“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
America is a dramatically more emotional place than it was the morning of November 8th. It has nothing to do with crime, war, or revolution, but rather peoples’ treatment of one another. Donald Trump is going to be the president, and people have some feelings about this, obviously. Those feelings range from happiness to abject despair and everywhere in between.
The morning of November 9th saw my Facebook newsfeed turn into a breakneck roller coaster of emotion. Many of my friends expressed fear, dismay, and shock; others were gleeful, relieved, ambivalent. It didn’t take long for people to begin turning on each other—or for many people to delete their accounts altogether rather than deal with the post-election fallout. I don’t blame them. The toxic political rhetoric we witnessed during the long national nightmare of the presidential campaign has slogged its way to rock bottom and has kept right on digging, undeterred. Protesters are starting to fill the streets (at least one of whom claimed “people have to die” for change to take place), and many Twitter users have reported harrowing encounters with people committing prejudice in the name of their candidate.
People may not be literally at each others’ throats, but they have been figuratively for a long time now, and its only gotten worse in the past 48 hours. Thanks be to God there is little physical violence, but there is plenty of emotional, verbal, and internet-based violence happening all around us. It’s likely that someone reading this has been on the receiving end recently. Perhaps even the giving end. A popular sentiment expressed since election night by would-be peacemakers has been: “can’t people stop being upset and get along?” The simple answer to that question is no.
The more complex answer is, well…complicated.
Anyone who has been in a relationship of any kind or worked in customer service for longer than five minutes knows that telling an upset person to calm down is a great way to get them to do the exact opposite of that. Counselors, diplomats, and clergy know very well: striving for peace is not so easy as getting the other side to “calm down.” St. Francis, perhaps one of the most-invoked saints in discussions on peace and pacifism, knew this very well too. It’s easy to buy into the romantic image of Francis, blissed out and frolicking carefree among the fields of Assisi, but the realities of his life and world were as ugly and violent as our own–if not more so. In his book Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life, Lawrence Cunningham notes that the “pinkish hue to the stones [of Assisi] quarried from the mountain which so enchants visitors today masks the violence that was part of life in Francis’ own time–violence of vendettas, street brawls, warring families, grotesque forms of public torture or execution, and class struggles…It is against that aura of urban violence that we must understand the Franciscan cry of ‘Peace!'” Wherever it takes place, from the streets of Colombia to the Facebook walls of suburbanites, peacemaking is difficult, even dangerous. It hinges on the mutual opening of hearts and minds to an other that seems repulsive and harmful to us, and that opening is always an unpredictable phenomenon. It hinges on wanting not to destroy the other, but to make them a brother or sister. This is no mean feat, and cannot be accomplished with pithy memes or alt-right conspiracy theories. It cannot be accomplished by scoffing or mocking.
As peacemaking hinges on open hearts, our salvation hinges on peacemaking. Our Lord tells us that peacemakers “shall be called sons of God” (Mat. 5:9). He tells us that whoever ” says “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Mat. 5:22) and that we must love our enemies if we wish to “be perfect.” (Mat. 5:43-48).
All of these acts are intimately bound up in one another. We must love each other, if we wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—even our enemies. Even the people we find repulsive. Even the people with which we disagree. When someone tells us they are hurt, or scared, we must listen compassionately, even if we don’t think their reason is justified. When someone unjustly insults us, we must focus our anger into nonviolently opposing the injustice they perpetuate, and pray for the conversion of their hearts. When someone presents us an idea with which we vehemently disagree, we must attack the idea, not the person.
Peacemaking is no picnic, especially these days. It is inherently restorative, not retributive. And retribution is usually much easier. When the medieval town of Gubbio was besieged by a ravenous wolf, it would have undoubtedly saved a lot of time and effort if the townsmen had just banded together and killed the beast. Some indeed tried, got eaten for their trouble, and the wolf got stronger–the violence had escalated well outside the townspeople’s control. In desperation they turned to St. Francis, who wasn’t exactly the wolf-killing type.
The Little Flowers of Saint Francis records instead of giving it an apocalyptic butt-kicking, Francis shamed the wolf into repentance, but recognized that it was abject hunger that had driven the wolf to its man-eating ways in the first place. He promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would feed him provided he never attacked a human or animal again. Peace was restored to the community, the wolf became a beloved fixture in the town, and according to tradition, was given an honorable burial in the local church. The wolves on our Facebook pages, in our neighborhoods, on our ballots are no less ravenous and frightening. Perhaps even dangerous. It is much easier to seek retribution against them. Our Lord demands we restore them, along with ourselves.
I who am first among sinners have no specific answers on how to make peace in post-election America. Instead I have questions, which are perhaps more useful. What does peacemaking look like for me, right now, in my community after the election? How can I nonviolently fight injustice where I see it? How can I possibly open my heart and make the Kingdom of God present to the one who is frightening and repulsive to me–even oppressive to me?
What will I do with the wolves in my life? In myself?