In the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). When Jesus sent out the disciples two by two, part of their instructions was to enter with the blessing, “Peace to this house” (Luke 10:5). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). Every Advent, churches light a series of candles, one being the candle of peace.
So it should be pretty clear that peace is God’s desire for us.
But then there’s one interesting and difficult passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother … a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”
This seems to be a reversal or contradiction, but read in context, Jesus seems to be saying that allegiance to his kind of Kingdom will inevitably cause division with those who have different priorities. Peacemakers get in the way of warmongers. Justice hinders the power-brokers. Mercy impedes revenge. As Jesus points out, these divisions can and do happen within one’s own family (how did your Thanksgiving go?).
Here Jesus is describing what peace — properly understood — sometimes requires.
In the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament), the English word “peace” is translating the Hebrew word shalom. Jesus and his Jewish listeners would have known the word well, and many commentators say the meaning of the word goes far beyond how English speakers usually think of “peace.”
Rabbi David Zaslow wrote, “Contrary to popular opinion, the Hebrew word shalom does not mean ‘peace,’ at least not in the English sense of the word. It comes from a Hebrew root-word that means ‘wholeness.’” Jewish philosopher Aviezer Ravitzky explained that “shalom is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well being … circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect.” In other words, shalom is when things are they way God intended them to be. It is no trivial concept in the Bible. One Midrash teaching says, “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of shalom.”
“Peace” in the English language is often thought of as tranquility or the lack of conflict. But if shalom is the wholeness and well being of individuals or a community, then you can’t have shalom without justice.
So, when we do something that takes a step toward shalom, it may very well “disturb the peace.”
Many people would rather “keep the peace” — keep things quiet and the waters undisturbed. That’s what many people who considered themselves allies of the cause of racial equality told Martin Luther King Jr. Seen best in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King went so far as to say that people who wanted him to stop stirring things up were a greater stumbling block than a klansman. He critiqued them for being “more devoted to order than to justice, [preferring] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Shalom is “positive peace.”
Jesus’ quote about family members turning against each other is a reference to Micah, chapter 7, and it’s very instructive to go back and look at the context of it. This is one chapter after Micah’s well known statement that the Lord requires us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” (6:8). The prophet is lamenting what Israel has become:
Your rich people are violent,
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully. (Micah 6:12)
Everyone lies in wait to shed blood …
Both hands are skilled in doing evil,
the ruler demands gifts,
the judge accepts bribes,
the powerful dictate what they desire. (Micah 7:2-3)
This was a common theme among the prophets and often why they pronounced God’s judgment. Isaiah notably said:
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10:1-2)
In these days, I must say that I resonate with these prophetic laments. There is an urgent need to be ambassadors of shalom in today’s world, but we may not be able to do it while “keeping the peace.” It’s a common sentiment that one should not discuss religion or politics in polite company, but perhaps that very reluctance and silence is how we’ve managed to allow things denounced by the prophets to gain strong footholds among us.
The tax bill currently before congress is nothing short of the violence of the rich, as the prophet put it, making “unjust laws” and “oppressive decrees.” In a new wave of nationalism and xenophobia, people who “speak deceitfully” and bear false witness against minorities and the vulnerable have been given positions of power. There is too much “shed blood” in our proliferation of killing machines and among neglected communities. Micah’s lament that “the ruler demands gifts … the powerful dictate what they desire” is a pretty good description of lawmakers voting on bills they haven’t read that were crafted by special interest groups (a reality that is not new but that they used to at least try to hide).
None of this is shalom. Ambassadors of shalom — “peacemakers” as Jesus put it — have our work cut out for us. As we work for shalom, we face the reality of well-funded and well-organized people working against it. Shalom is not profitable for the few, nor does it satisfy vengeance, but it is the work of Christ. Being a peacemaker is not for the faint of heart. It requires love of enemy. It requires the opening of our hearts and ears to the other, a courageous act in a political climate in which we are actively being turned against one another. This is not left vs. right — this is shalom and well being vs. self destruction.
Rabbi Zaslow offers a powerful challenge: “The peace movement … is not liberal or conservative, it is both liberal and conservative. It is not left wing or right wing, it flies with two wings. It is not religious vs. secular, rather it integrates the genius of both science and spirituality.”
We’ve “kept the peace” for too long. It’s time to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14).