Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Thus ends one of my very favorite hymns, one that quite frequently is the closing hymn at the church I belong to; right before the closing prayer, when everyone joins hands for one last hymn. For a parting thought, I feel that this is a great one to leave everyone with at the end of a service, as they go out into the world, spiritually energized and prepared for another week. It is also a hymn that speaks of what I feel is part of the core of what Jesus really meant when he told us of a better way to live-and that is, being vessels through which God’s Love can be shown to the world not only through loving actions of charity and kindness, but also by being catalysts for peace. It is a thought that I feel is not expressed often enough in many Christian circles; while we constantly hear the advice of love thy neighbor, turning the other cheek and forgiving, and being not afraid, aside from the portion of the Beatitudes that states, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” we rarely hear the thought of “Go forth and promote peace.” Yet I feel that it should be expressed more, and especially given these times.
As individuals, the idea of promoting peace may at times seem very idealistic (more on that later), given all the conflict in the world today. But it is not the gargantuan task many might think it to be, at least in my eyes. I feel that fostering a climate of peace does not require attending protests of war, of writing a thousand letters to the government, nor anything else drastic or on a grand scale. No, I would like to propose that it starts with the individual; in developing a sense of inner peace, of oneness with God, in peaceful dealings with one another, and clearing out conflict which creates the opposite of peace.
Before I talk about peace, perhaps I should mention a few thoughts on its opposite: War. I would define war in the way many others have defined it, aside from the traditionally accepted, catch all definition of “conflict.” Three words: War is hell. Considering that I define “hell” as: “the illusion of separation from God, the illusion that we have lost or can somehow lose God’s Love, and the false perception that we are somehow divided from God,” I think it fits the bill somewhat. Considering that in order to have “war” then there must be some form of conflict between two sides, with one the victor, “division” is a key factor in the equation. Since separation and division are vital to war’s existence, and I feel that separation and a need for conflict can only exist if one is suffering from the illusion of being separate from God’s Love, which is hell to me, then war would be one of the worst forms of hell.
War. What comes to your mind when you hear that word? I can only speak for myself, but that word has never in my mind been associated with anything remotely good. In its most benign form it means to me “conflict” or “violent exercise in futility and waste of human lives” (which, comes to think of it, aren’t very positive either) and at its worst, the death of hope for peace. Yet in recent months, I have witnessed so many people, who proclaim loudly and boldly to be Christians, that God loves war, that going to war is a “Christian” thing to do, and even some who claim that God is their general, leading them into war against “the other side”-against people who do not subscribe to their understanding of God. Yet in everything I know about God in my own life and understanding, nothing could be further from the truth. I guess that would put me behind enemy lines, in their eyes. Honestly, if believing in a God of Love rather than a God of war and a God to be feared puts me behind enemy lines, I would rather be there.
Being Christian in Difficult Times
I found the recent months during the war with Iraq to be difficult times to be an American, and at times, to be a Christian. Even when war may seem justified to many, it is heartbreaking enough for those of us who would rather see a peaceful solution. While I realize that sometimes it is a part of life and necessary, I truly feel that all other possibilities for resolution should be tried and ruled out.
All one needs is a quick browse at some of the internet boards and chats to see what it can be like “in the trenches,” so to speak. The message being sent by a large majority of people was, “If you do not support this war blindly, and without question, then you are neither American nor Christian.” At the worst, for not supporting the war, I got called a “liberal, tree-hugging, idealistic, Godless, hippie, queer” by many “good TRUE Christians” who were “REAL Americans”.
Let me pick that apart, as they were right on all but one definition: Liberal? Sure. I’m too liberal for most liberals. If “tree-hugging” is their code word for one who cherishes the beauty of the world and the natural surroundings God Created for everyone to enjoy, to utilize but to care for, and who seeks to preserve natural beauty in the process and care for the environment, then I will accept that. “Hippie” — well, if being a man with long hair counts and being pro-peace, sure. As far as the “queer” reference, well, they’re right there in that I am bisexual, I am in touch with both my feminine and masculine sides, and I am in an honest relationship with both a woman and a man, and I am at peace with God, and myself on all of the above, and that’s queer to most people, and I am glad and grateful to be queer. (Although, I think that these peoples’ definition of “queer,” however, could be easily spelled out as “any man who is not one hundred percent, macho, male-dominated society loving, completely heterosexual and homophobic!”)
