we disagree with. The world will see our love and be amazed, asking “How can you be friends with him? How can you love her?” It’s not humanly possible: something Else must be going on. Blessed indeed, then, are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9).
It’s okay, then, perhaps even proper, that unity and peacemaking are experienced as hard. The gospel of Mark records how Jesus responded to James and John’s request to sit at his right hand with a gentle, yet sobering correction: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). Jesus was referring to the cup that he asked to pass from him in the Garden of Gethsemane, overcome with a sense of the suffering that it contained. This tells us that the Way of the Cross is hard. It’s okay to experience it as hard; that doesn’t diminish it’s goodness, but may actually enhance it. If even Jesus was weighed down by the pain of servanthood, who are we to claim it is easy? That is comforting to me. It’s okay if I struggle with unity and peacemaking. It’s a sign I might be walking in the Way of the Cross. As a dear friend said to me when I was in the thick of trying to make peace, “If peacemaking feels really hard, that’s probably a sign that you’re aiming for the right kind of peacemaking”.
True peacemaking is SLOWER than I thought
I’ve also changed the way I think about what true peacemaking looks like. It’s slower. It may not look like much progress has been made. But if at the end of the day we walk away at least recognizing that the other is not to be completely shunned, maybe some progress has been made.
The way God talks about his word bearing fruit is instructive:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
The imagery here is agricultural, and perhaps unfamiliar to many of us. There’s a reason people say that something is as boring as “watching grass grow”. Like other areas of spiritual growth, peacemaking is slow and often barely noticeable. We have to take the long view, and not prematurely declare victory or defeat. We must not despise small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10); His word will accomplish what He purposes.
So what does “successful” peacemaking look like? As I mentioned, some of the people involved in the divisions ended up leaving the church. Were my peacemaking efforts a complete failure? I’m still reflecting on that one.
How do we balance the reality of the depths of our differences and our brokenness, with the idealistic call to unity? Does unity mean we must remain in the same local church? Can we be in different local churches (like living in different neighborhoods), but still remain family, and work together for the Kingdom? Is that a cop-out? There is some Scriptural evidence that people separating into different local churches, but remaining in fellowship within the same Church universal is okay, or even part of God’s plan.
I’m not 100% sure what the answers are, but I know this: the people who left could have left in a far more contentious manner than they did (and indeed many remain connected the people in our church in some form or another), and the relationships I formed and deepened during the process have been real, dear, and life-giving. I hold out hope that my peacemaking efforts may yet bear fruit that I cannot anticipate. And maybe there is goodness inherent in the act of peacemaking, regardless of end result. For example, were there fruits of the Spirit (e.g., peace, gentleness) that grew in me through this process?
What does this mean for a Christian response to immigration (policy)?Let me close by trying to connect these thoughts to the main content of this blog series. I suppose this is what makes my experiences relevant to the current blog: as we reflect on the practical outworkings of Christian perspectives on immigration, we are faced with the hard task of not simply discussing and resolving differences in opinion, but differences in deeply held values of safety/prudence and sacrificial love. It seems impossible at times, but this task is an important prerequisite for shared action.
Peacemaking, then, is an essential component of a practical response to our conversation about immigration policy. I hope that my thoughts about what true peacemaking looks like will be helpful to some of you as you press into these conversations with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom you disagree. Let us “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.