What it means to be a “peacemaker”
The Hopeful Neighborhood
By Don Everts
Jesus was concerned with both the global and the local. Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for all humanity’s sins (which is global). But after he made reconciliation with God possible by grace through faith, he taught his followers how to then live their everyday lives rooted in this grace they had received (which is local).
Jesus was explicit about the importance of the local—in his teachings, not only did Jesus call his followers to love their neighbors (Matt. 22:39) and serve the people around them (Matt. 23:11), he also celebrated grace-filled lives that were spent pursuing the common good. As we read in his seminal teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9).
Reading an English translation of this blessing may give the impression that Jesus is simply celebrating the practice of nonviolence or the habit of helping others get along and reconcile. While those activities are included here, this call itself is at once wider and deeper and older than that. You see, it’s an interesting word that we read in Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount: peacemakers. It’s a compound word made up of a word for peace (eirēnē) and a word for making (poieō).
First, peace. The word peace means something quite specific— and exciting—coming from the mouth of Jesus. Eirēnē is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word shalom. Jesus would have understood shalom as all Israelites did: as a comprehensive, joyful state of well-being. Shalom is not just the absence of violence (as our English word peace tends to connote) but is the presence of all that people need for well-being: safety and security, love and relationships, good work and housing, physical and spiritual health—all of it. God created the world like a fabric of interdependent, knitted, webbed relationships, and this is what the Bible calls shalom. That’s the kind of peace Jesus is talking about.
Next, making. This word for making is a term that Jesus, as a carpenter, would have been very familiar with. The original word is poieō, and it meant to create, make, fashion, or construct. And so this compound word, peacemakers, is a description of those people who are engaged with their original shared human task: crafting human flourishing.
What does Jesus have to say about people who do this? They are blessed and will be easily recognized as children of God. Jesus is calling his followers to be peacemakers, a call that taps into our ancient, original, shared human work from the garden.
While it is true that Christians throughout history have pursued the common good, this shared human work has not always remained at the forefront of the Christian experience. For example, the latest research shows us that people today don’t associate Christians with the common good. When researchers asked people who are best suited to solve problems within their communities only 33% of practicing Christians put “churches and Christian organizations” as their top answer to this question, while a mere 7% of non-Christians did the same. It is noteworthy that non-Christians see the government and community members as more suited to pursue the common good in their community than groups or organizations of Christians.
Our current reputation would suggest that somewhere along the line we Christians have forgotten that we are created and called to pursue the common good. It turns out this is not new. From time to time God’s people need to be reminded of their call to pursue the common good. And God, in his mercy, does just that.
PURSUING THE COMMON GOOD TODAY
Whether we’re in touch with the peacemaker wiring inside us or are more tempted to fight or flight or blending in, God’s Word is alive today reminding us of our shared human work, inviting us to intertwine our hearts in the well-being of our community. Peter encouraged the Christian exiles in Asia Minor to be “zealous to do good” (1 Peter 3:13) and Jeremiah likewise encouraged the Israelite exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7). This call for Christians to pursue the common good of the people and place right around them is what the idea of a “parish” was originally all about.
A parish is the local community surrounding the church and everyone and everything in it: Christians, non-Christians, stores, organizations, schools, trees, parks, farms and so on.
Parish is a word that “recalls a geography large enough to live life together (live, work, play, etc.) and small enough to be known as a character within it.” This concept has helped Christians understand how interconnected all the pieces within a community are and the importance of pursuing the common good there.
Jesus’ call to be peacemakers, along with Peter and Jeremiah’s letters, reminds us today that we too are to seek the welfare of the parish God has sent us into, expressing our faith in public through surprising (and maybe even sacrificial) acts of shalom.
The latest research confirms that there is something important about having a zeal or passion for the well-being of those around us. When researchers asked people who were participants in a community of action why they were pursuing the common good, they discovered a wide variety of motivations: some more internal (focused on potential benefits to themselves and their group) and some more external (focused on potential benefits to the community).
And while internal motivations are more common on average, researchers found that external motivations correspond to deeper engagement and more positive outcomes on the whole. Apparently, there is indeed something significant about what Peter called becoming zealous for the common good.
These findings remind us that pursuing the common good is what we’re made for—whether it’s accomplished through a good lunch, a warm greeting, an apt name, a welcoming household, a moment of forgiveness, a new business, a good day’s work, a clean load of laundry or reading books after school with a girl from the next apartment over.
This shared work is not simple, of course. We need to be realistic: neighborhoods (and neighbors) are notoriously complex things in this fallen world. In this fallen world, it turns out, pursuing the common good is not for the faint of heart.
Today there are hints that the time is ripe for us to revisit and reclaim this powerful shared work. What a perfect time in our history to return to this ancient path.
Can you picture what it would look like if Christians everywhere shook off whatever temptations most distracted their thoughts and started daydreaming shalom for their neighborhoods? Just imagine …
Excerpted from The Hopeful Neighborhood by Don Everts. Copyright © 2020 by Lutheran Hour Ministries. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com