Decolonizing Peace- Muriel Schmid, Administrative Director Christian Peacemaker Teams, July 12, 2020
Updated: Jul 30
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12 & Jeremiah 6:14
Imagine, Occupied Palestine! Some of you may have visited Palestine and witnessed first-hand the presence and impact of the Israeli military occupation on Palestinian lives. As these pictures show, our team on the ground in Hebron witnesses every day what
the occupation represents in terms of soldiers’ brutality, arrests, harassment, checkpoints, street closures, etc.!
Meanwhile, politicians and public figures are quick to talk about peace: peace agreements that are meant to restore state sovereignty, freedom of movement and self-
determination for all... But, as Palestinian Christians remind us with the words of the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.'
Let’s be honest: peace is not the goal! Annexation, displacement, and erasure of the Palestinian people is the goal. A goal best served by all sorts of colonial tools: land grab, appropriation of natural resources, discriminatory laws, etc.; the military occupation is only one tool in a much bigger picture!
Imagine, Occupied Palestine! Not the one we just looked at, but the one from the 1st century, the one Jesus and the first Christian communities lived in... As Palestinian Christians remind us, the New Testament was written by and for people living under a violent military occupation and Palestinians today are ironically in the best position to understand the gospel! During Jesus’ time too, the military occupation was part of a bigger picture: the building of an Empire by all means necessary.
We need to talk about colonization, in Jesus’ time and in our time! Talking only about military occupation or conflict in broad terms or annexation never tells the whole story! The project of colonization is complex and seeks not only territorial expansion, but the occupation of the mind and the appropriation of the narrative. Talking about peace without this larger context is also a way of avoiding the true reality of colonization. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
During Jesus’ time, people were talking about peace too! So, let’s spend some time this morning examining what peace might have represented then. I invite you to go back to
Matthew’s famous Beatitude about peacemaking:
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
This Beatitude is unique to Matthew’s gospel and it has become a cherished refrain among Christians engaged in peacemaking, including CPT. As you may know, Christian Peacemaker Teams was born in the mid-80s among Mennonites and other members of the historical peace churches; if anyone does peace and ranks among its earnest makers, CPT does, along with many of its supporters.
So, we like to talk about peace and think that we are blessed for the work we do. It is reassuring: when war appears to win all around, when injustice and oppression are systemic, we want to think we are standing on the right side of history. We do peace! Blessed are the peacemakers...
In this context, how can Matthew’s Beatitudes still challenge us? I have been asking myself this question for a while now, in particular when it comes to the Beatitude about peacemaking. While reassuring us, it seems to have lost some of its radicality, the radicality we recognize in other parts of the gospel. What if we could recover that challenge? How might it change the way we talk about peace and make peace?
Let’s discuss for a minute about the radicality of Jesus’ Beatitudes in general: in the context of the 1st century, the Greek word for “blessed” “makarios” was used exclusively
for the Gods or the dead who had reached a state of supreme blessedness, or the members of the social elite, the rich and powerful. So, when Jesus reverses the use of the word, declaring the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted “blessed,” it must have created a bit of a commotion in his audience (and later the readers of the Matthew’s gospel).
No matter how you look at it, knowing that Jesus’ followers and the first Christian communities were mostly coming from the poorest class of society, Jesus’ statements go against common sense, against a logical course of affairs in the Empire and certainly against a socio-political system based on merit and reward... People belonging to the unlucky fringe of society must have thought “Wow, you’re kidding, right? Look at us! We are at the bottom of society, we are fighting every day to survive, we’re abused by the system, ignored, starving, oppressed...and yet we are blessed?! That would be great! But how are we blessed, exactly?” And to those in power, Jesus’ words would logically have resonated like a declaration of culture war.
If we take that idea—the idea of Jesus’ radical message back into the peacemaking story, how then do we read Matthew’s seventh Beatitude, “blessed are the peacemakers”? At first glance, this Beatitude is not controversial at all.
