Breaking the Chains
By: John H. Campbell
Every day during one of my less favorite times of the day-my commute to the office-it is a fairly regular occurrence. I don't have a multitude of pet peeves, or factors which cause me to become easily frustrated and anxious, but at the pinnacle of the list of that handful of "things-that-irritate-me-but-really-should-not-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things," sitting in slow traffic when I am already in a hurry to be somewhere is very close to the top. This is compounded when I find myself driving behind someone (perhaps not always directly, sometimes they are a few cars in front of me) who inexplicably remains blissfully unaware that they are sitting in front of a green light and causing everyone else behind them to be delayed.
Such was the case just a week or two ago during my daily commute. I was already running significantly behind schedule, agonizing over the time and already placing under self-imposed stress as a result. I'm never an angry driver - at least in the sense that I have not allowed my frustration elevate to the point of letting the person who might be frustrating me with their unknowingly creating stress for me know how I feel about the matter with harsh words or the ever-popular one finger salute - but I do l on occasion honk the horn and even when I do nothing, I know that I let it get under my skin more than I should, especially when there are far greater things in life to place concern upon.
However, as I rolled my eyes and took my aggression out on my poor steering wheel with a whack as it is all too familiar with receiving, I stopped and glanced at a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. Upon reading the message I found my stress and frustration suddenly diffused. It's not that new; I feel certain most reading this are either familiar with it or may even have it on their vehicle. This was not the first time I had seen that particular bumper sticker, in fact, I seem to see it quite frequently (once again reminding me that God has wonderful ways of speaking to us when we need it the most). For the message written upon it, eight words and two short sentences directly above one another, carries a message that resonates deeply with me spiritually. It is one that I take to heart and fully agree with, and one that I feel just about anyone - regardless of religious affiliation can benefit from:
"No Jesus, No Peace, Know Jesus, Know Peace"
My frustration at the moment with being delayed, thinking about pressure at the office, and letting traffic get the best of me dissolved and I smiled. I could not help but to just nod in agreement with the message posted on the posterior of the car in front of me and reflect on what that means to me. I also felt a little embarrassed about my own reaction to being delayed by two minutes, as it suddenly meant nothing.
Although there are many, no doubt, who might attempt to reduce such a profound and honest statement to an attempt to evangelize with the intention of promoting one version of Christianity, one based on fear and dogma rather than one of hope and the honest and real promotion of peace, I feel that the message that it carries cannot be likened to others which promote a narrow and legalistic bent (such as the "It's A Child, Not A Choice" one, the "Adam And Eve, Not Adam And Steve" or perhaps my least favorite of the lot, the one that just says "Fear God"). This message is one that I feel that anyone - regardless of their understanding of Christianity or God - can truly benefit from.
It carries a significant amount of meaning for me on a multitude of levels. I had no knowledge of inner peace until I truly knew Jesus. Not the Jesus of fundamentalism or the far right, but the real Jesus who was God in human form, teaching us the best way to live in peace and joyful abundance, and Whose Spirit is still there for each and every one of us. It was coming to know the Jesus who helped me to understand that my being bisexual, radical and being different from most might make me seem odd to some, but that it in no way meant that I was unacceptable to or unloved by God as I am. As I thought about the phrase of knowing Jesus leading to knowing peace, I found myself simultaneously silently praying that it would carry more meaning to others, as these days, peace and the promotion of peace seem to be in more scarce supply than in recent years. We seem to be having a peace shortage, a peace deficit - more people need to give it another chance, in my opinion.
It seems as if every day we are reminded, be it through watching or reading the news, general conversation, or even in leisure time of the opposite of peace-conflict-of some fashion or another. The war in Iraq, which has permeated our culture here in America for 6 years. War in Afghanistan. The imagined "cultural wars" that the far right wing insists the LGBT Community (or anyone who does not believe as they do) are "waging on Christians". Little trivial personal wars between individuals which are elevated from what would seem insignificant to ridiculous proportions. A search on Google News for the word "War" yields an astounding 259,641,747 results; by contrast, a search for "Peace" yields a mere 104,361 - a shockingly infinitesimally small number by comparison. That to me speaks volumes about where our societal psyche seems to be presently residing lately, and it's not a very happy place.
The imperative for peace does not cease with the horror of literal wars on a global scale. There is a great deal of conflict on a much more personal battlefield as well, beginning with the conflict between those who would support war efforts and those who oppose them. There are the aforementioned "cultural wars", the conflict between one group of people who believes one way and those who believe another. It has been stated that there are more wars fought in the name of conflict over differences in religious beliefs than anything else, and I regret to say that I cannot disagree with that idea.
There are those who have claimed that the source of the American conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan can be traced back to America being a "sinful nation" and that only through adopting their beliefs about God as the "one true way (TM)" will we ever be safe or find peace. They refer to the Islamic faith as being incorrect if not inherently "evil." Whenever I hear a legalistic Christian make statements like that, I think to myself about how the bombers who committed the atrocity on 9-11-01 were certain that their beliefs about God were the "one true way (TM)" as well, and they consider us an "evil" nation - definitely not a win-win situation; in fact, very much the opposite.
On the "battlegrounds" of the "cultural wars", there are those who would choose a side and build up as much ammunition as possible against the other, even if their weapons are words (which in some instances can leave deeper, greater and more lasting scars than any physical weapon would ever begin to) and attempts at legislation to defeat their imagined "enemies". There are those who elect to only view things in terms of gay or straight, damned or saved, black and white - whatever the dichotomy they have fabricated or exaggerated in their thoughts - and seem defiantly resistant to any sort of hope at reconciliation and utterly determined to remain in an angry, perpetual state of conflict.
