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How to be a Peace Maker

by John Wijngaards

published by the Catholic Truth Society, London, 1985.

Blessed are the peacemakers.
God will say: ‘They are my children’. (Mt. 5: 9)

The teacher who uttered these memorable words, Jesus Christ, wanted to establish peace, including peace between religious communities. ‘Happy are those who work for peace’, he taught. ‘Happy they are, because God himself will consider them to be called his own children in a special way’. All religious people look upon God as their father. All aspire to be regarded by him as his children. They will be so only, Christ says, if they are people who work for peace.

‘Don’t think I have come to bring peace. I have come to bring the sword’, is another saying of Jesus (Mt. 10: 34). He did not mean, as is sometimes wrongly inferred, that his followers had to use the sword. ‘Put your sword back’, he ordered Peter. ‘All who take the sword will die by the sword’ (Mt. 26: 52). When he said he had come to bring the sword, Jesus referred to the fact that his coming would, unfortunately, also bring division. It would divide those who believed in him from those who did not; those ready to follow his commandments from those who were not; those prepared to proclaim his good news to others from those who would try to suppress it. Jesus wanted his followers to know that misunderstanding, opposition, yes, even persecution, were unavoidable. Just as he himself was to die for his mission, so his disciples could expect ill-treatment. ‘No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too’ (Jn 15: 20).

It is important to note that Jesus did not incite his disciples to provoke such opposition. He merely wanted them to be prepared for it; to accept their suffering the way he had done: for the sake of their mission. ‘You will be arrested and taken to court. You will be beaten in the house of prayer. You will stand before rulers and kings for my sake to give witness to the good news’ (Mt. 13: 9). ‘You will be handed over by your parents, your brothers, your relatives and your friends. Some of you will be put to death’ (Lk. 21: 16). Such persecution, however, was not to provide an excuse for violent retaliation. In fact, the disciples were not to offer resistance. ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too’ (Mt. 5: 39). ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who ill-treat you’ (Lk. 6: 27-28).

These are, indeed, powerful teachings for all who are striving after communal harmony. They are the pillars on which peace and ‘the civilisation of love’ should be constructed. We might; however, ask: Did Jesus give more specific guidelines for the building of peace and reconciliation in the community? Did the problems caused by divisions in society and religious conflict exist in his time as it does in ours? If so, did he suggest any principles which might help us solve those problems? Did Jesus himself make any contribution to communal harmony?

The answer to all the questions is Yes. Jesus encountered tensions in the community similar to those we encounter today. By his words and deeds he indicated the principles that, faithfully followed, could solve them. In other words, he did address himself directly to the problem of creating peace and reconciliation in societies, like our own, in which there are many different ethnic and religious communities.

To understand these teachings of Jesus, it is necessary to recall that Palestine in Jesus’s days was sharply divided into many separate communities. For our purpose, we may distinguish three of them, the Jews themselves, the Samaritans and the Romans.

Although at loggerheads among themselves, all orthodox Jews adhered to the Old Testament faith and ordered their religious practices around the Temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans, however, differed from them both in doctrine and religious practice. They had their own version of the Law of Moses. They believed Mount Gerizim near Shechem was the centre of worship and they followed their own religious practices. Samaritans also differed from the Jews ethnically. They were the mixed offspring of Jewish ancestors and immigrant nations settled in Palestine by the Babylonian emperors. (1)

The emnity and opposition between Jews and Samaritans was almost total. The Jewish high priest Hyrcanus I had forcibly subjected the Samaritans in around 107 B.C. Their temple on Mount Gerizim had been destroyed. The city of Samaria was besieged for over a year, then captured and razed to the ground. The Jews considered this a religious victory, sealed by a miracle—for they claimed that a voice from heaven had informed Hyrcanus of the victory while he was offering sacrifice in Jerusalem. For the Samaritans, on the other hand, it was a humiliating defeat they would never forget. (2)

The Romans, on their part, were the foreign colonisers who had held Palestine in subjection from 63 B.C. They were adherents of an enlightened nature worship. They despised Jews and Samaritans alike. For diplomatic reasons the Romans tolerated local religious customs, but their basic contempt could not fail to shine through from time to time. Many Jews and Samaritans considered opposition to the Romans almost a sacred duty.

