This semester I’m in the second half of a companioning discussion class for students doing the field education requirement. This week, after our check-ins and usual playful conversation, our professor turned serious. He leaned forward and said to the group: I think we are all close enough here to have a conversation about what’s happening in our world.
I never exactly figured out precisely what my professor was trying to get at—what was the purpose of our ‘talk’ other than to sit in the somberness of the moment together. But I found that a theme throughout my week as I went from class to class was a deeper spiritual grappling. People weren’t talking about the new presidency all the time, but the mood was tangible. A lot happened politically in just a short amount of time, and my sense is that everyone doesn’t know quite what to make of it all.
Perhaps this is true for you all as well, but it seems hard to avoid thinking about our political system. The morning news whispers at us all day long. Facebook has become a battleground of flashy headlines and people’s last ditch attempt to make a small amount of change. Sometimes it’s hard to tell between what is news and what is people venting their fear, anger, or triumphalism. One thing is for sure: it’s a new world, a new reality, and I think all of us are trying to get our heads around precisely what that new reality will mean for ourselves, our family and friends, our community, and our nation.
This week’s passage in the Lectionary is the Beatitudes. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the mournful, blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.’ Does it feel as oddly and uniquely pertinent to you as it does to me? I want to offer just a moment of silent reflection for you to think about what the Beatitudes mean to you in this time…
For those of us feeling fearful, downtrodden, or threatened, the Beatitudes can be a wonderful source of comfort. And the Beatitudes are a great reminder of how Jesus time and time again flipped the script—the oppressed, the persecuted, and the lowly are given blessing, promise, and glory that are denied to them in this lifetime.
Yet there are ways in which the Beatitudes can trap us. Especially in a time of extreme political polarization, it’s too easy to assume that we ourselves fall in the category of virtuous and deserving of cosmic reward while looking smugly upon our enemies who we believe deserve nothing. It’s easy to start thinking of the Beatitudes as a time to reflect on who’s emancipated and who’s punished, who’s virtuous and who must mend their ways.
But is that really the point of the Beatitudes? Certainly Jesus meant to push against social systems that favored the rich, the selfish, and the aggressive, but it’s not so clear that Jesus trying to get us to start parsing out who is “in” and who is “out.” Instead, I believe the Beatitudes are not about finite, definable categories, but are more about the process of taking on a spiritual attitude. There is no person who one day wakes up a peacemaker and is unequivocally a peacemaker their whole life. Neither is there someone who is merciful without faltering. The Beatitudes aren’t distinct categories, but a process of being. And so, for this reason, Jesus isn’t simply rewarding individuals, but is inviting people into a deeper place. He is inviting people closer in relationship with God, where your status as a good person isn’t what counts, but that you are constantly striving to do good in your life and be in right relationship with others and with Creation.
This entire week, I have been wondering how the Beatitudes relate to our world today, desperately yearning to understand what scripture has to say to our current political system. Especially the Beatitudes related to righteousness seem particularly relevant, as people on all sides of the political spectrum are claiming righteousness. It seems our political system has become a battle of righteous wills duking it out over the ability to have control over our country’s lawmaking.
In class this week, one of my classmates said something profound that has sat with me. Herself progressive in orientation, she commented about how so many people were shocked by the election’s results. She wondered aloud if liberals had seen only the people that fell within their sphere of concern, essentially invisibilizing those that fell outside their sphere of concern, namely some of the Trump voters who are claiming that their voices are not being heard in public discourse. She was trying to make sense of how so many could have voted for Trump, how they were missed or looked over, and how their cries may have been dismissed.
Now, this classmate is a future Unitarian Universalist minister, a lesbian woman married to a transgender person of color who is the child of Mexican immigrants. She, then, has every reason to feel righteous indignation, every reason to believe it is she who is persecuted for righteousness sake. Yet here was reflecting on the ambiguity of her own righteousness.
And it brings up the question: is it possible that in our pursuit of justice we become too assured of our righteousness? Can we become so attached to our righteousness that we end up shutting ourselves within our own security? Can we become inflexible, unwilling to listen to others, incapable of believing there is righteousness outside our own definition of it?
This week a friend and I were talking about the rhetoric around abortion. He expressed his fear that no progress will ever be made because each side of the argument has reduced themselves to easy name calling as a way to delegitimize the other side. While conservatives call pro-choice people “baby-killers”, liberals call pro-life people “women haters.” Instead of acknowledging the significant ethical question of when a life can be protected legally and instead of acknowledging the way pregnancy and reproductive health are a matter of quality of life for women, we resort to name calling, and further dig righteous our stick into the mud.