Then there is the term, “idealistic.” So maybe I am an “idealist,” with all this talk of peace instead of the need to be “right.” Then again, a lot of people, mostly some atheists I have known who hate anyone who believes in God or who is a Christian, say that I am an “idealist” for believing that there is a God, and that the teachings of Jesus about love, kindness, forgiveness, compassion and charity could actually create the reality of “Heaven” on Earth if everyone were to consider them seriously and truly practice them rather than talking about them. And I am happy to be called an idealist for that.
But Godless? There is where I disagree. The God I love and believe in does not want war, but rather for all of Creation to get along the best we can.
But it was not just the “mainstream” boards where I was ripped to shreds for not blindly supporting the most recent war. One of the most profound “rebukes” I got was on a board where I thought everyone would be a little more open minded about listening to other points of view. It was a board for polyamorous bisexuals in open marriages and relationships; some are Christians, some are of other religions, some are of no religious belief but different topics get discussed. I am one of the few who is open to talking about my beliefs there in conversations. Just recently the talk got political, as war with Iraq was imminent.
One person posted a bit of anti-war humor, with the allegation that the war was about oil and nothing more. I agreed that I thought it was both tragic, and amusing. Then a bisexual woman in the military began to call us “un-American” and that if we did not like it, to leave the country. I calmly stated that I did not feel that there was enough solid evidence to justify “pre-emptive” war, that there might be some other peaceful alternative and I said that I felt that it was not good to not ask some questions about why the country was getting involved in this effort. I also actually dared to suggest it was wrong to blindly support the war just because the President said so. You would have thought I had posted a link to Focus on the Family or Dr. Laura’s latest tirade against the LGBT Community, as this person and many viciously attacked me. One person said that “God is guiding this nation into this war.” Somewhere along the conversation, it was revealed that one of the people who was so aggressively pro war was also full of internalized self hatred; along with their belief system of “God supporting the war,” they also were sure that their “lifestyle” was “a sin but they were forgiven for it.” I instantly felt that these inner conflicts were very telling about their current views and need to create an enemy outside to be defeated.
The Danger of Literalism
It’s a common thing I have noticed: many of those who have the belief in a literalistic understanding of Scripture and who are of the view that there is only “black and white, straight or gay, for or against” — whether they are doing so willingly or totally out of fear — are those who seem the quickest to anger, the ones seeking out conflict with others, and supportive of movements which pit one “side” over the other, yet in the reality I know, to put people on “sides” defeats the entire purpose of God. In my experience, once you put yourself as better than another and then seek to push them into surrender or conformity or destruction that is when the real problems begin. As soon as we try to play God and deem and appoint ourselves as “better” than someone else, that is what gives birth to conflict. Just look at all the wars fought in the futile game of “Whose God is better, anyway?” I have to admit that when Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson, in the shadow of the tragedy of 9/11/2001 spoke out against the “religious fundamentalist extremism” and then turned around and practiced a different form of their on extremism here at home, blaming LGBT people and feminists for the attack, I found it tragically ironic.
It was no great surprise to me then that the most and only vehemently avid supporters of the war efforts were those with a very legalistic, divisive and literalistic understanding of God and the Bible. I noticed that it was predominantly the denominations which are known for subscription and required adherence to a very rigid, black and white, fundamentalist doctrine which were the most supportive of the war effort against Iraq. Whereas the majority of Christian denominations, from the most conservative Catholics to moderate Lutheran and Presbyterians to liberal Episcopalian, American Baptist, and United Church Of Christ parishioners and clergy were opposed to the war. (One of the most interesting factors to me was that the United Methodist Church, the denomination which the man who was calling for the war and who seemed to feel as if God supported this decision belongs to, was against the war!) Only the die hard fundamentalist denominations with the most rigid black and white understanding of the Bible and God seemed in full support of the war and so harshly condemning of anyone who was not.
