Where’s the Peace?

In this frightening week that is the anniversary of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when we seem to be closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis I feel a need to pray without ceasing for peace and also to share some thoughts. As I was wondering what to say I reread the introduction to my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out.” What follows are excerpts from that introduction that seem unfortunately as relevant as they were when I wrote them 6 years ago.

“The Judeo-Christian scriptures have been promising a Messiah who brings peace to the world for 3600 years. Even for the US Post Office three and a-half centuries is pretty slow delivery service. In the New Testament (John 14-16), Jesus’ farewell discourse, describing a kind of peace the world cannot give, promises no less than four times that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, God will provide. So where’s the peace? What’s the hold up? Maybe the problem is not on the shipping end, but on the receiving end? When we don’t get the peace we request is it because we don’t really mean what we ask for? Or is something getting in the way of our receiving what we say we want?
Luke 1:79 says that the long-awaited Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Notice it says “into” the way of peace. It doesn’t say the Messiah will hold our hand and make sure we stay on the path. The Messiah gets us to the entrance ramp and trusts us to stay on course from there. We’re given a good map and expected to be able to follow it.

But really, shouldn’t God have known better? We humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to following directions. Would it have taken the Hebrews 40 years to travel the 200 or 300 miles from Egypt to Palestine if they were good at following directions? Even while Moses was up on the mountain getting the directions, the people he’s supposed to be leading are down in the valley building a golden calf to worship and fomenting a rebellion against Moses and God. Do they really want to get to the Promised Land? Or are they more concerned with their own comfort and being in control of where they’re going and how to get there? Peace seekers have to stay the course in good times and bad. When we start looking for short cuts instead of following the path that leads to peace how often do we end up far from our goal?

Luke 1:68-79 lays out very succinctly what the map to peace looks like. It mentions mercy twice, service, holiness, righteousness, knowledge, forgiveness, and light. There’s nothing in this passage about cruise missiles or Weapons of Mass Destruction–nothing about peace through domination or threats of Mutually Assured Destruction. What are we missing here? If we look around in the Judeo-Christian scriptures a little further we can find that Luke’s omission of peace through strength isn’t an oversight. Isaiah and Micah both specifically talk about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and not learning war anymore. If that’s not clear enough, Psalm 20 says that those who put their pride in horses and chariots will collapse and fall. Jesus restores the ear of the Roman servant that Peter has lopped off in the Garden of Gethsemane and spells it out very clearly – “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)

And Jesus’ followers heed that advice so well they have given us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and assorted examples of genocide on nearly every continent. Based on results over several thousand years of history, it seems we don’t really want peace all that much.

So what’s the secret? It’s not rocket science. Sages of every tradition teach us the same values: mercy, forgiveness, righteousness, service. The Hebrew prophet Micah sums it up very succinctly when he asks and answers the basic question of all peace seekers and peace makers.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

The Messiah’s mission is to show us in stories and actions what that means. Jesus says it and does it over and over again – treating the least and lost as worthy of God’s love and healing. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) Jesus directly challenges the old ways that have failed repeatedly to bring peace. He says “you have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Meek? Maybe we don’t want peace that badly if we have to be wimps to get it.

Who are the role models and heroes and heroines we look up to most in our society? Why does the taller candidate win almost every presidential election in US History? We still put our trust in swords and horses and chariots and new impersonal technological ways to deliver “fire and fury” even though it’s obvious in generation after generation how ineffective and misdirected that route to “peace” is.

More subtly – in the Judeo-Christian tradition, look at how God’s peacemaking Messiah gets delivered to us – born in a barn – a helpless little baby. “A little child shall lead them.” Get it? We keep looking for Rambo and God sends us Gandhi. We don’t get what we say we want because it doesn’t come packaged the way we think it should look. If we want real peace, the gifts we need to cherish and open first are those wrapped in justice, mercy, humility, forgiveness, and love.

