October 31, 2023

Blessed are the Wholemakers

In 1604, Caravaggio completed his “John the Baptist,” which has captivated viewers for centuries. On permanent display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, the painting is a striking example of chiaroscuro.

Melding the Italian words for “light” (chiaro) and “dark” (scuro), chiaroscuro is a technique that leverages these contrasts to bring life and depth to art. Over the years, artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, and, of course, Caravaggio, have harnessed it to infuse their works with uncanny intensity or a sense of serenity. In “John the Baptist,” specifically, the palpable interplay of light and shadow accentuates John’s coiled energy, his inner turmoil, and the perils of looming conflicts. It is as if Caravaggio invites us to “read” the painting narratively, to view it as an unfolding story of dueling spiritual forces—forces of light and darkness—that will mark his prophetic ministry. 

Much as Caravaggio ingeniously utilizes chiaroscuro to express tension and depth, the Bible, metaphorically speaking, abounds with its own sharp, contrasting dynamics. The examples are plentiful: Noah and his generation, Abraham and the citizens of Sodom, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul, and Daniel and Belshazzar. The New Testament further illustrates this theme through memorable images, such as the arrogance of the Pharisee set against the humility of the publican, or the serenity of Stephen opposing the rage of the murderous mob. Encapsulating these and other spiritual contrasts, the Gospel of John declares: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). Implicit here is a profound wisdom: the depth of human fallenness becomes clear only when compared to the infinite love of God as revealed in Christ. The deeper our grasp of the sacrifice of Jesus and the mystery of his incarnation, the more starkly the irrationality and evil of sin appear. Or, as the apostle Paul puts it: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). Along such lines, one could summarize the essence of Martin Luther’s theology as adhering to the following logic: big God—big sin—big grace; small God—small sin—small grace. That is, the more we understand the grandeur of God, the starker the pettiness of our self-led lives will stand out, and the greater our appreciation of divine grace will be. 

And so it is with the juxtaposition of violence against God’s vision of peace. To allow oneself to be grasped fully by such dissonance is, I believe, essential for understanding what the Bible means by authentic discipleship. In other words, only by comprehending how fundamentally at odds violence is with God’s intent for humanity can we fathom why the Gospel is essentially about peacemaking. Acknowledging this contrast—viewing it through the prism of the “great controversy” between good and evil—is vital for aligning our lives with God’s character and purpose.  

Few passages of Scripture illustrate this contrast as vividly as the narratives in Genesis 3 and 4. Here, Scripture showcases the escalating violence in a post-Fall world. There is no gradual descent into depravity; instead, we witness a shocking leap from disobedience to murder, from the simple act of plucking fruit to fratricide. As we delve deeper, the moral chiaroscuro intensifies, culminating in Lamech’s audacious vow of 77-fold vengeance for even the slightest offense. Such rapidly escalating violence highlights a radical departure from God’s vision of shalom, epitomized by the grand symbol of His loving disposition towards all creation—the Sabbath. Ellen White poignantly captures this deteriorating ethos when she highlights how generations following the Flood rejected God’s attributes of “justice, purity, and love” only to supplant them with their actions of “oppression, violence, and brutality” (PP, 120). And that is just the beginning! By the closing pages of Genesis, we are left with an ashen aftertaste of moral decline. The violence of Noah’s generation, the collective decadence of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the rape of Dinah and her brothers’ vengeful response—these are just some examples of a persistent, dark undercurrent of human history. 

In truth, how should one even begin to process the extent to which violence has soiled the collective memory of humanity? When confronting this disquieting reality, human language and empathy mechanisms fall short, often propelling us into silence or emotional numbness. To illustrate the point: by conservative estimates, approximately 107 million people were killed in the 20th century alone, excluding military casualties of World War I, World War II and other “minor” wars. Among the most heinous examples are: 

  1. Mao Ze-Dong, China and Tibet, 1949–1969, 49–78 million 
  2. Joseph Stalin, USSR, 1932–1939, 23 million 
  3. Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany, 1939–1945, 12 million 
  4. Leopold II, Belgian Congo, 1886–1908, 8 million 
  5. Hideki Tojo, Japan, 1941–1944, 5 million 
  6. Ismail Enver, Turkey, 1915–1920, 2.5 million

As staggering as these accounts might be, violence often manifests more insidiously, avoiding the spotlight of media attention. It is encoded in repeated invalidations and failures to recognize a person’s presence or worth, and may be subtly woven into legislative, judicial and economic systems. Violence also perpetuates itself through cultural symbols and language that encourage and legitimize violent acts toward individuals and groups. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for instance, notes how words can render “others as lesser human beings with diminished sensibilities, sometimes even as loathsome.” We describe others as vermin, scum, Japs, dagos, Jew-boys. They are terrorists; nobody feels empathy for terrorists. An Israeli general was once quoted as calling the Palestinians “drugged cockroaches running around in a bottle.” Arabs, it is said, respond only to force. Slave owners in the United States embraced the fiction that black people lacked the capacity to feel deeply. The slave traders of the 19th-century thought of the human beings below deck as “cargo.”