And interestingly enough, those who were trying to win “converts” over to support the war did so in the same way they attempt to gain converts to their religious beliefs, by utilizing fear tactics. Was I the only one who saw the similarity in, “the devil will get you if you don’t repent and join our church” and “the terrorists will get you if you don’t support this war completely?” Or the similarity in “surrender your old beliefs and your identity or you will perish in Armageddon, believe as we say and you are protected from hell” and “surrender your privacy and basic civil rights and we will protect you and keep you safe from the terrorists.” Or the similarity between “if you are not of our church you are for the devil” and “if you are not for the war you are a terrorist” or “if you donÌt believe every word of the Bible then you believe none of it” and “if you don’t like the war, leave America” and most of all, just how fear was used as a motivator.
This makes sense to me, in that this form and fashion of belief system — that of good versus evil, God versus the devil, “us” versus “them” is in my opinion, very much rooted in fear and not love. Fear to me is the real “devil.” When we fear, our perception of God becomes distorted, monstrous and terrifying, and often our actions are based in fear, which is the root of all actions which are hurtful and destructive to others. A distorted perception of God gives rise to fear which can lead to “war” — be it on a very small or internal or interpersonal scale, or on a global scale. Fear and war further distort our understanding of God. Quite often, time and again, I have seen that one’s personal perception and understanding of God highly influences a persons’ behavior and how they treat others based on trying to emulate that God, a God of wrath and terror instead of the Loving God Jesus embodied.
Jesus on War and Peace
I do not feel that this would be complete without a discussion of a couple of key points in the Bible and Jesus teachings on war and peace.
Prior to the war that took place recently, I actually heard those defending the war with a kind of seeming bloodlust and heard someone mention the Biblical quote in Matthew 10 of Jesus saying “I come not to bring peace but a sword” arguing that Jesus wanted us to “fight” for what is right. This to me is another tragic example of the kind of climate that rigid Biblical literalism will create. Yet, I countered with the thought that in the conversation we were having his insisting that God was his general and they were at war with me for being who I am and believing in what I do and I was on the side of the enemy, and me offering that I had a different understanding of what God was all about through my understanding of the teachings of Jesus. In a way, it was a war in miniature. He was at war to preserve his beliefs about God, and I was defending the beliefs that I had embraced. However, nothing I said could convince him that there was room for both his beliefs and way he chose to live his life according to them and for me to do the same thing. I was struck by the fact that I had gained a better understanding of the verse attributed to Jesus in question:
Matthew 10: 34-36
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
I think that what I encountered was exactly what Jesus meant. I think this teaching was His way of saying, “Hey, the new way I am going to teach this idea of Love and respect for one another as opposed to all these religious laws and especially this respect for diversity and human equality thing may go against everything you were taught or think that you know about God. Embracing a way that is against the tradition, against the establishment, may cause tension and conflict in the family and in society. Not everyone is going to like this way of thinking, and there may be some conflicts and family ties affected until there is understanding.”
Knowing what I do of Jesus, I cannot imagine that He would desire for any of God’s Children to fight and kill each other, after all, in the Beatitudes, He is very clear when He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). As is common with many of His parables, I think that the “sword” was a metaphor for the conflict that the new teachings emphasizing Love over Law were going to create conflict for those set in their old way of thinking. Spiritual growth, and evolution are often a struggle and a difficult process, there are always some growing pains.
And how many of us may have found this to be the case in life? When we discovered that being LGBT and Christian were not irreconcilable, how many LGBT brothers and sisters were shocked that we could identify ourselves as “Christian” after all the abuse that a small minority of fundamentalist and conservative Christians have hurled at the LGBT Community to the point that to many LGBT people anything “Christian” equals homophobic?” And how many of our own families were shocked and angry when we decided that we were going to reconcile being LGBT and Christian, and embrace the fact that God Loves us just the way we are, that Jesus embraces us? Or our own internal adjustment processes of reconciling our spirituality and sexuality can be a war among itself within at first, until we embrace the joy of it? Again, spiritual evolution and growth is not always easy and I believe that Jesus knew in advance that this would be the case — to the point that the establishment of the time would declare war against him for his pacifist teachings and have him tried and executed.
