Text: Romans 12:1-2, 9-21
The Peace and Justice Support Network of our denomination encourages congregations to celebrate Peace Sunday right around this time of year, the Sunday closest to the United Nations International Day of Peace, which was yesterday. Today we join other churches around the country in this Peace Sunday observance. The Mennonite Church, especially this Mennonite church, declaring a particular day Peace Sunday feels a little bit to me like the city of Columbus declaring a particular day Football Saturday. Which is to say, that if you hang around here for any length of time, you’ll soon notice that it’s just part of the atmosphere. Case in point: last Sunday, not officially Peace Sunday. Jim Leonard’s sermon title: “Prayer and peacemaking.”
One of the things I noticed when I was first getting acquainted with this church was how central peace is to the church’s public presentation of itself on this property. As you approach the church from High Street on Oakland Park Ave you see the church sign which includes the words, “Pray for peace, Act for peace.” If you pull into the parking lot and park your bike or car, you will be doing so under the sign on the north side of the church that says “Columbus Mennonite Church, supporting peacemakers around the world.” If you then head to the front entrance, you pass a peace poll in the gardens, with the words, “May peace prevail on earth,” written in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese. I did some quick web research and saw that almost exactly half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion out of 7 billion, speak one of those four languages – so that peace pole is covering a lot of ground in communication. Then when you pass the peace pole and get to the front doors, just in case you forgot or haven’t been paying attention, you are met with a fourth message, the same words that you first saw on the church sign. On the left door, “Pray for peace.” On the right door, “Act for peace.” The path from High Street into the doors of Columbus Mennonite Church is paved with peace!
If you’ve been around here for a while, you may have stopped noticing, but for a relative newcomer, and perhaps the passerby on the street, these peace signs stand out. They send a clear message. This congregation believes that peace and peacemaking are fundamental to the gospel. Here and around the world. Join us – in praying and acting for peace.
In North America, World War II was a watershed moment for Mennonites as it brought them out of rural isolation and into deeper engagement with “the world.” Many Mennonites, men and women, opted for alternative service to the military and for a few decades the Mennonite peace witness, centered on the conviction of not taking another human life – conscientious objection. To be a pacifist Christian is to refuse involvement in warfare, to refuse to kill. We willingly and wholeheartedly serve, but not with weapons of this world. And as this service and engagement with the world continued, and expanded, it inevitably led to a much fuller, much more complex, much more challenging ethic of peace. Peacemaking, it turns out, involves a whole lot more than nonparticipation in war. We find the need for peace everywhere we turn. We find that peace, in order to be lasting and real, must be accompanied by its sister, justice. We find that, along with these values in our outward living, we also long for peace in our personal lives and in our own troubled spirits. Being people of peace is an expansive, all encompassing call to embody and welcome the very life of Christ among us.
So we talk about this a lot. Peace, Shalom, holistic well-being is one of the key ways we have conceived of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
So when Paul writes to the Romans to “offer you bodies as a living sacrifice” and to “not be conformed to this world,” we know that we are on that journey and we have been preceded by those who have helped us define what that means. And when he goes on to say, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” we know that we have a long ways to go to in this transformation process.
There are any number of metaphors and phrases in Romans chapter 12 that one could focus on in regards to peace, but there’s a curious thing going on in the last part of the chapter, verses 14-21 that I’d like to look at.
It seems to me that within the span of this final paragraph Paul is suggesting that we do two very different things.
One is summed up in verse 15. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Peacemaking as a deep identification with the experience of the other.
There’s a lot going on these days with brain research, and one of the things that has caught my eye in the last few years has been the discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are basically these cells in the brain that fire electric signals “both when a (person) acts, and when a person observes the same action performed by another.” (Wikipedia definition) Personal action or observation of same action. Humans and other primates have them, and some birds have them. One of the things that’s so interesting about mirror neurons is that they blur the line between who is actually having the experience, since one feeling can register in the brain of multiple people. You see your friend get poked with a sharp object, you wince. Whose experience is it?
I think I notice this most myself when someone is talking to me and starts getting a little phlegm in their throat and then I clear my throat because I start to feel it in mine also. Somehow “Clear phlegm with those who have phlegm” doesn’t carry the same kind of spiritual nobility as rejoicing and weeping with others. I actually have no idea if those are mirror neurons doing that or something else.
The research, as far as I can tell, is still pretty new and open, with a number of different theories about what exactly it is that mirror neurons are for. What they could be for, and what a number of researchers have independently argued, is that mirror neurons are involved in empathy – our physical apparatus for identifying with the experience of others. We are never merely outside observers trying to abstractly identify with the experience of another, but we can actually have that same experience ourselves, in our brains, in our bodies. One person in the community experiences joy, and everyone’s mirror neurons light up to share in that joy with them. Someone has a family member who dies, and rather than being isolated in their sadness, the loss becomes a shared reality with all those tuned in.
