Working for Peace

December 4, 2022

Working for Peace

Passage: Psalm 140
Service Type:

A few years ago, I attended Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains, Georgia. The pastor was Jeremy Shoulta, a former student of mine and a member of the Academy of Preachers. The most famous church member of Maranatha Baptist Church was, and is, Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States. He teaches a Sunday School class, and that class is attended each by hundreds of people from around the world.

The day I was there Mr. Carter entered the sanctuary. He welcomed everyone, and recognized all ordained ministers. I do not recall the text or the outline of his talk; but I do recall vividly his testimony about working for peace in the Middle East. He described the Camp David meeting he hosted between the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the President of Egypt Anwar Sadat. That meeting led to what we now know as the Camp David Accords. It brought a cessation of hostilities between these long-standing enemies.

Mr. Carter had been elected President in 1976, just three years after the Yom Kippur War. I was living in Jerusalem in the fall of 1973. I remember vividly that October morning when Egypt attacked Israel. I remember the fighter jets flying overhead and the tanks rolling through the streets of Jerusalem. I watched it all happen from the rooftop veranda outside our one-room apartment on Mount Zion.

That 18-day war upended the balance of power in the region. But a few years later, Carter, Begin, and Sadat gathered to work for peace.  They signed an agreement that has held in one form or another since then. There has not been an Arab versus Jew war since 1973.  That is 49 years. Thanks be to God.

Working for peace is holy work; it is heavenly work; it is hard work. It is work given to us.


Jesus said, “Guard the heart, for out of it are the issues of life.” This certainly applies to our peacemaking work. Much of it is a matter of attitude. I applaud the leaders of nations and tribes who deal with big global affairs. I admire people who aspire to those places on the world stage, who embrace the calling to defuse volatile confrontations. Right now, leaders are meeting somewhere behind closed doors and over internets to stop the war in Ukraine and prevent wars in other parts of the world.

But here, in our more mundane world, we want to develop the attitude of the peacemaker. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, and we want that blessing. We want to be called the children of God, don’t we? We want to address the situations in our own families, our own churches, and our own communities to work for peace. “It is a good thing for brothers to dwell together in harmony,” the Bible says, and we will add “sisters” to that goodness.

For two years, I was front and center in a community stricken by racialized violence. On February 23, 2000, Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down on Sunday afternoon in Brunswick, Georgia, just a few miles from my home. Three white men killed a lone black man. It could have set off a community conflagration, as it did in Minneapolis and Ferguson. But key community leaders stepped forward. One was Rabbi Rachael Bregman. For two years, she led the ministerial alliance to calm the people and keep the peace.  I admire her greatly. She had an attitude of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace-loving.

She has one of the blessings of Jesus. “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.”


Rabbi Rachel reads the same Bible we read, and she embraces the same values we do. This sometimes makes our job harder.

This psalm explains why the Bible makes it harder. Psalm 140 calls upon God to strike the enemy and defeat the wicked.

“Rescue me from evil people. Protect me from the violent. Keep me from the wicked.”

The psalm describes those who plot evil, stir up trouble, and set a trap.  In fact, this kind of language runs all the way through the Psalms.

In fact, the Psalms reads very much like an extended version of the World War One song, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”

Psalm 129 begins, “From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me.  My back is covered with cuts as if a farmer plowed long furrows.” But Psalm 134 ends like this, “May the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you from Jerusalem.”

Psalm 109 reads, “The wicked slander me and tell lies about me.” But Psalm 108 sounds a different note: “Your unfailing love is higher than the heavens and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”

In the Psalms and even throughout the Bible there is a strong call for judgment against the wicked, against those considered wicked by the people of God. In Genesis, is the brothers of Joseph. In Exodus, it is the people of Egypt. In Leviticus is the unclean people. In Numbers, it is the sons of Korah. And in Deuteronomy, it is the inhabitants of the Promised Land who must be exterminated.

There are very few examples in these first five books of the Bible of people making friends instead of enemies, making peace instead of war. This illustrates the tendency of religion to identify enemies and justify their defeat and death.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and forgive those who mistreat us.  But the religion of the Bible and the religion of history push us to identify those who oppose us and denounce them as unworthy of friendship, with us or with God.

We are hard pressed today to find a story in the Bible that illustrates reconciliation. Yes, Jacob and Esau made amends of sorts and eventually lived side by side but with plenty of space. But mostly, the Bible tells of how the people of God defeated their enemies and protected their own interests. When the wicked win, it is great calamity for the cause of God.

