you want peace?
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
The violence that has swept over our cities since the alleged murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a police officer in Minneapolis last week continue to rage. (Christianity Today posted a worthwhile read of Floyd’s backstory, here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html?utm_source=ctweekly-html&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=14624538&utm_content=714737199&utm_campaign=email)
As much as the incident and the growing response to it reveal evil whether by intentional agenda or by unintentionally allowing it to happen, there are real questions about what to do in response. Many in the church (I hope) are led to pray for peace. That is good and right. But what does that mean, exactly? Is peace when violence dies down and the trouble just blows over? Is praying for peace a petition that the fire stops before it gets to our town? I don’t think so. Follow me on this.
Firstly, let’s see if we can define peace. We have been working through the book of Jeremiah in our church, and therein lies a good springboard. The particular context is when God tells the Jewish exiles who have been taken captive to Babylon to settle in and work for the peace of the foreign city in which they find themselves. That would have been shocking to the “chosen people” of God, grown up in a culture of nationalistic exceptionalism, then told to live and work for the peace of an evil, invading empire under a ruthless king. Jeremiah 29:7 NIV reads “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
The English translations slightly obscure the Hebrew, in which a single word is used three times in this verse. That word is shalom, in this verse alternatively translated as the qualifying “peace and prosperity” but also “prospers” and “prosper.” One hundred and sixty-two times in the Bible this word gets translated as simply “peace,” or “peaceful.” For example, Solomon says there is a season for every activity under heaven; “there is a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8 NIV). But to show the richness and profundity of this concept, listen to the vision God gives Isaiah: 32:15-18NIV:
“…till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest. Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest” (emphasis mine).
Peace is a result of justice and righteousness - and these are gifts from God. It means both peace from and peace to: peace from being attacked or afraid, from being lied to or betrayed, and also peace to make just and joy-filled relationship with God and others. Other ways that shalom gets translated include welfare, well-being, safe, secure, but also as close and trusted friends. The impact is on relationships between individuals but extends to right relations between nation-states. Not only does this counter the individualistic and perhaps even sinful way that humans narrowly consider it as “inner peace,” as merely personal, subjective contentment apart from others, it extends the scope to mean peace in relationship with others, peace forged by covenant in community.
Secondly, that leads to a critical point. It does not just happen; peace takes work. A corollary is what is being recognized in the protests occurring today: there is no peace without justice; there is no righteousness without repentance. (The image of forging is appropriate; applying heat and pressure to form a material into something useful and even beautiful. Think of the work God does on each of us to conform us to the likeness of His Son; then apply that same Spirit-fueled fire to formation of our relationships.) What does that work look like? Consider the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the church in Rome:
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” [How do we do that?] “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." (Romans 12:18-20 NIV)
The work of forging peace requires the people of God to be first to reach out to people who potentially don’t like us, or people we don’t like. On a small scale, I think of times I’ve had to sit down with folks from the congregation who straight-up told me they wanted someone else there, or detailed what they thought we were doing wrong, or when neighbors of ours threatened to kill our dogs because they barked – so we baked them dessert and tried to initiate a conversation. These days I think of pictures of church members on social media handing out bottles of water to protesters, and more importantly when church leaders organize discussion towards reconciliation. (The article on George Floyd is ironically illustrative, as he worked to minister to gang members in the ‘hood in Houston before moving to Minneapolis…)
Further, we must refrain from inappropriate violence. Peter wrote to church members suffering persecution:
“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11-12 NIV)
It feels like we shouldn't even have to say it, but that means not only assuming all are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but there is no place for acts of destruction or wanton violence against another. Looting, lashing out or acts of vandalism work against the cause, bringing disgrace to perpetrators but also to their party. Anytime we speak or act in this way, we are destroying peace, whether we wreck a marriage, walk out on family, or break a contract, when we stoke bitterness and hatred in the community but also in the virtual community, or when we deny the God who provides for peace. I heard a theologian say that Christians are model citizens in any society in which they have lived throughout history, founding hospitals, ministering to the sick even in times of plague, taking in orphans and abandoned children, the list goes on, (though sadly there are examples to the contrary).
Lastly, let’s end where we started. “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:7 NIV). Prayer is, has always been, and remains the primary work of God’s people, to call upon Him to create the conditions for change, beginning with us.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9 NIV).