To make matters even more difficult -then those divide down even further. There are those in the LGBT Community who think there are some members of the community who are less acceptable than others, due to differences in thinking or individual differences. I have been met with condemnation by some in the community because I am bisexual (which some say they resent and accuse me of attempting to capitalize on "heterosexual privilege" - although there is no such thing for an out bisexual) and because I am committed to both a woman and a man, and I have transgendered friends who have been made to feel outcast and rejected, as well as others deemed as "too extreme" (be it people in the Leather community or people who dress too "flamboyantly") to universal acceptance of the LGBT Community. Thankfully, I do not encounter this as often as I once did, but I find it disheartening at times that there is still division among a Community that needs to let go of our differences of opinion and instead bond together in the interest of the common good and equality for all, as I feel all of us should-for our own good.
And on a similar note, certainly, there are those among all who call or consider ourselves Christians an even greater multitude of differing opinions on who are the "true" Christians, and who are the "false" Christians. I am not merely referring to those who have turned Christianity into a political forum to defend personal prejudices based in fear, but those among the non-legalistic and liberal minded Christians who are quick to demonize those who are not. All too often, more time is spent upon the debate on whose God is bigger or better, rather than uniting despite our differences and placing our energies towards the common good for all.
And as if all of that were not enough, there is also conflict on an individual basis among others. Think of all of the daily conflicts we find ourselves either witnessing or unwillingly and unexpectedly finding ourselves involved in. One person in conflict another for a promotion, or a better job, or notoriety, or something as completely insignificant as a closer parking space, for Heaven's sake.
Obviously, there is a shortage of peace, and more than enough conflict on every level to go around. All of it, regardless of the scale, makes me hope and pray and long for the day when there will be a greater amount of people who can agree to disagree and be able to state that "my way is not a better way, merely a different way."
To compound matters, more often than not our response to conflict is the creation and perpetuation of even more conflict. Although we know in our hearts the best thing to do is to walk away and turn the other cheek, that is generally not the first decision we arrive at when faced with conflict on any scale. Instead, we often respond too quickly and just exacerbate the situation by putting up our defenses and engaging. While this might offer a short lived relief to any feeling of being accosted we might have when faced with conflict, the long term effects are negative as we just continue the cycle rather than breaking it by escalating the conflict and supplementing the negativity rather than diffusing it.
On occasion, given the tremendous appetite for news or even entertainment centered around or having their base in conflict we seem to have as a society, it seems to me as if people would seem revel in conflict at times; people are always seem to be more interested in hearing about or talking about or attentive to news and media concerning conflict, be it between individuals or larger groups. Given the prevalence of media coverage to events which are rife with tension, I cannot help but wonder: are many people in today‘s society, in some way, addicted to conflict? Why is it that so many hold a somewhat morbid fascination with seeing others in a state of conflict, in a deficit of peace?
My conclusion after considering this matter is that I feel the primary reason that there are so many among us who do not know peace is that they do not, in fact, know Jesus - or to clarify a bit more, perhaps they do not know the real Jesus, the Jesus Who is beyond and separate from all of the dogma, rhetoric, and unfortunate distortion and reduction of His teachings to something far away from their meaning by many. And if we do not embrace and know what it is He really taught, take that to heart, and apply it then a sense of peace - both on an individual level, where I feel peace truly begins (more on that later), but on a collective and even global level as well - may continue to elude us.
So what exactly does that mean, to "Know Peace" through "Knowing Jesus"?
A look at some of what Jesus, at times referred to as the "Prince Of Peace" taught about the matter, is very illuminating and an excellent starting point towards that goal. Jesus had a multitude of teachings regarding peace. Some of them may seem a bit perplexing upon initial observation, but upon some study and critical thought and interpretation, they make perfect sense to me:
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9)
Likely one of the first of His teachings that come to mind and one of the Beatitudes, I feel that this is a timeless admonition that we become closer to God and are best expressing our identity as children of God, when we are living in peace and promoting a way of peace. There's really not much I can think of to add to this one, or any different interpretation, other than to state that He is teaching that Peace is God's Best Hope for all of us. But what about some of the others:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God in Heaven, for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your sisters and brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as God in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 43-48)
This is a passage that many refer to as being among the "difficult" passages of Jesus' teachings, and it certainly presents a tall order. Loving those who we might perceive to be our enemies? God blesses even those who might have wronged us, or who we feel trodden upon by? Be perfect?!? It's no wonder that so many in Jesus' time had their world turned upside down by His teachings about God.
This was not always an easy one for me, and I know it is not always an easy one for many others to take to heart. However, the rewards of doing so are profound.
At one time in my life, this teaching was very difficult for me to embrace. After all, often our initial reaction to conflict is to engage rather than to let go, let alone to wish good things on those who might be the bringer of the conflict to our reality. For the longest time, I was able to not retaliate and able to "turn the other cheek" when someone wronged me, although there was a secret urge inside me wishing that said people who wronged me would eventually find themselves having to face some sort of karma, for what they did to me later on, reaping the consequences for pain that had been sown my way.
But as I grew spiritually, something interesting happened. I decided to examine the causes as to why someone might be behaving in a manner that would influence me to see them as an "enemy". Maybe they were afraid for some reason, and fear was causing them to lash out. Perhaps they were threatened by some imagined envy of something in my life. Or they could have just been having a bad day and I happened to be the first person they ran into.