Perhaps we are familiar with the tensions I have outlined here. What we often forget, or are not sufficiently aware of, is that they give rise to bloody conflicts. The disharmony in the community at the time of Christ was as serious as, humanly speaking, it could be. I will illustrate this as we go along. Only then will we fully appreciate the revolutionary nature of Jesus’s teaching.

— — — —

Towards the end of his ministry, we are told, Jesus decided to make his final journey to Jerusalem. As he was in Galilee at the time, it meant two days’ march through Samaria.

He sent messengers ahead of him, who went into a village in Samaria to get everything ready for him. But the people there would not receive him, because it was clear that he was on his way to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them’? (Lk. 9: 52-54)

The Samaritans in question refused to give Jesus and his disciples food and water because they were travelling to the Temple in Jerusalem. A frequent cause of conflict. In the year 50 A.D., hardly twenty years later, it was to lead to a full-scale war. A party of Galileans who were on their way to the Passover feast in Jerusalem were murdered in a Samaritan village. The Jews took terrible revenge. Under the two zealots, Eleasar and Alexander, they sent a raiding band into Samaria who killed old men, women and children and burnt down one village after the other. Cumanus, who was Roman procurator at the time, intervened with his troops. But he also supplied arms to the Samaritans. A civil war erupted in which many people were killed. (3) Violence was constantly simmering under the surface, as James’s and John’s proposal —‘Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them’?—shows.

Jesus himself was a Jew, a Galilean Jew. He, too, was being rebuffed by the Samaritans. He could feel in his own flesh the anger of his disciples, the response of his own community. How did he react? Would he now scold the Samaritans and warn them as he had warned the unbelieving cities of Corozain and Bethsaida? This is what the Gospel tells us:

Jesus turned and rebuked James and John. ‘You don’t know what kind of spirit you belong to; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them’. Then Jesus and his disciples went on to another village. (Lk. 9: 55-56) (4)

The principle we may draw from Jesus’s action and words is clear: If people disagree with us on religious grounds, we should never use violence to force them to agreement. Even less should we take revenge or cause harm as if we were God’s instruments of punishment. We have no right, however strongly we feel about our religious convictions, to call down fire from heaven on those of different beliefs. Our first principle, then, is that violence in the name of religion is out, once and for all. It is against the spirit of God.

Adherents of all the major religions have cause here to examine their consciences. As a Christian I am deeply upset and troubled by the many instances in our own religious history of violence being used against other communities. I think of the crusades, of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, of the execution of heretics. These events have happened through misguided zeal, through an unfortunate relapse into Old Testament morals, through allowing the human spirit to take over instead of God’s spirit. The use of violence was certainly not according to the mind of Jesus and it is my wish and prayer that violence will never again be resorted to by religious people under any pretext.

— — — —

Another instance in Jesus’s ministry of the greatest importance is his teaching on fraternal charity. We should love our neighbour. ‘Who is our neighbour’? Jesus himself gives us the answer.

There was once a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him, and beat him up, leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down that road; but when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side. In the same way a Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man, and then walked by, on the other side. But a Samaritan who was travelling that way came upon the man, and when he saw him, his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Take care of him’, he told the innkeeper, ‘and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on him’. (Lk. 10: 30-35)

The depths of this well-known parable of Jesus can never be fully probed. What I would like to draw your attention to is that here a Jew was wounded by robbers in Judea. Probably they were Jewish vagabonds. A Jewish priest and a Jewish Levite see him and pass by. The person who helps is someone belonging to a different part of the country and a different community, a despised Samaritan!

