24 April 2023

Peace be unto you.

God’s into peace. It’s an aspect of his character we really don’t spend enough time on. But it’s one of the Spirit’s fruits, and something he wishes we’d have. Something he wishes upon us, his creations, his children—as articulated by his angels when Jesus was born.

Luke 2.13-14 NRSVue
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Problem is, we Christians aren’t known for being peaceful. The far-from-peaceful dark Christians regularly make the news, and give everybody the sense we’re all just as angry and agitated. That might not be a fair assessment… but then again it might be; the rest of us aren’t really doing much to compensate for all the angry ones.

But sometimes, sometimes, when Christians are peaceful, or do good deeds in a peaceful way, it becomes one of those happy-news stories at the end of the program. Or found in the back of the newspaper. Some of them even go viral when they’re heartwarming enough. But there aren’t as many of them as there oughta be. It may very well be we Christians do a good job of demonstrating peace… but the agitated minority gets all the press.

But based on my own personal experience (and yeah, I know, anecdotes aren’t real proof), the Christians I know certainly aren’t all that peaceful. They freak out over every little thing. I remember a few years back, when a whole slew of Christian nationalists got elected, thrilling one of my right-leaning fellow church members. But even as she was rejoicing, she told me she was still convinced it’s only a matter of time before freedom of religion gets banned in the United States, and we won’t even be able to preach Jesus in private. Pretty sure she’s been reading way too much Hal Lindsey. And she’s hardly alone.

It’s not even limited to wild End Times fears. When terrorists attack, Christians want ’em dead just as much as any irreligious, vengeful pagan. Lots of us own guns, and not just hunting rifles: When thieves break into our houses, we expect to shoot ’em dead same as any other enraged homeowner. We claim it’s for self-defense and we’re being realistic and practical, but (unless we’re gun nuts who really just want to commit a justifiable homicide) it’s really because we believe peace will only come once we destroy the things we fear. Or at least build giant walls to keep ’em out.

So I have serious doubts that peaceful Christians are a vast but silent majority. More than likely they’re a tiny minority. (And I say “they’re” because I myself am not as peaceful as I should be.)

Human substitutes for peace.

Ever hear of the pax Romana? Okay, you slept through history class; I’ll explain. It was one of the great achievements of the Roman Empire: Peace throughout all the territories they controlled; peace all along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. No matter where a Roman traveled, for thousands of miles, they never had to worry about hostile foreigners. (Just highwaymen, rough seas, and the usual accidents.)

Okay, but how’d the Romans achieve this peace? Simple: Crucify anyone who creates a disturbance. Leave their groaning, bleeding body mounted like a trophy on the side of the highway for all to see, and leave the locals feeling horror and awe. Once every enemy is dead, you have peace. Right?

That’s the thinking behind the “peace through strength” which our government is so fond of using: Have a mightier military than everyone, and nobody will ever mess with us. Hasn’t worked so far, but warmongers and defense contractors don’t mind.

The nonviolent method of peace arose in the 20th century—the passive resistance which Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. used to create massive social changes. Stand up for what you believe in, stand up for your principles—but whatever you do, don’t return evil for evil. Don’t return fire. Don’t punch back. Don’t break anything. Don’t resort to violence. Don’t hate your opponent.

The nonviolent method has been described as Christlike, ’cause a great deal of it is based on Jesus’s teachings about not resisting an evildoer. Mt 5.39 And it works. It got India its independence; it brought the American civil rights movement farther than anything before or since. ’Cause it erases your opponent’s moral high ground.

But it has a rather significant problem: It could potentially be used to support all sorts of things Jesus would never approve of. Fr’instance if prostitutes wanted to nonviolently stand up for their “right” to charge people for sex. They might win the day… but when it’s legal for people to use their bodies as a commodity, people immediately find ways to exploit them, and we wind up with sexual trafficking and slavery. Jesus’s form of passive resistance is meant to grow his kingdom, but people can and will use it to get their own way—and profit by it.

Lastly there’s libertarian peace: Not passive resistance, but passive acceptance. Live and let live. You do your thing, we’ll do ours, so long that it remains private, freely consented to, and stays out of everyone else’s way. “An it harm none, do what ye will,” as the Wiccans put it.

Going with the flow instead of fighting the tide surely looks like peace. We don’t argue, don’t worry, avoid controversy, stay away from drama. But we also bottle our frustrations, compromise our principles, and refuse to take a stand even when we really oughta. We permit an environment where evil people take advantage of our passivity, ’cause they realize once good people offer no opposition, their evil can thrive.

Okay, so why is the libertarian stuff fake? Because it’s an illusion of peace, and because all our efforts go into maintaining the illusion instead of peace. Because we don’t really live in peace, but in worry, lest someone snap and destroy the illusion. Because we know cooler heads won’t prevail: When violence does break out, we ditch “live and let live” and crack down. We start behaving like the Romans had the right idea all along.

God’s peace does none of these things. It produces no violence. No internal unrest. No fear or anxiety. Only a true, authentic inner peace—one which isn’t based on destroying or denying the things which disrupt peace. It’s based on a very simple act: Stop worrying about everything outside your control, concentrate on the things which are up to you, and seek God’s kingdom first and foremost. Mt 6.25-34

Trust God. Not circumstances.

Peace, as the scriptures define it, is knowing our place under God. We see harmony, solid relationships, kindness, love, generosity, forgiveness, patience, and all the other things which maintain our peace, because we submit to God like we oughta, and because we see others behave the way God wants us to.

We embrace optimism. Not self-delusionally; the world still sucks. But we’ve put our hope in Jesus, not the world.

John 16.31-33 NRSVue
31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!”

The reason we see conflict among fellow Christians is because one or another of us—sometimes all of us—don’t trust God. We trust money, guns, a stable government, job security, certain family or friendly relationships—even theological beliefs which are anchored in popular Christian culture rather than God. We’ve psyched ourselves into believing these things are part of his will. We’ve justified our sins to ourselves.

Fr’instance those Christians who refuse to spend money on the needy. They figure they’re practicing “tough love”—that in order to break the cycle of poverty, it’s best for the needy if they work to be worthy of it. They argue “We need to be good stewards of God’s money.” And any other justifications for stinginess. Whatever good excuse shuts up our consciences, and lets us feel okay—even good about ourselves!—for ignoring or denying the needy.

Problem is, doing so scorches our consciences, and you know that’s gonna have consequences later. A defective conscience means we’re gonna more easily stumble into evil.

Fruitful Christians seek God’s actual will, and don’t try to justify violating it for our own convenience. True, other Christians’ lack of peace (and other fruit) will regularly butt heads with our peace. Jesus got killed as a result of other people’s lack of peace. He warned us this stuff would happen; read John 16.31-33 again. Life is suffering. We’ll get persecuted same as he did. Mt 5.11 But peace isn’t the product of a lack of suffering. It’s the product of knowing we’re right in the center—really in the center—of God’s will. It’s focusing on Jesus, just as he focused on his Father.

So despite the lack of peace around us, Jn 14.27 we can have a connection to God which exceeds anything we can understand, and guards our hearts and minds. Pp 4.7 It’s the inner peace which regularly becomes outer peace. (Beware any “inner peace” which isn’t contagious.) And God only puts it there once we follow him.