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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question J: What mode of Christian response corresponds to the seventh Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5.9)?

1. People whose primary love is charity love divine goodness above all else. There is no evil mutilating this goodness, and so no principle of opposition and conflict, which arise solely from evil and its distorting consequences. To love goods mutilated by evil with divine love is to love them as good, not as evil, and so to separate them from their evil and restore them to wholeness. Hence, the effort to live according to divine love will be universally conciliatory. The seventh mode of Christian response is therefore to respond to evil with good, not with resistance, much less with destructive action (see Lv 19.17–18; Mt 5.38–41; Rom 12.17–21). This way of acting is faith’s specification and charity’s fulfillment of the seventh mode of responsibility: One should not be moved by hostility to freely accept or choose the destruction, damaging, or impeding of any intelligible human good.

In the fallen human condition, injustice is common. The prevalence and ineluctability of evil breed resentment. The sense of vindication is part of the experience of justice, and so it can be sought as an apparent good. Emotionally, the release of pent-up negative feelings in destructive behavior bears some resemblance to the sense of vindication, even when this relief is itself not experienced as the appearance of justice—for example, even when it is felt to be a wrong balancing another wrong. Even apart from the New Testament, divine revelation provides some relief for this frustration by promising divine rectification (8‑G).

However, many people who are not particularly conciliatory seem to avoid acting irrationally out of hostile feeling. How do they manage to develop a disposition of self-restraint? The answer is that most people restrain themselves out of self-interest. Revenge is unprofitable, and since the tendency to it is so common, there is a general interest in making it costly. To do so is an important part of the function of criminal law and of many less formal devices of social control. Unfortunately, however, there are limits to self-restraint imposed by self-interest. Hence, in most people the tendency to irrationally destructive action is not eliminated; rather, it is channeled. Petty spitefulness, taking out resentments upon the weak and those in subordinate positions, purposeful injury by omission (which is not so easily recognized as malicious), and gross revenge when operating beyond the limits of ordinary controls (as in warfare) are all extremely common.

Christian revelation, accepted with living faith, transforms one’s understanding of evil and of the possibility of coping with it. Evil is not necessarily ineluctable. The victory over it has been won; redemption has been accomplished in principle in Jesus. The full implication of the character of evil as privation is that zealotry is no more able than pharisaism to deal with it. The privation as such cannot be confronted. Resistance to evil is useless and an effort to destroy it worse than useless, since such an effort only succeeds in destroying the residual good.

2. The virtuous disposition present in this mode of Christian response is the conciliatoriness which seeks the redemption of enemies (see Mt 5.43–44). An essential aspect is the patient endurance which is a fruit of the Spirit (see Gal 5.22). This virtue also includes certain aspects of mildness. One opposite disposition is comprised of defensiveness and aloofness: the tendency to try to avoid evil instead of carrying on a redemptive ministry to those enslaved by it. Another opposite is the tendency to fret about evil rather than respond to it with good. Discouraged about the prospects for the conversion of those who seem obdurate in error or sin, yet unwilling to harm them, the Christian all too easily falls into an attitude of passive resentment.

3. Elaborating on the point of this Beatitude, Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5.44–45).30 Jesus fulfilled this command himself, making peace through his blood (see Col 1.19–20).

4. Accepting responsibility for spreading peace by communicating Jesus’ peace to others is most proper to Christian conciliatoriness (see 2 Cor 5.16–21). Reverence for enemies and refusal to judge their ultimate state of soul are a foundation for peacemaking (see GS 28). Ultimately, however, peace can only be attained by making love universal, and so the Christian must try not only to live in love but to bring others to share in it (see GS 78).

5. Jesus castigates the scribes and Pharisees as blind guides leading the blind; they employ a false casuistry in their effort to save others and gain their own salvation (see Mt 23.16–22). This false casuistry is a way of evading the duty to respond to evil with the healing love which alone would overcome it. By contrast, Jesus himself is the sun of justification, who really dissolves darkness and guides the feet of human beings on the way of peace (cf. Lk 1.78–79).

6. According to St. Augustine, the gift of the Holy Spirit corresponding to the seventh Beatitude is wisdom: “Wisdom corresponds to the peacemakers in whom everything is in order and there is no emotion to rebel against reason, but all things obey the spirit of man just as it obeys God.”31 St. Thomas points out that wisdom is the power of putting in order, and that this power is what peacemaking, the restoration of right order, requires. Also, wisdom is appropriate to Jesus, the eternally begotten Word and wisdom of the Father (see S.t., 2–2, q. 45, aa. 1, 6).

The sacred writers of the Old Testament declared that only righteousness would bring true peace (see Ps 72.1–3; 85.9–14; Is 32.16–18; Jer 6.13–16).32 They looked forward to peace in the time of redemption (see Is 9.5–6; Hos 2.20). This promise of conciliation and peace is fulfilled in Jesus (see Mt 28.9; Lk 2.14; Jn 14.27; 20.19, 26). His peace is the forgiveness of sins for which the prophets hoped (see Jn 20.19–23). The infant Church spreads this peace to the nations (see Acts 10.34–36, 43), for the redemption accomplished in Jesus is not for Israel alone. Rather it is the reconciliation of all humankind with God and the overcoming of all enmity between nations (see Eph 2.13–18).

One aspect of the Christian attitude toward peacemaking is the conviction that evil is utterly powerless. This conviction is represented in a symbolic way in the book of Revelation, which comes to a climax when Jesus comes forth to do battle with evil. As soon as he appears, evil is vanquished; no battle is necessary (see Rv 19.11–21). The victory over evil already has been won. Hence Christians can be peaceable; no one can frustrate their hope (see 1 Pt 3.8–17).

30. See Dupont, op. cit., 633–64.

31. St. Augustine, loc. cit.

32. See Heinrich Gross, “Peace,” Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 648–51.