To fathom the full force of Jesus’s story, consider the following. Hardly six miles distance from Nazareth lay Sepphoris, the birthplace of the Galilean freedom champion Judas, son of Hezekiah. In the year 4 B:C., about the time when Jesus was born, Judas rose up against Roman rule in a messianic revolt. The immediate occasion had been Roman violation of the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. Many Galileans joined Judas, but the Samaritans kept their distance. When the Roman armies marched in under Varus, when they burnt Sepphoris and sold all its inhabitants as slaves, when two thousand Galileans were crucified, the Samaritans looked on with hardly disguised glee. Judas, the freedom fighter, was still active in desert places when Jesus grew up. During Sepphoris’s rebuilding under Herod Antipas, Jesus was a young man. For all we know, he may have helped rebuild it as a carpenter. Jesus had seen and felt the wounds of his own people. He must have heard many stories about the Samaritans’ hardness of heart. (5)

Through his parable Jesus destroys all categories. He teaches us that we should never forget that other communities are made up of individual men and women. By our generalisations we deny the truth that value resides in every individual person. The second principle he teaches concerning communal harmony, then, is that we should respect each person, regardless of what religious or ethnic group he belongs to, or any prejudices we may have about that community.

So when we ask the question: ‘Who is my neighbour’? the answer is not: ‘Whoever belongs to my clan’, or ‘Whoever belongs to my religious community or social class’. The answer is clearly: ‘Whoever I meet on my way through life’. Through this principle Jesus radically cuts through all man-made divisions and groupings. ‘If you are only kind to your own relatives and brothers, what good are you doing? Even unbelievers are kind to their relatives and friends!’ (cf. Mt. 5: 46-47).

— — — —

A third incident in Jesus’s life is equally telling. Again he passes through Samaria. He rests next to the well of Sychar while his disciples have gone to buy food. A Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Jesus asks for a drink. Her reaction is spontaneous. ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan—so how can you ask me for a drink’? The rest of the story is well-known. How Jesus engages in a deep religious conversation with the woman. How this leads to Jesus being received as a guest of honour in the village of Sychar and how they felt his presence had brought them grace (Jn 4: 1-42).

Again we are reminded of a historical conflict, very near in time and place, recorded by contemporaries. Only half an hour’s walk from Sychar lies the village of Tirathana, the place of tragedy. In 35 A.D., five years after Jesus’s visit there, thousands of Samaritans gathered for a special pilgrimage to the top of Mount Gerizim, where, they believed, they were to be shown the sacred utensils of the Temple that had been hidden there from Moses’s time. Pontius Pilate, however, had heard of the gathering and, perhaps at the instigation of the Jews—who knows?—treated the meeting as a political threat. The Samaritans were suddenly attacked. Many died on the spot. Many were arrested and executed by Pilate. An independent Roman enquiry was to prove later on that the meeting had, indeed, been a purely religious occasion. (6)

In his discussion with the Samaritan woman Jesus teaches appreciation for the religious convictions of other people. The third principle of communal harmony which he offers to us is respect for the underlying values found in all religions. ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, yet you tell us that Jerusalem is the place men ought to worship’, the Samaritan woman reminds Jesus. ‘Do not be distracted’, he tells her in effect, ‘by questions as to whether God should be worshipped on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem! God is a spirit. What matters to him is that people worship him in spirit and in truth. How they worship him, where they do so, what rites they use, are really secondary’ (compare Jn 4: 19-24).

This is a crucially important insight. Even though, quite rightly, we revere our own religious traditions and customs, we should always remember that worship in spirit and in truth is the true heart of our faith. How many of our brothers and sisters in other religious traditions are seeking precisely that same worship in spirit and in truth! What we should appreciate in those religions, even if we cannot endorse the entire framework of their beliefs and practices, is precisely that universal basis of all genuine religion!

— — — —

Our study of Jesus’s words has thus led to discover three important, practical principles of communal harmony:

1.We should never use violence to force people who disagree with us on religious grounds into agreement.

2.We should respect each individual person, regardless of the community he belongs to or any prejudices we may have about that community.

3.We should appreciate and respect the true values found in all religions.

If we are true to these three principles, we will be true peacemakers, treating our brothers and sisters who belong to other religious faiths as we would treat our co-religionists. I will show what this means in practice by way of ten examples taken from the Gospel.

We should not be afraid to become real friends with those of other faiths. Jesus himself stayed with the Samaritans of Sychar. He shared their meals, slept in their homes, talked familiarly with them for a number of days (Jn 4: 39-42). True friendship involves meeting the family and visiting the home.

