“Christ is our peace,” says St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians (2:14), but peace eludes us. Our quest to uproot injustice inevitably reveals more deep-seated injustices even while new ones continue to crop up. The problem is sin. Christians strive to reduce suffering in the world, but we know that true and lasting peace will come only when Jesus reigns in the hearts of each woman and man.
The Church teaches that the power of the state is rightly used to advance the cause of justice and the common good (Centesimus Annus 11). However, no system of laws is perfect. No political party or politician will ever have the lasting solutions needed to create peace once and for all. “Put not your trust in princes,” says the Psalmist (Ps 146:3). Rather, as Francis writes, “Peace is possible because the Lord has overcome the world and its constant conflict ‘by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Col 1:20)” (Evangelii Gaudium 229). Peace begins and ends with Christ, and we merely strive to create a better world—not a perfect world—while it is in our care, for “there is no end to the building of a country’s social peace” (Fratelli Tutti 232).
Christians must hold these truths in tension. One the one hand, injustices must be uprooted now. Violence, extreme inequality, and racism have no place in society. On the other hand, it is not possible for us to eradicate these evils once and for all. Progressively stronger laws and regulations risk over-restricting liberty, even while evil continues to manifest itself in unforeseen ways. As Pope Francis makes clear in Fratelli Tutti, to truly keep social sins at bay, we require a long-term project of culture building, enriched by care and concern for the other.
Recent events in the United States provide some helpful context for understanding the pope’s vision more fully. For example, after years of lies, deceptions, fraud, and injustice—all culminating in the attack on our nation’s Capitol—there is now an impulse to hold accountable all those who enabled or amplified a destructive populism in our society. Many want to punish those who were so blind to the evils they committed or negligent with the power and influence they wielded.
Realistically, we have to acknowledge that the pain and disappointment felt by so many will not simply subside with the election of a new president or congress. Moreover, the resentment and anger unleashed by populist politicians is not so easily mollified. So how can we lower the temperature? Francis recognizes that regardless of our political views or our opinions on what must be done next, we need to be true agents of peace in society. This means creating “processes of encounter, processes that build a people that can accept differences” (FT 217).
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis defines four principles of peace-building, and one speaks directly to our need to be “artisans” of peace. This principle is, “unity prevails over conflict” (EG 226-230). In articulating this principle, Francis calls us to break the cycles of revenge by favoring dialogue and encounter. According to Francis, the path of peace involves accountability but it cannot stop there. Moreover, attempts at accountability, performed in anger or in a spirit of revenge, must not be allowed to undermine longer-term peace building efforts (see FT 251).
“Artisan” is an apt term because it captures the creativity, patience, and imagination needed to build up the conditions for peace. There are no quick, prepackaged solutions that will work in every situation. Recalling another of Francis’s evangelical principles, “time is greater than space,” we trust that, in living with charity in our daily lives, God will bring peace to our world according to his plan of salvation.
There are some guiding principles that can help our discernment. Peace starts as the gift of Christ nurtured by prayer in the heart of each woman and man. Even our well-intentioned pursuit of justice must not be allowed to displace Christ’s peace or blind us to the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The risk, as Francis observes, is that resentment toward our neighbor can quickly consume us. A “little flame” can give rise to a “great blaze” and set back the cause of peace (FT 243).
What is often lost when tensions are high is awareness of the dignity of the human person. The “other” loses definition amid a swirling storm of ideology, hatred, and desire for revenge. We no longer see the diversity of human faces, but rather a formless sea of evil, against which we must build walls. We assume the worst in each other, and we no longer distinguish between their human dignity and their beliefs and ideologies. All of this makes the encounters that help us accept differences while moving forward towards a better and more just world impossible.
The solution, according to Pope Francis, is prayer. Prayer impels us to build a “culture of encounter” (FT 30). Where digital and social media often amplify the worst voices, misconstrue facts, and fail to provide context, prayer allows the Christian to remain convicted in the concrete dignity of the other, which often remains to be rediscovered and reaffirmed. Where members of a mob get lost in the heat of the moment, prayer helps the Christian remain grounded in the good, never losing sight of the Gospel and its demands of truth and charity. Pope Francis writes that we must “place at the centre of all political, social and economic activity the human person, who enjoys the highest dignity, and respect for the common good.” This requires we set aside “the temptation for revenge and the satisfaction of short term partisan interests” (FT 232).
The objection is often raised that peace only favors those in power, and American history includes many examples of people endlessly repeating the refrain of “law and order” in order to drown out the cry of the oppressed and disenfranchised. To this point, Francis would likely respond, “The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised” (EG 218). At the same time, our desire for accountability and justice cannot mean resorting to vengeful violence. Pope Francis recently reminded those of us in the United States that “violence is always self-destructive.” He continues in Fratelli Tutti:
Justice is properly sought solely out of love of justice itself, out of respect for the victims, as a means of preventing new crimes and protecting the common good, not as an alleged outlet for personal anger. Forgiveness is precisely what enables us to pursue justice without falling into a spiral of revenge or the injustice of forgetting. (FT 252)
The only path to ending the cycles of revenge that take their toll on society—”violence leads to more violence, hatred to more hatred, death to more death” (FT 227)—is forgiveness. Francis is clear: forgiveness absolutely does not mean forgetting or denying differences, but it does acknowledge a path for redemption as well as the possibility for a new consensus that rises above our conflicts. This all can seem “naïve and utopian” as Francis puts it, “yet we cannot renounce this lofty aim” (FT 190).
We often hear the lament that there are not enough Christians who put their faith before politics, who are concerned with the spiritual as well as the temporal. This is especially true today. We need Christians to put their faith first. To put faith first today means to be a tireless advocate for justice by allowing God to speak peace to our hearts first, and then bringing that peace to bear in our encounters with one another. At a minimum, dialogue with those we disagree with requires resisting the urge to lash out with violence or vicious rhetoric. We can do even more by creating the spaces where these conversations can happen, in our families, schools, and broader communities. This is how we witness to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ in these very difficult, contentious times. This is how we promote the path of peace.