It was a superb presentation of astute Biblical exegesis, blended with articulate psychology, leading to inspiring and challenging discipleship in peacemaking…

Don’t miss out on Roddie Cowie’s lecture on “The Psychology of Peace in the Sermon on the Mount,” from Sunday’s 4 Corners event at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church.

Download or stream his presentation, or read the script below –

“When I looked at the 4 Corners website, I found a very daunting looking title, then I realised that it was mine. In truth, the title is accurate enough, but all the same, the talk is about a very simple idea. I think there is a need for a Christian theory of peacemaking. I want to ask your help to develop one.

The phrase ‘Christian theory’ has two words, and both matter. When I say theory, bear in mind that Universities have been my natural habitat for 45 years. What I mean is a set of ideas that live up to the standards that you expect in a University. They should have a coherent structure, and they should be compatible with the knowledge that we have. When I say Christian, I mean first and foremost properly grounded in the insights of the Bible. I think it is extremely important that those two go together. There is a line that rings in my ears, from Augustine, writing about scientists who are expert in their fields, but not Christian. He says:

It is shameful and damaging and greatly to be avoided that such a one should hear a Christian talk utter nonsense about their fields, claiming to speak in accordance with Christian writings.

I would be happy if people remembered me as someone who took that to heart. I think Christian intellectuals have a duty to work out how specifically Christian ideas integrate with the knowledge that we continue to accumulate by the exercise of the powers that God has given us.

That is by way of general background. Now let me go to peacemaking. I will start with my route into the area, and then come to the Bible.

My home discipline is psychology. I started doing research on it in 1972, and I still do. My focus for the last few decades has been emotion. The tradition I come from is probably not the one people know best. It starts from the assumption that most of what people think and do can be understood pretty clearly if you understand the job it is set up to do. The problems come if you don’t understand the job, and particularly if you don’t understand how complicated it is. I was asked to apply that kind of thinking to a project called compromise after conflict. I hope that the reason is fairly obvious. Emotions have a huge part to play in achieving the kind of compromise that leads to peace.

When I looked at the literature as a psychologist, a few things jumped out at me. The first is that compromise has to reckon with emotion as well as reason. It is one thing to say that a deal is in everyone’s interest, but if it makes people feel betrayed or humiliated, it probably won’t hold. The second is that the emotions involved are not just glows or chills. They have intimate links to your judgments about right and wrong. Judgments about right and wrong that are grounded in strong emotions are incredibly difficult to shift. Last but not least, the emotional climate that you are working in affects people’s ability to find solutions to the problems that create conflict.

When you talk about emotional climate, there is one feature that seems to loom very large in ours. It is a pervasive sense of threat. A lot of background tells us what effects that is likely to have, and we would expect them to obstruct the road to peace in a multitude of different ways.

To start with, if people see the world as a place full of threats, they may respond with anger at one extreme, or hopelessness at the other. We see plenty of those, one in public, the other in private. In between those extremes are fear and stress. We see plenty of those too.

What all those emotions do is set you up to deal with the threat, and push everything else aside. It starts from the very beginning – the way you see things locks onto what you see as threatening, and doesn’t register other things that are going on. Beyond that, fear drives you to avoid the thing that you’re afraid of, and so you never learn that it isn’t as threatening as you thought. Beyond that again, memory directs your attention towards things that were frightening in the past, and away from things that weren’t.

It goes on and on. You don’t take in the full meaning of what other people say to you. Your thinking becomes inflexible. You refuse to consider options unless they are totally clearcut, and you misjudge risks – you overestimate them if you’re afraid, and underestimate them if you’re angry. All of that is based on solid evidence, and there is much more – but I need to move on.

I thought about all that as a psychologist, and tried to apply it to our situation here in NI. You can see the gist of it in posts that I put on a blog organised by compromise after conflict. But when I talked to friends, they would not leave it there. They asked, and kept on asking: how does this link to Christian teaching? I gave them easy answers at first, but they would not let go – and eventually, I realised that they were right. And so I started into the territory that I want to talk about now.

Let me begin with the easy answers. The sermon on the mount tells us that “blessed are the peacemakers”. Therefore, obviously, if we can make peace, we should. Along with that, the commandment that occurs most often in the Bible is “don’t be afraid”. Therefore, obviously, if we can combat fear, we should. Those had been in my mind from the beginning. What my friends made me realise was that they were just a beginning. So let me try to take you deeper.

