“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” —Matthew 5:9
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” That’s what I had written on a blue and yellow sign and brought with me to an anti-war rally on Texas A&M campus last Saturday. The peaceful protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was organized by our local Ukrainian community, so the event served as a solidarity gathering as much as an anti-war statement.
There was a woman from Ukraine who noticed my sign, locked eyes with me, and marched in my direction. Standing inches from my face, she asked, “How are we supposed to make peace?” I was taken aback by the question mostly because I was confused by her intent. I was there in support of peace for the people of Ukraine being besieged by violence, so her sharp questioning caught me off guard.
Fumbling to make sense of what she wanted me to say, I respectfully offered, “I’m sorry, but I’m not a military strategist. I don’t know exactly how to make peace happen, but…”
“I know you’re not a military strategist. I came over here to ask you how we make peace because you are wearing a collar and because of what your sign says.”
I had come to show support for the oppressed in witness to the Gospel message of peace, but instead I had agitated my neighbor. After I confessed that I honestly did not know what she wanted me to say, she told me, “I’m sorry,” and walked away. It was only later that I realized how my sign’s boasting about those who make peace being blessed might have offended her or even hurt her.
I wish that I could have understood what my neighbor was saying to me in that moment. With more clarity, I might have assured her that the message was intended for Mr. Putin and the choice he has to wage war or make peace. Far be it from me or any Western world observer of the atrocities unfolding in Ukraine to suggest how those victimized by war should handle themselves in light of such overwhelming militarized opposition. But standing in support of the oppressed in witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about being properly understood and never about being affirmed for such charitable deeds; rather, it’s about humbly standing alongside the ones Jesus calls us to “come and see” (John 1:39), to listen to and learn from their experience, and to value and honor what we learn so deeply that our understanding, appreciation, and interpretation of the Gospel message is molded more constructively to reflect God’s will of peace for all creation and for all who mutually dwell within it.
Bearing in mind the experience of my neighbors near and far who live under constant threat of bullying and violence in some form or another, I have turned to one of my favorite hymns for solace: “O for a World,” written by Miriam Therese Winter “envisioning a new world order for the Presbyterian Women’s Triennial Conference in 1982,” according to the New Century Hymnal. The last verse of that hymn hits differently for me today than it did before that anti-war protest: “O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace…where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” Peace is something that is coming, but it is also something Jesus teaches us to make. It is a reign to prepare for by making a world that can accommodate it. Blessed is a world that prepares for God’s glorious reign of peace by making spaces and situations where the question no longer needs to be asked out of desperation, “How are we supposed to make peace?” And blessed are those who work for that kind of peace “where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” This week I understand, appreciate, and interpret “love thy neighbor” to mean, “Work for a world where your neighbor doesn’t have to come to a protest and rhetorically ask a clergy person how we are supposed to make peace.”