Spiritual growth and evolution can also be seen very clearly, and in my opinion, a very emotionally moving way in another book where war and God come into play, the Psalms. I attended a Bible study once where the daily reading was one Psalm, and then chapters of Matthew, with discussions during the readings. After each Psalm, we went around and discussed what we thought the Psalmist was trying to say. There were some interesting responses, and nearly everyone could relate in at least some metaphorical way. On the surface level, I think that the Psalms are an excellent reflection of people seeking to understand the nature of God, yet they hold to me such a deep philosophical and metaphorical power as well.
Reading them I can see people struggling with situations in life, oppression, self-worth, needing a sense of Oneness with God. Psalm 139 is one of the many I can relate to on some level, as with Psalms 121, 131, 71, 18, 111 and 42. Some are meditations I have gone to when feeling persecuted by others, others have just helped me through difficult times. Yet, the culture of the time and war figures into many of the Psalms as well: just have a look at Psalms 83, 108, 110, 129, 144, 143, 68, 35 and others, with prayers for God to crush the enemy of the writer. Contrast those with Psalm 133 seems to be a Psalm in praise of peaceful times. Psalm 13 seems to be speaking of questioning one’s faith and feeling forsaken and persecuted by one’s “enemies.” Psalms illustrates on of the facts of life. There are some difficult questions with vague or no answers and emotions to deal with along the way many opinions and points of view and ways of dealing with them are represented. One’s mindset so often determines what one sees. I see more hope in Psalms than anything. Yet others see certain verses as “God encouraging war” and hopelessness.
What’s so Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?
I wanted to reflect a bit on why I think that some may be more prone to thoughts of war, retaliations and revenge over seeking peaceful resolution, and I think some of it might go back to the idea that some do not want to acknowledge the fact that we, as human beings are given a tremendous amount of responsibility with all of the joys and freedoms God has blessed us with, and some shudder at that thought of responsibility, as they do not want to acknowledge that we as human beings are just as capable of committing terrible, horrible actions as well as ones of unparalleled beauty and love. We are given the ability to destroy life as well as create it. The same individuals are capable of both good and evil acts. Enter the need for an “other,” an “enemy.”
While I do, as I have stated before consider the concept of the “devil” in the Bible to represent our own fear, and the hell our fears can create which God’s Love can “save” us from, the definition of the word “satan” is “adversary.” I see the devil that many Christians believe in not as a “person” or an “entity” but rather as a symbol created to escape a sense of accountability and personal responsibility from one’s personal choices to act out of love, trust and faith in God or act out of fear; an icon to blame, to represent the parts within ourselves we don’t like. The establishment of an outside “enemy” is to me a way of escaping, of absolving oneself from accountability or doing the right thing, for escape from personal responsibility as a steward of creation. We want to see ourselves as perfect in that we would never err or allow our emotions or fears to get the best of us, even though God knows and Jesus knew and the biblical writers knew that no one is blameless or perfect, and sometimes we don’t do the right thing.
Even if we like or love the person God made us to be, we don’t always respond to life “perfectly” and often times, rather than forgiving ourselves and setting things right, we need someone or something to “blame,” absolve oneself of responsibility for these actions. The definition of “devil” or “evil” could quite realistically be seen as “adversary” if it represents the temptation in ourselves to succumb to fear, an elitist competitive nature, or the nature human beings can possess to allow ourselves to put love second in our dealings with others at times when we are overcome by the pressures of life and our own fears, lending new meaning to the old saying, “we have seen the enemy and he is us!”
In these efforts, the theology of an “other” — an “enemy” was born, and it still exists in much of Christianity today, both the liberal/progressive and moderate LGBT friendly, and those who consider the LGBT community as part of the “other” and among the groups to “blame” for the ills the world sometimes faces. But does this help to foster a more peaceful society, or does it create a barrier? I feel that the latter is the case more often than the former.
First of all, when a belief system is set up that divides everything into rigid and inflexible standards of “black/white,” “good/bad,” “male/female,” “straight/gay,” “for/against” or whatever form of strict absolutist “you are or you aren’t” thinking, it naturally sets the stage for conflict to brew. Naturally what follows is the development of an “enemy,” “other” or “devil” or a group to be reviled as “against God,” or “against the common good.”
