Earlier this week I happened to have breakfast with a former member of the board of the Monroe County Library. I said to this person, "I've missed you on the library board." Lamenting the current state of affairs, this person responded, "When I was on the board, we always worked together."
What a difference it makes when people are able to work together! And what a difference it makes when they are not! There is a Peanuts cartoon in which little Linus says to his older sister, Lucy: "Charlie Brown says that brothers and sisters can learn to get along . . . He says they can get along the same way mature adults get along . . . He says that adults can get along the same way that nations get along . . . At this point the analogy breaks down!"
Every year at this time we receive the Presbyterian Peacemaking Offering. Because it is World Communion Sunday, I usually preach a sermon that has something to do with world peace. It is clear, however, that we lack peace at home as well as abroad. It is clear that peace is difficult for us in families and communities as well as between nations. In fact, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program stresses the need for peace at every level, beginning with inward and personal peace. We need to be at peace with ourselves, with our families and friends, within our congregations and communities, our cities and states and nations, as well as with peoples of other nations.
Some of us were working our way through Robert McAfee Brown's book, THE BIBLE SPEAKS TO YOU, in the Theology Class a couple weeks ago when we came upon a particularly helpful passage that went like this:
If you are accepted by God just as you are, then you can accept yourself just as you are; and if you can accept yourself just as you are, then you can accept other people just as they are .
As with acceptance, surely also with peace. People who are at peace with God and with themselves are bound to have a greater capacity to be at peace with others.
This does not mean that people who are at peace spiritually, within, will necessarily go along with others. In many cases it is easier for them to disagree and even to challenge what they see as wrong. People who are at peace with themselves are not so dependent on the approval of others. They have less need to prove themselves. They are more free to be honest, authentic, true to themselves. But they may also be better listeners, better able to hear and to understand others who differ with them, precisely because they need not be so preoccupied with themselves. In this way, people who are at peace with themselves may be better able to abide, if not overcome, the differences that separate themselves from others. They are better able to live with the differences and to work through them. They are better able to accept one another and to get along. They are better able to be at peace with one another and to work together.
Rodney King is remembered for saying, "Why can't we all just get along?" The author of the Epistle of James, from which one of our New Testament readings is taken this morning, has a very particular answer to that question. James clearly believes that hostility, conflict, violence, and war all have their roots in individual moral and spiritual folly and sin. He goes so far as to say, "where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind" [3:16]. For James, envy and selfish ambition lie at the root of human conflict and violence. As he says in the following verses, "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?" [4:1]. Those who are wise and understanding, on the other hand, are not filled with envy and selfishness. They are born of the "wisdom from above," which is "pure, . . . peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy."
These words from James confirm our conviction that peace within is related to peace without. The root causes of conflict and violence, says James, are envy and selfish ambition. What are envy and selfish ambition, if not forms of self-dissatisfaction? Envy sees the self as deficient, and craves what others have. Selfish ambition pursues the interests of the self without regard for the interests of others, perhaps even against the interests of others. Neither has any use for other persons. Neither holds others in positive regard. Both corrupt and poison relationships with others. And in both cases, the root problem is what James calls "your cravings that are at war within you." The envious person, and the selfishly ambitious person, are persons who are fundamentally at war--not at peace--with themselves. And the consequence is that they are at war--not at peace--with others.
Our capacity to make peace with others, to live peaceably, to get along, to work together, seems to depend largely on the extent to which we have made peace with ourselves. It seems to depend on the extent to which we have tamed the cravings of envy and selfish ambition. Envy and selfish ambition regard others as rivals. The envious person wants what the other has, the selfishly ambitious person wants to outdo the other. Both tend to see life in terms of a contest, or a zero-sum game. Individual happiness or satisfaction depends on getting the better of others. We can hardly hope to be at peace with ourselves or others if we must always come out ahead.