I tried an experiment; I decided to stop harboring thoughts of "well, I won't seek any type of revenge or hold a grudge, but I will have hope that what goes around comes around" and replaced that with a silent prayer that whatever pain it was they were feeling that inspired them to act towards me in a less than loving or considerate manner would be lifted from them and some joy would enter their lives, while forgiving whatever transgression I felt and letting it go. I even pray at times that they will be absolved and be able to atone for mistakes they might have made or acting in unloving ways and find joy instead of reaping harsh consequences for their actions; for it was likely a lack of joy and inner peace that originally influenced them to arrive at a point where they would act out thoughtlessly or deliberately in a hurtful way towards others. Love breaks the chain, and returning hate with love no matter who difficult that can be or seem to be at times can successfully halt a chain of hurtful actions.
While I'm not certain in all cases if the result I hoped for took place in their life or not, although I do hope that they were set free form whatever pain caused them to lash out at others. But the effect on how I felt afterwards was astounding. It was a sense of, well, peace about the whole situation and it enabled me to be able to let go and move on-and therefore not retaliate in thought or action and further contribute to more conflict.
"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:38-42)
While this passage speaks about the importance of charity as well, I believe that it also offers one of the keys to living peaceably.
If anyone has ever worked in a customer service job, I'm certain you have experienced more than a few "strikes to the cheek" (at least, I know I did when I was in that line of work). Angry customers, ready to take the full brunt of their aggression out on the most convenient person were a daily occurrence. But one thing I noticed nearly every single instance that I had to deal with someone who came in ready to take my head off: the more I displayed kindness and a willingness to listen and to return their lack of courtesy with kindness, an interesting transformation would take place: when I refused to engage, to feed the anger, to feed the conflict, it would find nowhere to go and eventually disintegrate. I later also discovered that this was not limited to the Courtesy Counter I was working at long ago, but that the same concept applied in real life outside of that job as well on numerous occasions.
And that is what I feel is the core teaching of Jesus' admonition to "turn the other cheek." He is not stating at all that we all martyr ourselves and allow others to be abusive to us; what I feel He is saying is that if we refuse to engage in conflict and instead hold firm in seeking a peaceful resolution, much anger and negativity can, in fact be diffused. And I have witnessed the very thing happen in my experience, many times, One of the more memorable cases in point where realized the power of this teaching came when I was in a situation where I initially feared for my life after hitting someone's car. I was merely putting air in my nearly flat tire and the air hose scratched the side of his car parked in the next space by accident. He flew out of his car screaming at me in a rage after me but the whole encounter ended up with us shaking hands and his apologizing for becoming so vitriolic. I remained calm and did not shout back, even if I did feel he was overreacting and sought a peaceful outcome. I cannot help but think that it was a drastically different outcome than it would have been had I gone on the defensive when he began the verbal attacks.
This teaching definitely can be utilized and holds significance for those of us who identify as LGBT and Christian as well, especially when considering some of the hostility we are often met with by those who cling to fear based prejudices and the ensuing conflict on both and external and internal level - within us - that it can create. How often do you hear of those instances where someone held angry prejudice against the LGBT Community or cruelly went out of their way to create more prejudices towards LGBT individuals - only to later have a close friend or family member come out to them boldly and with confidence and how that event suddenly diffused their preconceived notions and fears they might have had about those who were different from them? Thankfully, I hear about those types of occurrences more than not.
I have on multiple occasions found that no matter how vehemently dead set against others who are LGBT someone might initially seem, more often than not when they discover that someone who is in their life or who they are acquainted with-who is close to them, who is a close friend or family member, or who is just someone who they admire but may not really closely know - is, in fact lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, there is a shift in their thinking. Their prejudice and fear, or in extreme cases, their false ideations of another person being an "enemy" based upon their sexual orientation or sexuality suddenly finds itself halted in the light that they cannot imagine thinking about being against someone who they never knew was among the group of people they vilified. They have encountered a situation where beliefs they had never challenged are suddenly detrimental to relationships which are important to them, and they are forced into a situation of having to place love over legality and overcome fears, however unfounded, in order to sustain to those relationships.
This becomes especially true when the person coming out to them does so without a sense of shame or guilt, but rather a sense of confidence, saying "This is who I am, this is who God Created me to be, and I am at peace with that." That type of attitude, as opposed to one based in fear and defensiveness, radiates positive energy and sets the stage for a mutually beneficial outcome rather than a negative experience.
I have had it happen before, where I would encounter someone who for whatever reason was hostile towards bisexuals, or bisexuals such as myself who have relationships with more than one partner, and we would be established in a conversation during which the topic of my sexual orientation came up. By calmly stating who I was rather than responding defensively, what could have elevated into an argument became a civil dialogue. No matter how snide or rude they elected to be, I refused to allow them to rattle me, for I know it was not the actual person speaking, but rather symptoms of their fears, prejudices or lack of understanding. I cannot say that all of these instances have resulted in the other person actually understanding where I was coming from with any deep clarity, and many have ended with us agreeing to disagree, but they did not end on a negative note and regardless of whether or not their perception of me was altered, I know it made them think. One in particular stands out to me, when the last words this person said to me were: "I tell you what: I don't get you. But you're a nice guy, and I admit that I've bought into a lot of the things people say without actually getting to know someone who was bi. You've made me think about snapping to judgments and that's not a bad thing." On a few occasions, I have actually discovered that those who were so adamantly opposed to bisexuals were, in fact closeted bisexuals who had been externalizing conflict within themselves, and I have seen the same thing happen with many LGBT Individuals: the conflict they strike up with others is due to an inner conflict and a lack of peace and acceptance of who they are.
