Communities, borders and ‘persons of peace’

Time for Christians to model a new way of engaging.

Corey Fields

“We pray and walk through our community, looking for persons of peace with whom we can connect.”

“Persons of peace.” That’s a term I’ve heard multiple times during my summer sabbatical study of how churches are engaging in Christian community development ministries.

Christian Community Development, the faith-based version of Asset Based Community Development, is a very specific type of ministry with one’s community that many churches think they’re doing but few are. It involves many elements that most of our common service projects lack, like long-term partnerships, empowerment and investment. I’ve come to prefer the term “community transformation,” since that’s what I’ve seen happening (and since “development” can mean something else for some).

For many of the Christian leaders I’ve visited and learned from, their journey into their community began with long periods of prayer walking and developing relationships, and “persons of peace” were who they were looking for.

It’s not a new term. It appears in Luke 10 during Jesus’ instructions to the 70/72 as he is sending them out. The original Greek is uios eipenes — literally, “sons of peace.” You can probably think of characteristics that persons of peace might have. They are the people who will welcome you, and probably have a decent reputation in their community. More importantly, they are the people who want to see … well, peace. In troubled urban communities around the U.S., these are the people who have dreams and desires for their neighborhood and want to see it be a place of peace and a healthy community. These dreams are often latent and may have been written off as not possible.

These are the people Jesus commanded his disciples to latch onto. “Stay with them,” he said, “eat what is placed before you.” Jesus warned that there would be others — those who would not welcome proclaimers of the kingdom; those who would not be persons of peace; those who would balk at the new strangers in their community and leave the disciples with nothing to do except shake the dust from their feet.

It is here in the context of this passage that we see the most important aspect: Persons of peace are the ones who see past neighborhood, border and ethnicity and are willing to welcome and work with the stranger who shares their values. The disciples Jesus sent out were going into communities different from their own, supposedly including Gentile communities, where the command to “eat whatever is placed before you” would have horrified many faithful Jews. The inherent differences were enough on their own to cause suspicion and distrust.

But some people have that ability — or desire — to look past ethnicity, religion, borders and even message to recognize when strangers are genuine and willing to put others before themselves. These are persons of peace. They exhibit the fruits of the spirit and recognize them in others. It is a “takes one to know one” kind of situation.

Persons of peace want peace — and they know they’re never going to get it by exhibiting an exclusionary stance toward others. The fact of the matter is that there are persons of peace in every neighborhood, city and nation. The trick is for these people to come together across society’s dividing lines (in the face of the cries of infidelity or impropriety that they inevitably face for doing so). The community developers I met this summer have all settled and invested into communities which they were warned not to enter, and in so doing they have been able to form incredible and unlikely partnerships that were the catalyst for neighborhood transformation.

This is not how we normally operate. Most of us are conditioned to see the world in terms of the good guys vs. the bad guys; us vs. them. It’s almost as if we approach real life the same way we do a sports event. Think about how it goes: All the fans gather together with their team’s regalia and cheers, and are there to rally behind their team in a defeat of “the opponent.” When a call is made against our team, we boo, hiss and lash out, regardless of whether the call was correct. When our team makes a mistake, we either say nothing or blame it on the opponent.

Does any of that sound familiar? The team sport approach is how we seem to run a lot of things.

I’m pleading with my fellow believers to escape the pattern and model a new way of engaging. What would it look like to take the persons of peace approach in our town or city? In our school or workplace? What if we called on world leaders and governments to take the persons of peace approach? There are especially disastrous consequences when we take the team sports approach in our foreign policy. We’ve seen them before, and we’re seeing them now.

The problem is that we have to be persons of peace first. We’re always ready to shake the dust from our feet or pronounce judgment on others (Luke 9:54-55), but what if we didn’t come in peace ourselves? I have a proposal. Let God sort out the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46). None of us are smart enough or righteous enough to do that. Let our job be to seek out and partner with persons of peace. Let our job be to courageously enter other communities as persons of peace, coming as the vulnerable stranger among them who brings a word of hope (Luke 10:5-9). Only after we do that are we permitted to shake the dust from our feet (Luke 10:11), itself a non-violent act.

Sometimes, our biggest obstacle to being persons of peace is our own savior mentality. In everything from church service projects in poor neighborhoods to U.S. foreign policy, we see ourselves as those who have more knowledge and the moral high ground, and we go in and try to do something for others that they didn’t ask us to do and in which they have no ownership. It’s an approach that never has the intended effect. In reflecting on all the church groups that have come into his urban Minneapolis neighborhood, one young man said to me, “I’m not all up in their neighborhood. Why are they in mine?”

Nearly every news report on any world problem will purport to tell you “the sides” and make you think you have to choose one. But as soon as we do so — as soon as we see battle lines instead of common humanity — we have already begun our descent into self-vindication and a bias that sees only what we want to see.

Persons of peace are everywhere. Are you and I among them?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.