However, peace – ‘shalom’ – is more again than this idyllic picture. For shalom in its Hebrew roots implies fullness of life, fertility for the land, joy for the community, wholeness for the individual. Such shalom cannot be achieved without justice and sometimes conflict is necessary for growth to happen. We need to imagine peace more richly.
Peace is both outward and inward. Early Christians took seriously Jesus’s proclamation, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and many refused to take part in military service. This, along with their refusal to worship Roman gods, did not endear them to the establishment and was a major cause of persecution. To this day many Christians refuse to engage in military conflict, although beginning with Augustine in the fifth century and taken forward by Aquinas in the thirteenth, the doctrine of ‘just war’ has allowed some Christians to bear arms and engage in conflict where the war is seen to be ‘just’ in defending the innocent. It is an area where Christians accept that there are different views that can both be respected within the Christian community – would that we could do the same around some other issues!
For many centuries Christianity idealized inner peace as a kind of passionless state, in which the individual detached themselves from everyday fears and anxieties. However, this notion does not lead to true peace. Sailing above our pain and difficulties and refusing to engage with them merely robs us of the energy they can supply.
The twentieth century artist Fritz Eichenberg was known for his woodcuts on biblical themes. He depicts today’s passage from Isaiah 11 with great energy (see picture above) He places all the animals of Isaiah’s vision in front of a great tree, with a child cradling a rabbit, a snake at his feet. The ferocity of the wild creatures remains. It has not been tamed. Rather the energy of that ferocity is harnessed and put at the disposal of a greater life. This picture of peace is not a picture of a world without lions. It is a picture of a world in which the ferocity of lions is placed at the disposal of the greater good. It is not peace at the price of the lions – it is peace fueled with the fire of the lions.
Peace is not about giving in and becoming a victim. Nor is the answer a return of violence. Rather the fullness of life that comes with true peace has to do with imagining an entirely different way – a way that asks us to engage with injustice and violence non-violently.
A story told in a peace-making workshop makes the point. An elderly woman woke one night to find an intruder in her room. It would have been easy for her to yield to her fear and to become the latest victim of violent crime. Instead she chose to see the intruder as a fellow human being and with great presence of mind to ask them the time. This so confused them that they went to the kitchen to find a clock. A conversation then took place between the two of them about the merits of various timepieces, and after a while the intruder consented to be ushered out of the back door. What could have been an incident of violence became one of true peace as each acknowledged the humanity of the other.
Isaiah could see the injustice of his own day and the calamity that was likely to ensue. Yet he could also see another possibility. The possibility that a child would be born in whom all opposites would be reconciled; a child through whom God could do what seems humanly impossible. Peace can come through this little one. As Wendy Wright puts it, “the cosmic event that comes to us wrapped in the meagre covering of swaddling clothes, has to do with walking in the path of peace.” This is not an easy walk. Peace does not come at the price of passivity and acceding to injustice. Peace is hard work. As NT Wright said,
“It’s quite easy to have peace if you’re happy to settle for injustice. It’s quite easy to work for justice if you’re happy to do without peace.” But ‘shalom’, true peace is not peace at any price. It is the fullness that comes from peace with justice, that uses the energy of conflict to create something new.
May God give us the wisdom and the love to seek such peace in our world and in the relationships that surround us. In the name of Christ the embodiment of peace. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Advent 2, Sunday 8 December 2019