Making Peace In Our Families

Photo by Jared Doyle

Bill Cosby once tried to explain to a nine-year-old boy named Peter what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount by turning the other cheek. “If somebody hits you, you don’t hit him back,” Cosby said.

A visibly confused Peter replied, “Jesus said be a wimp?”

“No, not a wimp, a lover of peace.”

Peter was resolute. “It don’t sound too smart. Why don’t the guy who hits me love peace first?”

Cosby tried again. He explained that Jesus was trying to teach his followers to “be bigger than the other person.” After pondering this for a moment, Peter gave a logical conclusion: “If you’re bigger, you should definitely hit back.” 1

Where did Peter learn such values? The family environment is one obvious candidate. Unsurprisingly, youth are more likely to believe that it’s okay to hit back if they think their parents also believe this. 2   This applies to all families, Christian or not. Psychologist Louis Cozolino, for example, points to the importance of the family environment in the development of childhood aggression:

Children who suffer early abuse may enter their school-age years agitated, aggressive, and destructive, engaging in fights, property damage, and even animal torture. In the absence of a memory of his or her trauma, the child’s behavior is not experienced as a reaction to a negative event but as a natural part of the self, an indication of his or her essential “badness.” This feeling is usually reinforced by an array of critical adults and feelings of shame that consolidate into a negative self-image.  3

This is called implicit social memory. Early emotional experiences in our families leave unconscious traces by the way they shape our brain chemistry. Even if we cannot remember such experiences, they may prime us to respond more aggressively to situations later in life.

This portrays the compounding of social injustice: from the failure of parental stewardship to the inappropriate blaming of the child that stems from an overly individualistic understanding of character. Who knows how far back the injustice stretches? Were the parents themselves the unwilling recipients of a legacy of abuse? Nor do we know how far the legacy will stretch into the future, across the generations, as the child in question grows to have children of his or her own.

There are, however, signs of hope, witnessed in part by the momentum of the just peacemaking paradigm. A Christian social ethic should transform not only public policy and international diplomacy, but the patterns of life in that most formative of social settings, the family.
 

The Beatitudes as a Source of Just Peacemaking

I was not raised in a Christian family. My first real encounter with Bible reading was as a child, with a pocket-sized King James New Testament my grandmother had given me. It had been collecting dust on a shelf, until a vague curiosity compelled me to read it. Not knowing where else to begin, I opened to the gospel of Matthew. The antiquated language, together with the unpronounceable names of the genealogies, almost made me give up. But I pressed on. The familiarity of the Christmas story, at least, was comforting.

I came to rest in the Sermon on the Mount. Some of the sermon made sense, though I struggled with it as generations of Christians have—aren’t these impossibly high standards for mere mortals? They certainly seemed beyond the reach of a preadolescent boy with no background in theology.

The Beatitudes, however, especially the first four and the one about rejoicing in persecution, simply seemed odd. What did it mean that those who were poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungering and thirsting could be blessed by God? I did not have any knowledge of the Old Testament or the prophets. I could not hear the text as a post-exilic Jew might, with the words of Isaiah echoing in the background.

Yet this is how we must hear the text if we are to understand the nature of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated, the theological and social context in which we practice peacemaking. To say that God blesses the poor in spirit and the meek (Matt. 5:3, 5) is to say that God is a champion of the downtrodden, who otherwise have no hope and no expectation of blessing. To say that God blesses those who mourn (Matt. 5:4) compels us, like the exiles, to recognize and repent of our own sins, while grieving the injustice of a sin-stained world. To say that God blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6) follows from the others. If we know our dependence on God’s mercy, and how broken we are, then what we will long for is God’s grace-filled justice-righteousness, not merely in the sense of personal conduct, but in the larger, global sense of God putting things right.

The hunger to see God restore justice to a broken world is the basis for the corresponding outward expression of the second half of the Beatitudes: a life of compassionate mercy (Matt. 5:7), purity of devotion (Matt. 5:8), and, of course, peacemaking. Here, peace means more than the avoidance or absence of conflict. It points to the deep and rich concept of shalom, or in the words of Cornelius Plantinga, “the way things ought to be.” 4   Peacemakers, in other words, are agents of God’s shalom. 5

As those attempting to live according to the reality of God’s reign, we take seriously the call to participate in his ongoing work of redemption. We labor with God to restore what sin has spoiled. As Donald Kraybill notes, “Shalom comes when there are right relationships among people in all realms of life.”  6   Thus, here’s the challenge I put to families, especially in situations of conflict and distress: What would it mean, right here and right now, in the context of this relationship, to be an agent of God’s restorative and redemptive shalom? What would it take for God to look upon this relationship and to repeat the blessing of the creation story—“and God saw that it was good”?
 

