Peace can Only Come with Justice; The Opposite of War is Creation
The Biblical term we translate peace is “shalom” and that word was not just the absence of tension or conflict. Rather, as Delwin Brown suggests in What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?, shalom is “fullness of health throughout the whole web of life … a peace that arises out of the interrelated health of all things”1. This Biblical peace is found not just in an absence of conflict but the reconciliation of all things that are out of harmony (2 Corinthians 5). This cannot occur without justice extending to all, even the most put down and outcast. It is the presence of such justice or fairness in our communities and world, beginning with our own personal relationships. For this to be present the real work of reconciliation has to go on.
A compelling picture of such reconciliation work is the one given by Desmond Tutu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness. In it he demonstrates that this requires truth-telling by all sides of those involved in conflict, a willingness for all sides to own their responsibility for the mess they find their selves in, to work to make amends in practical terms while changing future behaviors, and for both sides to extend mercy toward each other without giving up on the importance of remaining open to forging and continuing a relationship of good will. In his book, Tutu demonstrates how this process worked in the time after the dismantling of the apartheid system that crushed black South Africans under its boot, and he shares how such a process can work in our families and communities today. The presence of relationships restored to fair or just ways of relating, especially in relationship to people who were once oppressed, is a key dimension of Biblical peace. This is why again and again the Biblical prophets join Mary the mother of Jesus in celebrating how those on top in the world, the oppressors, will be brought down while those on the bottom, the oppressed, will be lifted up (see Luke 1:46-55). In her song in Luke, Mary is celebrating that restoration of equal footing between all God’s children which Biblical justice creates. So there is no peace without justice.
But in the Biblical visions of peace, shalom, there is also talk about life-giving powers blossoming. If you get a chance, look up the prophecies of the peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah. In those prophecies, we see deserts blooming with flowers, women who were barren having bawling babies, children who would have died young rising to ripe old ages, wastelands being turned to cities, and people planting fertile gardens. Such images speak to the fact that Biblical peace is also the presence of life-giving forces in our midst which war and violence against each other, and against creation destroy. When we say something looks like a battle-field, we usually mean it is chaotic, it is a mess, and often it is devoid of signs of life. The presence of Biblical peace means ceasing our war with nature, so we make space for nature to become life-giving again so endangered animals and lands with their beautiful plants thrive again.
It also making room for ourselves and each other to tap into such life-giving powers. That’s why the musical Rent says “the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation”.
When we give ourselves as individuals and each other as a community the room to breathe and to tap into our own innate, God-giving life-giving powers that are woven into our DNA just as sure as a our skin-tones, hair color, and sexuality, we will begin to bring life into our world. Though this is pictured in terms of mothers giving birth it is also pictured in terms of planting gardens, writing and singing new songs, building beautiful cities and homes. This is imagery in Scripture is of creativity flowering. The presence of creativity, health, and life flowering is shalom, Biblical peace in action.
When Jesus, in Mark 1, tells us “the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe”, it is exactly this image of God’s peaceable kingdom in prophecies such as Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea that Jesus is talking about. It has come near because Jesus is showing us the path to shalom in his own life and teachings. He is inviting us to change our thinking and patterns of life (which is what metanoia, the Greek word we translate “repent” means) and believe that this peaceable kingdom is a possibility we can work toward. One might even say that Jesus is challenging us to see this peaceable kingdom as already a reality from God’s perspective, since Jesus has joined the prophets and seers of all times and places in saying God will make this come to pass.
Instead of a warning that disaster is coming, so you better get right, as many understand the phrase “the Kingdom is near, repent and believe”, Jesus is in fact saying something very similar to Gandhi’s call to “be the change you want to see in the world”. Jesus is calling us to do our part in making this vision of shalom, of peace, of life-giving harmony and creativity, a reality.
Think for a moment, if you truly believed this kind of peace was possible in your relationships, your families, your towns, your community, your world, what would you do differently? What choices might you make?
How would our Christianity look differently if our preachers really preached this, and our churches really believed it?
One suggestion that makes a lot of sense to me is what once NAZI soldier turned Christian minister and peace and justice activist Jurgen Moltmann says, in his book Source of Life –
“What does this mean for our understanding of Christian mission? Up to now mission as we know it has meant the spread of Christian … civilization, or values of the Western world. Up to now mission as we know it has meant the spread and propagation of the church … Up to now mission … has been the communication of the personal decision of faith and person experiences of conversion. But is citizenship of the … Christian civilization or… Western values already new life in God’s Spirit? Is membership of the Christian church already salvation in the Holy Spirit? Is the experience of conversion and the decision of faith already rebirth out of God’s eternal Spirit? … We need nothing so much as the mission of life so that we can affirm and love life so much that we protest against death and all the powers that disseminate death… Mission doesn’t mean ‘compelling them to come in’! The mission of life … picks up the thread wherever life exists, wherever life is threatened by violence and death, wherever life withers because the courage for living has been lost … [and] makes this life here different2″.
How can we work toward the reconciliation of all things as believers? How can we work toward justice for all? Toward people making amends for inequity, seeking to restore what has become broken? Toward forgiveness and healing? Toward making room for life to thrive in all of creation? Toward all of us giving ourselves and others room in which to tap into our own powers of creation and life?
To close the blog out I’m going to include a video clip of the song “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” which to me is unique among popular Christian music in affirming the fact that our future need not be fatalistic, but rather as Jesus said the Kingdom of God is at hand if we will embrace it. Let us do so, let us take Christ’s hand and in the Spirit’s power work to be the change we need to see in this world.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
1 Brown, Delwin. What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? (Seabury Books: New York, 2008), 88.
2Moltmann, Jurgen. The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life. (Fortress Press: Kindle Electronic Edition, 1997), loc. 282-316.