As with all communication with others, I have discovered that in matters of dealing with others who might have a conflict with us on an individual or personal level regarding personal matters such as sexual orientation or sexuality, unashamed confidence and honesty in dealing with those people - while a bit challenging at times - is often a perfect antidote to extinguishing the fires of prejudice rather than allowing fear to cloud the mind creating defensive attitudes and reactions, thus fanning the flames of conflict.
While I understand that it is a tremendous step to be able to move forward with that level of confidence in the face of hostility, it can happen one small step at a time as we consider our reactions to those who would seem to desire a conflict with us based on who we are. As LGBT Christians and individuals, we don't have to create a fight, or a war with those who are against us. We can simply be who we are with confidence that God Loves and accepts us unconditionally as we are, and exemplify that in our dealings with others, and that can be often one of the most effective tools of communication there is-leading to building bridges rather than burning them.
"Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword'" (Matthew 26:52)
This one is, I feel, the origin of the phrase, "Live by the sword, die by the sword," and although the context of this teaching is within the narrative of the Gospel, I think it carries a deeper meaning, and echoes the same sentiment and advisement in Jesus' teachings about forgiveness and turning the other cheek: engaging in or inciting conflict carries heavy consequences; as with judgment, we reap what we sow. It makes sense to me that those who maintain an attitude of constantly remaining on the defensive and feeding on conflict will reap more of the same until they are able to effectively break the pattern.
On the small scale, this could manifest in the form of an individual continuing in a cycle of conflict leading to a sense of brokenness or isolation; on a larger scale, the consequences cold be infinitely more disastrous in the form of wars escalating into tragedy and countless casualties. Eventually, the negative energy will break everything apart. I feel as if what Jesus has said with His teaching against "living by the sword" is that thriving on and contributing to more conflict and returning anger with more anger is a negative path that only leads to self destruction, especially on a spiritual level.
In my experience, many in the LGBT Community who are attacked by those who condemn us attempt to fight back by hurling condemnation right back. Occasionally, we even engage in the same style of combat and use the Bible as an arsenal and get into a game of Scripture Wars. While it may be a knee jerk response and offer a fast relief from the anger, hurt and frustration their words or actions might have incited in us, I feel that in the long term it is ultimately unproductive, if not an exercise in futility. Anger just breeds more anger, and when either one is determined to have to last word at any cost, there can be no real victory for anyone involved and nothing good is accomplished as a result.
And sometimes, it isn't about sexual orientation at all where we have conflicts regarding religious and spiritual ideas with others. Some are merely concerned for what they believe are the souls of who they feel to be the "unsaved" and destined for an eternal hell as they have been instructed by their church. Others, at least to me, just seem determined that their self imposed elevated status above the unsaved gives them an unspoken right to bully others into believing as they do. Not too long ago, I had stopped on my way out of town at a 24 hour service station to get gas, an energy drink and a pack of cigarettes before I took on the long drive ahead and unexpectedly ran into someone who met at least one of the above two criteria.
I walked in, and the guy ahead of me (obviously in his early to mid twenties) was asked for proof of age when buying cigarettes. He showed it to the clerk, and said, "Wow, that's a first. They usually never ask me." (I noted that I was not asked, I would have been flattered). The guy at the counter responds, "Well, they are not me. I want to keep my job." The customer replies to him, "Yeah, I hear that. These days you definitely need to hold on to your job, I'm still looking for one." As I was being rung up, I chimed in with, "Yeah, it is a really tough market out there right now, but I think there's hope in the near future, just have to hang in there." The guy agreed and started a friendly conversation with me about the job market. We get about two sentences in and I am stating how I think it will improve, and the clerk responds with, "No, I don't and I'm glad. I want it to get worse. This means it is time for us to do things the right way, God's Way. He's coming back soon and you had better be ready." The other guy walked out and didn't say anything, but the clerk kept on at me.
I came very close to opening my mouth, and saying, "Well, I don't think God ever left and I think Jesus is very much still with us" but thought better of it. I paid for my gas, got my other purchases and prepared to leave and wished him a good evening. Then the preaching escalated.
I began to wonder his rationale for singling me and the other guy out and I had to assume it was because we bought cigarettes and he somehow saw that as a significant mark that we were either not Christians or inferior Christians. I wear a cross around my neck, but I don't think he saw it. I supposed he could have seen my Bi Pride bracelet, but I don't think his late night evangelism had anything to do with sexual orientation; I don't wear a shirt that says, "Hey, Guess What, I'm Bisexual" any more than I wear a shirt that says "Hey, Guess What, I'm A Christian." I didn't say any four letter words. Yet he was convinced I was not right with God and he kept on about Armageddon and how joyful he was that it was near and how he was glad there was no peace overseas, and these were the signs and so forth. I'm sure you know the routine.
I had one of those moments of temptation, when my base instincts want so badly to say something I know is not the appropriate thing to say, that will lead to no good, and not be productive. What I was honestly thinking of saying to him was, "I appreciate your concern, but I do not appreciate having your beliefs crammed down my throat when all I came to do was to get gas and a few things; however, since I too am a Christian, I forgive you and will not file a complaint about you to upper management for what I feel is a very inappropriate way to talk to a customer and very inconsiderate of their what their personal religious views might be." My mind deceived me into thinking that this seemed to be what he wanted, he was dying to be martyred and go back with stories online about being persecuted for being a Christian. Or in some misguided way, he could have felt his judgment of me was righteous and that he was doing a good deed. That, or he was looking to pick a theological fight-a pointless one I refused to have.
