The disciples are arguing. As they walk along the way to Capernaum, Jesus notices that things have gotten rather heated. There is some subtle irony in this passage…Jesus had just taught his disciples that the Son of Man would be betrayed, would be killed, and then rise again. The disciples obviously didn’t understand so they began to argue amongst themselves. They weren’t arguing about the betrayal or the killing, but about who would be considered the “greatest” in the kin-dom and in the movement that they hoped to inaugurate.
Can you imagine it? Jesus listens to their arguing and, in a quiet moment, away from the crowds, once they were recovering from their journey, he asks them, “What were you arguing about back there on the road?”
My kids and I have our arguments like most families do. The nature of our arguments are usually over who has the right to what toy or treat and how much, or who has disrespected another’s space or presence, or some kind of vying for Mommy’s attention or affection, which she may or may not be willing to give in the moment. Sometimes things are just too heated to discuss in the moment; Mom will intervene but then, usually, we all need a time “to cool off” before figuring out the nuts and bolts of the problem and solving it.
I imagine that Jesus overheard the disciples and decided that the lesson for the day would come later, when tempers and passions were more subdued. He knew that you can’t hear anything when you are fuming and trying to prove or fight for your exceptionality or superiority.
And that is precisely what they—the disciples—were so heated about: their exceptionality. They argued over who was the greatest—who would sit to the left and to the right of God’s own hand. To be “the greatest” included power, don’t imagine that it didn’t …because those who believe themselves to be greater than others will often seek power over instead of power with. And too often, those who seek greater exceptionality also demand recognition of their sacrifices by others and the greatest of whatever “spoils” which are on offer.
Except that Jesus was just discussing his death—and the disciples likely were thinking of their own opportunity or advancement in the wake of that death. Who would lead the movement next? Who would receive the accolades, the attention, and the power to evoke God’s presence and power over friend and adversary? Who would the crowds follow? Can you just imagine? It is like beneficiaries arguing over the inheritance while the person is still alive.
Today is Just Peace Sunday and it prevails upon us to examine what makes for peace in these times according to our scriptures. And not just any peace, but a just peace. The political scientists and writers, Pierre Allan and Alexis Keller, have noted, “While an old doctrine of Just War exists, surprisingly little conceptual thinking has gone into what constitutes a peace that is a just one.”  Indeed, we might consider that peace is not passive; it is not silent when questioned like the disciples; it is not the absence of conflict, but rather how conflicts and different interests are resolved without having to resort to violence or an uneasy quiet.
Allan and Keller, in their book, What is a Just Peace? (Oxford University Press), state that a just peace “It describes a process whereby peace and justice are reached together by two or more parties recognizing each others’ identities, each renouncing some central demands, and each accepting to abide by common rules jointly developed.”
The book unpacks that statement at length, but basically, Allan and Keller argue that peace isn’t possible when the parties involve fail to recognize each others’ unique identities and fail to give up some of their cherished demands, and expect each other to follow rules that have no commonality or joint participation.
For Jesus, “being the greatest” does not bode well for peace-building. For Jesus, the person who wants to be first must be willing to be last. That is, the person must consider others’ needs as well as their own, and be willing to reorient one’s position to that of a servant of all.
That word, “all,” is important. “All” implies the particular kind of recognition that Allan and Keller describe. Calling this “thin recognition,” Allan and Keller write, “Parties [must] recognize each other as agents, as autonomous ‘entities’ that have a particular identity, a history, a culture, and usually their own common language. In other words, they accept each other as human beings.” Furthermore, “each party needs to understand the other’s fundamental features of its identity. Only then can each actor truly understand the situation as it appears from the other’s perspective, a necessary condition for finding a formula for a Just Peace.” Allan and Keller call this kind of recognition “thick recognition” and it demands a mutual empathy.