Transforming Initiatives for Peace in Families

Realistic responses to such questions point us in the direction of what Fuller Professor of Christian Ethics Glen Stassen has called the “transforming initiatives” needed to promote peacemaking in the family.  7   In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus did not establish new laws, but promoted transforming initiatives to break the vicious cycles of injustice perpetuated by sinful attitudes and conduct. 8   Drawing upon the teaching of Jesus and Paul, Stassen identifies the following eight practices of peacemaking, 9 which may be applied fruitfully and pastorally to family relationships:

1. Acknowledge your alienation and God’s grace realistically.

2. Go, talk, welcome one another, and seek to be reconciled.

3. Don’t resist revengefully, but take transforming initiatives.

4. Invest in delivering justice.

5. Love your enemies with actions; affirm their valid interests.

6. Pray for your enemies and bless them; persevere in prayer.

7. Don’t judge, but repent and forgive.

8. Do peacemaking in a church or a group of disciples.

Clear echoes of the Beatitudes and the transforming initiatives of the Sermon on the Mount can be heard in these practices. Our imaginations need to be reshaped to understand ourselves as participants in God’s reign. Thus, peacemaking in the family begins with an honest acknowledgement of our own sinfulness and need for grace (practice 1), and a corresponding repentance that takes us out of the judging role that so often characterizes interpersonal conflict (practice 7). Without such internal transformation of our attitudes, our motives will continue to be dominated by a desire to get back at the person who hurt us (practice 3). As suggested earlier, it is the attitudes of poverty of spirit, meekness, and mourning that undergird the desire to see God’s justice done (practice 4), whether in the world at large or in our families.

Peacemaking in the family is found in the pursuit of reconciliation: someone has to take the initiative to swallow injured pride and seek out the other for a healing conversation (practices 2 and 3). This may require learning appropriate communication skills, which unfortunately do not come as naturally as they should. Empathic listening helps us to bracket our own concerns temporarily, long enough to understand the other person’s point of view and legitimate needs (practice 5). In this way, we can express love through action, even when it is difficult to feel loving or affectionate toward other family members.

And how can we follow Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies (practice 6) unless we have taken the time to understand them? Listening deeply and well provides the platform for knowing how and what to pray for family members. Perseverance in prayer may include continuing to pray even when our own feelings of resentment for past offenses threaten to reassert themselves. Here, we might follow the lead of the man who brought his son to Jesus for healing: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). The internal transformation needed to bless our enemies may be incomplete, but we can trust in the sanctifying role of obedient prayer.

The final practice is key. To borrow from Stanley Hauerwas, peacemaking must be done within a community whose identity has been formed by the story of the non-violent, shalom-inaugurating Jesus. 10   It is too difficult for families to sustain this moral vision on their own. They need to be immersed in the kind of Christian community that continually holds up the transforming initiatives of the New Testament, against the background of worship that tells and retells the story of Jesus and God’s reign. 11   Such a view, taken seriously, moves family ministry away from a model of special-interest service-delivery to one grounded in a vision of discipleship for the entire congregation.

The reality of our own stubborn sinfulness warns us not to expect simple answers for the lack of shalom in our families. We are shaped by our emotional histories, and resist habits of thought and behavior that encourage us to neighbor-love of those who feel like enemies. But if we seek God’s kingdom and righteousness above all else (Matt. 6:33), we must also take with utter seriousness the call to peace. Shalom begins at home. May we work toward the day when God in his mercy may look upon our families and pronounce them blessed: “and God saw that it was good.”

Reprinted with permission from Cameron Lee and Fuller Theological Seminary’s Theology, News & Notes issue “The Long Reach Toward Just Peacemaking,” Spring 2009 - Vol. 56, No. 1. http://documents.fuller.edu/news/pubs/tnn/2009_spring/
 

ACTION POINTS

  • Cameron points out that abuse and injustice are generational problems—they are often passed down through multiple generations in the ways we respond to one another in the family.  What are some generational problems (or “generational sin”) that you see in your own family history?  What about in the families in your church or ministry? Are there recurring themes that warrant attention?
  • What do you think about the application of the “just peacemaking” paradigm to the healing of family conflict?  How does it resonate with you or make you uncomfortable?
  • Cameron identifies Glen Stassen’s 8 transforming initiatives for peace and applies them to family conflict resolution.  How could you apply this approach in your own setting or family to begin a peacemaking process?
  • How can we re-imagine family peacemaking based in the context of the community of faith rather than solely in the context of the family itself? How might that tangibly change the ways we approach and structure programs in our ministries?

For further study in the Beatitudes see Cameron Lee, Unexpected Blessing: Living the Countercultural Reality of the Beatitudes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).