Category: Pondering Peace

The Way of Peace

We are entering into the Advent season, a time to welcome into our lives more fully the presence of God as known in Jesus Christ.  In Luke’s Gospel, we read Zechariah’s prophetic words regarding Christ’s coming. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace” (1:78).

There is much darkness in our world right now, and many who live in the shadow of death as war stalks their land. Currently the horrors that have occurred and are occurring in Israel and Gaza fill our newsfeeds.  Along with that is Russia’s war on Ukraine, which continues on with ferocity.  Rarely in the news but dragging on with devastating effects is a civil war in Myanmar (Burma) that reignited after a military coup deposed the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi almost three years ago.

Recently I spent some time with pastors and church leaders who are part of the Chin Baptist Convention, USA.  The Chin people are one of the ethnic communities of Myanmar.  Many of those who gathered had come to settle in the United States as refugees from previous military actions against the people in Chin State.  In addition to the many concerns and conflicts that other pastors in America face today, they were also worried about their homeland and their family and friends still living there.

The people of Burma have a painful history of colonization by the British, followed by military dictatorship for decades.  More recently a prodemocracy movement brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to victory, only to have the military junta grab power back again in 2021. In response, thousands of people rose up in nonviolent protest, filling the streets.  The military reacted with repression and imprisonment of protestors.  The civil disobedience protest movement was energetic and creative, but when the military’s repression turned to shooting protestors, many gave up on nonviolent efforts.  Some fled to the forests of Burma’s ethnic communities to find safety and to learn how to fight with guns from those who had been doing so for many years.

After Burma gained independence in 1948, the ethnic communities were promised self-rule within a federal form of government.  But the military government refused to grant them this, treated them as second-class citizens, oppressed them, and exploited the resources of their lands.  This had resulted in conflict between the military and the ethnic communities for decades, often flaring into violence.  But with the recent military junta’s brutal repression, the fighting has escalated.  Many now living in the United States have raised money and somehow found ways to send weapons back to those fighting in defense of the homeland.  Some government outposts have been captured, and the military has responded with an intensification of bombing and burning the villages.  People have fled their homes to live in the forests or to become refugees in neighboring countries.  Things are far worse now than they have ever been as the conflict escalates into civil war.

The gathered Chin pastors spoke of the suffering of the people of their homeland and the feeling that Burma has been forgotten and abandoned by the rest of the world, which has turned its attention elsewhere.  The National Unity Government-in-exile has set up an office in Washington DC, trying to get attention, and some Burmese have tried to advocate with members of Congress for assistance, but seemingly to no avail.  Meanwhile there are more and more weapons quietly making their way into the ethnic communities of Burma.  Chin pastors and leaders living in the United States are deeply concerned about this whole situation.  They recognize that although in Diaspora, they still have some influence on their people.  But what could they do that would help?

It was out of this dilemma that I was asked to lead a continuing education conference on “Peacemaking and Peacebuilding in Crisis.” I was to preach at the opening worship service and then lead sessions throughout the next day.  During our opening worship, we focused on the “gospel of peace,” which is how the writer of Ephesians summarized the content of Christian faith (6:15).  In the context of enmity and hostility between those who were Jews and those who were Gentiles, Ephesians 2 declares that “Christ Jesus is our peace… and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (2:14-15).  We remembered how Jesus looked over Jerusalem and wept because they did not recognize “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:44).  Under oppressive Roman military domination, the Jewish people were destitute, suffering, and increasingly desperate, and violent rebellion beckoned them as the only possible solution.  But Jesus knew that violence breeds violence, and that a flourishing peaceful nation must be built on something else.  And so, he threw himself into teaching another way – that of being peacemakers and justice seekers, showing mercy to others, and even loving for one’s enemies while yet retaining one’s dignity through nonviolent transformative actions.  In so many places today, our world still needs this gospel of peace.

During educational sessions the next day, we looked at various styles of dealing with conflict from avoidance and accommodation, to forcefully asserting one’s own way, to compromise and collaboration.  We looked at ways that conflict was handled in the early church, as recorded in Acts, as well as passages in the Old Testament where violence was averted and war was interrupted through mediation, negotiation, and transformative initiatives.  It was also acknowledged that there are other instances of violence and war recorded in the Old Testament, many claiming to be commanded by God in what some have termed “holy wars.”

Since as Christians our final authority is the teachings of Jesus, we delved into his teaching on how to treat our enemies in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our final session focused on the relationship between violence and trauma, how trauma can lead to cycles of retaliation and violence, and how a journey of trauma healing can break those cycles.  Our time together lifted up many ways Chin pastors and leaders can respond to the crisis of their homeland – through preaching the gospel of peace, teaching the nonviolence and transformative initiatives of Jesus, mediating and negotiating peace during times of conflict, seeking to lay the grassroots groundwork for peace in peacebuilding, and facilitating the healing of trauma.  However, not included were the responses of supporting their homeland’s armed defense and being part of efforts to supply weapons.

I was asked to speak about peacemaking, and I cannot do so without talking about Jesus and his way of peace through transformative nonviolent action.  It is always a difficult dynamic to stand against all violence in times of war, especially when that war is unjust and entails an oppressive power against primarily civilians. I was also well aware that I was speaking as someone who has never personally experienced the reality of war. Although graciously hospitable and notably respectful toward me and my perspectives, many there seemed unable to embrace Jesus’ way of nonviolence, as is also true for many American Christians.  One leader stood up and said, “I used to believe in nonviolence, but I don’t anymore.”  My sense was that most believed that violence was the only viable way to peace, although research indicates otherwise.  Research done by Chenoweth and Stephan indicates that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones, and much more likely to lead to a durable democracy even when unsuccessful.  But nonviolent campaigns are not always successful, and even though they tend to accomplish success sooner than violent ones, it often takes many years of persistent effort.

One young pastor earnestly spoke to me afterwards, saying that he related their situation much more to the holy wars of the Old Testament than to what Jesus taught about nonviolence.  The violence his people had embraced in defense of their homeland seemed justified and even right for an oppressed people. This position is understandable, and many would agree. But it is exactly here that I believe Jesus differentiated himself from his country’s history and practice.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:43-44).

In times of war, talk of nonviolence is never popular.  When the drumbeats of war pulse through a land, dissent is often unwelcome.  That is true throughout the world, and certainly true in the United States as well. In reality, most Christians have embraced violence as an unavoidable way that enemies must be dealt with in the effort to secure safety and peace.  But if we are followers of Jesus and his teachings, I cannot help but believe and teach that we must stand against violent ways of dealing with conflict and be peacemakers through nonviolent means, whether our nation is at war or not.  This is way of peace that Jesus has taught and shown us.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.