Being a peacemaker in tumultuous times isn’t easy. Most people like to think that they are on the side of civility and decency, and yet the disagreements we have with one another often turn out to be more substantive than we’d like to admit. Sure, people can be petty, but if pettiness were all that divided us, “common sense” would prevail more than it does. That efforts at peace tend to involve an ecumenical search for common ground illustrates the problem, because such ecumenism tends not to be terribly compatible with ideological purity, which can make self-appointed peacemakers look suspect to people who understand themselves as true believers, which can in turn provoke resentment and defensiveness from the erstwhile peacemakers. And so the merry-go-round keeps spinning: it’s easy to pray, with the Psalmist, that God will “destroy those who speak lies,” believing of course that the scripture refers to someone other than ourselves.
Richard Baxter practically embodied these contradictions. In the contentious religious environment of late 17th-century England, Baxter preferred the title “mere catholic Christian” to the usual partisan labels. (Yes, Baxter is where C. S. Lewis got the phrase.) By “catholic” Baxter did not mean Roman Catholic—he was deeply paranoid about Jesuit conspiracies to reclaim England for Rome—but (ironically, for all that) “general” or “of the whole.” He thought that a return to the basics of Christianity could provide a foundation for broad unity in the church.
The problem is that deciding which principles are the basics turns out to be a fundamentally political act, almost automatically divisive. An opponent of Baxter’s noted the contradiction, observing that even though his books were all peace and unity on the title pages, the remaining pages were often stuffed with vitriol and contention. Indeed, after the Nonconformists were ejected from the Church of England in 1662, Baxter allowed his personal animus for John Owen to thwart every major opportunity in his remaining decades for Presbyterians and Congregationalists to make common cause.
Still, Baxter’s ideals remain laudable, especially in a time when our own Church community is experiencing the pain of division and disagreement. Peace and unity are indeed important principles of the Gospel. Paul calls us to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,” so ought we to be one. Ezekiel’s vision of the two sticks hopes for the day when the bitter rift between Israel and Judah might be healed. Jesus, upon appearing to the Nephites, condemned contention, proclaiming as its antidote the basic doctrines of faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost. In the Doctrine and Covenants were are commanded to esteem our brothers and sisters as ourselves and told, “if ye are not one, ye are not mine.” Baxter was right to preach peace as a core Christian hope.
And, notwithstanding his faults, Baxter can teach us much about how to achieve peace. Above anything else, Baxter was a pastor. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said to Peter three times. Perhaps this counsel points the way toward unity: when nourishing other people becomes more important to us than being right, perhaps the differences that separate us will become less important. Of course nobody can quite manage to do this perfectly, which is why we still await Jesus, but what better way to become like the Good Shepherd than to act as shepherds ourselves? The people who are Jesus’ sheep will listen to what we say only when they can recognize his voice in ours, and his voice is still and small. May we learn to speak with Jesus’ gentle tongue, united in hope for the peace that only the Spirit can bring.
Richard Baxter, Dissenting Minister, 1691
The Collect: O Father of peace, who sent your Son Jesus Christ to help us your wandering children see our home in the sheepfold of your heart: grant that we, through the gentle calling of the Holy Spirit, might learn to hear and heed your voice; teach our tongues to speak with the quiet fire of love; and open our eyes to behold your image in our fellow humans; until we at last, in the gracious coming of Jesus, become one people as you are one God. Amen.
Here is Arvo Pärt’s musical prayer for peace, “Da Pacem Domine”:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jrEfXlAnVg]
Da pacem, Domine, in diebus nostris
Quia non est alius
Qui pugnet pro nobis
Nisi tu Deus noster.
Give us peace, Lord, in our days,
Because there is no other
Who fights for us
If not you, our God.