The Crusades were raging. Christians were fighting their way to the Holy Land. Saint Francis of Assisi was also making his way across the ocean. He was on a ship bound for Egypt. He traveled not with sword in hand, but with a blessing on his lips. He sought peace.
In our day and age we know what that means: at the very least a clichéd statement on inclusiveness, a vague comment on the goodness of all ideas, and a renunciation of any strong beliefs or objective truths.
Perhaps that’s what modern secular peace means, but that wasn’t what Francis meant. His peace was neither naïve nor disingenuous. It wasn’t a peace devoid of substance. He neither cowered behind words nor compromised his own beliefs. Instead he walked peacefully, humbly into the tent of the sultan of Egypt and attempted to convert him to Christianity.
What a scandal!
Nowadays we have words for people like Francis: insensitive, intolerant, even downright offensive. Only that’s not the way Saint Francis saw it. It wasn’t the way the Sultan saw it either. He may not have been converted, but neither was he upset. In fact he was positively impressed with the courage and honesty of this little poor man from Assisi.
We should be too.
The Way of Franciscan Peacemakers
Francis believed in the truth that Christ offered. He also believed that all men and women were his brothers and sisters. To him these two beliefs were not only not opposed, but rather directly related. Christ preached peace. Thus preaching Christ unabashedly was part and parcel of preaching peace.
The incident in Egypt shows that Francis was more than a peacemaker; he was a radical peacemaker. A fanatical peacemaker. He saw peace in the same way soldiers saw victory. Walking into the Sultan’s tent unarmed and unaided took every bit as much (if not more) courage as waging war with grand weapons. As Friar Murray Bodo says in his little book, Francis: the Journey and the Dream,
The same virtues were there, courage and courtesy, chivalry and adventure, honor and fierceness of purpose. But now it was not in war that they were tested but in the battle inside the human heart. Francis saw that the real battle was inside every man, and if that battle could be won, the call to arms would no longer be necessary. He did not know if that was possible; he only tried to make it come true in his own heart and hope that others would follow his example (47).
In some ways, you could call Francis a soldier for peace. His idea of peace wasn’t so much the absence of conflict as the presence of goodness. Unfortunately, in a world as prone to violence as ours, goodness requires a passion every bit as intense as the passion for blood, and that’s why Franciscan peacemaking is not a path for those who would rather pretend conflict doesn’t exist, a path for those who’d rather turn away from difficult discussions. In other words, Franciscan peacemakers can’t be cowards.
Real peace takes more than good intentions. It takes smarts. It takes know-how. It takes passion. It takes radical commitment. It’s a path for those who seek to change the world; for those who are dreamers, like Francis; for those who believe it’s possible to live the Gospel and live it radically; for those who are still willing to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it’s possible to usher in the Kingdom of God in the middle of the City of Man.
The world has enough conflict. It has enough violence, enough brutality, enough crusaders. The world has enough observers and compromisers. What the world doesn’t have enough of is radical peacemakers.
That’s why the world needs more saints like Francis of Assisi. It’s why the world needs you.