I can’t think of a political issue that seems to get more nasty than the issue of abortion. We have fallen into a brutal game of tug of war, and instead of engaging in thoughtful, discerning dialogue about a critical ethical issue, we rely on our laws and our government to mandate our morals onto people we find morally repugnant. Is it any wonder we don’t get anywhere?
I worry about the political polarization of our country—how every new issue is taken up by either the right or the left and then defended in unambiguous terms. Neither side seems to want to admit that each policy or each movement is neither completely good nor completely bad, and we certainly wouldn’t want our argument to lose power by suggesting that our opponents may have a point. We spend all our time finding the specks in our enemies’ eyes without acknowledging that there might be a log in our own.
Trump keeps talking about a wall at the border, but I can’t help but think in this country, when it comes to politics on both the left and the right, we have erected walls around our hearts and our values. We have become so assured of our version of righteousness that we are prepared to silence anything that challenges us.
And so it seems of all of the Beatitudes, the one we most need in this country is that of the peacemakers. But what does being a peacemaker mean? To the theologian Walter Wink, being a peacemaker is about following in the way of non-violence as taught by Jesus. Non-violence is not passivity, but actively resisting evil without using violence. Yet the key to non-violence, according to Walter Wink is that we “don’t become what we hate.” He says, “The way of non-violence, the way Jesus chose, is the only way that is able to overcome evil without creating new forms of evil and making us evil in turn.”
It is essential that in fighting oppression, we don’t just create new systems of domination. In order to do this, Walter Wink suggests we have to learn how to love our enemy. Just imagine—in today’s world, having to love your enemies! Now just think for a second about a person or a group of people you identify as your enemy. They can be people you think violate your values, threaten your existence, or are working for the opposite of what you believe. Now think about that God is commanding you to love your enemies. Love them! What would it mean to love them? Could you do it?
It's a sobering idea to think about loving our enemies in this time. The news this week has felt like one devastating blow after the next. And people are angry. They feel threatened. Some people worry about their lives, their homes, their health, their children’s education, and the future of the Earth. It seems like resistance is more necessary than ever. And that may be true. A pertinent question then, is how to be a peacemaker amidst all of this? How can we stand with our convictions and be a peacemaker at the same time?
Walter Wink gives us one answer, “Identifying enemies runs the risk of freezing them in their role, and of blocking their conversion. Treating people as enemies will help create enemylike reactions in them. Too great an emphasis on liberating the oppressed, too big a focus on success in nonviolent campaigns, too pragmatic an orientation to nonviolent struggle, can have the effect of dehumanizing the opponent in our minds and acts. The command to love our enemies reminds us that our first task toward oppressors is pastoral: to help them recover their humanity…It is not enough to become politically free; we must also become human. Nonviolence presents a chance for all parties to rise above their present condition and become more of what God created them to be.”
Wink says we should humanize ourselves and our enemies. This involves avoiding name calling and essentializing others down to a single story. It involves responding to hate with love, not just love as a slogan, but with real love that involves listening, and building relationships with people of all kinds, and caring for those in need.
Yet seeking to be a peacemaker of this kind is not easy, and we must do so with humility in our hearts. And at the end of the day, we need God. The Beatitudes say, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Here, ‘poor in spirit’ doesn’t just mean ‘of little faith’ or ‘feeling down,’ it means broken to the point of having nothing to give. And when we come with that level of humility, we come to God with no pretenses and no defenses. We are open to receiving God’s love, strength, and guidance.
I think if we are going to live with this new world, our aim should be to be peacemakers so that we avoid descending into vitriolic battles of righteousness in which we are constantly making enemies of each other. But being peacemakers means humbly turning to God, poor in spirit, seeking help for discernment for how to be our best selves in this broken world.
It seems hard to say that we ought to be peacemakers in a time of what seems to be constant political assault. Yet, if we don’t learn to be peacemakers now, I fear our only option is warfare, even if just ideological. The change towards good begins with ourselves, not as righteous conquests, but by being the change we want to see in the world. If we want peace, we must be peacemakers. If we want love, we must love fearlessly. As Micah 6:8 so wisely puts it, “And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It’s an overwhelming time and we have so much work ahead, but sometimes nothing captures the feeling better than song
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 172.