So we must stop regarding others as rivals. We must stop seeing our interests and the interests of others as being at odds. How can we possibly avoid conflict with others, when we perceive their interests to be at odds with our own? If my view of the world persuades me that the only way for me to get what I want and need is for you not to get what you want and need, and the only way for you to get what you want and need is for me to give up what I want and need, then we can hope for no better than a stalemate or truce--a poor substitute for peace. This suggests to me that it is not enough for us to learn to accept the differences among us. It is not enough that we learn to live with these differences, to come to terms with them. We must find ways to identify ourselves with others. We must seek those ways in which we share common rather than conflicting interests. We must cultivate an appreciation for the deeper bonds that unite us in spite of, perhaps even sometimes because of, our differences.
In much of our public life these days our attention is directed toward conflicts of interests rather than communities of interest. A recognition of conflicts of interest is embedded in our very political system, with its constitutional checks and balances, its separations of power, its countervailing forces and competing parties. When that is all we see, however, politics becomes an exercise in partisanship, manipulations of power, strategies for undoing one another, rivalries fueled by envy and selfish ambition. The result is not pretty, nor does it serve any of us well.
What we see in our public life, now so painfully evident at both the national and local levels, can also be found in all spheres of our social existence--in families, between the generations and the sexes, among differing racial and ethnic groups, among different regions of the country, in universities and corporations, and in churches. I am referring to the ways in which the interests of some are pitted against the interests of others, and some are thereby advantaged at the expense of others. So many of our relationships with others are strained and fractured and torn by the perception of a competition for resources and power, a conflict of needs and wants, with little or no sense of appreciation for our common good.
Of course there are many ways in which people have real interests that conflict. We need to see, however, that there is something wrong when these differences are exploited by some at the expense of others. And then we need also to see the more basic and fundamental reality of our social existence, that in fact we share many communities of interest and need. If it is often the case that we cannot get along with each other, it is always the case that we cannot get along without each other. The journey toward peace, at all levels of our existence, requires us to recognize and appreciate the basic reality that our own good, our own well-being, our own happiness, is integrally linked to the good and well-being and happiness of others. The good life is not something we can achieve by ourselves, or at the expense of others.
We need to see all this in the church, as well as in our others spheres of life. So Paul wrote to the church at Rome the exhortation that we find in our other New Testament reading this morning. The whole passage would bear repeating, but let me recall a few phrases: "Love one another with mutual affection." I am not sure whether "mutual affection" means we have to like each other, but it surely must mean that we have at least some positive regard for each other. So we do not just love each other out of duty, or out of obedience to divine command. We love each other because we find something in each other to love. There must be something about the other that is worthy of love.
Well, Paul's next phrase is "outdo one another in showing honor"--just the opposite of trying to outdo one another by getting ahead! This means that we are to lift up one another, not tear each other down. It means that we are to show that positive regard, to commend one another for whatever is good and worthy of our affection and love. Members of a true community of interest look upon one another, not with envy and selfish ambition, but with respect and appreciation. We are to identify with one another in each other's attainments and virtues, and not contend with one another for status or honor.
Paul also says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." No other words in the Bible better express the reality of our social life in its fullness. We are members one of another. The ground of our existence does not permit us to flourish apart from one another. We all have a common ground. We are all connected. To realize our lives in their fullness requires us not simply to set aside envy and selfish ambition, but to feel with and for one another, to experience compassion, to see the other's good as our own, and the other's pain as well.
Finally, Paul says, "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." There is a note of realism here: "so far as it depends on you." One can hardly live peaceably with those who are determined to be at war. Harmony in relationships always requires mutuality, reciprocation. Our part is to do everything we can from our side to work through the conflicts in our relationships, avoiding the arrogance and condemnation and retribution that are so tempting to those who believe themselves to be in the right. Our aim must be to overcome evil, to achieve reconciliation, and--if it is possible--to make peace.
James promises "a harvest of righteousness" for those who make peace. I guess that means that things will turn out in a good way for those who are peacemakers. It is clear enough that they will not turn out well for those who insist on fueling conflict and strife. AMEN.