I will start by looking a bit more closely at “blessed are the peacemakers”. It is natural to think the point is that peacemaking is a worthy thing to do, and it is well rewarded. But on reflection, I don’t think that captures it at all. If we just look within the beatitudes, there are three things to notice. The first is where this comes in the beatitudes. It’s almost at the end – a kind of climax. Second, that’s underlined by the blessing that peacemakers receive – their place in the Kingdom is as members of the Royal family, which is a towering honour. Third, the relationship is to be huioi – not just children of the household (that would be tekna), but the sons whose nature is a true reflection of the father’s.

It is a short step from there to remember that the Bible does, over and over, portray it as God’s nature to bring peace. One of my favourites among the psalms, psalm 29, describes God in the fury of the storm, but it ends: The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. Isaiah over and over puts peace at the centre of God’s will for creation: they will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain. Paul at his most poetic writes to the Philippians “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And of course, peace is at the centre of Isaiah’s promise of the Messiah who will reflect God fully: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Looking at all that, and much more, I don’t think the point in the beatitudes is that God rewards peacemaking. I think it is that to be a bringer of peace – true peace – is to have characteristics that reflect God’s. That is why peacemakers are huioi – children who reflect the father’s nature. That points us straight to a new level. What are the characteristics that enable people to bring peace?

When I ask that question, I find myself looking through the lens of what I know as a psychologist. And I come up short. I’m sure you all know that the Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount. With that in mind, I read on through the sermon, and lo and behold: I realised that I was being pointed over and over to the kind of person who might have the power to bring peace. It is if Jesus told us in a phrase at the beginning of the sermon what the children of God will be like: they will be people who are by nature bringers of peace. Then through the sermon he expands, and lets us see them characteristic by characteristic. So let me follow through on that idea.

Let me begin this stage with something that I’ve raised already. I talked about the way threat – and the emotions that it generates – set obstacles to peace. I also mentioned that the commandment that occurs most often in the Bible is “don’t be afraid”. You may have read that it occurs 365 times, but that is a myth. In reality there are about 80 clear cases and 30 close approximations. But the exact number is a side issue. What matters is that those whose nature is a true reflection of the father’s will also say, don’t be afraid. And the psychology makes it very clear that if we deal with fear, we ease away a major tangle of obstacles to finding peace.

Now let me reconnect, as I promised, with the Sermon on the Mount. When you look with these ideas in mind, you find that the theme of fear and counteracting fear plays a huge part in it. It comes to prominence in the last two thirds, that is chapters six and seven. About half of the material in those chapters deals with fear and anxiety, and what causes them, and what banishes them. It pivots on the end of chapter 6: Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Before that, in chapter 6, we have: lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal. Then come the lilies of the field: if God so clothe the grass of the field, shall he not all the more clothe you, o ye of little faith?  After the pivot, we have Ask, and it shall be given to you: seek, and ye shall find; and we have the man who built his house on rock, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell not.

I hope I don’t need to elaborate. Jesus is spelling out one way after another to deal with fear. You don’t need to fear, because you can lay up treasure in heaven. You don’t need to fear, because the world isgenerous, and the things you need will come to you. You don’t need to fear, because your prayers will be answered. You don’t need to fear, because when trouble comes, what matters to you will stand firm. People who have understood those messages are in a position to be peacemakers, because they are not troubled in themselves, and their assurance flows into the people they meet. Nothing calms fear so much as seeing that the person next you is not afraid. And of course, it is even more powerful if you can share the understanding that lies behind your assurance.

There is another point that I will make briefly at this stage, because it links to fear. I had the pleasure of meeting George Mitchell at a dinner once. He is surely a man worth looking at if we want to understand peacemaking. What sticks most clearly in my mind is that even at dinner, he said nothing unnecessary or unconsidered. I was left in no absolutely no doubt that what he said was what he meant. It suddenly seemed obvious why he was an outstanding negotiator. You had the sense that what he said was to be trusted. It was neither frippery nor slippery – and you need not fear that you would be misled, either by design or by accident. And so I find it no surprise that in the sermon on the mount, there is a verse that always makes me think of Mitchell: Let your communication be yea, yea; or nay, nay. We know from elsewhere that the elaborations Jesus rejects are full of tricks. It you want to be a peacemaker, keep away from them: be like George Mitchell.

