A Primer on Peace


Have you ever noticed how many slogans there are about peace? Perhaps no other word in our English language (save love) is more susceptible to sloganeering, and thus misunderstanding. Consider the numerous endings to the phrase "if you want peace…" as in "if you want peace, stop fighting." The first and most famous use of this phrase is from Epitoma Rei Militaris by Vegetius (c. 385 AD): "Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum" (If you want peace, prepare for war). Other versions have proliferated over the years: "If you want peace, study war"; "If you want peace, work for peace"; "If you want peace, end poverty"; "If you want peace, defend life"; and "If you want peace, you have to fight." My personal favorite, because I believe it is closest to the heart of the matter, is Paul VI’s famous dictum: "If you want peace, work for justice." This collection of seemingly contradictory slogans attests to a vast array of ideas and conceptions of what peace is and how it should be pursued. Such a multiplicity of views can disorient anyone who is seriously attempting to understand, advance, or maintain peace.

But such complexity is not surprising. Most of the important concepts in our language are so profound that they must be carefully analyzed and studied to be even partially understood. For example, in his classic The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis shows some of the complexity and depth associated with the many relationships that we refer to as "love." Benedict XVI carried on this tradition in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. It is not surprising then that the concept of peace needs a similar treatment.

Go to the Roots

"Peace" is a biblical term. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for peace is shalôm. Literally, it means "to be complete or whole" (Mauro Rodriguez, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 11, 37). Shalôm is used in many different ways in the Old Testament. It can mean general prosperity or well-being (Gen. 15:15; Ps. 4:8), safety or success (2 Sam. 11:7; 18:29), harmony among friends and family members (Zech. 6:13); and harmony among nations (1 Kgs. 4:24; 5:12). When used as a greeting or as a blessing (as it was and is used by Hebrew speakers) it conveys the notion that one is wishing all good things to the person addressed (2 Sam 15:9).

When the Hebrew of the Old Testament came in contact with the Greek world after Alexander the Great (c.323 B.C.), the text was translated into a version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (so-called for the seventy translators who worked on the project). As with many biblical terms, the merging of Hebrew and Greek words and ideas provided a rich vocabulary for the sacred authors to express the word of God (guided, of course, by the Holy Spirit).

Many Greek words were used in an attempt to capture the richness of the Hebrew concept of shalôm, but the most common was eirene. In classical Greek, this term denotes the state that is the opposite of war or civil disturbance. Eirene also was used to speak of an inner peace, in which a person had no conflicts or hostile feelings. Under the influence of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy, the term evolved to refer to ethical goodness. So Christians who were native speakers of Greek began to use eirene when speaking of the "the good that comes from God either in this age or the age of salvation" (Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 208). The richness of the word as we use it today can be traced back to this understanding.

Use the Right Tool

Because peace is so important for individuals and for society, we must know how to achieve and maintain peace. But to achieve each kind of peace requires that we understand the methods proper to each. Psychologists can help a person achieve inner harmony and may be able to offer advice on family dynamics and difficulties, but they are not usually the best source for spiritual guidance, and they certainly are not the frontline defenders of the civic order. In the same way, we must not believe that friendly feelings towards the people of another country will suffice to keep us at peace with them. When it comes to achieving and maintaining peace, like in many things in life, it is vital to use the right "tool" for the right job. Two examples should help illustrate this point. The first has to do with maintaining peace with God. The second has to do with establishing peace among nations.

It Begins with Trust in God

Peace with God is God’s gift to us. God alone can place us in right relationship with him. This teaching is clear in both the Old and the New Testaments. God initiated the covenant with man, restored it when we fell, and fulfilled it in Jesus Christ. With Gideon we can say that "the Lord is our peace" (Judg. 6:24).

As Christians, we know that God dwells in us making us temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). He promised us that he would provide for all our needs (cf. Matt. 6:26-34) and that "all things would work together for good for those that love God and are called according to his purposes" (Rom. 8:28). We are told that without him we can do nothing (John 15:5), but that, in him, we are "more than conquerors" (Rom. 8:37).

Thus, for those who have accepted Christ, if we put these teachings together, we recognize that nothing ought to rob us of our peace. This is the main point of Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, a book written by Fr. Jacques Philippe, a French priest working in Rome. It is the type of essay one can return to again and again for solace and motivation. In it, Fr. Philippe boldly proclaims, "The reasons why we lose our peace are always bad reasons" because God gives his peace as a gift to those who entrust themselves to him. As Jesus told his disciples: "Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give you; a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid" (John 14:27). This peace is no superficial freedom from conflicts or difficulties, but a deep, abiding inner peace that comes from union with and confidence in God.

There’s No Good Reason

Since peace is God’s gift we ought not to let anything disturb it. As St. Paul wrote: "If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who could ever separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom. 8:31, 35). However, most Christians know how easy it is to lose one’s sense of peace.