This demonization of the opposition has run all the way through the history of religion. In the time of Jesus, those who worshipped God were taught that all kinds of people were unfit, unclean, unreliable, and un-redeemable. One wall kept the Gentiles out of the temple, a second wall kept the women out of the temple, and a third wall kept ordinary priests out of the holy place.  This design sums up much of their religion. People outside their circle were dangerous and damnable.

Christians picked up this virus of exclusion and fear. The great struggle in that first century church was whether to consider Gentile followers of Jesus as clean or unclean, as worthy or unworthy, and as friend or foe. It took the intervention of God to help the people see strangers as neighbors rather than dangers, as people made in the image of God rather than as people void of any value.

You think this is ancient history?

Look around the Christian world. In Asia, Russian Orthodox Christians are condemning Ukrainian Orthodox Christians. In

Brazil, Pentecostal Christians consider Catholic Christians a threat to the country.

The Catholic world around the globe is divided into those in love of Pope Francis and those bitterly opposed to Pope Francis.

One group of Methodists consider another group of Methodists as a disgrace to the gospel and a denial of the Bible; and vice versa.

In the last generation, some Baptists stamped the word ENEMY on the backs of other Baptists and pushed them out the door.

The political divide in our country is rooted in race and religion. The Culture Wars were begun by Christians who used the language of battle to demonize their brothers and sisters in Christ. In our day, this rhetoric of rudeness and rejection has poisoned public speech at school boards, in court rooms, and in the halls of Congress. “You are an enemy of democracy” some say to citizens they don’t like, and hear in return, “Well, you are an evil cancer on the Republic.”

This long tradition of demonizing our brothers and sisters is now demoralizing our nation and discouraging our leaders.

There was a time when Christian people so feared their neighbors that they drowned them as witches and beheaded them as heretics. Even now, some of us are willing to use the most forceful language to describe those with whom we disagree; and others of us are embarrassed to say publicly what we really think about those on the other side of the aisle—the sanctuary aisle as well as the political aisle.


How can we be peacemakers?

How can we take the spirit of Jesus and reread this psalm? How can we take the words of Jesus and rework our minds? How can we follow Jesus into our own work as peacemakers? How can we become children of God?

Perhaps we are reading the Bible the wrong way.

When we read this passage, “Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers,” our first response is to find the evildoers. It is them, over there!

But in this verse and in this psalm, who is the “me” and who is the “they”?  We always want to find ourselves as the good guys, wearing the white hats, receiving the favor of God.  We always want to find somebody else as the bad guys, waging war against God, and stirring up trouble in the kingdom of heaven.

But maybe not. Maybe an old negro spiritual can lead us home here today. “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of change. It’s not my neighbor, nor the stranger, but it’s us, O Lord, standing in the need of conversion.”

Too many Christians are devising evil plans for our neighbors: our ethnic neighbors, our gay neighbors, our liberal neighbors, our conservative neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, our Catholic neighbors, our Republican neighbors, our Russian neighbors.

Too many Christians are using our tongues as a serpent, slithering around, spewing doubt and danger, spitting our snide and slanderous words.

Too many of us are using our own spirits to poison the commonwealth, our own words to demean our citizens, our own attitudes to damn somebody to the outer regions of country and kingdom.

Psalm 140, verse 4 reads, “Keep me safe, Lord from the hands of the wicked, protect me from the violent.”  Is this the prayer of the Christian against the pew-setting, Bible-thumping, verse-quoting Christian that has joined a crusade against his brothers in Christ, against her sisters in Christ?

We can be peace-makers by resisting this division of the house of God.

We can be peace-makers by refusing to partner with those who demean others—other citizens, other Christians, other people of any color or confession.

We can be peace-makers by welcoming the stranger and embracing the other: those with other ideas, other practices, and other commitments.

God is at work in places we have never been and places we do not want to go.

God is at work here, helping us to see that too often we are the ones who need to repent and speak a different word and walk a different way.

Help us O Lord. Convert our selves. Change our attitudes.

Then, we can pray this prayer embedded in this psalm: “O Lord, hear my cry for mercy.” Cleanse my tongue of slander. Purify my heart of prejudice. Shield my soul from judging others.

In the name of Jesus, the Risen Lord.

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