The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Peacemakers

“It takes three to make a quarrel,” said Chesterton. “There is needed a peacemaker. The full potentialities of human fury cannot be reached until a friend of both parties tactfully intervenes.” Chesterton was being funny, of course. But as always, he was wisely pointing to a truth as well. It is the truth that keeps so many from being peacemakers–the truth that peacemakers will always be accused of being weenies and wimps by mutually hostile parties. All the Beatitudes pronounce a blessing on things which unenlightened natural common sense tells us are not blessed. Being poor when everybody wants to be rich, merciful when everybody is screaming for blood, mournful when everybody wants gladness–calling these things “blessed” is decidedly counter-intuitive. And to be a peacemaker–to suggest that the goal is ultimately to will the eternal good of, say, Osama bin Laden is counter-intuitive too.

When the Iraq war first broke out, voices in some sectors of the American public were running editorials with titles like “Push the Damn Button!” and urging the insanity of nuclear retaliation. In contrast, Just War theory is not promulgated by the Church as a sort of checklist which, if minimally met, allows us to go berserk with moral impunity. The point of Just War teaching, as of the system of checks and balances in the US Constitution, is to make it as hard as possible for human evil to be unleashed. It’s supposed to be hard to go to war. The fact that the Iraq War did not, according to two Popes, meet with Just War criteria was a feature, not a bug, of Just War doctrine. That’s because the Church’s ultimate goal is peace, not a simple orgy of vengeance.

Indeed, in our haste to approach Catholic teaching on a sort of Minimum Daily Adult Requirement basis in the ramp-up to war, it was seldom so much as mentioned that before you ever get to the Church’s teaching on Just War in the Catechism (a teaching which, as Joseph Ratzinger famously observed, makes no provision for pre-emptive wars) the first concern of the Church is to teach peace:

2302 By recalling the commandment, “You shall not kill,” our Lord asked for peace of heart and denounced murderous anger and hatred as immoral.

Anger is a desire for revenge. “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin. The Lord says, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.”

2303 Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

2304 Respect for and development of human life require peace. Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is “the tranquillity of order.” Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity.

2305 Earthly peace is the image and fruit of the peace of Christ, the messianic “Prince of Peace.” By the blood of his Cross, “in his own person he killed the hostility,” he reconciled men with God and made his Church the sacrament of the unity of the human race and of its union with God. “He is our peace.” He has declared: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

2306 Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.

This instruction precedes the instruction on Just War, since war is, in the Church’s understanding, a last ditch effort, not “common sense” and not the “natural state of man” (as, for instance, pagans like Hobbes insist). Sin is, for Catholics, normal, but not “natural”. Never natural. Sin destroys nature, not constitutes it. So a philosophy predicated on the assumption that sin is natural is contrary to both nature and grace.

Now the Church allows for war when all alternatives to peace have been exhausted. But her natural sympathy is with peace as our natural state, since we are created to live in peace. So she is not nearly as swift to advocate arms as our culture is. She does not condemn war as intrinsically wrong. But she has always left open a place at the table for people who genuinely believe that it is always wrong to take up arms. In this, she basically lives out the counsels of St. Paul in Romans 14, recognizing that some people believe it morally incumbent upon them before God not to fight, just as others believe it morally incumbent upon them to fight. Our task is to not pass judgment and assume too quickly that those who disagree with our preferred approach are either bellicose Mars worshippers or cowardly ninnies. Our tradition has both Joan of Arc and early Christians who refused to take up arms even as many of them went–with their families–to the lions.

The only place the Church draws the line with pacifist types (as she does with Just War types) is when they try to insist that anybody who disagrees with them is “not really Catholic”. And in a culture where the great majority of Catholics are Just War types it is vital to remember that, since we are in the majority, it particularly falls to us not to speak with contempt of pacifists since, as Holy Church reminds us, they “bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.”

That such contempt comes easily is illustrated by the fact that even a Christian hero like Pope John Paul the Great had to endure the brickbats and insults (anti-American!) and lies of the “Push the Damn Button!” crowd, as peacemakers always do. Note that in moments of war fever, even people who affirm the Just War tradition like John Paul can earn the epithet “pacifist” as though it is a term of ultimate contempt.

This is nothing new. The psalmist lamented over 3000 years ago, “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war!” (Ps. 120:7). In a far greater way, the Prince of Peace suffered far greater insults when he acted peaceably toward Gentile centurions and tax collectors (the latter universally despised in Israel as lackeys and profiteers for the former), neglected to rain down fire on the Samaritans, and failed to call down twelve legions of angels to bring an “end to evil” as a good Son of David was supposed to do. That’s because he was the Messiah, not the secular messianist that fallen human wisdom is always hoping for. He knew that peacemaking is always a sacrificial act.

That’s worth repeating: Peacemaking, as much as fighting in a just war, is a sacrificial and therefore priestly act. We don’t like that. We much prefer the realpolitik of General Patton, who said that the goal was to make the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country. But our faith is blunt about the ultimate mystery of peacemaking: The the Son of God surrender to crucifixion in order to reconcile our warring race with God and with ourselves and bring about the only true and lasting peace to be had in the world. As St. Paul says:

You who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-16)

To make peace therefore always means a sacrifice since all peace is rooted in the peace of Christ and the peace of Christ was obtained “by his blood.” Jesus was able to do this because he is the Son of God. When we make peace, we are therefore sharers in his sonship–beloved children of God the Father, with whom he is well pleased.

(For more on the Beatitudes,  go here to order Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes and a Joyful Life.)


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