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Sermon on the Mount – Peacemakers

*Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh article in a 13-part series on the Beatitudes. Here’s the complete list of articles in the series:

  1. Who Does Jesus Think He Is?
  2. Crowds or Disciples? 
  3. The Sermon’s Most Important Word
  4. The Pursuit of Happiness
  5. Poor in Spirit
  6. God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil 
  7. Meekness
  8. Hunger and Thirst
  9. Mercy or the Mob 
  10. Pure in Heart
  11. Peacemakers
  12. The Persecuted
  13. 7 Questions to Ask of Each Beatitude

“It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). But when we get together, we sure can make an awful mess. Seriously, the first man born on this planet murdered the next one. We’re bad at this. But then Jesus comes along and says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).

Now the word “peace” calls back to the Hebrew idea of shalom–overall well-being. It applies far more broadly than interpersonal conflict. But interpersonal conflict has a really good way of messing up our sense of overall well-being. So the idea of “making peace” usually means resolving conflict between two parties. For instance, God says of wandering Israel, “Let them make peace with me” (Isa. 27:5). On the other hand, the second horseman of the apocalypse is given the ability to take peace, so people start killing each other (Rev. 6:4).

So you are a “peacemaker” if you reconcile parties that are in conflict. Maybe you’re one of them, maybe not. It works either way.

Peacemakers are “sons of God” because peacemaking is something God is very interested in. In discussing God’s work in the world, Paul is able to make this the major theme of the book of Ephesians: God makes peace between himself and humanity (Chapter 1), peace between Jew and Gentile (Chapter 2-3), peace among believers (Chapter 4), and peace in the home (Chapter 5-6). It only makes sense that, if we want to be like God, then making peace is a good way to go.

If you’re anything like me, though, your brain starts to go fuzzy and there’s a constricting feeling in your chest at the thought of trying to make peace. I don’t wanna. It’s scary.

It’s scary because we are broken. We are broken because we have adapted to a broken world. Making peace means stepping into conflict. And conflict triggers the unconscious parts of our brain that are concerned with survival. Raise the heart rate just a little bit, and the emotional brain takes over. By comparison, the rational brain is super slow, so the emotional brain says, “Step aside. We don’t have time for you. I’ve got this.”

But it doesn’t have this.

It has all kinds of maladaptive processes that may get you out alive, but they sure don’t produce shalom. What’s worse is that the emotional brain can talk. Words come out of your mouth. These words may even sound like a rational argument, but if you look at the house your rational brain lives in, the lights aren’t even on.

I feel bad that this article can’t possibly be a full manual on conflict resolution. Instead, we can look at some preliminaries–some things you need to take care of in yourself in order to start taking the posture of a peacemaker. Work on these, and you’ll have a good foundation to start learning about making peace.

In short: if you are going to have any hope of making peace, you have to learn to de-escalate yourself. Calm the emotional brain down, and let your rational brain take charge. The things your emotional brain tells you are compelling (after all, they sure feel right!). But they’re stupid. What the emotional brain wants does not make for “shalom.”

First, the emotional brain often wants to plaster over conflict rather than try to resolve it.

To the emotional brain, being alone is death. Being in a group feels safe. The emotional brain knows what has kept the group intact so far, so doing anything new, anything off-script (including something that may actually solve the problem), is terrifying. Even if the group itself is terrible–like an abusive relationship or a family with an alcoholic dad. The emotional brain knows how to “keep the peace.”

In less threatening situations, our emotional brain still says, “Don’t rock the boat.” Settle for what M. Scott Peck calls “pseudo-community.” Put on a happy face, pretend everything is fine, and for heaven’s sake don’t acknowledge anything that might not be. But that means that the underlying issues that have caused conflict are still there. They are zombies. Burying them doesn’t kill them. They’ll be back. And, over time, they may very well get worse. So, as Ultron would say, this emotional brain tactic may get you some quiet, but it won’t get you peace.

Second, if the emotional brain does engage in conflict, it wants to win.

That’s why action movies never climax with a big diplomatic breakthrough. Not what we instinctively want. We want the Michael Bay punch to the face. We want the Chris Rock mic drop. Boom! Deal with that! We want to prove a point. The emotional brain finds this very satisfying.

Except it’s completely useless.

The person we’re in conflict with is also in their emotional brain. Their rational brain isn’t there to sign for any deliveries. They also want to win. So aiming to win just makes it a zero-sum game that everyone is sure to lose.

This idea of a “decisive win” in an interpersonal conflict is a total scam our emotional brains are selling us. We’re trying to impress an audience that is entirely in our own head. We’re so concerned with what this imaginary audience thinks that we’re not listening. Active listening is really our only chance at de-escalating the other person so we can look for ways that we can both win. This is pretty much the opposite of what the emotional brain wants, so it involves actively ignoring that zinger our emotional brain is trying to put together.

Lastly, the emotional brain wants to draw a line between “us” and “them.”

As we mentioned, the emotional brain is very concerned with the group. For the sake of maintaining the group, there are certain things you just don’t do. But if we decide that the person we are in conflict with is NOT part of “our” group, then the gloves are off.

In his mind-blowing book Conflict Communication, Rory Miller calls this “othering.” (It’s a version of the “essentializing” we talked about in connection with mercy.) Whether it’s an altercation at the grocery store or a dispute between nations, we come up with a way to view them as “less than.” For our emotional brain, this justifies pretty much anything we decide to do. And our decisions will be totally unconcerned with peace.

None of this is like God. God in no way minimizes or ignores the rift between us and him. And instead of being concerned with “winning,” Jesus was willing to go to the cross. And in that cross he breaks down all dividing walls between “us” and “them” (Gal. 3:28).

Do we want to be peacemakers?

If so, then like Paul in his letters, we can’t shy away from conflict. Like Phinehas, we need to take the time to listen, not just charge in to win (Judg. 22). And we need to remember that, in the very covenant that set the Israelites apart, God commanded them not to treat the foreigner among them differently, because they were the same (Deut. 10:19).

You are a “peacemaker” if you reconcile parties that are in conflict.

In Christ, our core self is made new (see the article on the pure in heart). This is the Kingdom breaking in–making things the way they should be. But a lot of the rest of us, like our emotional brain, still speaks the language of this broken world (Rom. 8:10).

God, who originally created people to partner with him in the work of creation (Gen. 2:15), now partners with us in the re-creation of ourselves (Phil. 2:12-13). As we learn to speak the language of Heaven, the broken Image of God in us is restored. And the more that Image of God is restored, the more the work of partnering in creation extends outside of us. Our emotional brain yearns for community, and our rational brain re-wires it so that our community can actually come together in peace.

To a world marred by conflict, we help bring shalom–we help the Kingdom come. We become peacemakers. We become sons of God.

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