Regrettably, faith communities are not insulated from the detritus of violence. While numerous examples could be cited, here is but one that should give us pause to reflect. A few years ago, a study revealed a shocking pervasiveness of domestic violence within the Adventist Church. In the Adventist Review article “Abuse in the Adventist Church,” René Drumm et al. cite a study in which 42% of individuals have experienced “intimidation and physical violence” in adult intimate relationships at least once in their lifetime. This category includes: “insulted you, swore at you, or called you names;” “destroyed property or cherished possessions;” “threatened to hit or throw something at you;” “threw, smashed, hit, or kicked something to frighten you;” and “pushed, grabbed, or shoved you.” About 9% of respondents indicated that they have been subjected to “potential lethal action” such as “threatened to use a weapon on you,” “used a weapon on you,” and “beat you up.” While the study is limited to the US context, it is plausible to consider that some world regions may report even more alarming figures.iv However, one thing is clear: the shape-shifting character of violence sometimes blinds us to its furtive expressions in individual actions and communal dynamics. Through cover-ups and silencing victims in the name of “unity,” faith communities sometimes become just another playing field of the “principalities and powers” that feed on obfuscation and deception. 

It is against this backdrop of violence, whose surface we have only begun to scratch, that Jesus’ call to peacemaking stands in stark contrast. Astonishingly, the beatitude tells us that those who commit to such a way of life are indeed children of God. In their words, actions and life-orientation, they represent their heavenly Father. When attacked, they do not retaliate; when cursed, they bless and intercede; when wronged, they forgive. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 

Jesus’ followers are called to peace. When Jesus called them, they found their peace. Jesus is their peace. Now they are not only to have peace, but they are to make peace. To do this they renounce violence and strife. Those things never help the cause of Christ. Christ’s kingdom is a realm of peace, and those in Christ’s community greet each other with a greeting of peace. Jesus’ disciples maintain peace by choosing to suffer instead of causing others to suffer. They preserve community when others destroy it. … That is how they overcome evil with good. That is how they are makers of divine peace in a world of hatred and war. … Because they are drawn into Christ’s work of peace and called to the work of the Son of God, they themselves will be called children of God.

Naturally, this provokes an array of pertinent questions. What role can peacemaking reasonably have in the face of the realities touched upon above? What chance does it even stand? Is it not tinged with naïveté, a Pollyannaish way of approaching the facts of radical evil? And then, what did Jesus precisely mean by blessing those who pursue peace? How are we to put that into practice? Are we to acquiesce to manipulation and bullying, to let others forcefully encroach into our decision-making processes? Are we to overlook the high cost of inaction in the face of violence? In short, doesn’t the language of peacemaking encourage feeble sentimentality, those avoidance tics we employ to make tragedies less angular? Being peacemakers—yes, but how? 

All these questions are of immense significance, and they deserve an attentive hearing and response, a task I cannot do full justice to here. However, as a way of approaching these complex issues, I wish to point to an essential principle: when confronting difficult questions that grate against our usual ways of understanding, good theology directs us to prioritize Scripture.vi This initial step is crucial. It’s not that our experiences are irrelevant or that common sense is inherently flawed. Rather, our reasoning and actions should be oriented—or “captured”—in obedience to Christ in a way that takes precedence over other authorities and norms. This shift in perspective is an act of courage and surrender to God’s supremacy.  

Ellen White offers invaluable guidance in this connection, stating that “for those who receive the light of the life of Christ, nature is again illuminated. In the light shining from the cross, we can rightly interpret nature’s teaching” (MH, 462). With a touch of interpretive license, I believe that we could extend “nature’s teaching” to encompass all of reality. That is, we should see the cross as our guide for interpreting the world and measuring our actions. As Martin Luther rightly put it in his famed Heidelberg Disputations of 1518: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross” (Thesis #20). Conversely, when the cross has ceased to be the center of our beliefs and practice—the moment preferences, interests, desires and ideologies supplant its authority and example—we find ourselves adrift from genuine Christian existence. 

