Reimagine: Peace heroes and troublemakers


The strains of Christmas are with us again, beckoning people everywhere to echo their refrains in song and life.  Their words make me feel calm and peaceful.  As they should.  After all, we are coming into the “Let there be peace on earth” season of songs.  I listen to them one after another, relishing their joyful choruses  —from “Hark the herald angels sing….peace on earth and mercy mild,” to “Do you hear what I hear…Pray for peace, people everywhere” to “I heard the bells on Christmas day…Peace on earth, good will…”   Yet, in the midst of all of this language of peace and goodwill, my mind is startled by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s words buried in the bowels of that last carol:  “And in despair I bowed my head:  ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said:  ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men’.”

At 1 AM on Tuesday morning, the 10th of December, my alarm clock became a placemaker for a peacemaker.  Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 in South Africa.  Mandela is a peace hero.  A man who spent his entire life working to bring that kind of peace on earth, that we sing about each year.

In our world, we have plenty of war heroes.  But not many peace heroes.  The world needs more peace heroes like Nelson Mandela.  From prisoner to president, Mandela’s positions were not always popular.  But he pursued the ways he felt were right in the interest of peace.  Mandela’s life proves that peace demands equal if not greater heroism than war;  that peacefare may require more sacrifices than warfare.

At Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of the Prince of Peace Himself.  Yet in characteristic surround-sound fashion, this Prince of Peace came bringing a sword (Mt 10:34).  Jesus’ ploughshare was likewise a peace-sword. Jesus, known as the world’s greatest peacemaker today was also the world’s greatest disturber of the peace in His own time: “My Peace I give to you…not as the world gives peace, give I to you.”  (John 14:27).  So, what does Jesus mean by “my Peace.”  And what kind of “peace” does the world give instead?

The Prince of Peace lived a life that no one would call “peaceful.”  Wherever he went, wherever he brought “peace on earth” and “good will” to all, controversy followed.  This is partly because Jesus’ “peace” is not the world’s understanding of peace.  When the world thinks peace, it more often thinks “piece of the rock,” “peace of mind,” a “piece of cake” existence, a big “piece of the proverbial pie,” or a bite out of the Big Apple.  The world places pence over peace.

The Prince of Peace defined peace in terms of “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done.”  The miracle in Bethlehem was not meant to make way for the “miracles” of Wall Street wizardry or the “miracle” of Best Buy gadgetry, or even the Macy’s “miracle” on 34th street.  The miracle of Christmas makes way for the miracle of life and the miracle of love.

Perfect Peace is not what the world understands as peace.  Peacefare is not how the world gives peace to others.  Not even sometimes in the church.  Jesus was a disturber of the peace of Official Synagogue Culture.  Peacemakers today will be disturbers of the peace of Official Church Culture too.  As G. K. Chesterton warned, sometimes the church is not an oasis of peace and quiet in this world of conflict, but a place of conflict in a world of false peace.  In the words of the German poet, Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843), “Where danger lurks, the saving powers also grow.”

In all of the memorial celebrations for Mandela covered by the US press, I never heard anyone mention the fact that  the 20th century’s greatest icon of peace, not to mention the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner  –Nelson Mandela– was identified for many years as a disturber of the peace at best, a terrorist at worst.  Mandela was on the US terrorist watch list and had to obtain a special waiver from the US Secretary of State before he could enter the US.  The only way Mandela could get off the US terrorist watch list was by an act of Congress.  That act was passed the summer of 2008, only five short years ago.

Charles Wesley prayed that God would “arm him” to serve the present age.  He had in mind, of course, Paul’s arming in Ephesians with the sword of the Spirit, which is the preparation of the gospel of peace.  If you want to be armed for peacefare against the barbarians at today’s gate, your best armaments are peace-swords in the form of peace-words, such as narratives, metaphors  –and above all, words of prayer.  To wage peace is to learn to live in a state of harmonious difference with the barbarian forces of this world.  Sanctified mavericks soar above personal attacks and compromise on unimportant adiaphora, while still risking life and limb for the peace that passes all understanding, and the peace that understands, as Piccarda says in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “la sua voluntate e nostra pace”  (His will is our peace).

December has been so far the month of storm watches and storm warnings.  A storm watch is when the climate conditions are ripe and right for a storm to form, and everyone in its path is encouraged to be watchful and attentive.  A storm warning is when someone has actually eyeballed a storm, and can serve as an eyewitness to its presence and power.  Advent is a time of storm watch.  Christmas Eve is when the watch turns to a warning.

The greatest spiritual firestorm in history that rocked the world with its power was eyewitnessed in Bethlehem in the first century by some lowly shepherds, and soon after by some lofty wise men from far beyond. This Prince of Peace would live a life unknown in a “back-of-beyond” place called Nazareth before emerging to wield the Sword of the Spirit in a world fraught with conflict and danger.

To sing “peace on earth, good will to all” for Christians today is to become a storm chaser  –to find out where Jesus is happening, and to join in the holy hubbub.  This year, I challenge you to bear the arms of love and to wield the sword of peace, even as you join the Prince of Peace in His holy peacefare.

Leonard Sweet, UMR Columnist

Dr. Leonard Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, Madison, NJ and a Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox University, Portland, Oregon. He is scholar of US/American culture; a semiotician who “sees things the rest of us do not see, and dreams possibilities that are beyond most of our imagining;” and a preacher and best-selling author who communicates the gospel with a signature bridging of the worlds of faith, academe, and popular culture. You can learn more about Len at his website,

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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