What came out of my mouth instead was, "Thanks, have a good night and God Bless," after which I left. It was a very interesting and enlightening experience, and one that I reflected on for some time. For the remainder of the three hour drive I had, the whole conversation played out in my mind a few times, and what I felt for this guy was not anger, not a need to be "right," but sympathy. I really felt bad that this kid was actually happy that things were bad, and seemed to revel in it. I was shocked that someone would imagine God as wanting things not to be peaceful, rather than encouraging us to promote peace; I have heard it before but it never gets easier to hear when I do again and this was the first time in a while. It just makes no sense: the desire to have God destroy the world in the interest of world peace? I just don't get it. I'm glad.
I could have responded in anger, and at one time in my life I would have. I could have shot back with Scriptures and angry words, but in my heart I knew that would not solve one thing. I said a prayer that he would find peace, and thanked God for being able to know when to let go and not engage, and for the positive outcome that occurred as a result. (And no, I never did report him either - although I cannot say that I always stop at that same place for gas late at night, even when it is a few cents cheaper; while I don't fear conflict, I don't want to seek it out.)
In cases where we are dealing with someone who is creating a conflict and or seemingly attempting to bring unrest to our sense of peace the anger is too great, I feel that if we cannot respond with peace and calm, it often really is best to walk away. Delete the flaming e-mails or ugly posts on My Space, or respond with a simple sentence like, "I know we love the same God, but I respectfully disagree with your thoughts, God Bless"; walk confidently past the protestors who seem to show up at every LGBT event with ugly words on signs and shouts and dodge the Chick Tracts and if you must say something in response, say "God Bless You"; refuse to engage in a flame war on BeliefNet. Let it go and let God. While you may know and feel in your heart that this person accosting you is misguided and responding to you in fear, to engage in the same behavior from a different perspective is not a productive message for God's LGBT Children to send those who do not understand.
As previously mentioned, I believe that when we respond to conflict with more conflict, react to those who are defensive with more defensiveness, and fight fire with fire, it has a similar effect to throwing gasoline on a flame. The more negative energy we put in, the more strength we give it. By choosing to respond in a peaceful manner, selecting communication over combat, the cycle of conflict can be broken.
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34)
Huh? Is this the same Jesus? Jesus goes on here to talk about family members against one another and so on, and this is an unsettling verse for many, as it was for me at one time. I unfortunately have witnessed people using this verse to justify war in the name of God, or on a lesser magnitude, using it to justify being combative to the point of being belligerent and ugly with those who do not share their beliefs. I'm sure you may be thinking, "How on earth is this a teaching about peace, when it seems the polar opposite, the antithesis of peace?" But don't let this one throw you as it did me at one time. I eventually came to realize there is a deeper meaning to this.
Jesus' teachings about God, about a new Way, were square in the face of the established norms in His time on Earth, and the socially accepted beliefs; it was only natural that He would warn people that adopting these new ways of thinking about God were going to create some unrest among those who were not only set in their ways but who were very legalistic and defensive about them. I believe that the sword He speaks of is not a literal one, but one designed to cut through all of the old and accepted legalistic thought about God which had permeated the culture of that time rather than an ethic of Love overriding legality. This was a recipe for conflict in His time.
What I feel He was illustrating with this teaching was not that He or God deliberately intended to create unrest, but that what He had to say and to gift us with would shake the very foundations of what had been previously established as accepted as what we know and believe and create conflict personally as well among one another, even among family members and loved ones. Ultimately, it would leave us with a far stronger faith and a deeper connection with God and one another in the aftermath of that deconstruction of old ideas, and the rebuilding of them on a new foundation; this remains true on both a personal and a community level still when it comes to matters of reevaluating and reexamining our faith. But that type of spiritual growth always presents and carries with it challenging times. It can result in inner conflict and conflict with others in the process as old ways of thinking crumble and are replaced with new and healthier ways of thinking.
Occasionally, in the aftermath of conflict, on a personal or a much larger level, there is healing followed by a marked sense of growth. This can happen on a global level in the aftermath of a war when new and better thoughts about peace and coexisting peacefully are adopted, or on a personal level when people can come to a new level of understanding and at least accepting, rather than merely tolerating one another. While breaking through old fears and reaching for new levels of understanding and communication can be accompanied by some conflict and discourse, there is always the potential for the end result to be a greater peace than had previously existed beforehand.
"Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?‘ Jesus replied, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times'." (Matthew 18-21)
Forgiveness is one of the most challenging issues many of us face, regardless of what our personal understanding of Christianity is, yet it is one of the key elements in Jesus' outline for living in peace. And it is crucial in shattering conflicts and striving for peace on all levels, from the smallest to the largest-beginning with inner peace, the seed of the ability to live in peace with others and at the core of our being able to promote a peaceful state of mind. Although Jesus speaks many times of forgiveness being key - and that we should strive to be forgiving no matter how difficult it seems or impossible it seems - it is the passage which comes after this often quoted one which I find most interesting and insightful on a spiritual level.
In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 23-35), which immediately follows what is perhaps the most quoted teaching about forgiveness Jesus made, Jesus tells the story of a man whose debt was forgiven by a king, who then did not show mercy or forgiveness to someone who asked forgiveness. The king responds to this act by throwing the unmerciful debtor into prison and having him tortured until he paid his debt. Jesus goes on to state that God would do the same to every one of us as the king did to the debtor who did not show mercy and display forgiveness, if we do not forgive our brother or sister from our hearts.
I honestly believe that God does not "do" this to us if we make a decision to not honestly forgive others; however, I do believe that Jesus is attempting to convey to us with this Parable that we do it to ourselves, or allow it to happen as a natural consequence of our actions when we shun or eschew the act of forgiveness in response to being or feeling wronged or hurt. The cost of not forgiving and holding on to the negative emotions associated with refusing to forgive is akin to remaining in a "prison" and allowing those feelings to torture us. In retaliating a wrong done to us with another wrong, all we are doing is continuing the chain of unloving, negative, or destructive behavior when in reality we have the power to stop it in its tracks and not allow it to continue; it can end with us at any time depending upon our reaction.
