PEACE: Note as the World Gives

PEACE: Not as the World Gives
by Vernard Eller

This publication was is taken from a 1985 lecture in the Gilbert Lecture series.

Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives...." With these words of Jn. 14:27, it strikes me that Jesus is making a rather clear demarcation between two different orders or qualities, of peace.

I don't know that Jesus there means totally to scorn the one sort of peace and ask us to go exclusively with the other; yet clearly he does have some ideas about the priority, the promise, and the value of each. For him, the peace he has to give is guaranteed as solid rock, while, at best, all other peace is sinking sand (Mt. 7:24-27).

Yet my fear is that, in today's world the lot of us--including the present company of dedicated Christian peacemakers--that we have Jesus' priority exactly reversed. All our peace talk and peace literature has us coming down almost exclusively on the peace that is to be wrought by political means of organization, propaganda, lobbying, block pressure and power-play--"Peace as the world gives." And this strikes me as the complete contrary of what I find in Scripture, where "peace" has constant and exclusive reference the Prince of Peace and to the shalom he offers us through the coming of his kingdom. In fact, I cannot recall as much as one verse in which the New Testament gives any political counsel as to how Christians might best effect the pacification of society. So let me talk for a bit about what I see as both the problems and the positive possibilities of "peace as the world gives." And then I want to move to--and to my emphasis upon--the solid rock of the biblical understanding of peace

Peace as the World Gives

Of course I am in favor of Christians taking the role of good citizens within the political process and using their influence for good. But at the same time, I consider it crucial that they hold grave reservations both about their own holiness and the unholiness of the political business they are getting into. It must first be remembered that human society is itself constituted entirely of finite and sinful human beings operating within the horizons of a fallen and godless world. The chances are that we might be able to manipulate heavenly peace and justice out of such an earthy mixture are as much as nil.

And what we are saying--what the Bible is saying-is not simply that the human race includes some real bad characters, some champion-class sinners. That much is obvious. But no, the biblical view is that each and every one of us is a sinner--that every human institution or party (including--perhaps especially including--churches) that they all participate in the Old Adam. "None is righteous, no not even one, no one understands, no one seeks for God, all have turned aside, together they have gone wrong"--as Paul quotes in Rom. 3. Or, put otherwise: "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God" (Paul again in Rom. 14). And of course, Peter goes so far as to specify that this judgment actually begins with the household of God.

Now all this says several different things to me. For one, it says that rather than being so quick to volunteer to God's righteous judgment against the brother we call a sinful militarist and warmaker--despising him--perhaps we ought to listen for God's righteous judgment against our own proud piety. Paul says that no one understands--so how do we dare be so certain of our own political understanding that we can tell everyone else how wrong they are and what they need to do to straighten up and be peaceful? Simply calling ourselves "peacemakers" does not set us off from the evil warmakers as being an entirely different breed of cat. Are we ready to face the possibility that our self-styled "peacemaking" has at times added to the conflict and antagonism of the situation we were trying to pacify? Are we ready to be every bit as suspicious about our own righteousness as we are about that of the U.S. Government?

Next this says to me that--whenever our moral analysis of a conflict situation sorts out into the configuration of a party of Good Guys verses a party of Bad Guys, a gang of Demons picking on a company of saints-- the chances are 99 out of 100 that that analysis is wrong. Such is Simply not the way a human society under the judgment of God is structured. I do not find Scripture showing itself willing to identify any of God's creatures as being either "demons" or "saints." No, we are all of the same batch--weak, sinful, and not very smart individuals who are nevertheless much loved by God. Consequently, the moral distinction between person and person, party and party, peacemaker and warmaker--these distinctions must be very relative and in God's eyes' very slight indeed. No, it is only in the old Westerns that this orderly, neat configuration appears--with the riders wearing either white hats or black hats in order to preclude any confusion. But if I can tell you so without causing painful disillusionment, those old Westerns simply are not of the truth.

