The Way of Peace

 For a long time, I’ve been interested in the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Most of you know that Meriwether Lewis was a fine soldier and scientist. But you may not remember that he also was a skilled diplomat.

 Stephen Ambrose tells us about the day that Lewis set out with a scouting party to find the Shoshone Indians, and seek their help to find a way across the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. They discovered a small group of Shoshones, and managed to befriend the women, but the lone male ran off. Working through a translator, the women agreed to take the scouting party to their tribal chief.

 What happened next is worthy of a film scene. A few miles further, sixty warriors on horseback came on at full speed, armed with bows and arrows. I imagine that the instinctual response of most of us in such a moment would be to assume a defensive posture, and prepare to fight.  Instead, Lewis ordered his men to stay in place, placed his rifle on the ground, picked up a flag, and walked forward with the oldest woman.  In the pithy prose of Ambrose, Lewis “advanced slowly toward he knew not what.”[1] This course of action was so unexpected that the warriors broke off their furious pace. The chief trotted forward, learned that the women were safe, and felt the peaceful intent of Lewis. Disaster was averted. Soon, the Shoshones were hugging Lewis, applying their grease and paint to his face, and sitting down for a friendly meeting. It was one of several times that Lewis was able to conquer the natural impulses that might have exploded into war, and instead open up a conversation that promoted peace.

 When we travel through dangerous territory during tumultuous times, we long for someone who can guide us into the way of peace.

 We feel that longing expressed by the prophet Micah, who lived and worked in the southern kingdom of Judah during the final quarter of the eighth century BCE. It was an era during which the borders of the northern kingdom were breached by the Assyrians. Micah was a champion of personal integrity, expressing contempt for the poor ethics of Jerusalem’s leaders. Faced with threat from outside the kingdom, and corruption within it, he did not lose hope. He was inspired with a vision that God would save his people through the leadership of a Messiah, a king anointed with power for leadership, as David had been. The Messiah would display the sort of strength that engenders peace. Micah expresses this hope beautifully: “He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”

 We know Micah’s prophecy was important to the early Church by the way the gospel writers took his lead in connecting the Messiah’s birth to the little village of Bethlehem, the ancestral home of David. Matthew quotes directly from Micah in the famous text in which Herod asks the religious leaders about the Messiah’s precise birthplace.[2] Luke also connects the Messiah to Bethlehem, most famously in the song of the angel, and the resolution of the shepherds to travel there.[3]

 Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, repeats the theme of connecting Jesus to David in the prophetic hymn that, according to Luke’s gospel, the Holy Spirit inspires. “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,” he says.[4] Yet this Savior is not just a soldier who slashes his sword through enemies; this Savior has qualities that make for peace.  The Savior who is coming is strong enough to save his people from enemies, and at the same time shows mercy, remembers his promise, and rescues so that those delivered may serve him without fear.

 When we look closely at our sacred history, we see what I would call a competition between different perspectives on what it means to be the Messiah.

  • One very old perspective portrays the Messiah primarily as a soldier. The Messiah will be like David at the height of his military power, uniting factions inside the nation, and conquering all enemies who threaten from outside its borders. This perspective was engrained in the minds of Jesus’ disciples, and is at the heart of some of their disagreements with him. In times of high anxiety, belief in a militarily powerful Messiah was comforting to many.
  • Another perspective portrays the Messiah as a servant. This concept is developed by Isaiah, and is rooted in what I believe is one of the most powerful truths in the entire Bible. The lessons of history had taught Isaiah that military one-upmanship is a strategy resulting in an unproductive cycle of revenge. When my children were young, we sang a song that went like this: “This is the song that doesn’t end. It goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was. And together they’ll be singing it forever, just because. This is the song that doesn’t end …” Isaiah had heard a song like that. Weary of the endless repetition of conflict and suffering, he sees that the path to true salvation will have to involve rising above the old pattern. God’s Messiah certainly will be strong, but in that strength will be more than a soldier. He will be a servant strong enough to rein in the war-making impulse for the greater good. God’s Servant, and those who follow him down the path of service, will suffer. But it is by walking down that new and different pathway that true peace will be found.

 Some of you know that I attend the annual Festival of Homiletics, which is, as far as I know, America’s largest preaching conference. In 2011, one of the most popular guests was Krista Tippett, host of a radio program called, “On Being.”  Tippett described her vocation as a “ministry of listening.” She said that when it comes to the important questions of our lives, too many people are talking and too few are listening. In the stress all those conflicting voices produce, imaginations shut down. We need safe places in which we can bring together people of different experiences and perspectives to really listen. As we listen, she said, we need to remember two things:

  • First, we need to remember that words matter. Unfortunately, many of the words we hear today are emotionally reactive and polarizing. We are starved for fresh language to approach one another, words that can break through the noise of intolerance and hatred, and convey respect and compassion. 
  • Second, she said, we need to remember how to ask one another good questions. Too often, we ask simplistic questions that lead to simplistic answers; we ask inflammatory questions that lead to inflammatory answers. Let me give you just a couple of examples of inflammatory questions from this week’s news cycle: On one side, we might hear a question like, “Are you saying that we should outlaw all guns?” On the other side, we might hear a question like, “Are you saying that we should arm everyone with assault rifles?” You can feel the tension in the way the questions are posed. Inflammatory questions lead to inflammatory answers. But elevating questions lead to elevating answers. What if we asked questions like, “What is one positive thing you think we could do to prevent gun violence?” “What is one way we could work together to protect our children?” As Tippett says, there is something redemptive and life-giving about asking the right questions.[5]

 More than ever before, our society needs people of faith who will devote themselves to peacemaking in the way of our Messiah.  We live in a world that needs people as courageous as Meriwether Lewis to take their fingers off the trigger that ignites high anxiety, lay down their guns of insult and personal attack, and try a different approach. The world needs people who find inspiration and encouragement from the Messiah whose birth we celebrate this week.  As Zechariah recognized, in him God’s new dawn has broken to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

[1] Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, pp. 268-269.

[2] Matthew 2:6.

[3] Luke 2:8-15.

[4] Luke 1:69.

[5] Personal notes from a lecture delivered by Krista Tippett, Festival of Homiletics, Central Lutheran ELCA, Minneapolis, MN, 18 May 2011.


~ by JohnH1962 on December 23, 2012.

One Response to “The Way of Peace”

  1. I like the part about asking non-inflammatory questions. Let’s try some PR and show a little humility. Behind Lewis was another great peacemaker, Thomas Jefferson.

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