Category: Pondering Peace

The Way of Peace

Many peoples shall come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that God may teach us God’s ways

and that we may walk in God’s paths.

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

The Lord shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

(Isaiah 2:3-4)

Each Sunday this Advent season, our congregation has listened to the words of Isaiah 9, as worship and sermons have focused on the names used to describe the child born for us – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Each Sunday what has stood out to me in Isaiah 9 are the words “there shall be endless peace” (v. 7).  In an era of endless wars, when we see depicted daily on our screens the horrors and senseless destruction, this declaration of God’s intention for endless peace touches the longings of many hearts.

Ancient Israel’s prophets often denounced injustice and the people’s unfaithfulness to God’s ways, warning that defeat to conquering armies would be a consequence. At times, they also offered hopeful portrayals of a peaceful kingdom expressing God’s intentions for humanity and the earth (Isaiah 2, 9, 11; Micah 4). Such peace would certainly involve the elimination of war, such that garments of war will be burned and instruments of war will be refashioned to become tools for farming.  However, shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, is far more than the absence of war.  It conveys a sense of well-being and harmony between people and with nature.  It includes the flourishing of human communities and the land.  It encompasses justice such that each has a share in the abundance.  Within this peaceful reign of God is much reason for joy.  Both Isaiah and Micah depict this peace as being for people from all nations, as they seek to learn God’s ways so that they too may walk in God’s paths (Is. 2:3).

Such a vision of God’s will and reign informs our understanding of who Jesus is and what his mission was.  Luke portrays John the Baptist’s father Zechariah speaking these words regarding the coming of Jesus: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).  Upon his birth, angels praised God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace, good will among people” (Luke 2:14).

Jesus did not live during peaceful times.  The Roman empire ruthlessly controlled the subjugated people of Israel through a collaborating ruling class of religious leaders and kings, who in turn used their positions to prey on people for personal gain.  The people were repressed and impoverished through taxation and predatory land grabbing. Resentment and civil discontent were high, with some calling for armed rebellion.  It was within this context that Jesus went about his public ministry of showing the way of peace.

Jesus compassionately cared for those suffering and outcast, bringing healing and community inclusion. He interacted with those considered national enemies and made them the exemplars of his parables and teaching. He taught his followers to be peacemakers and justice seekers.  They were to respond to violence and injustice creatively and nonviolently in ways that would enable them to retain their own dignity while also seeking to touch the heart of their oppressors. He taught them to love their enemies, and treat them well, even as God does.  They were to be willing to suffer rather than inflict suffering and to forgive rather than take revenge.  He lifted up love of God and neighbor as what is most important for a life pleasing to God.

Jesus went on to address those who were causing the people’s suffering. Religious teachers were burdening and excluding people through their rigid rules.  He engaged them in dialogue, even while making plain their hypocrisy and unjust behavior.  Despite the obvious dangers, he went to Jerusalem to confront the oppressive temple authorities.  He came as a prince of peace, riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9-10). He wept over Jerusalem, sorrowing that the people did not recognize “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42).  He cleared the temple of those who were making it difficult for people coming from other nations to worship and learn God’s ways.  When arrested, he refused to let his followers defend him by using violence.  On the cross, he forgave his murderers.  His death by the authorities was a consequence of his living a life that actively but nonviolently pursued justice for the oppressed.

The early followers of Jesus understood Jesus’ way of peace.  When the Jewish people eventually rebelled against Rome and imperial wrath was unleashed against Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers refused to take up weapons to defend their country.  Instead they fled the city, doing as Jesus had told them (Lk. 21:21).  They increasingly understood that Jesus’ message was a gospel of peace for all people and that through him the hostility between different peoples was overcome (Eph. 2:14-17). For the first centuries of Christianity, they were horrified at the prospect of participating in war and did not bear weapons.  They practiced nonviolence toward those who pursued and persecuted them.  They cared for the vulnerable and needy.

In his book Jesus Christ, Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace, Terrence Rynne carefully describes the early church’s stance on war and peace.  He indicates that these early Church Fathers frequently referred to the visions of God’s peaceful reign in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 and understood themselves to be participating in their fulfillment.  Through the teaching and practicing of Jesus’ way of peace, these early followers were demonstrating a way of living that was attractive, such that people were joining their numbers and giving up violence for a life of love and compassion.  Despite persecution, which they endured with Jesus’ fortitude, the numbers of Christians grew throughout the Roman empire.  When God’s way of peace, as taught and lived by Jesus, was put into practice, the vision of a peaceful world was becoming more of a reality.  They did not consign this vision to a place beyond time or relegate it to unrealistic dreamers. Rather, they believed it was God’s intention for our world now, and they were seeing its power and possibility among them as they followed Jesus’ way.

This commitment to following Jesus’ way of peace began to change in the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine’s belief that military victory would come under the banner of the cross and Augustine’s delineation of the just war theory brought a change in how Christians viewed participation in war and violence. However, recent biblical and historical scholarship cause us to take another look at those first several centuries of Christianity closest to Jesus’ life when his followers practiced his way of peace and encourage us to consider whether they give us a more authentic model for faithful Christian living.

To understand the mission of Jesus as teaching God’s way of peace and building an inclusive community of shalom on earth and to see peacemaking as primary in Christian discipleship may still not be a dominant view, but I find it to be compelling and challenging.  As in the days when Jesus lived, we too live in an era when people believe in the necessity of violence, war seems ever present, and military might is exalted.  As we celebrate with joy the birth of Jesus this Christmas season, may we also commit ourselves to learning and walking in his way of peace.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.

Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence

Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita