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December 18, 2011

I went to college at a Church of the Brethren school. The Church of the Brethren (not to be confused with any of a half-dozen or so other churches that use the word “brethren” in their name) is a pacifist denomination. Since I also attended college when the U.S. began two wars, one of which was fairly unpopular from the get-go, my college years were full of talk about peace. By and large the pacifists I talked to were principled people who took the tough stance that they would rather die than save their lives by violence. They told stories of the Brethren settlers in Pennsylvania and Ohio who would be attacked by local tribes and who would simply allow themselves to be shot to death rather than break their strict understanding of “turn the other cheek”. Occasionally, however, a dissonant note was sounded as one or another of my pacifist friends launched into a hateful tirade against those who had violated the command to love one’s enemies. These occasional ironic outbursts provide a useful starting point for this article. What is peace? Has a pacifist who declares that they hate their enemies violated peace?

The most common definition of peace is the absence of war. However, many will also quibble with this definition since political oppression and the presence of serious violent crime both create situations that are neither peaceful nor war. The presence of consistent, continued violence seems like a clear violation of peace. I can probably gain majority support if I state that the scale of the violence need not even be lethal. A house in which an abusive father beats everyone on a regular basis, but never to death, is not a house of peace. However, I’d like to suggest that real peace goes much further than that and that real peace has to involve an absence of hatred for others.

Now, obviously, this is not to say that WWII and anger at the lady in front of you in the checkout line who is paying for everything with pennies and coupons, half of which have expired, are equal violations of peace. Obviously the Hiroshima blast is far less peaceful than flipping someone off. However, I do wish to claim that all of these actions are of the same type. An earthquake registering less than 2.0 on the Richter scale can’t be felt but it’s still as real of an earthquake as one registering 9.0. Similarly, a small-scale violation of peace is of the same type as a larger-scale one. This is why all our Christmas wishes of peace on earth never really go anywhere. The large-scale flare-ups that we worry about are the inevitable confluence of the small-scale problems we rarely even monitor. Mass violence by many on many is less peaceful than the individual violence of one on one which is less peaceful than the hatred of one for one which is less peaceful than the internal war within oneself, but none are peace.

Christ does not come merely to still the bloody blade, to freeze the stealth bomber in mid-air, and arrest the bullet in the barrel. Indeed, those who have followed Christ through the ages have frequently been the targets of blades and bullets. Christ comes to end the war at all levels and now, before the eschaton, the lower levels are where he seems to be working most.

Let us return, for a moment, to inner peace. I don’t always find that term particularly helpful since some people use it for weird things. In fact, I wish to use this term to encompass two related ideas. First, there is inner peace with others. If inside I wish to boil people alive then I clearly lack inner peace. Instead, I am at interior war against others which might, should conditions permit, break out into exterior war at a moment’s notice. This is a relatively obvious point and I suspect some of you, thinking I was going no further in this article, stopped reading a few paragraphs back.

The second component of inner peace is peace with ourselves. Now, some people take this to mean that we should pacify our desires through indulgence, a tactic I’m quite happy to label as appeasement. While one might feel peaceful when supplied with exterior needs, this fails to be a lasting peace as it remains dependent on things outside one’s control. The problem is that our desires, specifically our twisted, sinful desires (as opposed to, say, our desire to see justice and mercy done), pull us into war. We see that our neighbors have a nicer TV than us and greed makes us discontent. It causes us to go to war inside ourselves, greed against prudence, and we lose our peace. This is far short of the point where we steal our neighbor’s TV or kill our neighbor for his stuff, but it is the beginning. It is the point at which warfare begins, when we go to war against what is good in ourselves and go to war against our own contentment. The root of all conflict starts here, in the hearts of people where the good image of God wars against our Fallen state.

The grand design of God is ultimately to end all conflict. However, more proximally, the grand design of God is to remove from us those things that are constantly warlike, like greed, lust, and the thirst for power. As we stand now we still contain the seeds of war and all our pleas for peace remain objections to our own sprouting.

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