BLESSED ARE THE PEACE MAKERS
On February 15, US President Barack Obama honoured the (late) Dr. Tom Little with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by presenting the medal posthumously to his widow at a White House ceremony. Obama called Dr. Little "a humanitarian in the truest sense of the word" for his medical volunteering as an optometrist in Afghanistan, where he and nine other aid workers were murdered by Taliban attackers last August. "Tom Little could have pursued a lucrative career," Obama said. "Instead, he was guided by his faith and he set out to heal the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan." [The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest honour a civilian can receive in the US.]
I met Tom Little a few times many years ago when my wife and I were caretakers of a Christian guest house in Delhi and Tom would transit through. My memories of him are sparse. I remember Tom as one of the few people who had chosen to serve in one of the most dangerous places in the world (and he had chosen to serve for the long haul), because he was clear that God had called him to go and serve Him in Afghanistan. He obeyed cheerfully and without asking questions.
Tom served in Afghanistan not merely for five or ten years, but for close to forty years till people who didn't know his worth or value killed him as he served their own people. Governments came and went-the Communists went, the Mujaheedin went, the Taliban went, and today the Karzai government is tottering-but Tom laboured on. More importantly perhaps, Tom carried on with his understanding of what it meant to live out the Gospel even as his own countrymen participated in the 'clash of civilisations,' carried out ambushes and dropped bombs, supposedly in another interpretation of what it means to live a Christian life, possibly a model that the Crusaders would have identified with. But then Tom Little was a peacemaker.
Unfortunately today, peace is a much damaged word. It's like an icon so blackened by candle smoke that the image is completely hidden. 'Peace' is a word that has been covered with a lot of smoke from the fires of propaganda, politics, ideologies, war and nationalism. Not only governments, but peace groups also have damaged the word. Anti-war groups often reveal less about peace than about anger, alienation and even hatred. In wartime, talk of peace can put you on thin ice and so one fine morning Tom Little was killed, murdered by the very people he had spent his life serving.
Peace is one of the essential characteristics of the kingdom of God in a single word. Consider how often and in what significant ways Christ used the word 'peace' in the gospel: "And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it." "And He awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!'" "And He said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.'" "And He said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'" "Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace be to this house!'" "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!" "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." His greeting after the resurrection was, "Peace be with you." In Mark's gospel, it says, "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
Peacemaking is more than peace loving. It requires more than merely being peace keepers. Peace-loving people mind their own business. They avoid conflict. Peacekeepers do a good work. They stand between enemies and keep them apart. Peace loving and peace keeping can be good things. But they are not the same as peacemaking. Peacemakers get involved. They build bridges. They tear down walls. They refuse to sow discord and division. But they do more. They also do whatever it takes to resolve conflicts and bring people together. Spiritual peacemakers also work passionately to help people find peace with God.
Christ's peace is not passive, nor has it anything to do with the behaviour of a coward or of a person who is polite rather than truthful. Christ said, in Matthew's gospel, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." He meant the sword metaphorically, as Luke makes clear in his version of the same passage, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." To live truthfully, rather than float with the tide, means most of the time to swim against the tide and to risk penalties, if not punishment, for doing so. Christ had, and still has, opponents. Christ's words and actions often brought His opponents' blood to a boil. Think of His words of protest about the teachings of the Pharisees who laid burdens of others they would not carry themselves. Think of Him chasing the money changers from the Temple. No one was killed or injured, but God's lightning flashed in the Temple courtyard.
Jesus spoke the truth, no matter how dangerous a task that might be. He gave us an example of spiritual and verbal combat. But His hands were not bloodstained. Think about the fact that Christ killed no one. Neither did He ask any of His followers to kill anyone. There are many ways in which Christ is unique. This is one of them. His final miracle before His crucifixion was to heal the injury of a temple guard whom Peter had wounded. He who preached the love of enemies took a moment to heal an enemy while on His way to the cross.
Tom made the choice to bring a glimpse of what humankind could be, by going to one of the harshest places of earth to serve in and by literally and figuratively giving the Afghan people sight and vision for 40 years. Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends. In a country, where people come and go like sifting sand, Tom hung out for that long a time. The fanatics who killed him and nine others in August 2010 may not have realised that it may be a very, very long time again before they find another man from a different language, culture, race and faith, who loved them enough to live with and for them, and in death be buried with them on their soil. Sadly in life, the most important lessons are often learnt the last, or never learnt at all.