One aspect of honoring such a cross-centric orientation is the commitment to interpret Scripture cruciformly. As Gregory Boyd rightly notes, the Bible “presents the crucified Christ not as one revelation among others, but as the revelation that culminates and supersedes all else. This principle rules out allowing any Old Testament portrait of God,” or any portrait in general, “to compromise the beauty of the God who is revealed on the cross.” That is, when we come to passages that entail depictions of God seemingly at odds with the revelation of Jesus—especially those that might lead people to conclude that God is violent—those depictions must be temporarily shelved. (The word “seemingly” is crucial here, as any perceived dissonance might be a matter of limited comprehension at present.) This approach should not be considered controversial; it merely extends Jesus’ teaching that he or she who has seen him has also seen the Father (John 14:9) into a guiding principle for understanding the Bible. It is to serve as a sieve, as an interpretive “shibboleth,” as it were, by which all claims about God are to be tested. After all, “everything is changed by the cross and resurrection,” including how we should read the Scripture as a whole.ix 

Such a cross-centered interpretation of the Bible will lead us to affirm, I believe, that the promise and enactment of peace constitute the linchpin of Christ’s messianic reign. That becomes clear when we consider foundational passages from the book of Isaiah that inform Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God—Isaiah 9:1–7 and 61–62, among others. A close examination of these and other texts from Isaiah reveals seven essential characteristics of God’s rule: deliverance, justice, peace, healing, community restoration, joy and a sense of God’s presence. Within this theological framework, peace is far from a marginal note; it is a vital component of the divine reign.  

Unsurprisingly, this conception of “being drawn into Christ’s work of peace”—a notion that fuses imitation of Christ with the principle of peacemaking—is far from a peripheral theme in the New Testament. Ephesians 5:1 is an apt illustration in this respect, exhorting believers to be “imitators of God.” Upon further reading, it becomes evident that Paul’s notion of imitation focuses on emulating the peaceful, self-sacrificing benevolence exemplified by Jesus. Indeed, the extended exhortation (or paraenesis in Greek) in section 4:1–5:20, which constitutes the ethical core of the epistle, repeatedly underscores peacemaking attributes. The believers are counseled to avoid “anger” (4:26) and to refrain from harming others through stealing (4:29); to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (4:31); and to be “kind and compassionate to one another” (4:32), as they “walk in love” (5:1). Likewise, virtue lists provided by Paul in other epistles, such as Colossians 3:1–14, highlight the importance of harmony, conflict resolution and mutual respect. Thus, for Paul, an individual’s or a community’s commitment to peace is a tangible indicator of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. In essence, it functions as a litmus test for the church’s authenticity, something that the early church, minor tensions notwithstanding, evinced through extraordinary unity and generosity. 

This brings us to a reasonably uncontroversial claim: peacemaking—both as a disposition and as action—serves as a primary way for Christians to embody the spirit of the Second Great Commandment, namely, to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Consequently, the language of peacemaking cannot be relegated to some parochial corner solely reserved for those with an activist bent or for people dismissively referred to as “peaceniks.” Rather, discipleship to Jesus implies being a presence of peace in every facet of life—roles, habits, relationships and allegiances included. Ellen White encapsulates this idea succinctly: “Christ’s followers are sent to the world with the message of peace. Whoever, by the quiet, unconscious influence of a holy life, shall reveal the love of Christ; whoever, by word or deed, shall lead another to renounce sin and yield his heart to God, is a peacemaker” (SD 306). With its expansive notion of peacemaking, this declaration suggests that we fulfill our vocation as peacemakers when we pursue a life characterized by love, compassion, integrity and alignment with divine values. 

The manifold role of peacemaking is a subtle yet important theme in the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’s charter for “kingdom living.” As I have previously alluded to, his teachings on anger, contempt, adultery, love of the enemy, truthful speech and judging are variations on this overarching theme. Even so, there is sometimes a tendency to constrict the notion of peacemaking that doesn’t fully capture the rich Old Testament concept of shalom. Frederick Dale Bruner addresses this misconception by noting that … 

we can almost translate the keyword “peacemakers” with the word “wholemakers.” Peace in Scripture is a situation of comprehensive welfare. In English the word “peace’’ usually refers either to an inner tranquility—peace of mind—or to an outward state—the absence of war. But biblical shalom conveys the picture of a circle; it means communal well-being in every direction and in every relation. The person in the center of the circle is related justly to every point on the circumference of the circle. While the English word “peace” tends either to be a tiny inward point or a large external space—that is, either a period or a line—the Hebrew word depicts a circle embracing the whole community, internally and externally. If we could translate “Blessed are the circle makers” and make sense, we would. To bring peace, in Scripture, is to bring community. Peacemakers are reconcilers.

The term “wholemakers” strikes a profound chord, given the pervasive human brokenness and suffering we encounter daily. Mending, serving, encouraging, reconciling, mediating, witnessing, forgiving—all serve as intrinsic practices for those committed to peacemaking. In concert with other Beatitudes, these ways of being and acting are a primary avenue through which Christians are the salt and light of the world. Should this ethos genuinely permeate our relationships and become warp and weft of our communal existence, would it not stand as a chiaroscuro witness of unparalleled power and beauty? 

Ante Jerončić is professor of theology and ethics and chair of the Department of Theology & Christian Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.