Why Each of Us is Called to be a Peacemaker

whole earth 1969
Earth as seen from Apollo 11 in July 1969

a talk by Jim Forest given 2 April 2014 at St Joseph’s College in Patchogue, NY

Let me begin by expressing appreciation to the college for bestowing on me its “Esse non Videri” award. I don’t deserve it but thank you. People who try to prevent war and promote the conversion of enmity into friendship rarely get awards. The award has the special added benefit of expanding my not-very-large collection of Latin phrases. I now can amaze my family and friends by being able to say “to be and not to seem to be” in the language of Cicero, Virgil, Augustine and Jerome: esse non videri.

Let me bring two more Latin words into the spotlight:“beati pacifici — blessed are the peacemakers. Or we might do the whole five-word Latin sentence: Beati pacifici quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur — blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. It’s one of the Beatitudes, a term that comes from the Latin word beati. The Beatitudes are the eight blessings Jesus gives at the very beginning of his Sermon on the Mount.

Most of you have probably heard of the Sermon on the Mount or perhaps even know it quite well. It’s a talk Jesus gave in Galilee that fills up three chapters of the first book of the New Testament. The Beatitudes —- the eight opening verses — are a very compact, easy-to-memorize presentation of the Gospel:

Blessed are the poor in spirit …
Blessed are they who mourn …
Blessed are the meek …
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness …
Blessed are the merciful …
Blessed are the pure of heart …
Blessed are the peacemakers …
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness …

Short though they are, each of the blessings gives one a lot to think about. Gradually you notice that they are all connected and that the order isn’t random. It’s a carefully arranged ladder. You might call it the ladder of the Beatitudes.

Peacemaking is the ladder’s seventh rung, just one rung short of the top. You can’t skip any rung on the way up. The ascent is a life-long project. To be a peacemaker requires the continuing integration of the rest of the structure, all that lies below plus readiness for the rung at the top.

Notice it’s peace makers, not peace advocates or peace wishers — peacemaking is something you actually do and not something you occasionally wish for.

Just what is a peacemaker? Is it something only for a very exceptional person? A highly specialized vocation for which one needs a doctorate in peacemaking? Not at all.

Peacemaking is any activity on the side of life. Peacemaking is any work that protects life rather than endangers it. Peacemaking is anything we do to safeguard life. It isn’t enough not to kill people — we need to do what we can to keep each other alive all the way from the womb to the death bed. And it’s not only about human beings but the world that all of us depend upon. Peacemaking is healing work, work that attempts to repair damaged relationships and damaged environments. Peacemaking is whatever you do, however small and hidden, that helps make for a safer, more caring world.

A few very ordinary examples that involve a huge part of the human race:

Think of anyone involved in any aspect of childcare — parents, teachers, school bus drivers, swimming instructors, any kind of work that helps children grow up safely and become mature adults. It’s peace work.

Think of any kind of work in health care — orderlies, lab technicians, doctors, dentists, nurses, therapists, etc. It’s peace work.

We could spend the day listing things people do, from farming to building bridges, that in one way or another helps make life safer and the world more peaceful. Peacemaking is any job that helps us live. As Jesus said, “I have come to give life and to give it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Let’s think for a moment about the Last Judgment. Even if you aren’t a Christian, what Jesus taught about the Last Judgment is important information about the basics of life and what matters most of all.

Here’s the text in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world because I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you welcomed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was a prisoner and you visited me. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person, you did to me.” (Matthew 25)

In traditional Christian terminology, the six examples Jesus gives are called “the Works of Mercy.”

Many people find it surprising that the Last Judgment is not a theological quiz or the presentation of a “welcome to heaven” pass for those who went to church most often or put the most in the collection plate. One doesn’t have to be theologically brilliant. It all has to do with loving God and loving one’s neighbor — with the understanding that love of God is impossible unless you love your neighbor. Neighbor doesn’t mean a person you find it easy to like but whoever happens to be in front of you. It could be an enemy. The key sentence is, “What you did to the least person, you did to me.” But there is also the warning, “What you failed to do to the least person, you failed to do to me.”

Think of the implications. The Works of Mercy reshape the way we live and what we do for a living. Feeding someone who is hungry goes hand in hand with doing nothing that would cause hunger. Giving drink to the thirsty also means protecting water and using it carefully. Thus you wouldn’t destroy an enemy’s water purification plant. Clothing the naked and welcoming the homeless means not dropping bombs and burning home and bodies. Et cetera, et cetera.

One of the implications of the works of mercy is not centering one’s life of consumption and the acquisition of money. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called this “voluntary poverty.” Others call is “living simply.” In the Beatitudes it’s “poverty of spirit.” Call it what you will, it’s freeing yourself from living a life trapped in junk: the latest, most high-resolution TV, the best of all smart phones, the most up-to-the-minute, high-powered computer. The list of what you can have is endless. And then you get whatever it is and pretty soon it’s “what’s next?”