This imperative for an “other” is how an “enemy” is created, among other reasons previously mentioned such as not acknowledging one’s own frailty as a human being, to represent superiority, and also to appeal to a very base and competitive side of human nature. Expressed in a healthy form, it might come in the form of competitive creative efforts, entering contests of skill, or even team sports (although, I have seen some sports appeal to an angry and violent aspect of human nature at times, when it becomes less like friendly competition and challenge and more like war and elitism). But in an unhealthy form, it becomes the drive to eliminate and obliterate the “other” to “prove” oneself. At it’s very worst form, it becomes a lust for victory or blood that has little or no concern for others. While I feel that certain types of “lust” may not all be bad — the lust for life, to cherish all of the good things in life, is fine, so long as such a desire is carried out in a fashion which is not detrimental or hurtful to those around us, or irresponsibly. Lust that comes with sexual desire when acted on properly and with love and respect for others is fine. But I am speaking of a very different and a much darker form of “lust” — the kind of lust known as “bloodlust” — not literally, but the lust to oppress others, to be in control of others, to be “right,” the “victor” the “triumphant.”
These are some of the problems that can often accompany a rigid fundamentalist theological view, the same type of view that segregates into “gay” and “straight,” “good” and “evil,” “Godly” and “sinners” in their eyes. It facilitates self loathing and sometimes war is a cause to rally around to let out some of that hate. I think this also goes back to the theory that, the kind of God you believe in, your perception of God can affect personality and the way you deal with others. Hence, if one embraces the idea of an angry God of war, sometimes one embodies that sentiment in real life. Often I have seen demonstrations of hate against LGBT and homophobia that are direct reflections of this. Since they think God hates the people they hate, it is a natural progression for them to do the same. Along the same line of thinking, this can translate to, since they think God is a God of war, they feel justified in waging war. War is one of the many by products of fundamentalist thought in some cases, borne mostly of the need to ostracize those who will not conform or cooperate.
War, whether it is small isolated conflicts or physical or cultural wars on a global scale, is one of the many difficulties and tragic consequences which that accompanies a black and white absolutist world view. But it is far from just conservative and fundamentalist Christians who hold this view. It can be anyone who insists that their belief is the only correct belief and that all others are inferior. I think that when we start putting ourselves above others and deeming them inferior, making ourselves “better” than others, this type of conflict can take place regardless of the types of people involved. I have had atheists tell me that they are better because I am “deluded and weak” for being a Christian, non-Christian hetero and homosexuals tell me they are better because I am bisexual, and a few bisexuals say they are better than me because they are in a one partner relationship and monogamous and that I am inferior for being with two partners. Yet, in all of these cases, I have not attempted to indicate that I am in any way “better” than them for believing as I do, being who I am, or choosing to live as I choose. They may not understand me, nor should they have to. I have seen all kinds of people put one group down as “inferior” and then making them the “enemy,” yet the truth is that in my understanding of God, there is room for all of us and the entire rainbow of diversity, God loves us all and just wants us to try and get along, as children of the same God, all equally Loved with an Unconditional Love.
What Side is God on?
There is also the game that many of those of us who are LGBT and Christian find ourselves entangled in with other Christians who boldly claim that one cannot be LGBT and Christian: the old game of, “Whose God is the real God, anyway, and which side is God on?” It is a microcosm of the wars fought in the name of religion, such as the Catholic versus Protestant. Yet, I believe to feel this way, to feel that one interpretation of God is “correct” and that the other is “false” and that God takes “sides” and supports one side in “war” against the other, is defeating the entire purpose of what God, or at least the God that Jesus points to, is really and truly all about.
And, there are some in the LGBT Community who grew up in an oppressive form of Christianity, and after they come out as adults, some choose to make the Christian religion into the “enemy” — throwing the baby out with the bath water instead of seeking reconciliation. Instead of finding the good, seeking a constructive way, they choose to destroy. This too is out of fear; a fear that comes form having it drilled into their minds that when they chose to embrace their true sexual orientation and sexuality, they were “no longer in God’s favor” — and no longer on “God’s side.”