Personally, I am learning after decades of frustration trying to create peace and persuade or coerce others to live peaceful lives that what Gandhi said is so true, “there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
I have spent most of my adult life trying to do peace, only to realize that peace is not a matter of doing, but one of being. One cannot think or reason his or her way to peace but can only accept the natural state of peace by trusting the basic goodness of Being itself and living in harmony and trust with the universe. It may sound trite, but peace can only be built one relationship at a time, from the heart, with non-judgmental, unconditional love for oneself and every other being.

Justice, mercy, kindness, love, humility–all of those marvelous words tell us about keys to inner and outer peace. But just hearing about peace isn’t enough. Stories show us what peace looks and feels like, and, by contrast, what peace isn’t. My son teases me that he learned a lot of valuable lessons about sports and life from me – by seeing my mistakes and learning how NOT to do things. Learning by negative example is a wonderful teacher. We often learn more from our mistakes and those of others than we do from things that go well. When success comes too easily we have no reason to reflect on why things worked.

A mentor of mine taught me a great lesson several years ago. He said that there are only three simple questions we need to ask about why something happened. Whether we think an outcome is good or bad, playing the blame game does not help us learn and move forward. The three questions are:
“What worked?” “What didn’t work?” “What next?”

Those three simple questions help me find peace in difficult situations. They help me ground and center. They remind me I can never create positive change if I am stuck in being a victim to a past I cannot change. Those three questions help me to be more objective in analyzing and evaluating of situations and choices.

We know the things that make for peace. Pray that we relearn them quickly and avoid the endless and futile pursuit of peace through force and violence. They don’t work. It’s time to ask “What Next?”

Ends and Means?

A few weeks ago I had one of those “did he really say that?” conversations with a clergy colleague. We were discussing a news story about Baptist churches in Kentucky and New York that were advertising they would be giving away door prizes to entice new people to attend their church.

Apparently forgiveness and salvation aren’t reward enough to get some people through the church doors since many churches have tried similar gimmicks. There was a church in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago giving away a car on Easter. Sure beats the coffee mug, cheap pen and refrigerator magnets our church offers as welcome gifts.
What got my attention about the Baptist churches’ promotion was that they were promising to give an AR-15 and other guns to the lucky winners of their door prizes. The church in Troy, NY even went so far as to quote John 14:27 (“…my peace I give to you”) over a picture of a semi-automatic rifle! To make matters worse, the churches in Kentucky were in Paducah – where three students were killed during a school shooting in 1997. Really, you can’t make stuff like this up!

Foolishly assuming that most followers of the Prince of Peace and certainly most pastors would agree that this was a really bad idea, I made a comment to my colleague about how absurd, if not blasphemous, this was. His response blew me away. He said, “Well, we wouldn’t do that in my church, but if that’s what it takes to appeal to the target (Freudian slip?) audience in that community, then it might be OK.” I was too dumbfounded to respond.

When I relayed the conversation to another friend, his immediate reply was, “No it’s not OK. A stripper would attract some people to church too, but that wouldn’t make it right.” Churches that start acting like businesses are in danger of selling their souls along with their “products.” Marketing strategies are fraught with ethical dilemmas in any business, but certainly the church must hold itself to a higher standard than Wall Street or Main Street when it comes to promoting the Gospel. When churches or any institution fall prey to the temptations of growth and institutional preservation as the primary motivation for what we do and say, we are on the slippery slope of believing that any means are justified if they achieve an honorable end.

It is no secret that mainline churches are in trouble. Membership and attendance figures have been in a steep decline for decades, and that reality can convince otherwise good people to compromise their ethical standards and fall into a panic mode of self-preservation. It is an inherent danger to institutional religion. Institutions almost always have a primary value of preserving and maintaining themselves. Institutional leaders have a vested interest in looking successful and maintaining their livelihood that can cloud objectivity. And the more dire the statistics become the greater the danger. Desperate people do desperate things, like giving deadly weapons to people instead of “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Yes, these are scary times, and I understand why individuals want to protect themselves and why churches want to keep themselves alive. And I know all motives for what we do are mixed. I’m sure those Baptist churches have a genuine desire to share the gospel along with the guns. Self-preservation is a very basic human motivation, but Christians are called to measure the means we use to achieve our means by the higher standards of the one who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).