Jesus and the Peacemakers

Evangelicalism, stemming from the First Great Awakening in American colonial times (think Jonathan Edwards and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) and various holiness movements, has always promoted a view of people in black-and-white terms, i.e., Us and Them. The whole point of the gospel, the good news, in evangelical thinking, is to get the people Out There to cross over and become one of Us. Also, the emphasis is on fighting sin. Conservative Christians are energized and motivated by being against something.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”

-Jesus, Matthew 5:9, NIV

The highlight of the most important of multiple weekly church meetings, of course, is the Sunday morning sermon. In traditional conservative churches, a good sermon is when the preacher sweats so hard from his loud and passionate preaching against Sin that he has to take off his suit coat. (As he dramatically strips of his coat and throws it on one of the podium chairs, there are lots of “Amen” and “Preach it!” calls from the congregation.) One Christian teacher I had in high school made the fervent comment, “I don’t feel like I’ve had church until I get convicted!” (In evangelical-speak, convicted means feeling guilty.) So sometimes the object of the “against” push is the conscience of the congregation. But much more often, the sermon rails against Out There kinds of sins.

In the days of the holiness movement in the mid- to late 20th Century, particularly in the Southern Bible Belt, sin was defined as such behaviors as dancing, going to the movies, drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, etc. Some of those prohibitions have shifted in most evangelical churches today, but in order to thrive, this kind of evangelicalism needs a new enemy. Now the most preached-against, Out There sins have become abortion, LGBTQ+ identity and practice, premarital sex,1 and, anything that is perceived as an insult or threat to “Christian America.” These perceived threats run the gamut from Muslim and Hispanic immigration, to public education that threatens to make white young people feel guilty for the impact of slavery and systematic racism on African Americans, to “liberal, secular humanism” in the public sphere. This country’s tribalism has reached a fever pitch, and evangelicalism, I’m sorry to say, has played a significant role in that.

Conservative Christians are energized and motivated
by being against something.

So much vitriol today is spewed by evangelicals in the name of Jesus. But this not the Jesus I love. The Jesus I love is one who loved, embraced, and even honored the Other. To set the stage, the world that Jesus was born into was at least as tribal as ours. Judaism, like all others in the ancient world, was a tribal religion. Jesus was born into the line of King David, so his tribe claimed to be the real Chosen People of Yahweh, the One True God. Their despised half-blood cousins, the Samaritans, were considered heretics with whom good Jews would have nothing to do. And don’t even get them started on the Roman invaders, those pagans who worshipped many false gods! Jews were not supposed to even let Romans enter their house, nor to enter theirs.

This country’s tribalism has reached a fever pitch,
and evangelicalism has played a significant role in that.

But what did Jesus do? Over and over again, he breaks the rules that exclude the Other! Examples include the conversation he has with a Samaritan woman at the well,2 which, as she points out herself, is never done, for a Jewish man to even talk with a Samaritan woman, much less to ask her to do him a favor of drawing for him a drink of water. He even knows, without being told, that she has been married five times, and that the man she’s with now is not her husband, yet he gives her dignity by engaging seriously and lovingly in a life changing conversation with her.

The Jesus I love is one who loved, embraced,
and even honored the Other.

Another time he surprises his listeners by telling a story in which the people who should have been the heroes, Jewish religious leaders, are the bad guys who cross the street to avoid helping a seriously injured fellow Jew, and a Samaritan is the good guy who has compassion on one who is an Other to him.3 This despised Samaritan stops and helps the injured stranger, putting him on his donkey and taking him to an inn, where he pays the owner to nurse him back to health at his own expense. (Whaaat?? Didn’t Jesus know that Samaritans were heretics?? What kind of confusing moral was he preaching??)

In another story, a Roman military officer charged with keeping the Jews firmly under Roman rule comes to Jesus, asking him to heal his beloved servant.4 You can’t get much more Other than that! The Romans were the enemy! The occupying force! Yet Jesus does not treat the centurion as an Other. Not only does he heal the servant, he also praises the Roman for his faith. Once again, rather than resorting to the safety of tribalism, Jesus just sees people as people, worthy of respect and compassion.

Jesus was a peacemaker,
and he calls his followers to be peacemakers.

Jesus was a peacemaker, and in this beatitude, he calls his followers to be peacemakers. This is another reason I now call myself a post-evangelical. I’m not interested in dividing people in my mind into camps of who’s In and who’s Out. That’s between them and God. I believe that all people are on a spiritual journey of one kind or another. I believe that all are created in the image of God, and when I look at people, I try to just see them as people. I find much to love, much to admire, and much to empathize with in all kinds of people. I want to just love them and try to be at peace with them. Sometimes there’s a tension between peace and truth, and we see Jesus walking that tightrope, too. But I want to walk it with him.

1 However, these are not just “Out There” sins anymore. How many evangelical parents now have grown children who are in sexual relationships and often living with their partners? It’s a lot. A study published in 2006 (and that’s 17 years ago already) based on interviews with 38,000 people, most of them women, found that 99% of them had had sex by age 44, and 95% of them had done so before marriage. Even among a subgroup who had abstained until at least age 20 (think kids who grew up in church, pledging to stay pure till marriage), four-fifths of them had had premarital sex by age 44. I’m not saying that’s the way I think it should be, but it’s the reality. And what breaks my heart is when Christian parents shame and even disown their grown children for such decisions. Same — and often infinitely worse — with their kids who come out to them as LGBTQ+.

2 John 4:3-42

3 Luke 10:25-37

4 Matthew 8:5-13

Next post: Jesus and the Persecuted

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