Even though some of our own beliefs and customs may be different, we should be honest enough to praise our friends from other religions for the good we see in them. The Syro-Phoenician woman who approached Jesus near Sidon hailed from a Canaanitic religious community. But Jesus praised and encouraged her: ‘You are a woman of great faith’! (Mt. 15: 28).

When some misunderstandings occur—as may always happen between friends—we should be patient and tolerant. We should not immediately feel offended and cut off the relationship. We should remember the master’s response to his servant’s plea, ‘Be patient with me’!, and act with the same generosity, just as we trust that God will hear our own plea for patience (Mt. 18: 23-35).

If we notice that our friendship has suffered a setback, for whatever reason, we should discuss it frankly and try to set matters right. Jesus considers making peace with our friends of such importance that he teaches we should even delay our religious duties for it. ‘If you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother. Then come back and offer your gift to God’! (Mt. 5: 23-24).

It stands to reason, too, that we should also show our respect when our friends are not present. We should not criticise them behind their backs. ‘Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you’, Jesus said. ‘For God will judge you in the same way as you judge others . .. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, and pay no attention to the log in your own eye’? (Mt. 7: 1-3). We will betray the confidence of our friends if in our thoughts or words we run them down.

If our friends were to make a mistake, if they offend us or hurt us, we should be prepared to forgive sincerely. We also make mistakes. We, too, have to ask for forgiveness occasionally. So why should we feel proud and jealous of our honour? When Jesus was asked whether we should forgive our brother as often as seven times, he replied, ‘No, not seven times, but seventy times seven’! (Mt. 18: 22). He meant that we should always forgive.

We should wish our friends well, especially on their feasts. Jesus wanted us to exchange greetings with any person we meet (Mt. 5: 47), so how much more so with our friends—whatever religion they may belong to. And since feastdays are often so important to them, we should greet them especially warmly on those days!

If your friends are in need, we will show our friendship in deed by gladly extending our help. We remember Jesus’s words, ‘When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him’ (Mt. 5: 42). We are again reminded that Jesus himself helped people belonging to other faiths: on one occasion, for example, he cured the servant of the Roman officer at the man’s request (cf. Lk. 7: 1-10).

When the opportunity arises, we should join our friends in shared prayer. This can be arranged in such a way that none of the partners will feel threatened or embarrassed. It is such worship in spirit and in truth Jesus was talking about with the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4: 21-24).

Again, in the right time and place, we may sincerely and trustfully talk to each other about our own beliefs. Just as we show interest in the religion of our friends, we will want to explain our own practices and convictions. If we are truly believing people, we cannot help speaking about our belief and showing it in practice. ‘No one lights a lamp and covers it with a bowl or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on the lampstand, so that people will see the light as they come in (Lk. 8: 16). ‘Your light must shine before people, so that they see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven’ (Mt. 5: 16).

All these are just examples to show what communal harmony and true friendship between those belonging to different religions entails. Once we have imbibed the correct attitude, we will show it in many more practical ways. For it is not the external practices, but the heart that matters most. That is why Jesus gave us the universal command to love; a practical neighbourly love without restrictions. ‘Do for others what you want them to do for you’! (Mt. 7: 12). ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’! (Mt. 22: 39). What more needs to be said? What more teaching is required? If we reach this stage, words will cease and deeds will take over.

Footnotes

1. For more historical details about the Samaritans, see F. F. BRUCE, Israel and the Nations, Paternoster, Exeter 1978.

2. FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Antiquitates XIII q.l; 10. 2-3; Bella Judaica, i.2, 6-7. cf. J. SCHUERER, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, Schocken, New York, 1961, pp. 71-74.

3. FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Ant. XX 6. 1-3; Bella ii.12, 3-7 (SCHUERER, 226-227).

4. Some manuscripts have a shorter version of verse 55, viz. ‘Jesus turned and rebuked them’. Even in this shorter version the teaching remains the same.

5. FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Ant. XVII 10.5; 10. 9-10, 11.1; Bella ii.4.1; 5. 1-3 (SCHUERER, pp. 161-163).

6. FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Ant, XVIII 4.1 (SCHUERER. pp. 198-202).


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