Among the many nonsense things I’ve heard from leaders of the Religious Right is this: “The peace movement is anti-Christian. Jesus said we will always have war and
rumors of war. We won’t have peace until Christ returns.” Such a claim is not just fatalistic; it suggests that Jesus actually stands against peace efforts. I am reminded of a Viet Nam era Southern Gospel song that took a slap at peace activists:
There’ll be no peace till Jesus comes again
War and strife will rule this troubled land
They’re talking every day about a better way
But there’ll be no peace till Jesus comes again
All this is about like saying, “The medical profession is anti-Christian. The world will never be free of disease until Christ returns.” Really? We shouldn’t try to improve things now regardless of the limitations of what we are likely to accomplish? First of all, Jesus didn’t say there would always be wars. He said, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come” (Mark 13:7, also Matt. 24:6, Luke 21:9). He certainly didn’t suggest that war either should exist or that it is sanctioned by him. He makes a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. There is not the slightest hint in the words or deeds of Jesus that would suggest that his followers should be anything but a people who practice and pursue peace.
Further, Christians are not peacemakers because they have the capacity to rid the world of war nor are they driven by a naiveté about the depth or persistence of evil. In fact naiveté is more likely to exist among those who think that war is a viable tool by which to rid the world of evil and to promote a more just and harmonious planet. In practice each war sets up the conditions in the world for the war which will follow by deepening division, intensifying hostility and reinforcing destructive patterns of behavior between nations. On the other hand, those who follow Jesus know that loving and kind behavior do not necessary lead to peace for them. After all, our Lord got killed for his caring and peaceable life and he taught his followers not to expect any better treatment (Matthew 10:24-25; John 15:20).
Christian peacemakers have been taught in scripture to be realistic. The apostle Paul counseled, “If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Paul does not intend to draw a line beyond which the Christian can or should strike back against an aggressor, a strange and strained interpretation offered by those who seek to justify violence. Rather Paul is calling upon followers of Jesus to do nothing that would lead to disharmony with others, though others might still create conflict with them. The apostle is simply acknowledging that while Christian peaceableness is essential, it still does not guarantee a peaceful existence for the peacemaker.
Despite the persistence of violence and war, commitment to the practice of peace is crucial. We don’t delay the pursuit of peace because perfect peace won’t exist this side of the eschaton. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We live with our eyes looking forward to the Kingdom to come and live in a way that suitably anticipates that realm. In other words, we are to practice what we pray. Rather than conforming to the world as it is, we are to live toward the world that will be and do so on earth in the present. We are to be shaped by the divinely-promised future and live boldly hopeful lives that bear witness to that future regardless of the consequences. To put it in the simplest possible terms, we are to follow Jesus.
Craig M. Watts is minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He is author of the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Indianapolis: Doulos Christou Press, 2005).