Whether thin or thick, recognition of the other is paramount. I can’t see you when I am so focused on what I want and what I need, or what I deserve and what I require. When you are arguing about who is, or will be, the greatest…you necessarily imply that others are not-so-great and have less exceptionality or are less worthy or deserving. Indeed, for many years, men were seen as “greater” than women, whites perceived as “greater than” people of dark skin, and Europeans “greater” than indigenous peoples. There can be no peace where there is lingering injustice, inequality, and oppression. There can be no justice where people refuse “to see” each other or “to hear” each other. Additionally, there can be no peace where human desires run amok, without restraint. Our writer James cautions, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
James urges, like Allan and Keller, that a peaceable, gentle wisdom is one which is willing to yield—full of mercy, without partiality or hypocrisy.” To be willing to yield is to be willing to compromise. A just peace, according to Allan and Keller, requires us to “give something up,” something that just might be very dear to us for a higher goal. They write, “Some symbols, positions, and advantages need to be sacrificed. In other words, it is not sufficient to find a win-win formula, but an essential ingredient lies in sacrifices, that is, costs, that each party needs to make with respect to the other. Just Peace cannot be had on the cheap, with mutual benefits only.”
Have you ever struggled with making concessions in your family or communal life? Have you ever struggled with seeing another person’s humanity in the same way that you consider your own? What sacrifices are you willing to make to grow peace in your heart and in your world? What concessions seem to be too much for you?
James writes that our conflicts and disputes come from the “cravings that are at war” within us. In this, he sounds very Buddhist, yet he writes from a Christian perspective. Cravings are the cause of internal conflict and suffering. We want something and do not have it, so he says, we are willing to take it by force [murder]. We might not physically murder someone, but we are capable of erasing others in so many other life-killing ways by preserving our privilege at all costs to society. James believes that we also wish we had something so much that we engage in harmful arguments to obtain what we do not have.
In a sense, this is what Jesus was trying to teach the disciples. Their arguing over who was greatest was an argument over the benefits that they craved and hoped to obtain upon his death. One is reminded of the betrayal of Judas and how prescient Jesus’ words were. The last thing on the disciples mind (in this passage) is relinquishment and yet, that is precisely what Jesus would demonstrate: taking the lowest place on the cross so that we might rise. Over and over again, Jesus tries to show the disciples that the kin-dom values were different than Roman values—one doesn’t “get ahead” by clamoring the fastest to the top and selling out the “other,” but by taking the last place, by widening the table for others, and by welcoming the child and most vulnerable.
What does this mean for us today who would like to grow peace in our everyday affairs, as well as the world?
For one thing, we might consider how we are shaped here to honor one another’s experience, culture, perspective, and story. Growing in the church, we are hopefully formed by God and community to give the kind of “thin and thick” recognition that a just peace process requires. We might also consider, in our next disagreement, how we “see” or “perceive” the Other and if that perception is, in any way, detrimental to our relationship and the way in which we cling to our position.
Lastly, we might – after we’ve cooled down—consider what sacrifices or concessions we are willing to make to form a “just peace” with our opponents and forge a new and better relationship. If we are not willing to budge in any way, why do we expect the other to want to change position? To what are we inordinately attached? What are we craving? How do we mistakenly see ourselves as “great” at another’s expense of well-being?
We know that growing a lasting, just peace to fruition doesn’t happen overnight. It is no wonder that the United Church of Christ asks its member congregations to forge a path to a just peace by beginning with awareness: an awareness of the human root of conflict in ourselves, in our families, our communities, our institutions, and our world. We are called to understand how Jesus calls us to set aside our cravings, release our need for “exceptionality” and “greatness,” and relinquish and endure painful concessions. We learn this so that we might help grow a lasting and just peace blessed by God.
 Pierre Allan and Alexis Keller, eds. What is a Just Peace? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 1.
 Pierre Allan and Alexis Keller, eds. What is a Just Peace? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 197.
 Ibid, 197-199.
 Ibid, 201.