What this next says to me, then is that we Christian peacemakers are not being either godly or all that helpful when our first impulse, upon sensing anything that smells to us like social injustice, is to jamb on our white hats and come riding out in a holy display o£ moral passion and righteous indignation against evil. Better we should pull ourselves up short with the reminder that our easy analysis us Good Guys against them Bad Guys is undoubtedly wrong. For sure, we are not as good as we like to think we are; nor are they likely as bad as we enjoy thinking they are. We would do well, first, to determine whether the halo-hats we grabbed up do indeed fit our big heads and then whether the hats actually belonging to us are of all that different a hue from the horned-hats we see on the bad guys.

We need to take a careful look at this flaming moral passion on which we pride ourselves--this strong, instinctive confidence that, as much as infallibly, we can distinguish good from bad, justice from injustice. Yes, the Bible does know about this vaunted human capacity for making moral judgments--but says that it comes from Adam's having eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil--that is, the desire to operate out of our own moral wisdom rather than going to God for his. So, instead of the natural instincts of human moral piety, Scripture recommends "speaking the truth in love," a most rigorous and careful effort in getting to the facts and then expressing one's findings in the most charitable way possible.

Simplistic moralism will not do as true, peacemaking, even of the as-the- world-gives variety. And "speaking the truth in love" certainly will show, for example, that the distinction between peacemakers and warmakers does not fall exactly along political-party lines. Forgetting that we all stand under the judgment of God, it is a wicked despising of the brother for us to suggest that President Reagan and all his fellow-believers in nuclear strength (which is the civil majority of the nation, recall)--that all these people are in actuality "warmakers" and that only pacifists who are withholding taxes and pushing for unilateral disarmament qualify as peacemakers. No, a true seeking of the truth and then speaking it in love surely would show that the President is as fully committed to averting nuclear holocaust as is any pacifist. The distinction between the pacifists and the so-called militarists is not one of simplistic moralism, or one on which our pious passions for peace cast any light at all. Assuredly, the question is not one of "moral pacifists" versus "immoral militarists" but rather the infinitely more difficult and complex one of hard-headed, factual investigation as to whether unilateral disarmament or nuclear strength (or some other option) gives us the most realistic chance of averting nuclear holocaust. Cool heads rather the hot tongues of moral judgment are what are needed. Goodness knows--there are strong arguments, weak arguments, and frivolous arguments on both sides of the question (on all sides of every question). And our only way of getting these sorted out and any actual peacemaking underway is for all parties to grant full moral respect to each other, cut the judgmental name-calling, and get down to political brass tacks of which peace moves will be contributive and which not.

Peacemaking (even of the as-the-world-gives variety) will not work by leading off with the high moral passion that resolves whatever conflict-situation into a Party of Truth versus a Party of Falsehood and then jumping on the bandwagon of the Truth Party in its effort to roll over and crush the evil opposition. This way, of course makes peacemaking simply a matter of political partisanship, ideology, and power-play. So rather than with moral passion, I propose that peacemaking must lead off with "seeking and speaking the truth in love"--a careful, objective, open- minded fact-gathering that wants to hear all points of view and make a fair analysis of the total situation. And when this is done, as much as inevitably the analysis of simplistic moralism will fall apart and the situation be shown up as very much of a moral complexity with good and evil all mixed up together, human sin appearing on all fronts, and no clean moral answers anywhere. And in this real world, moral passion simply will not serve as an equivalent of evidential truth-value. Subjective "feelings" certainly are in place when they follow "facts"; but they won't perform as a substitute for facts.

As a matter of principle, then, I would propose that true peacemaking always must be done from a position standing above and apart from the simplistic moralism of partisan politics. Peace and reconciliation have to come by building bridges or breaking down the walls between the parties in conflict--not by joining one party in order to further its conquest over the other. So, once more--in the way of peacemaking, I think open, unjudgmental nonpartisanship beats the hot passions of partisan politics every time.