I want to suggest however that it might have been radical and shocking to the audience and readership of that time as well, but for a reason other than the reversal of socio-economic values.
When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” it is very likely that his audience (and Matthew’s readers) who lived under the rule of the Roman Empire would have immediately thought of the Pax Romana that was then imposed on all Roman colonies.
That was certainly, at that time, the most widely known model of peacemaking.
Established a few decades before the Christian era, historians date the end of the Pax Romana around 180 of our common era when the Emperor Marcus-Aurelius dies. So, when Matthew writes his gospel around the year 80, we are at the height of the Pax Romana. They were indeed talking about peace then too!
Seen as the peak of stability within the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana was also one of the best tools devised by the Empire to control its colonized populations. During this period, the Roman Empire saw its greatest expansion, its population comprised of an astounding 70 million subjects spread over the entire Mediterranean region. The peoples who were under the rule of the Empire lost most of their autonomy: the so- called Pax was imposed and with it, Roman laws, the worship of the Emperor, a dreadful military occupation, heavy taxes, the control of all natural resources, and a colonial economy that exploited the poor and condoned slavery. The Pax Romana was ultimately a strategy of complete dominion.
Blessed are the peacemakers!
So, in this context, what could Matthew’s Jesus have meant? His audience (and Matthew’s readers) may well have wondered: “So, we, the poor are blessed, but...so are the Romans and their Pax? Are they the peacemakers? Are they children of God? Is this what the Kingdom of God looks like?”
We cannot know for sure how people reacted, but for me, taking seriously this possible tension in Matthew’s Beatitudes may transform them into a powerful call to decolonize
our understanding of peace.
In Matthew’s gospel, the peacemakers are sandwiched between the “pure in heart” and “those who are persecuted for justice’s sake.” Both create tension around the peacemakers’ Beatitude and remind us that the Pax Romana was anything but just. If the poor and the hungry and the weeping are blessed, could the inclusion of the peacemakers be a warning not to fall into the trap of a “colonial peace” but to work, precisely, toward another just form of peace not yet realized on earth?
The Roman Empire eventually became the Holy Roman Empire and Christianity sat on the throne of the Emperor. Christianity became an Empire of its own and espoused many aspects and tools devised by the colonial model. In that case, what lessons can we draw from Matthew’s Beatitudes today? What would it look like for us to radically decolonize peace, as beneficiaries of long-standing Empire—if not the Christian one, certainly the American Empire?
The gospel, informed by a long prophetic tradition, teaches us a peace grounded in justice. Biblically and prophetically, there is no peace without justice, no peace without community, no peace without a full inclusion of all creatures, no peace without forgiveness and reparation... And we are back full circle: a culture war against the values we have been taught and that are engrained in our society. By the time you reach the end of the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, you need to start reading them again from the beginning. Decolonizing peace is about decolonizing pretty much everything, especially Christianity!
The task ahead of us is not easy; people in our streets today know it, chanting “No justice, no peace!” The gospel may be happening there...
CPT dedicates a lot of its resources to working on decolonizing peace and decolonizing Christianity. It takes time and a constant attention to language, gestures, thoughts, prayers...
I will end with some recommendations formulated by Kaitlin Curtice in an article for Sojourners about decolonizing our faith:
Maybe you look outside the church.
Maybe you decide to read the Bible differently.
Maybe you ask hard questions about what you’ve been taught to believe, and maybe it will lead you to deconstructing some of your faith.
Maybe decolonizing will lead each of us to recognize that we are complicit in colonization on a daily basis, and we have the opportunity to cut it out of our lives for the sake of a better way.
The history of colonization within the church — a history of empire — must be broken, and for that to happen, the church must de-center its own whiteness in order to listen to voices that are speaking important truths, voices from the margins, yes, voices from the wilderness.
And then, the white church must join in the work of decolonizing, not because it’s suddenly become popular, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Blessed are we, the peacemakers, for there is a lot of work to be done!