Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The Apostle Paul implored, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). James declared, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:18).
With the sound and fury of the midterm election now blissfully faded away, but with more American troops going into Iraq and two American carrier groups gathered in the Persian Gulf, it is a good time to talk about peace and peacemaking. Back in the fall of 2002, during the build-up to the Iraq War, the voices of peacemakers were overwhelmed by their opponents. Perhaps it was not clear to the American people at the time, but the choice by President Bush to go to war had already been made. The process moved so swiftly, gained so much momentum, that there were few meaningful chances to probe and to question, to wait for more clarity. The die was cast. And in March 2003 the United States went to war.
Throughout this period there were also opposing sets of voices within American Reformed churches. Based on what church members were hearing and believing from within the government and the media, a substantial majority seems to have supported the invasion of Iraq. Reformed churches pretty much reflected American culture. Some voices, however, inquired of their church leaders whether their denomination had some wisdom from the past to guide the thinking of its members during this time. So it was that on February 28, 2003, the Board of Trustees of my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, issued a pastoral letter to all its congregations. Without taking a pro or con position on the Iraq War, the Board did “urgently call the church to reflect on our commonly held principles as enunciated by Synod 1977” (Agenda for Synod 2006, p. 420).
That synod had mandated church members facing war to ask tough, somber questions of their situation. Was their nation the unjust aggressor? Had it exhausted all peaceful means to resolve the matter in dispute? Were the means of warfare likely to be employed by their nation in fair proportion to the evil or aggression of the opposing forces? Had their country been proposing and encouraging negotiations for peace, or had it spurned such moves by the opposing forces or by neutral or international organizations? (Acts of Synod 1977, pp. 46-48) Unfortunately, there was not enough time for local congregations to digest and to discuss these questions in March 2003. The American invasion was soon a fait accompli.
Later that year the CRC Synod appointed a special study committee to revisit the issues of war and peace. The committee soon found that, as to war, they would not have to reinvent the wheel; previous synods (in 1939, 1977, 1982, and 1985) had done good and extensive work on the subject.
The subject of peace, however, had not been defined and described nearly as well. The committee thus decided to put their primary focus on peace and peacemaking. “If the Christian Reformed Church is to obediently play the role to which God calls us in the United States and Canada, we must do all we can to make our calling as peacemakers a central element of our worship, our evangelism and outreach activities, and our congregational life” (Agenda for Synod 2006, p. 387).
The longest section of the committee’s report is its theological prolegomenon, which expounds upon “the church as the bearer of shalom” (p. 389). Next comes a discussion of “the vocation of peacemaking in relation to governments,” followed by an important review of our “Christian calling: prophet, priest, and king” in being both peacekeepers and peacemakers (p. 392). The committee helpfully details how peace work has grown in the recent past, and attaches an appendix listing a wide range of recommended readings on the topic (pp. 440-448). It analyzes eight differences that globalization has wrought in the international environment, and provides a short yet insightful review of the just-war tradition.
In the report’s last section the study committee breaks new ground with some excellent suggestions for how the church can actively move forward to fulfill its calling to work for peace. But first the authors point out how this “is an underdeveloped area of Christian ministry within the CRC, especially for a church that proclaims that every area of life is under Christ’s rule.” In its research “some pastors informed the committee that they do not feel well-prepared to preach on the subjects of justice and peace as they apply to current historical realities, beyond general references and general prayers. This has resulted in relatively few sermons delivered on the Christian calling to work for justice and peace even though these subjects are a prominent theme throughout the Scriptures” (p. 412).
The committee therefore made its principal suggestion the establishment of a Reformed Virtual Institute of Peace. The church should “make resources available and accessible to engage church members in life-long learning, which is possible today with modern communications technology. Creating and managing a Reformed Virtual Institute of Peace as a website would make material available quickly and efficiently. Selecting the best resource materials and linking information sources would make continuing discussion more realistically possible… . Drawing on the resources of our institutions of higher learning would greatly facilitate, enhance, and institutionalize our efforts to equip the saints for the work of peace” (pp. 413-414).
When a Christian Reformed synod is really serious about a report, it establishes a new denominational office or mandates certain actions to be reviewed by future synods. But the recommendations on war and peace passed by Synod 2006 mostly use verbs like “encourage” or “urge,” not “require.” The denomination’s executive director is tasked to correspond a bit with the governments of the United States and Canada, but nothing more. As for the committee’s recommendation to establish a Reformed Virtual Institute of Peace, there is no mention of it in the synod’s official recommendations. Without timelines or accountability, it is hard to imagine that this report will trigger significant behavioral change either in the pulpit or the pew. Abundant precedents in CRC history argue that, after a season, sometimes very short, a report such as this will soon cease to be discussed, much less debated. It will likely sit on the shelf until the next related controversy arises.
I strongly believe this report–rather, this part of our calling as Christians–deserves better. There is a crucial need for all of us to acquire more knowledge about becoming genuine peacemakers. We need to hear more sermons on those texts I cited at the beginning of this article. What did Jesus and the apostles mean for our lives today when they spoke those words? Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus preached and modeled the good news of the kingdom of God. Repeatedly he told his listeners: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.” We profess that our primary citizenship resides with that kingdom. To follow Jesus, to be kingdom citizens now, means to be peacekeepers and peacemakers. We urgently need all the help we can get to equip ourselves to be more active and effective agents of peace and reconciliation.
I appeal to church leaders to do whatever is necessary to make a Reformed Virtual Institute of Peace a reality soon. It is simply common sense to use current technology to share important resources widely. And it is urgent, with old wars surging and new wars looming, that we hear again what words recited during Advent mean for our common everyday lives year around: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named … Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).