I would like to propose that God is not on “this side” or “that side” but rather on ALL SIDES and all points in between; the only “side” which I feel God would take is the side of Love. I feel that when we would choose to abandon peace, Jesus would look on and weep and God would drive us to search for another way if at all possible. To me, the entire “for us or against us” mentality is the opposite of what God truly is. God is in all things, in all the details, on all sides, and if we trust and follow our hearts, I believe we can find a way to make it work. Life is not always so neat, black and white, and although that is scary, Jesus says just trust in God and in Love.
I do not believe that we are all prone to conflict, or anger or things other than peace but that we are all intrinsically good, however, life IS difficult, and sometimes we DO act in error, and when we do, I feel that God will help us to find a way to pick up the pieces and try again, with love. If we attempt to blame someone else, or create an enemy, and then ask for God’s “favor” then are we not attempting to play an image of God, who decides who is in and who is out? I feel that those who go to war — be it Muslims versus Christians, Catholics versus Protestants, or the Religious Right versus the LGBT Community — in the name of God, they are opting for their own private God who oppresses, kills, tortures, wipes out the people they don’t like personally or consider themselves above instead of the Universal God of Love Jesus taught of, Who does not think in “black and white” or “who is better” thought processes as some of us do. To me it totally defeats the purpose.
To me peace is a simple equation: Peace with oneself and with God equals oneness with God equals Heaven within equals inner peace. (Whereas war is a similar equation: Inner conflict equals frustration equals tension and negativity equals fear equals war and conflict.) And inner peace can lead to outer peace, and peace in the world around us. And it starts one person at a time — a little at a time. Asking the questions, if God is in everything, and God is Love, how can anyone truly be an “enemy?” How can we, as individuals, make the world a more peaceful place through what we demonstrate in our own lives? And what is more important: being “right” or doing the right thing? Forgiveness heals. Love soothes old wounds. Clinging to anger creates tension and internal conflict; letting it go and growing from the experience is a win-win situation.
Being an Idealist
So maybe I am an “idealist,” with all this talk of peace instead of the need to be “right.” Then again, as I said earlier, a lot of people say that I am an “idealist” for believing that there is a God, and that the teachings of Jesus about love, kindness, forgiveness, compassion and charity could actually work to create the reality of “Heaven” on Earth if everyone were to consider them seriously and truly practice them rather than talking about them, and walking the path of Love Jesus walked instead of debating theology.
There is an old story that I like about a beach where every so often, a huge tide would wash thousands and thousands of starfish up on a beach, where they would be stranded and many would die if they were not returned to the water. A man was walking down the beach, and he saw another man picking up the starfish and throwing them back in the water one at a time. He asked the man throwing the starfish what he was doing and the man replied, “I’m saving the lives of these starfish, if they don’t get thrown back in the water they will die.” The man said, “That’s crazy, there’s thousands of them here, and one of you. You can’t make any difference. Just let it go.” The man picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean and turned to the man questioning him and said, “Made a difference to that one, didn’t I?”
And so it goes that we as individuals may not single-handedly be able to keep wars from happening or create the elusive and oft hoped, wished and prayed for goal world peace on our own. But rather than focusing on what it is we cannot do, I feel it is better to focus on what it is that we CAN.
As LGBT Christians, I feel that it is to radiate a sense of inner peace and a sense of the peace we have found with God through Jesus first to others around us, as more often than not, that type of thing is wonderfully contagious. God is Love, and I feel we are all made to be conduits for that Love to radiate to the world, regardless of who we are, our place in life, our race, gender, theology, sexuality, sexual orientation, anything; “us” and “them” are categories that we, not God, create. Focusing on love may seem idealistic, but it does assist in creating a climate of peace.
So clear out the fear and the conflicts which create the opposite of peace; no one has t be “better” than anyone, as we are all unique creations. Make your peace with God, if you have not already. God loves you unconditionally as you are and there is a purpose and meaning to your life; to give the gift of Love God gave you to others in your own unique way. Let that bring you peace with yourself, and oneness with God, and I think you will find that that leads to peaceful dealings with one another in your life. Just as Jesus led by an example of Love and His peaceful ways, we too can do the same and spread the way of peace a little at a time. No one person can save the world, but many people can together. God can save the world, but we have to do the work by letting God flow through us and cultivating peace, first from within and then letting it flow from us to others.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.