Each year around this time, Americans are reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his life of service for civil rights, and his call to nonviolent resistance as a means for producing change. Over the past year in the United States, the unwarranted shooting of Blacks by police, the number of protests leading to riots and the resultant death toll, as well as continued cries against systemic racism, have highlighted the need to heed a civil disobedience. However, in the midst of a climate dating back to the 1960s which produced significant legislative advances but today, little cultural change, the New Testament provides a different posture for the Christian. The apostle Paul reminded those followers of Christ in Rome that theirs is a higher calling that is more conducive to peace. It is at the same time both a manner in which the Christian relates to others as well as a characteristic of the church herself. He wrote,
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom 12:14-18)
The New Testament is replete with references regarding the Christian and peace. For example, a telltale sign that God is pleased with his people is they live in peace with one another (Luke 2:14). Jesus himself taught that the Christians are to be peacemakers (Matt 5:10) and bearers of peace (Matt 10:13) to the world around them.
Indeed, Jesus had much to say, or perhaps model, in terms of the Christian’s attitude toward others. While it is true that Jesus had very little tolerance in the misguided teaching of the Jewish law, especially as it related to the religious leaders of Israel,[i]he was gracious when it came to people of different faiths (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 7:1-10; 22:63-65; 23:34-38; John 4:46-54). For example, the situation with James and John—the sons of Thunder—asking if they should call down fire on the Samaritans for their rejection of Jesus gives a good idea of his attitude toward those who would reject him and his disciples. Luke tells us, “But he turned and rebuked them” (9:54). Jesus’ response was consistent with his teaching regarding the Christian’s relationship to others and peace. At times, his teaching seemed nearly impossible. One will recall that even those moved to anger toward another will suffer the same judgment as a murderer (Matt 5:21-26). Even so, he assured his followers, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27).
Peter might give us the most compelling view of Jesus’ response to how the Christian should live in relationship to others. Writing to Christians in Asia Minor at the time of Nero, Peter put ink to papyrus as one who knew Christ. He encouraged the Christians with a reminder of the living hope and the imperishable inheritance that awaits them in heaven. These believers had experienced suffering and difficulties; however, Peter wrote and encouraged them to rejoice in the hope and inheritance that they have in Christ. In fact, they shared in the sufferings of Christ. He instructed them to entrust their souls to the faithful Creator by doing what was right. Likewise, he called them to be holy as God is holy, to prepare their minds for action, to be sober in spirit and to obey God. As foreigners among others they must have an attitude of obedience, doing what is righteous, enduring suffering with patience so others would see and glorify God. Peter exhorted them to be submitted to human institutions and to live harmoniously together because this was the example of Christ,
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Pet 2:20-23)
Peter’s relationship with Christ uniquely positioned him to make such an observation. The observation becomes even more poignant when consideration is given to the evangelists’ account of Peter’s confrontation with the sword and club bearing servants of the High Priest along with the Roman soldiers who came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. It is John who explicitly identifies Peter as the one who drew the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus (John 18:10). However, it is Matthew who gives us the full force of Jesus teaching on the use of the sword, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:52-53). Nearly thirty years later Peter would write what he understood to be the proper Christian relationship with others. He described the Christian’s attitude as, “gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:16); significantly different from the sword in the garden. He concluded by wishing peace to those who believe in Christ.
There are voices among evangelicals who call for peace. Indeed, all evangelicals need to hear the call once again to live at peace with one another (Rom 12.18). The essays in The Peaceable Christian: Five Evangelicals Reflect on Peace represent the efforts of five evangelical academics who wrestled through issues of peace from interdisciplinary perspectives. They do not pretend to be sophisticated treatments on peace studies. Rather, they represent honest attempts to understand the issues on a personal level while sharing what they have discovered with others. All the essays will agree that evangelicals need to think more deeply on the subject. We agree that peacemaking should be a priority for Christians. We concur with the 1993 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern:
“We weep over escalating violence, abuse, disregard for the sanctity of human life, and addiction to weapons—in both nations and neighborhoods—that destroy lives and breed fear. We dream of faith communities that model loving ways of resolving conflict, seek to be peacemakers rather than passive spectators, calling the nations to justice and righteousness.”[ii]
It has been nearly thirty years since the writing of this declaration and 57 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act . As I look at our country today, they seem to have made a nominal difference. Yes, we’ve made additional legislative advances thanks to legacy of Dr. King, as well as the work of John Lewis and countless other advocates for civil rights. Yet, our country still struggles with white supremacy and inequitable systems. While there is certainly merit in continuing this struggle, Christians are called to the struggle for peace as they face them.
[i]On several occasions Jesus asserted, “You have heard that it was said . . . . But I say to you . . . ” (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 38-39, 43-44).