By John Franke, DPhil
Peace is often simply defined as the absence of conflict, but in the biblical tradition it means much more than this. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, points not merely to the absence of overt conflict but to a state of ordered tranquility that is the result of right relationships with God, neighbor, and the whole of creation. It is the interconnectedness of all things for their mutual benefit, something that comes from, and manifests, the goodness of the Creator. Peace is the very intention and gift of God and connotes the spiritual and material well-being of both individuals and the community as a whole that is the result of covenant faithfulness to ways of God in the world.
The concept of peace in the New Testament builds on the Hebrew notion of shalom and intensifies its spiritual dimension as being connected to a life lived in union and solidarity with Jesus, a life that shares his mission of peace and reconciliation through the imitation of his self-sacrificial love for the sake of others. The epistle of James (3:13-18) contrasts two approaches to life: an earthly, unspiritual, and self-centered wisdom that is characterized by envy and selfish ambition leading to disorder and wickedness; and wisdom from above that is peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield, leading to a harvest of righteousness sown in peace. In scripture, a life lived in accordance with the wisdom that comes from above is described as a life lived in righteousness resulting in an individual state of peace that comes as a gift from God to be enjoyed and continuously cultivated. This is the peace that Paul speaks of from prison in his letter to the Philippians (4:7), the peace that passes all understanding even in the midst of the most difficult circumstances that we encounter in life.
The Hebrew Bible points to the social dimension of shalom and reminds us that the fullness of peace is never simply an individual matter. Isaiah describes the results of this shalom as a society in which children do not die in infancy, the elderly live productive and dignified lives, and those who build and plant enjoy the fruit of their labor. This is in stark contrast to the domination societies that were characteristic of the Ancient Near Eastern context in which these words were written. Such societies were politically oppressive, economically exploitative, and chronically violent.
The Roman Empire of Jesus time was also a domination society. While it secured the famous Pax Romana (Peace of Rome), it also imposed a way of life on its citizens that was the very antithesis of peace: an oppressive political and social structure enforced by violence. This reminds us that the absence of war or overt conflict is not a guarantee of peace. In contrast, the Hebrew prophetic tradition proclaimed by Jesus offers a vision of peaceful, harmonious existence in which everyone has enough and no needs to be afraid.
The proclamation of this vision by Jesus points us to the struggle for peace and helps us to understand his words in the Gospel of Matthew (10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be the members of one’s own household.” How is it that the one spoken of in the Christian tradition as the Prince of Peace can utter these words?
Jesus knew that the proclamation of peace for all people would bring him into direct opposition to the principalities and powers of this world in the person of Roman magistrates who were more interested in preserving the status of their realm than in alleviating the suffering and oppression of its citizens. Such challenges to the status quo for the sake of peace, justice, and reconciliation lead to division and conflict by their very nature. As it was in Jesus day, so it is in ours.
African-American social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass maintained that without struggle there could be no social progress and no real peace. He said that those who desire peace and freedom for all but oppose agitation are those “who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
This is the paradox of peace: its realization comes only through costly struggle. We can’t have one without the other. Jesus invites us to both.
Dr. John Franke is Visiting Professor of Mission and Theology at HGST. He also serves as theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.