And in my opinion, far worse and equally as damaging than reluctance to forgive is the act of revenge. Fighting fire with fire is an exercise in futility and a schematic for more negativity. The Bible addresses it, telling us that "Vengeance belongs to the Lord"-and in a sense, I do feel this is the case, though not in the manner I feel that many would. My heart and mind cannot comprehend the concept of a God who would burn someone in fire eternally or torture them eternally, and I am grateful for that. Nor do I choose to believe in a God that engages in something so human and what seems to be a man-made addition to the Bible as the need to "get even" with someone.
However, I DO wholly believe in a God that set up a Universe where let injustices do not go un-addressed; while I feel God is merciful and unconditionally Loving, I also believe God is fair and just. I truly believe that unloving actions or hurtful actions committed to others does carry consequences as an integral part of the natural spiritual Laws God Created along with everything else. Whether you refer to it as Karma (I love the old Emmet Fox quote about Christ being the Lord of Karma), sowing and reaping, or even "What goes around, comes around": however you refer to it, too often I have witnessed the reality of peoples' "sin finding them out," so to speak, and the consequences that a life lived hurting others carelessly or deliberately carries with it. Yes, rain falls on the good and the bad, bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people - but I sincerely feel that wrongs do not go unseen, nor do I feel that fear ever wins out over love in the end.
But I don't think that is something that we as individuals should ever attempt to control or even consider in our thoughts as it is just more negative energy, more allowing ourselves to remain in despair than moving forward. I can honestly state that it took me a considerable amount of time and spiritual reflection and growth to get here, but I no longer feel the desire to be avenged, even if it is God avenging someone via Karma or whatever other means. I have no desire whatsoever to see anyone burn in hell, to "get theirs," or to suffer in this life, or the next, or the next (assuming there is some validity to the entire reincarnation theory). That very type of thinking epitomizes the source of much of the conflict at the root of most negative things, in my opinion. I elect instead to take an alternative more conducive to my own inner peace and that of others and to forgive them, and if there is any cost to be paid, I let it go and accept that it is in God's control and not mine. I really feel that those who hurt others have been hurt or are in pain themselves and I honestly pray for whatever negativity is creating their harmful behavior to be lifted. I don't need to or desire to know how, that is between them and God.
To me, letting vengeance belong to God does not mean that I fantasize about God having one finger on a "Smite" button for people who have hurt me. It means I am willing to let injustices go and leave them in God's control instead of attempting to play God and pass judgment. Sometimes that is difficult, and I am tempted to think otherwise. Sometimes it is painful, especially when I long for justice. But meting out justice is not my position; I can stand up for it, and I can call out for it, I can even be a "peaceful anarchist" about injustices and speak up against injustice in a respectful way. But in the end dealing with injustices is something that I feel is ultimately in God's control. It is not usually easy, but for those who have wronged me, or someone I love I try to imagine love breaking through the armor of fear that has caused them to commit atrocities to others, or to hurt others and that they will find peace and that their pain will cease, so they will cease giving it to others and break the chain of hurt then and there.
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (John 18:27)
I believe there is no greater sense of peace that anyone can feel Peace with God, and that is what I feel Jesus speaks of here. A peace that is not of the world, but from within, where Heaven is, and where God seeks to speak to all of us-in our minds and our very hearts and souls. And the ability to connect with knowing this peace truly can help our hearts not to be afraid. Once we accept and embrace this gift, know it is freely given to and fully accessible to us, we can then begin what I feel God calls on us to do and one of the main directives that God has enlisted us for, one that began with the teachings God gave us through Jesus; the intention for us to become vessels of peace to others, one person at a time.
I'm certain many are familiar with the old hymn often played at Christmas (it's one of my personal favorites and often played at Christmas Eve services at the church I attend) called "Let There Be Peace On Earth" which contains the refrain which has been
"Let there be peace on earth And let it begin with me"
Singing that likely instills a good, warm feeling within us before the reality of the statement fully permeates our minds and we come to an understanding of that statement, and to many, that may seem overwhelming to say the least. Peace on Earth is a monumental request - and one that no one of us as individuals could even ever begin to single-handedly take upon ourselves to attempt to accomplish. Although we may often fervently hope, pray and wish for peace, for our loved ones and for everyone, it is not expected of us to take on a task of that magnitude. And in my experience, that is not the way God operates. God has Gifted us to be peacemakers, and Jesus instructed us that we are called to fulfill that role, but I feel the method and means by which God calls us to realize that responsibility happens not on a large scale but rather one small step and one person at a time.
Peace truly does begin within, and I feel the most significant challenge many of us face as individuals is reaching a sense of peace within ourselves - by finding our peace with God - first. Finding peace with God results in us finding peace with ourselves, which in turn results in us being able to find peace with others-it is a chain reaction.
The primary key, at least in my opinion, is that we have to go through a three step process in order to attain the level of peace we ourselves must possess and maintain within ourselves in order to better serve as actors in the plan for God's Desire for Peace on Earth.
It is imperative that we find peace with God first and foremost, and with ourselves (which will follow naturally once we achieve peace with God) before we can truly become an instrument of peace to others. This process poses a challenging task for anyone, and it can particularly so for LGBT individuals, especially those of us who have had it drilled into our subconscious and psyche that we are anathema to God as we are by our very nature.