Now let me move to the next level. The first time I talked about this area as a psychologist, one of the points that I tried to highlight was that emotions morph into moral judgements. You see something, and it shakes you. It is a very short step from there to the judgment that it was wrong. Once you’ve made that step, your room for manoeuvre vanishes. It is not just hard to tolerate – you mustn’t tolerate it. And in the blink of an eye, your space for peacemaking has shrunk. Yet again, when I looked through that lens, I found the theme was waiting for me in the sermon on the mount. Like fear, it is a theme that comes back at various points, and gives us a subtle picture.

At the centre of the theme is a principle that seems to me psychologically very striking: don’t base your actions towards other people on moral judgments. The most famous statement of the principle is “Judge not that ye be not judged” (7:1). That has various levels of meaning, but for a peacemaker, there is a very simple one. Once you move into the domain of moral judgments, you can be fairly sure that your adversary will be able to find a moral counter-argument. And once you have made a moral argument, is very hard to back off it, because nobody wants to make an agreement that violates what they themselves have said are moral principles.

There is a complicated secular literature behind those points. Part of it is to do with the fact that long efforts to track down an agreed basis for human moral judgments have failed. Principles that seem completely obvious to one person seem like nonsense to another. That means that if a judgment is contentious, it is almost always possible to find some sets of principles that imply it is right, and some that imply it is wrong. That links to the way people move from the judgement that they don’t like something to the judgment that it’s wrong. A very plausible tradition says that they look for principles that line up behind their likes and dislikes. The result is that when people have different gut reactions to something that matters to them, it is very likely that the gut reactions will have pushed them to strengthen different moral principles. And once people are pushed into positions where they are arguing from different moral principles, finding a resolution becomes monstrously difficult. Another body of literature tells us that the minute people state a position explicitly, the chances that they will change it plummet. So absolutely, for a peacemaker, there are abundant reasons to remember judge not that ye be not judged.

There is a lot more to say on this, but I’ll make two points and move on. The first is that it isn’t just moral judgements that are a problem. Jesus says: “Whosoever shall say ‘thou fool’ shall be in danger of gehenna” (5.22). That also links quite tightly to the argument that I’ve just given. Particularly when there are moral issues at stake, it is deadly if you think that the only reason why someone might disagree with you is that they’re stupid. The word in Matthew is moré, which means a dull lump. If you want peace, don’t go there.

To close this part, there is a shift of level that it’s important to see. I have said that there are negative consequences if you let judgment govern your actions. But that doesn’t mean your motive should be trying to avoid bad consequences – that would be another way of letting fear dictate your choices. So it is no surprise to see that Jesus gave another motive. He tells his listeners, that’s not the way God does it: “Your father makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” (4:45) That gives you a very different motive: be like God: be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. And of course, that links back too. I have said over and over that to be a bringer of peace – true peace – is to have characteristics that reflect God’s. So if you want peace, be like God, and don’t base your actions towards people on moral judgments.

The next step in the argument follows on naturally. If you don’t base your actions towards other people on moral judgments, what do you base them on? And I think there are two parts to the answer.

The first part is to think symmetrically: see that what goes for you goes for the other party. Jesus is very good with arguments involving symmetry, and two of the most famous come in the sermon on the mount.  One is, take the plank out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brother’s. The other is “Do unto others as you would that others do unto you”(7:12).

Of course, symmetry as a principle for peace is one that we know very well. For every benefit that one side gets, the other side must have an equal benefit; for every pain that one side suffers, the other side must have an equal pain; and on, and on. It has been the founding principle of our peace since the Good Friday agreement fifteen years ago. Looking around, there is no shortage of unease that somehow, peace by symmetry has not worked out. As usual, I don’t think that should be too much of a surprise.

I’ve said that Jesus is very good with arguments involving symmetry, but that includes seeing very clearly where they go wrong. Think of the vineyard where the workers are hired at different times, and get the same generous pay at the end of the day. The desire for symmetry becomes poisonous: the ones who were hired first are soured because it isn’t equal pay per hour. Think of the Prodigal Son. Again, the desire for symmetry becomes poisonous: the elder son is soured because of an unequal celebration. Jesus knows very well that simple symmetry can bring division every bit as much as peace. Well, what would you expect from symmetry?

What Jesus points to in the sermon on the mount is more than simple symmetry. He asks people to offer their part of a good symmetry. You know how you would *like* people to behave to you? Then act that way, and trust that by symmetry, they will be drawn into acting that way too. You want your brother to see clearly? Then do what is needed to correct your own sight, and trust that by symmetry, he will be drawn to let his sight be dealt with. In that way, there is a chance of using symmetry as a tool for peace, instead of becoming a source of poison.

