This week Fr Martin Magill’s ecumenical tithing brought him to a Sunday evening event in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. Advertised as one of the events of the 4 Corners Festival, it was a service in which churches in South Belfast marked the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Prof Roddy Cowie of Queen’s University was the guest speaker, and offered a compelling address on ‘The Psychology of Peace in the Sermon on the Mount.’
Fitzroy’s Rev Steve Stockman located the event firmly within the Festival’s aim of promoting societal peace, and directed listeners to his own and my blog posts about an earlier Festival event, ‘Our Stories at Stormont.’
You can listen to Prof Cowie’s full address here:
Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing: The Psychology of Peace in the Sermon on the Mount
Rev Steve Stockman welcomed everyone to the event, explaining how the festival organisers wanted it to be a creative contributor to societal peace. He also shared a quotation on the value of commitment and talked about the power of friendship including our friendship.
After I had read the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel, Steve and I read the “four corners prayer for Belfast”. Prof Roddy Cowie was then introduced by Steve.
Roddy began by talking about the need for a Christian theory of peace making. He invited us to share with him in this task. By Christian he meant it was grounded in the Bible.
He explained some of his thinking about emotions and how this could be applied to the task of peace making. He suggested we need to be aware of the various emotions of those involved in the work of “compromise”. He explained how emotions form a huge part in the understanding of right and wrong and how the “emotional climate” we work in affects how people find compromise.
He pointed out how one of the key issues we had to be aware of was threat. If people see the world as a place of threats, then they were likely to experience anger and also hopelessness. These emotions help deal with threat by a focus on the immediate, but as a consequence the way we see things blocks out other things – this is referred to as “weapon focus”.
We heard about how fear drives us to avoid what we find fearful. Memory directs attention to things which were frightening in the past; and in emotional states, when human beings are afraid, they misjudge the situations in which they find themselves.
He then moved on to look at out situation here in Northern Ireland and how this links to Christian teaching – the Sermon on the Mount – and the particular teaching of “blessed are the peace makers”. He reminded of us another “commandment” in the Bible: “do not be afraid”, and the need to combat fear.
He then turned his attention to look at the Beatitudes and pointed out the teaching on peace making comes almost at the end. He focussed in on the blessing which peace makers receive – they would be children of God, sharing in the true nature of the father.
He went on to say how the Bible portrays God as making peace. He referred to Ps 29 – “The Lord blesses his people with peace” and gave other scriptural references including from the prophet Isaiah. He said that to be a bringer of peace reflects the character of the God and then he asked the question:
“what are the charactersistics that enable people to bring peace?”
Roddy suggested that in the Sermon on the Mount we are pointed to the character of the person who brings peace, characteristic by characteristic. He reminded us of how threats set obstacles to peace and how those whose nature is a true reflection of God the Father will also say “don’t be afraid”.
He went on to say how the theme of fear and counteracting fear is also very important in the Sermon on the Mount. He referred to different parts of it, including chapter 6 and the instruction “do not store treasures on earth but in heaven”…ask and it will be given to you”.
He told us how nothing calms a person as much as seeing the person beside him or her is not afraid. He shared his experience of meeting George Mitchell and how the meeting left him feeling that what he said was to be trusted. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus had said “let your yes be yes and your no, no”. Prof Cowie said that:
“if you want to be a peace maker, keep it away from tricks, in short: no dishonesty.”
He explained how emotions morph into moral judgements – we see something and we judge. He went back to the Sermon again and the principle of do not judge. He commented on the danger of basing our action towards other people on moral judgements. Once we move into moral judgements we then get stuck on moral arguments. He explained that principles that seem obvious to us may seem nonsense to others, i.e if we don’t like something then it is easy to move to the position “it is wrong”. He suggested once we start arguing from moral principles, then it is very difficult to move, especially if those principles were stated publicly.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught against calling one another fool and the danger of seeing the other as a fool. Roddy suggested “crediting your opponent with intelligence or you are lost”.
Jesus gave another motive – be like God. The sun rising on the bad and good should be taken to mean “do not discriminate”. Prof Cowie suggested these were characteristics to reflect God. He asked:
“If you don’t base your approach on moral judgements then on what?”
Roddy then went on to talk about how Jesus was good on symmetry in his teaching. “take the plank out of your own eye before removing the speck from your brother or sister’s … and do unto others as you would have done on to you”. He advised that whilst symmetry was very useful for both sides, peace by symmetry has not worked for us.
He pointed out how symmetry was limited and gave some examples from the parables of Jesus, including the vineyard and the workers, and also the prodigal son.
In short, simple symmetry does not work for peace making.
He suggested that Jesus pointed to more. If we want our brother or sister to see more clearly, then we need to focus also on our own lack of sight in the hope of bringing our brother or sister into clear sight.
He then talked about empathy – emotional identification with a person – and asked, “what do we base arguments on?”. Prof Cowie suggested the failure of empathy allowed atrocities in history, whereas empathy was key to altruism.
The ability to empathise is central to peace making – Jesus saw this but took it further in his teaching “love your enemies”.
The word “agape” used for love includes the meaning of sharing and well wishing, of seeing the enemy as someone to be welcomed as a dinner guest. It was about engaging with someone to be welcomed.
He then talked about the teaching of Jesus: “You are the light of the world” in other words the followers of Jesus cannot hide. We will be seen and we will be drawn into the work of making peace – if we share his nature.
Prof Cowie then summarised what he was saying on the need for a Christian theory of peace making.
He suggested that as a consequence of reflecting the Father’s nature, having overcome the sense of threat, speaking plainly, avoiding the danger of judging people we disagree with, thinking symmetrically but able also seeing the limitations of this, working to remove obstacles along with the need for empathy, and (in Christian peace making) loving – seeing virtues in the others.
To his Christian audience in Fitzroy, Prof Cowie stated:
“This is what we can offer to the community and humanity, along with merciless self criticism”.
He referred back to the teaching of Jesus – “if your eye should cause you to sin, pluck it out” as meaning for peace makers “if we get something wrong in how we see things about others or the world then we need to get rid of it, or if there are parts of us which are wrong, then we get rid of it in order to help us develop a theory of peace making.”
Prof Cowie finished with the words of Jesus “Blessed are the peace makers”.
We then had question time with some very searching and stimulating questions from the congregation. Rev Jonathan Abernethy Barkley finished the evening with prayer and we were invited to stay for refreshments.