If you have ever had someone enter with you into your pain, without judgment and without personal agenda, but truly be there in that place with you, you know how powerful an instrument of peacemaking this can be. If you have ever been that person who wept with those who weep, you know how challenging it can be to enter into that pain without being consumed by it. Identifying, without losing your own identity. This would be especially true for those of you in the helping professions. Identifying while remaining grounded in your identity. For those who have themselves experienced a particular form of pain or abuse or loss, you may find that one of the redemptive pieces of this is that you are able to more authentically identify with that particular pain in another, and be a healing presence in a way that others can’t be.
Since the research is still is little foggy here, let’s go ahead and speculate that this is something we can actually consciously develop. We can become more tuned in to the experiences of others. It puts a new spin on that line from verse two “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Be transformed by the exercising and sensitizing of your mirror neurons. To offer this part of our body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. To build on Jim’s message from last week, we can imagine that prayer can serve as one way of spanning geographic distance in our identification with others. One need not even be on the same continent to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
So there’s this receptive mirroring that is one part of peacemaking.
But before and after that in Romans 12 is a second kind of thing which, in many ways, is just the opposite. Verse 14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” V 17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” V. 21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In other words, do not mirror the attitudes and actions of the other, but return to them something of a completely different nature and quality. Do not conform. This too is an element of peacemaking.
As an interesting side note, v. 14, “Bless those who persecute you,” is one of the very few times Paul refers directly to a teaching of Jesus. In Luke 6:28, in that gospel’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you.” It’s amazing how influential Paul was in the early church, how important his writings are in the New Testament, and how little he cites the teachings or life of Jesus. But that’s for another day, because here he does cite Jesus and the whole spirit of non-mirroring of evil that Jesus lived out.
And it’s addressing this huge question that humans are yet to really answer in a serious way. How do you confront and overcome evil/harm/injury, without yourself becoming the source of harm and injury? How’s that for a foreign policy conundrum? How’s that for an interpersonal challenge? U2 has a song called “Peace on Earth” where Bono sings, “you become the monster so the monster will not break you.”
Paul ends this chapter by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” And for the Christian, this becomes one of the key meanings of the cross. The icon of Christian faith, the suffering Christ on a cross, is a picture of overcoming evil without resorting to evil. Active, loving, nonviolent resistance to evil, facing down the powers of death, and from that act comes the burst of resurrection whose energy still pulses through the universe.
Lest we think this is just a New Testament innovation, think of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers. Later in life, when they, without knowing it, are utterly dependent on him for their sustenance and survival, Joseph offers them grain and embraces them. Bless those who curse you. Think of Elisha who with the army of Israel had surrounded the Aramean army, and rather than slaughtering them, advises the king to set before them food and water and to let them go. “And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel,” it says directly following. 2 Kings 6:24. That’s an Old Testament story that could get a little more press. In Romans 12 Paul is quoting the book of Proverbs when he says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”
Other traditions also hold similar wisdom. I recently came across an essay called “Decolonizing Restorative Justice,” about how Indigenous peoples have practiced restorative justice among themselves. It included work from a scholar named Ella Deloria, who had interviewed an elder from her people, the Yankton Dakota about the community’s traditional practices of responding to a murder within the community. The elder names four methods of response, and one of them particularly caught my attention. I’ll read it as it was described in the essay:
“The third option was considered the most powerful and by far the most exemplary response, though it was the most difficult to do. It was for the family of the murdered person to adopt the murderer as a relative to take the place of the one killed. If this path was chosen, the murderer was not treated as a despised slave to the family but was given the finest gifts and treated with all the kindness and respect that the dead relative would have received. By so doing, both the family of the murdered person and the murderer would spend the rest of their lives committed to healing a harm that might otherwise have divided the community.” The Dakota elder is then quoted as saying, “Such a man usually made a far better relative than many a natural relative, because he was bought at a high price.”
In all these situations, it is not a matter of mirroring the action of the other, but a matter of absorbing the action of the other, transforming it within your own person, within the community, and then offering it back in a new form. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
This is the pattern of cruciform living. In one way this is incredibly counter-cultural, and therefore difficult. Entering into the joy and pain of another, mirroring, is not easy. Not conforming, transforming is not easy. In another way, this is right in the flow of the Spirit and therefore grace-filled and ultimately coming from a power beyond ourselves. Peace is God’s doing and what is impossible on the individual level becomes possible when an entire community declares itself committed to this way of being in the world.
This Thursday I discovered another, a fifth peace sign on the grounds of Columbus Mennonite Church and I’d like to close with those words. It was such a nice morning Thursday that I went out to do some writing sitting on one of the benches in the front gardens, and noticed that each of the two benches has a scripture verse carved into it. The bench I was sitting on said: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body you were called to peace.” Colossians 3:15