If symmetry is one principle that Jesus takes and turns in a distinctive way, much the same can be said of another. It is empathy. Empathy is emotional identification with a person – not just knowing intellectually that they are like you, but feeling their happiness as your happiness, their pain as your pain. That brings me to the second part of the answer to the question I asked earlier: if you don’t base your actions towards other people on moral judgments, what do you base them on?

Empathy has emerged as a major theme over the last few decades, not just in one discipline, but in several. The historian Jonathan Glover argued that failure of empathy was what allowed the atrocities of the twentieth century. On the other side, it has become clear that empathy is the key to altruism – that is, doing things because they benefit other people, not for your own good. Recently, Simon Baron-Cohen has argued that the hallmark of people we call evil is zero empathy. I could go on, you get the point. There is every reason to think that the ability to empathise is critical to peacemaking.

Quite characteristically, Jesus sees the point, and takes it a step further. He tells us not just to feel our enemies’ happiness as our own, and their pain as our own, but to love them. (5:44). I know that when I put it that way, I am raising issues. Some of the things that we call love don’t involve empathy. But the word Jesus uses here is agape, and that carries with it a sense of sharing and positive evaluation. It is not mindless passion – it blends judgment and warmth and interaction. It means, see your enemy as someone you would be glad to welcome as a dinner guest – one of your own.

Remember that I am a psychologist who works on emotion. It seems to me that that is a very acute judgment. Making peace is not just about an intellectual sense of symmetry with the person on the other side, or even with the emotional symmetry of empathy. It is about engaging with the person on the other side as someone you would welcome as your guest – one of your own.

There still themes that I would like to follow up, but time is finite. But there is one theme that I have to touch before I try to pull things together. It goes back close to the beginning of the sermon on the mount. Jesus says there: You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. (5:14). I don’t pretend it’s obvious what he means, but I know what I think. I think it means that we can’t hide. If we are like our father who is perfect, then we will be seen, and we will be drawn into the work of making peace. It is not a choice. It is God’s nature to make peace, and if we share his nature, then will be drawn into the work of making peace.

Now let me come back to the place I started. I said I thought there was a need for a Christian theory of peacemaking, and that I wanted your help to develop one. So let me sketch what the position looks like.

I’ve said that I see it, for a Christian, being a peacemaker is not a worthy action: it is a consequence of reflecting the father’s nature. To be that kind of person is to have overcome the sense of threat, which is a fundamental enemy to peace, and to be able to help others to move past it. It is to speak plainly and clearly so that you can be trusted. It is to understand how dangerous it is to judge people you disagree with, morally or intellectually. It is to be capable thinking symmetrically, so that you always see that what goes for you goes similarly for the other party. But beyond that, it is to see that not all symmetry will work for peace. The symmetry that works for peace is to act your part in the balance that you know should exist, and trust that others will be drawn into acting that way too. Beyond that, making peace depends not only on symmetry grasped as an intellectual principle, but also on emotion. At the first level, that means empathy – feeling our enemies’ happiness as our own, and their pain as our own. But in Christian peacemaking, it means more: it means seeing your enemy as someone whose virtues are dear to you, and who you would be glad to welcome as a dinner guest. Last but not least, these things are not choices. If you reflect the father’s nature, then you reflect it openly.

I said, if you remember, that I thought there was a need for a Christian theory of peacemaking, and that I wanted your help to develop one. I think that what I have said is the beginning of a theory. It is something that we can say without embarrassment to the community at large: look, this is what we can offer to the long project of bringing peace – not just to Northern Ireland, but to humanity. It is not fanciful. It fits with what we know from many sources. However, it is very much a start.

The theme that I have left out of the sermon on the mount is merciless self-criticism. I have no doubt at all that that is also central to peacemaking. And so I end with Jesus at his least conciliatory: if your right eye offends you, pluck it out. Our theories are the intellectual eyes through which we see the world. And if our theories are flawed, then we should set about them with a will.

I absolutely think that should apply to what I’ve said here. Developing a theory of peace that is both Christian and credible is much too important to leave any room for complacency. That is why I was dead serious when I said I wanted your help to develop one. Please take what I’ve said, and pull it to bits, and see what’s wrong, and what’s missing. But don’t stop there. Put it together again, and make it work. Because if nothing else, I am very sure of this. Jesus was absolutely serious when he said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. If we care about his blessing, we have to care about peace.”

Roddie Cowie
4 Corners Festival, 2014