At this critical moment in the life of our denomination, especially following the 222nd meeting of the General Assembly, it is an opportune time for us as ordained church leaders to reaffirm our ordination vows. As we review them we might also ask which one of them is the most difficult today. Many might quickly reply that in light of the tragic murders in Orlando, the assassination of a member of parliament in Great Britain and other recent violent events, that the sixth vow, “Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?” (W-4.4003) is clearly the hardest to keep.
Indeed, how can we continue to follow Jesus’ command to be peacemakers when the world is so filled with violence and hatred, one in which airliners are sabotaged in the Middle East, senseless shootings take place nearly every week in our own country and name-calling and threats are part of the presidential race? Yet Jesus does not give us the option to give into violence and hatred if we want to follow him. He does not permit us to give up on peacemaking today or any other day.
Jesus’ command is clear: We are not called to wish for peace, to hope for peace or even just to vote and pray for peace. We are called to make peace, to create peaceful situations, to be doers not just thinkers of peace.
How can we become peacemakers? A close look at the seventh Beatitude in Matthew 5 points both to corporate and personal elements. “Blessed are those who are peacemakers” (plural) indicates that we cannot make it all by our ourselves. We need to support and be supported by larger groups of committed people who form organizations that work together to stop violence in its many forms all over the world. As Presbyterians, this is a critical time to become involved in the work of the peacemaking committees in our churches and if we do not have such a committee, to work with the pastor, session and deacons, to form one. An example of a church familiar to me that provides an energetic and inspirational model is the Presbyterian-Congregational Fellowship of Saratoga Springs, New York (pnecchurch.org).
It is also possible to become involved on a presbytery level. Our Peacemaking Task Force in Albany Presbytery in small in numbers, but is committed and active: We have utilized peacemaking offering funds to sponsor participants in peacemaking conferences at Ghost Ranch, Montreat and Stony Point, and have enabled commissioners to attend denominational trips to Israel and Palestine. Last year, 25 of us visited the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, and in 2016 we are supporting the work of presbytery members in Haiti and Zambia (albanypresbytery.org/groups). On a larger scale in the U.S. and abroad, good sources of information about the work in the PC(USA) include the Compassion, Peace and Justice website and that of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
One more thing: Peacemaking must be personal as well as corporate. We cannot be peacemakers on a local or world level if we do not want peace in our own hearts, in our families, in our places of worship, in our own hometowns, cities and communities. God’s call is to be persistent, not part-time, peacemakers. It requires us to work with others to resist violence in today’s fractured world, but it also demands that we examine ourselves from the inside out. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, violence is self-perpetuating and if we really want to work for peace we must “turn the spotlight inward” in case the fault is largely or partly our own.
Earl S. Johnson is a retired pastor in the PC(USA), adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College, and a member of the Albany Presbytery Peacemaking Task Force.