Blessed Are the Peacemakers
It pays to remember always, but perhaps this week particularly, that there is a real difference between a peacekeeper and a peacemaker.
Writing about the anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, in which some 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mostly men and boys, were murdered by Bosnian-Serb fighters under the command of Ratko Mladić, Providence contributing editor Alan Dowd’s excellent essay in these pages at the start of the week reminds us of the failures of peacekeeping, and sometimes-Providence contributor Ewelina Ochab’s fine essay in Forbes remembers the costs of such failures. Srebenica itself is a grim mnemonic prompt that one cannot keep what one does not possess.
But let us think on happier things. Peacemakers, the beatitudes make clear, look a lot like God. A cumulative character description, the constituent elements of the beatitudes—the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteous, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers—roll together, gathering up one into the other until they form an aggregate able to be rightly called “a Son of God.” This is really saying something.
In Semitic thought, “sonship” is used figuratively to signify the idea that a person shares the qualities—the nature—of the fatherly figure indicated. Regarding the “peacemaker,” the first thing to grasp is that peace, here, can never be a mere negation, the simple absence of trouble. As the biblical scholar Frederick Bruner writes, “peace in scripture is comprehensive welfare…biblical shalom conveys the picture of a circle; it means communal wellbeing in every direction and in every relation.” In English, there is—or ought to be— a palpable difference in mouthfeel between peacemakers and peacekeepers, and each term can result, as perhaps John 14:27 suggests (“My peace I give to you; not as the world gives peace do I give to you.”), in dissimilar kinds of peace. Peacemakers, for their part, are those willing to confront hard issues with integrity, in order to end hostilities and to bring the contending adversaries together. The establishment of right relationships between fallen people is never easy and, as Bruner further notes, “conciliatory work is often palliative.” He favors instead:
Struggle, confrontation, and partisan engagement…we bring peace today when we enlist people in warfare against evil struggles…Biblical peace is hardly touched when it is described as inner tranquility; the circle of right relations that is peace will often, in a crooked world, be relations that pass through struggle and confrontation.
The scholar and one-time L’Abri staffer Jerram Barrs provides a succinct summary, “As in our relationship with God in which peace came because Christ received the justice due to us, so in human society it is impossible to have peace where there is injustice.” Because of this, peacemakers are, necessarily, those who for the sake of relationships seek the restoration of justice.
Similarly, Reinhold Niebuhr, writing just after the horrors of WWII, chided those who had shrunk from the hard duty—the struggle and confrontation—of opposing Nazi tyranny with military force. The peace of God, he insisted, must never be equated with the peace of detachment. In this, at least, Niebuhr was following in the line of Augustine, who understood war to be, tragically, necessary for the recovery and continued maintenance of a peace durable enough to hold firm against the conditions of the world. It pays to remember that Augustine was talking about the peace of the Pax Romana, a peace that, however unjust in the full light of eschatological Shalom, was nevertheless very real and very significant—and one that, more than any competitor than on the market–was capable of preserving the entire interconnected web of culture, civilization, art, and tradition that, by Augustine’s writing, was well in jeopardy. Approximate peace is better than unadulterated anarchy. Today, with the aspirations of apocalyptic terror groups like ISIL, one ought to sense some overlap in the contemporary situation of Western culture and its neighbors.
Glossing on what can be gleaned from the beatitudes, further attitudinal characteristics of the peacemaker can be drawn from Augustine’s letter to Boniface, the military commander of the Roman army in his area. Insisting the commander is to “cherish the spirit of the peacemaker,” Augustine exhorts him to recognize that it is necessity and not one’s own will which prompts the conscientious warrior to “slay the enemy who fights against you,” and to keep the end of peace foremost in mind as the chiefly desired object.
While the latter injunction promotes awareness that there are certain ways of fighting that better allow for the possibility of presently warring peoples to come together in concord at the cessation of belligerence, it does not negate the belligerence. Augustine understood that responsible sovereigns—the authority over whom there is no one greater charged with the care of the political community—might sometimes determine that nothing else will retribute a sufficiently grave evil, take back what has wrongly been taken, or to protect the innocent.
Of course, just as the peacemaker is not to avoid the obligation to use force when the obligation confronts him, neither is he to too eagerly employ it. Christians are not to use the inevitability of tension with the world as an excuse to seek, encourage, or unnecessarily stoke conflict. Paul’s injunction, “In so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men,” is a commitment to force as last resort. We are to do whatever we legitimately can to make peace with our enemies, including praying that God would bless them and work in their conscience to stand down. More than this, we are to take those early and positive steps to do good in the world, alleviating, where we are able, cause for animosity. Nevertheless, there are, indeed, no sure ways to soften hard hearts and the practice of peace has restrictions.
Peace at the price of truth, justice, or the innocent is not asked for. The Christian, because he is a Christian, cannot do such things. “As far as it depends on you” is also a limit—you, given who you are, redeemed by Christ and created to carry the image of God, are called to preserve peace. But you have no call—nor right—to trump the veto of those who refuse to reciprocate your endeavors. Our enemies have a vote whether peace will prevail. And when they attempt to gather up the men and the boys whose care is in our hands, we say “no.” And because we know this, we do not take the innocent into our care under-armed and inadequate to the fight. We are to the teeth, we close with, and destroy.
For Augustine, the impossibility of peace was a tragedy, “A just war is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor; and that injustice ought to be a source of grief to any good man, because it is a human injustice.” Given the heavy nature of this task, the demeanor of the Christian soldier was paramount, “No one is fit for inflicting this punishment except the man who, by the greatness of his love, has overcome that hatred wherewith those are wont to be inflamed who wish only to avenge themselves.” For Aquinas, standing in the Augustinian stream, the goal of conflict was clear, “be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against and bring them in the prosperity of peace.”
Men are not mechanisms, but there is an analogy between the just warrior and the old Colt .45, the single action revolver that won the West. Nicknamed “the peacemaker”—I think without irony—we see signified the notion that one can be at once both an instrument of peace and of violence, just and unrelenting until injustice is repaired and the field is won.
Peace cannot always be kept. It must sometimes be made.
*some minor edits were made post-posting for clarity
Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence
image: members of MARSOC attend the advanced sniper training course near Jacksboro, TX, 2013. image by Vance Jacobs www.marsoc.com