Jesus is all about peace.
Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) foretold his birth, predicting the coming of one who would bear four exalted titles: 1) Wonderful Counselor; 2) Mighty God; 3) Everlasting Father, and 4) Prince of Peace.
When the Messiah arrived, his message included this important, peaceful strand. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49, but is it in Matthew’s account where the peace motif shines. Among the famed Beatitudes, we find this commendation:
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children (Matthew 5:9, CEB).
At his arrest, Jesus corrected Peter when his petulant disciple drew his sword to defend the Lord. “Put back your sword in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NIV). The rest of Jesus’ words on the occasion are lesser known: “Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” (vv. 53-54, CEB). Jesus overcame one of history’s greatest acts of terrorism – crucifixion – not through superior strength but through a radical act of passive non-resistance. God exalted the Prince of Peace by raising him from the dead, vindication and a seal of approval upon Jesus’ counterintuitive ways (Acts 2:31-33).
Elsewhere, the New Testament affirms the humility that is inherent in the peace ethic. Paul portrays Christ as one who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, CEB). Following Jesus’ example, as much as possible, we are to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18b, NIV). We are sanctified entirely not just by “God,” but by the “God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Further, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts:
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NIV; italics added).
Nothing tests the Christian commitment to peace like war. This is a perennial moral dilemma, yet in the first 300 years of Christianity, the Church strongly discouraged young Christian men from serving in the Roman army. While part of this was the requirement for soldiers to make sacrifices to pagan deities, Scott McKnight in his essay, “The Early Church and Military Service” clarifies:
But idolatry wasn’t the only reason military service was forbidden. Christians weren’t allowed to join because killing is wrong in principle.
He goes on to cite church leaders of the day – including Lactantius, Tertullian, and Origen – who represent the unanimous voice for peace. They believed that Christians serve a God of peace. Do we believe this?
Fast-forward to the world of 2017. Peacemaking, even in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, is dangerous because powerful economic interests lobby instead in favor of armsmaking. When he left office in January 1961, decorated WW 2 American General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or our democratic processes.
The economics of violence are indisputable. There is major money in making firearms. Only when bombs are dropped or bullets fly do they need to be replaced, making more profit for arms makers. Make no mistake: Armsmaking sooner-or-later leads to warmaking. Peacemaking throws a wrench in the works. After all, if we’re busy talking to our enemies we’re not usually firing expensive missiles at them.
Peace is a message that embraces the optimism of God’s grace. We pray the prayer our Lord taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV), a kingdom that Isaiah pictured as a peaceable kingdom:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:6, NIV).
If we pray for the Kingdom to come, does it not make sense – as one of my early mentors, Dr. Richard Neiderhiser urged me – to “put feet to your prayers”? Do the policies we support (and the silence we too often keep) promote peace in our world or instead perpetuate destructive cycles of violence? What are we doing to become the peacemakers that Jesus honored in his Sermon on the Mount?
On June 6, 1968, an assassin’s bullet snuffed out the life of Senator Robert Kennedy. Paraphrasing Bernard Shaw, Kennedy had often observed:
Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?
Like Kennedy, Jesus met a violent death, yet Christ’s call to peace is still compelling. He invites us to imagine and strive for a better world than what we have known. Are we followers of the Prince of Peace? May God strengthen us to live in a warmaking world as peacemaking followers of Jesus.
Image credit: By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6530700