Of course, nothing I have talked about here is yet the peace Jesus says he gives to us Yet clearly, I do not want despise "peace as the world gives." I am interested in our doing the best job of that that is possible. However, I have said that such peace inevitably is sin-tainted limited, fragile, precarious, transient, and ever ready to collapse into sinking sand. If it is to succeed at all, it will need to be the work not of morally impassioned partisans but of trained, knowledgeable, and open-minded social analysts. Peacemaking is a work more on the order of brain surgery than a storming of the trenches with cries of "For God and the King"--as we said, cool heads rather than hot passions.

This means, of course that only a few of us are truly qualified to make meaningful contributions to this sort or international peacemaking (except, of course in the way of encouraging and supporting the experts in their cool-headed efforts). However, most of us don't know enough even to know what is the right thing to have happen--let alone to make it happen. So what our situation calls for is "experts," say, on matters of national defense--decidedly not the moral "feelings" of a bunch of amateurs who can't even find the relevant places on a map.

Regarding this order of peacemaking, then, I see the church's role to be the raising up and encouraging from out of our midst those scholars and experts who are qualified to make wise and objective contributions. And for the great majority of us whose gifts lie elsewhere--let us exercise the gifts we have and for the rest, keep ourselves at least somewhat knowledgeable and, most of all, open-minded and open-eyed, free of the partisan blinders that allow us to see as true only the one viewpoint our subjective preference tells us is true.

Yet, over against all this, the prior obligation of every Christian--whatever the state of his political smarts--is that he be centered on that peace of the solid rock (the "Peace of the Rock" that is spelled differently than the way Prudential does it)--the peace that is "not as the world gives." Regarding this peace, there are no amateurs and no experts. It is equally for all; and every Christian is equally obligated to know it, to witness to it, and to live in it.

The Peace that God Gives

Perhaps the best place to start with this "my peace I give" is with Jesusí beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Mt. 5:9). We like that one--and we work hard, dedicating our best human minds and energies to "making" peace. The difficulty however is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer has pointed out that "peacemakers" is actually a rather inadequate translation of the Greek word standing at that spot. An alternative translation. would be "peace-receivers." Yet this would be wrong too, in that the Greek wants both of those meanings in the word, not just one or the other. So, in truth, the text blesses only those who are "peace-transmitters," those who can and do broadcast out only the signal God has first fed in. It is, then, St. Francis of Assisi, in his famous prayer, who has things just exactly right: "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace."

However, in a more definitive way, the biblical view of peace can perhaps be summarized under four points:

  1. Scripture regularly identifies peace--shalom--as a prime characteristic of the final outcome of God's work with and ultimate intention for his people and his world. Therefore, to know what true peace is, where it comes from, and how it comes into being, we must always look ahead--toward the on-coming kingdom of God--for this is where peace lives; this is its source and center. Indeed, to pray "thy kingdom come" is the equivalent of praying "thy shalom be the order of the day here on earth as it already is in heaven.
  2. Now in no way does this mean that God's peace will never be part of our experience until that kingdom is consummated at the end of history It does mean that anything we see or know of peace in the here and now is to be understood as simply one step, one installment, on the way to the real thing. It is nothing of our accomplishment but rather a partial (though gratefu1y received) anticipation of what we can know for a fact will someday be the cosmic state of affairs.

    Yet Scripture will not allow us to locate peace itself anywhere other than in this end-state kingdom of God. So, to get a grip on this first biblical word about peace, just bear in mind that, in the book of Revelation, God's kingdom is portrayed as "the new Jerusalem"--and that the word "Jerusalem" actually means "City of Shalom."

    Of course, it is necessary to keep clear as to which Jerusalem we're talking about. I heard recently that archaeologists and historians now think the Jerusalem of human construction, the Palestinian city, has thirty-seven times been destroyed by war--not too good are record as a city of peace. In addition, of course, it is the city that crucified the Prince of Peace and over which he wept for its not knowing "the things that make for peace." Yet perhaps that is as much of a City of Peace as can be expected or hoped for from sheer human effort. In any case it is obvious from scripture that the true Jerusalem will have to be the "the city whose builder and maker is God,"

  3. In the Old Testament, then, the prophet Isaiah is the one best presenter of this end-state vision of peace. But a most interesting observation is that his "peace passages" turn out almost invariably to be his "messianic" passages as well, the places in which he speaks of the coming Messiah. Let me quickly recall those to you; they are very familiar:
  4. In one of those passages, we saw, the prophet even gave the Messiah the title "Prince of Peace" (which is to say, "Prime Factor of Peace") thus tying peace and the Messiah into one indissoluble package. The New Testament, of course, picks up Isaiah's idea and stresses it even further. So, to get a grip on our second point, all we need remember is that it was at the birth of Jesus (and no one else) that the angels sang, "Peace on earth."