I know that for myself, I personally had no idea what true peace was until I knew the real Jesus and what His teachings meant on a deep level as opposed to being reduced to catch phrases and dogmatic rhetoric by those who subscribe to a very narrow, legalistic interpretation of Scriptures and Christianity and its meaning. Before I did, I too thrived on conflict; everything was a struggle, a battle, a "war" of some kind.
When I was mired in a legalistic belief system that told me I had to be ashamed or feel guilt regarding my orientation as a bisexual, my sexuality, and the fact that I feel the need for intimacy with both a woman and a man in my life and felt that there was no hope for any type of spiritual reconciliation of what my heart truly believed about God, or later that I had to choose between being gay or heterosexual, I was in a constant, ceaseless state of inner conflict and turmoil. Unfortunately, more often than not, just as we as individuals can radiate positive energy, I was giving off negative energy, which made me quick to anger, quick to judgment, and certainly not in any state conducive to promoting peace on any scale. I would often externalize inner conflicts or try to drown them in alcohol which led to worse consequences. I found myself tense the vast majority of the time, even when I convinced myself I was not. With faith I began the process, knowing that while it would present some unique challenges, the results would be worthwhile.
It took much introspection, prayer, reflection, study with an open heart and mind, and really trusting in and listening to the God of Unconditional Love my heart has always had faith existed to get to a place where I was at peace with myself. It took letting go of old and tired ideas that were no longer beneficial (and likely never were) and extremely detrimental to my spiritual health. It took being honest with myself about who I was, that I was Created as a bisexual and for me that meant that I felt the need for intimacy with both a female and male partner and not pretending that I could choose between one or the other when that is neither possible for or required of me. It meant being able to discern how to live the truth of how I was Created in a way that was hurtful to none and helpful to others when and wherever possible.
It took a lot of soul searching, prayer and faith to be confident in who God made me to be as opposed to who others told me I had to be. It meant undergoing the long, tedious process of being able to reconcile my spirituality and sexuality and understanding that there was nothing inherently wrong, unnatural or shameful about it and that there is no conflict between my life and my faith as a follower of the teachings of Christ; as I came to peace about my bisexuality, it further broke down any old either/or and "Us vs. Them" mentalities I may have once clung to, which was another blessing in the process. It meant being able to embrace the uniqueness I was made with and embrace that rather than allow others who may not understand allow me to feel apprehension about it, for knowing that God Loves me as I am, there is no reason to feel anything but joyful. It meant coming to a place of knowing that my relationships with both my female and male partner, however unorthodox they may seem to others, are honest, mutual and committed and that God has blessed us in finding one another. It meant knowing there was no longer anything for me to fear, for God accepted me if others did not always understand or do the same. And it meant understanding that God has a unique purpose for each and every one of us, and finding out how I could share the peace I had found through faith with others.
It was a long and difficult process of growth, I won't pretend it was an easy ride or that anyone else who has been through it has had it one iota easier. I fully comprehend that there are others who had a far more difficult road than I had to travel and that still journey. Once I reached a place where I was at peace with God as God Created me, and through understanding what God was truly like through knowing, reading and taking to heart the teachings of Jesus, at peace with the knowledge that there was no longer anything to fear, I found that although I still encountered conflict in my life from time to time, and periods where I feel peace and unrest, I feel better equipped to cope with and respond to them not with resistance and in a defensive fashion, but rather in a constructive and peaceful way.
I examined the anger I had held at other people, those who had made me feel hurt, and rather than approach them from a place of combativeness, I began to understand that it was not their nature to be predisposed to anger or seeking out conflict with others, but it was they who were not at peace with themselves, and in many cases, not with God, either. Some might profess that they were, but the idea of God they chose to worship and put faith in was one which in my mind seems toxic and only serves to contribute to an environment of or experience of unrest and the very antithesis of peace. It embodied some of the worst human emotions: fear, wrath, anger, jealousy, power, revenge, vindictiveness, arrogance and even greed in some cases, and perhaps that was the very source of their desire to revel in conflict, be it them with another on an individual level, or developing a theology which accommodates and encourages war as a viable means to get things done. Some seemed driven to go out of their way to incite conflict with others, and although in many cases their evangelizing in a defensive way was being "helpful" in their minds or showing concern for others, it seemed in many as if they were doing so because the conflict within them was spilling out and needed some sort of outlet, and if they felt it for a good cause, acting in a combative fashion could be justified.
I began to abandon thoughts of being angry at them and instead feeling love for them, those who persecuted me and my LGBT brothers and sisters, or anyone else who disagreed with their point of view, and I still feel that way. How can they truly know Jesus, and know peace when His very words and His name are being twisted and corrupted to justify all sorts of negative actions: making others to feel excluded, creating conflict, supporting war as a superior answer to seeking peace, even wishing to bring about mass destruction in hopes of an Armageddon and breaking God's rainbow of diversity down to a dichotomy of the damned and the saved? I pray all the time that all of those imprisoned by the idea of an angry God can come to understand a Loving God Who wants nothing more than for all of us - however different - to coexist peaceably, so that they may feel free. I feel that the real Jesus taught us that we should not divide but to unite for the common good, and learn to coexist in peace despite whatever differences we have in the wonderfully diverse rainbow of God's magnificent handiwork of Creation, and it is my prayer that others would come to feel the same sense of peace and hope that thought makes me feel in a world currently in a peace deficit.
