In a world where there are so many differing points of view, what makes for peace? It’s a crucial question because peace is important to Our Lord and His mission. He is, after all, the Prince of Peace who teaches us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis writes that “Christian ‘peace’ is not merely the cessation of conflict, the reaching of an understanding among people that makes life more bearable. Nor is [it] the result of Stoic apathy, an absence of passion that produces spiritual tranquility.” Some people think that conflict is just the product of misunderstanding and that if people were to engage in dialogue they would come to realize that their differences aren’t actually so great, and certainly not worth fighting over. There are others, however, who take extreme positions, who see their competing worldviews as fundamentally incompatible, and who believe the worldview of the other is not just mistaken, but evil. In this camp is the radical – and the Christian. A friend of mine, Fr. Matthew Fish of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, has said that the conflict between these two fundamentally opposing worldviews cannot be overcome by dialogue and mutual understanding but only through a kind of violence. They just differ on the kind of violence that is necessary.
This probably sounds shocking in a reflection about peace, but to illustrate Fr. Matthew’s point it might be helpful to look at the lives of St. Paul and St. Stephen. As a young man, St. Paul – who was then known as Saul – was a radical when it came to his Jewish faith. He believed with all his heart that if he were to protect Judaism, he would have to root out Christianity using extreme measures. He went so far as to obtain state authorization to put Christians in chains and even to death. Saul was not interested in dialogue or re-education that would lead to mutual understanding between adherents of Judaism and the new Christian sect. In his mind, “mutual understanding” would be to deny the importance of what was as stake – his whole understanding of reality. Saul knew that ultimately violence was needed.
So did Stephen. For Stephen, however, violence would come in a different form – not the sword, but the cross. He knew that when he preached the gospel of Christ Jesus that he was making himself vulnerable to violence. He ended up the victim of Saul’s violent mob, which was absolutely convinced of its righteousness. As he died under a barrage of stones, Stephen echoed the words of Christ from the cross, praying: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
The differences between Saul and Stephen were not due to a misunderstanding – they understood each other perfectly. Their differences were rooted in an irreconcilable understanding of reality, which would not be papered-over with niceties, or explained away. Both knew that only violence would settle their dispute. And here we find the radical insight of Christianity. Jesus is the peacemaker, par excellence. Through the violent event of His sacrifice on the cross, He establishes peace between God and humanity. He also reconciles human beings with each other. By our baptism into the Church, we become adopted children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. The Christian knows that evil is not just present in the heart of the other person. It’s in himself, it’s in everyone, and it needs to die a violent death. Not by the violence of the sword, but by dying in Christ and accepting the cross of self-denial, the evangelical counsels, and the works of mercy. “The work of peacemaking,” says Fr. Simeon, “is accomplished by the shedding of one’s life-blood in imitation of Christ.”
In the end, Saul only changed through conversion, a graced form of violence that shook him to the depths of his being, and which convinced him that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, who accomplishes the redemption of humanity through the cross. St. Paul was compelled to share the message of the gospel with the world and became the greatest missionary in the history of the Church. He never used the violence of the sword again, but instead preached the reconciling violence of the cross of Christ, and ultimately received a share in that cross through his own martyrdom in Rome. What a moment of joy it must have been for Stephen to receive Paul at the gates of heaven as brothers who had been reconciled to each other and to God through the cross of Christ.