    Thus far, then, we have established that God is the inventor who started peace on its way and will keep it going until it reaches its end and accomplishment in his kingdom. God, as it were, holds the patent and is the sole manufacturer--and he has granted the franchise to his Messiah as sole distributor:

  5. Clearly, the Apostle Paul agrees with us understanding peace as that future, end-state reality that would come and was even now coming through Jesus. However, in the there-and-then of his own situation, the greatest peace event he could know was the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into the one body of Christ. Because that Jew-Gentile animosity marked the one widest, deepest, most unbridgeable conflict-chasms in the world of that day (and who would say there has ever been a greater?), he could propose its resolution as being the very best here-and-now preview of what kingdom-of-God peace would be. And it is in, Eph. 2 that he analyzes the ways and means of that miraculous, undreamed of Jew- Gentile peace.
  6. He makes clear that it was not a case of some dedicated. Christians taking courses in conflict resolution and then putting their skills to work in negotiating a settlement. Essentially it was the work of the God who "loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy ... bringing us to life with Christ ... raising us up with him" (Eph. 2:4-6). God did it; but he did it, but he did it through the Christ who himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14). For in his own person he killed the hostility by restoring peace through the cross (Eph. 2:15-16). Thus, you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ's blood (Eph. 2:13) so as to create out of the two [deadly enemies] a single new humanity in himself, thereby making peace (Eph. 2:15).

    Here, then, we have added the idea that it was specifically Jesus' death and resurrection that made him not only Prince of Peace but actually the One who is our peace. A biblical understanding of peace just has to have Jesus' death and resurrection at its center. And the fact that today, even the churches do most of their peace teaching and promotion without ever mentioning that death and resurrection. What can that indicate except that we have up and deserted the New Testament as our rule of faith and practice? So get our third point well in hand, just hang on to one other phrase of Paul's, "making peace by the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:20).

  7. Finally, although the foregoing makes it plain that peace (God's sort of peace) can never be something weak and sinful humans would have any chance of accomplishing on their own, the biblical view does give us weak and sinful humans a significant role to play in effecting that peace. It is Paul, again, who explains (in 2 Cor. 5:1-20), "From first to last this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us men to himself through Christ, and he has enlisted us in the ministry of reconciliation.... We come therefore as Christ's ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you through us; in Christ's name, we implore you, be reconciled to God [and consequently to one another]!"

In no sense, then, are we the inventors, definers, initiators, sponsors, or makers of peace. However, we accept it from God, cooperate with it, appropriate it into our own lives and then witness to it, talk about it, proclaim it, and appeal to others, inviting them to accept it from God as well. We are "Christ's ambassadors"--hang onto that phrase and you have the fourth point.

So Jesus said, "My peace I give to you--not as the world gives, give I unto, you." Of course he does not thereby prohibit us from having an interest in and concern for helping the world find the state of affairs it calls "peace." Yet he certainly does not encourage us to be out chasing that, to the detriment of the solid-rock peace he is ready to give both to us and to the world--the peace that is given not as the product of human moral passion or political wisdom but as a gift from the on-coming kingdom of God; the peace that is fond solely in and through the Prime of Peace, won by his self-giving death and victorious, resurrection; the peace which, as his "ambassadors," it is now our assignment to proclaim and publish throughout the world.

Consequently, our prayer simply dare not be the misreading of the beatitude 'Lord bless my efforts as a maker of 'peace as the world gives."' No ever and always, our prayer must be that of St. Francis, "Lord, make me an instrument of they peace."

Amen.