Having come to know the real Jesus-Who taught a way of thinking about God based in Love rather than Law and Faith as opposed to fear, Who helped me to realize Heaven was in fact within and as close as our own heart, and placed charity, kindness and forgiveness above all things truly set me free and enabled me to find peace with God and myself as I am for the first time in my life. Feeling at peace with God and myself dissolved any need I felt to lash out at anyone, or perpetuate conflict, or to be "right" rather than just "different." Being able to let go of old ideas and feel truly free was like breaking the chains that I had allowed myself to be restrained and shackled by for so long instead of embracing the joy, blessings and Grace God wants us all to have, when we are following our hearts and living the authentic truth of who we are in a loving and caring way.
And in that process, I had an even greater epiphany and moment of clarity: through breaking those chains, it was further empowering me, as it can each and every one of us to enable others to do the same. And that serves to help us be in a state where we may be better served to be able to respond to conflict in a peaceful manner and work towards a solution rather than further contributing to the problem.
Those who hurt or desire a fight are more often than not in a place of pain themselves and to return hurt with more hurt just keeps the chain going. Responding with forgiveness can break the chain and sets us, and them free. Engaging in a fight or responding to aggression with more of the same only creates a bigger fight, and aside from urgent instances of self defense I feel it is crucial that we remain calm, keep the faith, and seek a better way; I have faith that will come. Love as a response to hostility contains the power to cause the hostility to be stopped dead in its tracks and evaporate. I have seen it happen.
Through truly coming to know Jesus, we are able to come to know peace with God and ourselves first and foremost. When we feel at peace with God and ourselves through the illuminating teachings of Jesus, no matter who we are, then the chains of fear that once may have restrained us are broken through and we are truly free.
There is no longer some imagined imperative for is to have an "other," an "enemy," for we are all children of the same Loving God. There is no need for vengeance or spite, for getting even, or conflict at the core of our very soul, and we are freed not only to let go of the idea of a God that demands sacrifice rather than mercy or acts as a mighty avenger when we feel as if we have been wronged by the actions of another, but we are more readily prepared to conquer our own temptations to fight fire with fire. We are instead compelled to respond with love rather than throwing back any negative emotions which might be being hurled at us like bombs. With that mindset, we can play our part in God's Vision of peace and begin the task, one person at a time. We can then enter into the process of passing on that sense of freedom and peace to others.
At least, that is how it has been for me and many others I have encountered who have come to know the real Jesus and as a result come to know peace within and in our lives. Each one of us cannot take on the arduous task of achieving world peace alone, and I have no question about my belief that we are not supposed to. But through taking to heart what Christ taught us about God and therefore finding peace with God and ourselves, and embodying the Spirit of His teachings and living them to the best of our abilities through practical application, it will bring us one step closer, one person at a time, to a state of peace on earth and the New Eden Christ envisioned and that I feel God wishes for all of us.
Certainly, on a global scale, there may be wars for many years; some say that war is a necessary evil, and on that point I will agree to disagree respectfully; I don't think it is necessary, and I wish it could be avoided at all costs, for the cost it carries is so tremendous. At the very least, I pray it would only be entered into as the last possible alternative if and when all others are exhausted and never without cause such as an urgent need for self defense, the protection of others, and never for personal gain or frivolous or unfounded reasons. It may take time to get to a point where the wars do all end and we all live in peace, but my prayer is that perhaps more people will come to see the futility of it. In my mind, God does not have sides, or take sides but is there for all parties concerned should they seek a peaceful resolution.
All that I feel we can or are called to do on an individual level is play whatever role we can on some level, some small part to promote a peaceful environment, by responding to conflict with love rather than more conflict, and allowing God's Love to flow through us when conflicts on whatever scale enter our lives and seek to open communications rather than go out with all guns blazing. We each are a part of God, and while one alone can only accomplish what purpose they were intended to, collectively, those gathered in the name of the Loving God can work miracles where they might have seemed both improbable and impossible, and we can move mountains if we put aside differences and learn to work together in harmony.
If we ask ourselves, when faced with conflict: "Are my responses to this promoting peace, or creating more discord? Are my actions helping the cause of peace, or merely creating and exacerbating an elevated sense of conflict? Are my thoughts, actions and feeling contributing to peace, or detrimental to its establishment?" Then I feel we are on the path to furthering a mission of peace on earth, one person at a time. It is a long and challenging road, and not an easy one to travel all of the time. But as with all challenges, God is with us, and knowing about God through embracing what Jesus taught is the first step down that road, and one step closer to reaching a place of peace for all.
So no matter where this finds you-if you find yourself in a state of concern over the lack of peace in the world today, fear not. Sure it may seem impossible, but God has a way of making what we might deem impossible real, and although it may be distant I do feel a greater sense of peace is in reach, and it has to begin with each and every one of us.
Whatever chains that bind you which are holding you back from feeling peace on a personal level can be broken. Surrender your fears to a God Who will fully embrace and help you know peace and unconditional Love. If you find yourself in a state of conflict with God, and fear that God does not love or accept you just as you are, take some time to let go of old fears, read the Gospels and get to know the real Jesus. You will find that His yoke is easy and that you can be unashamedly LGBT, whoever you are and still be a Christian, a follower of Christ, even if your understanding of what that means might differ from what you might have been told. In God's world, one size does not have to fit all. If you are in conflict with yourself, know that God will be there and help you through it if you open your heart and just ask, seek and knock; perhaps there are angels in human form in your life already who God has already put there to be there for you. And, if you are in conflict with others, know that God can guide you to respond with confidence and kindness and guide you to a peaceful resolution rather than a negative one.
Peace is a gift God gave us through the teachings of Christ, and it is a blessing there for each and every one of us - and peace can and must begin with us. The key is to open our hearts, and get to know the real Jesus. Then we will know peace with God and with ourselves, and we will not only receive that gift, but find ourselves empowered to pass that gift on freely, one person at a time.
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