September 21 may not be a date that holds any special significance to you or to most other people, for that matter. However, it’s the International Day of Peace that was established by the United Nations General Assembly to remind the world to devote itself to the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.
The date was originally chosen to coincide with the opening session of the General Assembly, and the first Day of Peace was observed on September 21, 1982.
In preparation for the 2015 Day of Peace, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon made this plea: “I call on all warring parties to lay down their weapons and observe a global ceasefire. To them I say: stop the killings and the destruction, and create space for lasting peace.”
Sadly, such a noble sentiment—the call for just one day of peace—is a highly unlikely reality.
Calls for peace are not new. Some 2000 years ago, Jesus, during His first recorded public address, made the following statement: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). As the founder of the world’s largest religion, Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those who are peacemakers.
Now, I’m aware that the accusation is often made that religion is the cause of war. However, Jesus emphatically said that His followers ought to be peacemakers! Every day when we watch, read or listen to the news, we’re told of the casualties and consequences of war. This surely, then, is a good a time as ever to reexamine what Jesus meant by calling on His followers to be peacemakers.
The United Nations is calling on the world to cease hostilities on September 21, but peacemaking for Jesus is more than the cessation of hostilities and the absence of war. Warring parties may stop firing their bullets or missiles at one another, but commendable as that may be, the catalyst for hostilities to resume will likely still be present where factions continue to cherish hatred and distrust.
For Jesus, peacemaking extends into the realm of our attitudes and feelings. In fact, in this same speech, which He made at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus also challenged His audience to examine their preconceived ideas when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43–45). His meaning couldn’t be clearer: God’s followers are not only to be engaged in peacemaking activities; they are to actually love those people who may hate them passionately!
The word Jesus used in Matthew 5:9 for “peace” comes from the Hebrew word shalom. While the word shalom is used as both a greeting and a parting, at a deeper level it describes peace as comprising harmonious personal relationships and uninterrupted goodwill between people.
The peace, or shalom, that Jesus spoke of describes not only what is absent but also what is present. For Him, the absence of war is not enough to ensure peace (shalom). What’s necessary is the presence of happy, harmonious relationships. Indeed, if there are good relationships between people, it logically follows that there will not be any reason or necessity for war, for people do not go to war against those whom they love and care for.
Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those of His followers who are peacemakers. He did not pronounce a blessing on those persons who are peace lovers. A peace lover is not the same as a peacemaker. Peace lovers will avoid scenarios of conflict to maintain their own peace, but peacemakers will intervene in an arena of conflict between warring factions at the risk of their own health and safety. Peacemakers recognise that peace is not gained through evasion or avoidance but through intervention.
Peacemakers are people who actively work toward their peace goals. Peacemakers may operate on national and international levels, or they may work at the interpersonal level, just between two people. Peacemakers focus on restoring fractured relationships, be they global or individual.
Jesus’ followers are peacemakers because He, as their Leader, set that example for them. In fact, among the many and varied titles that Jesus is given is “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). When His birth was announced to the shepherds in Bethlehem the angels cried, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV). In one of Jesus’ final conversations with His disciples, He bequeathed to them His peace: “Peace I leave with you,” He said. “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27).
Jesus’ death on a cross was the ultimate in peacemaking, because it describes Him trying to reconcile humanity to God, bringing us back into a harmonious, loving relationship with our Creator. Indeed, some of Jesus’ final words on the cross were to His Father as He prayed for His enemies who had placed Him there: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus is history’s supreme example of a peacemaker!
Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those of His followers who are peacemakers. He did not pronounce a blessing on those persons who are peace lovers.
And so, today’s peacemakers will do everything possible to be like Jesus, passionately striving to produce right relationships between man and man and men and women.
This year’s International Day of Peace may not result in a cessation of hostilities across the globe, but it will certainly remind us of the need for peace.
In the lead-up to 2015’s Day of Peace, more than 1000 staff from the United Nations’ Secretariat building stood in its grounds and spelled out a message that could clearly be read from above: “WHAT R U DOING 4 PEACE?”
What will your message be?
Liberian women pray for peace
When Charles Taylor became president of Liberia in 1997, violence followed. His Anti-Terrorism Unit forced young boys to be child soldiers. Rape was common. Taylor’s opponents were tortured or killed, and a civil war was killing the men of Liberia. Many women became heads of families, and it was women who rescued their country.
In 2003, Leymah Gbowee, a 31-year-old single mother of four, began to pray each morning for peace. One night she had what she calls a vision telling her to gather other women to pray for peace.
While terrified by the thought, she spoke at churches across the country, inviting women to join her in prayer. At one church a Muslim woman stood up and told the group that she would take the same message to Muslim women: “We will work together to bring peace to Liberia.”
Every Tuesday women gathered for prayer. Then they began to hand out leaflets with messages such as, “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up—you have a voice in the peace process!”
Then, in a series of daily protests along the route Taylor took to parliament and back, 2500 women made their point with placards. After a few days they gave him three days to respond to their demands. With no response, they picketed the parliament building, not allowing anyone in or out of the car park.
After three days, the parliamentary speaker came out and said that Taylor would meet with them to discuss their demands. In these talks he agreed that if the women could get the rebels to the table, he would begin negotiating a peace.
This was the beginning of peace for Liberia and the beginning of the end for Taylor, and it led to free elections and the first female president in Africa, now re-elected and nearing the end of her second term.
In 2011, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Importantly, Gbowee began a reconciliation approach that allowed everyone to help rebuild their nation. There’s still a long way to go, but there is peace.