The difference between wanting peace and making peace

(and how it’s wrecking my perspective)

It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.

Eleanor Roosevelt

So it turns out, peacemaking is not one of my natural skills, and it’s super-hard to do.

I have been attending weekly ZOOM communication groups through my church. Once a week, we meet in a virtual classroom and learn from our counseling pastor Dave—who has an uncanny ability to make people feel heard and valued—about how to communicate over difficult issues. How to talk about polarizing issues. How to de-escalate a conversation instead of accelerate it into crazy-ville.

In the ZOOM class, attenders are polled about a sensitive topic at the beginning and the end of the discussion portion. In the middle, after the brief teaching, we’re randomly divided into chat rooms where we practice a new communication skill with one another about a particular polarizing topic (this week’s topic was the Richmond monuments; last week’s was the relationship between church and politics). So yeah, we’re getting into some awkward places.

This exercise has been incredibly helpful and convicting to me personally. As a group, we agree and disagree. Sometimes it’s over perspective and not the topic itself. Other times, it is the topic. But instead of Facebook banter and posting our favorite authorities on the subject, we listen. We affirm, repeat, try to understand. Then we share.

Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Everyone seems to be doing really well. But when I leave the meeting, I’m acutely aware that I’m way less empathetic than I thought I was. My comments (which I find insightful and necessary) don’t necessarily open up conversation. They may, in fact, push people to take a position or to reconsider a position (which is an insightful and necessary skill for a prophet or teacher) but is not the point of the exercise.

But it is the reason I’m in the class. (I realize where my issues are.)

So, here’s what I’m learning about empathetic listening and communication (and I briefly share the notes from Dr. Dave DeMasters here):

There are 3 levels of communication:

  1. Listening=hearing what you’re saying
  2. Active listening=understanding what you’re saying
  3. Empathetic listening=feeling what you’re saying

Each level is a higher form of communication than the one preceding it. Each requires interaction on my part—paying attention, acknowledging, repeating, affirming, experiencing.

This week we talked about de-escalation and peacemaking. Neither of these is a natural skill for me, although I would always have characterized myself as an advocate of peace and unity.

So, being newly enlightened, I am now presented with a conundrum: how can I want peace and yet struggle with people who can’t see the world as I see it? Why do I continually assume that I’m on the same page with God Almighty, while people with opposing opinions are not?

I had an epiphany at four am today.

(Hence, the blog post.) Here’s my epiphany:

Wanting peace and making peace are two very different things.

Wanting peace can produce sympathy, passion, awareness, faith—any number of good things. It can also produce avoidance, judgment, divisiveness, self-righteousness, and fear.

Making peace digs deeper. It agonizes to accomplish a greater good. It gives up something personal to gain something that benefits others. It’s advocacy, empathy, compassion, even activism—but in its quest for unity (not for winning or persuading, which are my secret desires), it uplifts everyone in its path. It doesn’t trample them underfoot, en route to a glorious conclusion where we exist in community and harmony over everything. It doesn’t assume that I’m right or that I’m the only one who wants justice, or that the people on different sides want something different.

Peacemaking doesn’t have the bandwidth for arrogance.

As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.

Nelson Mandela

This is my struggle. I’m learning something about myself that I didn’t completely understand. I want peace, but I’m not always pursuing it.

The path toward peace can be achieved by warmongers or peacemakers. I don’t want to be a warmonger, but I’m afraid that I often don’t want to be the peacemaker, either. I just want everyone else to stop causing trouble and wake up to the facts so we can all enjoy peace and be a glorious light to the world. My default is working from a place of disagreement (wanting peace), instead of working from a place of agreement (peacemaking).

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9) Honestly, is that even appealing to us? I suspect that winning arguments, elections, appointments, and theological debates are so much more desirable.

The Beatitudes are not a platitude of lofty ideals. They summon courage and heartache. They promise blessing to those who suffer for love and justice (the word for righteousness in Matthew 5:8 is dikaiosyne, often translated as “justice, virtue, equity, purity.”)  

These qualities seem nearly impossible to possess—and who would want them?? Look at this unappealing list of virtuous character traits:

  • poor in spirit (impoverished, discouraged, suppressed)
  • grieving
  • humble
  • hungry and thirsty for justice
  • merciful
  • pure in heart (blameless, innocent)
  • peacemaking
  • persecuted

The promise of happiness (“Blessed are”) is apparently spiritual in nature and eternal in time. So, if you’re not after this kind of blessing, you’re certainly not going to embrace the mourning, hunger, peacemaking, or persecution that precedes it. Nobody wants to live their whole lives suffering, just to die before the happy part happens.

Jesus was calling his first-century audience to suffering. No wonder they scratched their heads and argued over what Jesus’ stories meant, who God loved best, and what to do about the Romans.

Which brings me back to wanting peace versus wanting to be a peacemaker. Multitudes followed Jesus because of their situation in life. They were poor, hungry, sick, and oppressed. They wanted Jesus to fill their stomachs, give them free healthcare, and overthrow the Roman government. They were already suffering, so I imagine his appeal to virtue went right over their heads.

Got any bread, Jesus? And help me—my kid is sick. And why are you talking about those filthy Samaritans and tax collectors? We hate those people. You should hate them, too. And don’t get me started on the government.

Jesus invoked a perspective of peacemaking, not peace-wanting.

Wanting peace elevates the importance of the situation, of the offenses against me. Peacemaking elevates the importance of the people involved, of the offenses against them. I will always avoid, attack, empathize, or learn based on my priority of those two things.

So I have a hard choice. A daily choice.

Wanting peace or making peace?

One yells and posts and blames and hides. The other reaches out and loves.

I want to be the second kind of person. But dang, this is hard.

The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.

Dalai Lama

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