Another implication of both the Beatitudes and the Works of Mercy is living nonviolently. For example you don’t see killing as a solution to life’s problems and you play no part in killing people. Where there is injustice you become one of those who is exploring nonviolent alternatives and working for a nonviolent solution. Think of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton. Think of Jesus, who killed no one and healed many. Think of any of the people whose names are remembered in the calendar of saints.

Peacemaking is a word that describes a way of life. From time to time it’s likely to involve acts of protest but mainly it is what you do in day-to-day life.

Peacemaking is care of the planet and its inhabitants.

One of the icons of peacemaking is the planet we live on. Peacemaking is built on the realization that the human race is indeed one family — that this is not just a poetic assertion given to us in the Book of Genesis, a foundational story that regards every human being as a direct descendant of Adam and Eve, but a unity confirmed by our DNA. No matter what our skin color we can marry each other and have children. A transplanted Irish kidney can save a Kenyan’s life. The one and only race is the human race. We are one and every one of us lives at the same address: the third planet out from a single star we call the Sun. We are at home on this planet no matter where on the globe we happen to be. We are one people and always have been. The only problem is that we imagine our differences are more important than what we have in common. Those differences become the fuel of war. The challenge of peacemaking is the recovery of our original unity. Countless lives, and also the health of our souls, depend on it. It’s quite a challenge. The cruelest expression of our failure to live in unity is war.

Here’s a photo of the Earth taken from space. It was made in July 1969 by one of the three astronauts who took part in Apollo 11, the first human expedition to the surface of the Moon. Let me finish this talk by telling you the story of how this image made its way to me.

Most people who were alive at the time saw the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened on radio via a pair of low-tech earphones made available to me by the State of Wisconsin. I was in a narrow cell at Waupun State Prison, a facility that was originally constructed to hold Civil War captives.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War. I was one of fourteen people, several of them Catholic priests, who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. We regarded the Vietnam War as unjust and didn’t believe anyone should be forced to take part in it. In July 1969 I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence — in fact just over one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

My new address was the sort of zoo-like maximum-security prison you see in old James Cagney movies — tier upon tier of cells, each of them fourteen bars wide, reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks. It was a place that seemed black-and-white even when seen in color.

Each cell had a radio connection and a pair of earphones. Not so bad! In fact it was perhaps more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on TV. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. I had plenty of props for my imagination, having seen many science fiction films and having read dozens of science fiction novels. Lots of si-fi book covers were embedded in memory.

It was astounding to imagine human beings, in a tiny container not a lot bigger than my cell, crossing that dry and airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing — then walking – on the Moon’s low-gravity, dusty surface. Incredible. One might even use the word “awesome.”

But the main impact of the event came in the days that followed as newspapers made their way to me full of photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey — the whole Earth as seen by human eyes, the Earth rising like a blue marble over the airless horizon of the desolate Moon.

Then came the biggest surprise of all: a packet from NASA, addressed to me, arrived in the prison mail room. But there was a problem. The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the packet — mail was allowed only from “authorized correspondents” and no one at NASA was on that list. I was asked to sign a form that gave me two choices: destroy the packet or return-to-sender. Of course I refused both options. After a two-or-three-day struggle with the prison administration, the packet was at last delivered to my cell. This photo is what was inside. The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even there it didn’t have quite the richness of color and detail the actual photo has.

For the rest of my time in prison it rested on top of the book-laden table that was allowed in my cell. It was an icon that I often contemplated: this magnificent fragment of creation that God has given us to share and care for, and in which we are called to love and protect each other.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter in the envelope. I could only guess. The trial of the group I was part of, the Milwaukee 14, had received a great deal of press attention, including many articles in The New York Times as well as other major dailies and later a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books. I can only guess that something I had said during our trial had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back. His sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful borderless planet with its thin envelope of air may have been his way of saying thank you. Just a guess. If so, the giver of the photo was an officer in the US Air Force sending a gift to an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in Middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Recently I looked us quotations from astronauts who have gazed at the Earth from space. It turns out many of the men and women who have seen the whole earth have an acute sense of it being a vulnerable living organism lacking all borders. Let me end with these few words from one of them, Russell Schweickart:

“You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are — hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, the earth is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take a person in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?’” [www.context.org/iclib/ic03/schweick/]

Astronaut Joe Allen put it in even fewer words: “With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the most important reason.”

Peacemaking is a never-ending work of seeing the world we are part of in its wholeness while repairing broken bonds and creating new ones. It’s the responsibility of each of us. May your life be a life of peacemaking.

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text as of 23 March 2014

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