But any reason that causes us to lose our peace is a bad reason. What are these "bad reasons"? Fr. Philippe highlights four in particular:

  • The troubles of life and the fear of being without: How often this can disturb our peace! But, we must remember God’s Providence. God always provides! "Stop worrying over questions like ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ The unbelievers are always running after these things. Your heavenly Father knows all that you need. Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides" (Matt. 6:31-33).
  • Others' faults and shortcomings: Oh, how we let others’ actions affect us!
    Someone cuts in line or in traffic, looks at us funny, or says something we disagree with, and our peace is gone. But if we let others agitate us so, we give away our freedom and self-control to them. We empower them to determine how we are. This denies one of God’s greatest gifts to us: free will. Our peace should not depend on others.
  • Our own faults and shortcomings: My favorite bumper sticker is the one that reads, "Be patient with me, God isn’t through yet." One of the most difficult spiritual traits to acquire is patience. We need patience with ourselves and with others. After all, we are to imitate God who is patient with us. "Be patient, therefore, my brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil" (Jas. 5:7).
  • The fear of suffering: Perhaps this is the largest obstacle to seeking and maintaining inner peace. Yes, to love in this imperfect world full of sin means to suffer. But, suffering is inevitable. To love is to suffer, but to choose not to love entails an even greater suffering. What we must remember is that God will never test us beyond our means. As my mother taught me, "The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you." Paul reminded the Romans of the infallibility of God’s providence for those who love and follow God when he wrote, "All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

Fr. Philippe’s book is a great challenge and solace. Its truth is borne out in Scripture and in the prayers of the Mass. In every Mass we pray right after the Our Father for the gift of peace and protection "from all anxiety." It was this gift of perfect peace that St. Teresa of Avila was praying for in her classic poem:

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.

Confidence and trust are the tools that maintain our peace with God. Thus our prayer should be: May the Peace of God that surpasses all understanding reign in our hearts and in our minds (cf. Phil. 4:7).

Defend the Weak and Innocent

Our peace with God is vitally important. It is essential to our salvation. But it ought not to be confused with establishing peace among peoples. This is another thing entirely and requires different tools. Establishment of justice and development of people are our tools in working for peace in society. The goal is the establishment and development of rightly ordered societies.

While we are working for peace, we must keep in mind that there are real enemies, both human and demonic, that oppose this work. The weak and innocent will always need to be defended. And it is the duty of the nation-state and those entrusted with the care of the common good to ensure that provisions are made for the common defense. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, teaches clearly that the state has the duty in charity and justice to defend the innocent:

The requirements of legitimate defense justify the existence in States of armed forces, the activity of which should be at the service of peace. Those who defend the security and freedom of a country, in such a spirit, make an authentic contribution to peace . . . The right to use force for purposes of legitimate defense is associated with the duty to protect and help innocent victims who are not able to defend themselves from acts of aggression. (502ff.)

Thus, those engaged in the common defense—the military—are peacemakers. Nevertheless, while this work contributes to a more just and caring world, lasting peace will never be fully achieved in this life short of the Second Coming of Christ. The sh?lôm of the end times is, in George Weigel’s words, the "moral" and "orienting horizon" by which to judge any peace here and now. We must face the reality that, until then, there will always be more to do: a more just world, a greater development of people, a deeper and more realized sense of freedom (Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, 341).

Peace Is Grounded in Truth

When Cardinal Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he told the world that he chose the name with peacemaking in mind. The name denotes blessing and calls to mind the patron saint of Europe, St. Benedict. In his first Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2006, the Pope said of St. Benedict that he "inspired a civilization of peace." He also made an explicit reference to Benedict XV’s many efforts on behalf of peace at the time of the First World War. There is little doubt that this Pontiff sees the work for peace as a major.aspect of his ministry..

So far, Benedict has issued two World Peace Day messages and several major addresses focused on peace. Although his approach has not met with universal acceptance, he has attempted to demonstrate the essential link between truth, the dignity of the human person, and peace. He has differentiated between the various meanings of peace and attempted to show how everyone, in accordance with his vocation, can be at the service of peace. For example, in his first World Peace Day Statement, Benedict XVI wrote:

For her part, the Church, in fidelity to the mission she has received from her Founder, is committed to proclaiming everywhere "the Gospel of peace." In the firm conviction that she offers an indispensable service to all those who strive to promote peace, she reminds everyone that, if peace is to be authentic and lasting, it must be built on the bedrock of the truth about God and the truth about man. This truth alone can create a sensitivity to justice and openness to love and solidarity, while encouraging everyone to work for a truly free and harmonious human family. The foundations of authentic peace rest on the truth about God and man.

In his second World Peace Day message of January 1, 2007, Benedict emphasized that respect for the human person was at the heart of peace. He also taught that peace was both a gift and a task. As redemption and right relationship with God, peace is his gift to us. As right relationship with others, it is a task for us to achieve with the grace of God. In keeping with the teaching of his predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II, Benedict called every Christian to "tireless peace-making" and "to unfailingly contribute to the advancement of a true integral humanism."

Peace should never to be reduced to just a slogan, but, rather, should be both the means and the end by which we sustain and strengthen our relationship with God and all others in God. We seek his gift and commit ourselves to his cause—the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

SIDEBARS

What Does Jesus Teach about Peace?

Jesus has the messianic title "Prince of Peace" (Is. 9:6) and he is called by St. Paul "our peace" (Eph. 2:14). Jesus proclaimed blessed the peacemakers, telling them that they were so like unto God that they could be called God’s sons (Matt. 5:9). At the Last Supper, he gave the disciples the gift of his peace. His first gift to his disciples after he rose from the dead was the gift of peace (cf. John 14:27; 20:19). St. Paul teaches that God’s peace in Jesus surpasses "all understanding" (Phil. 4:7). Still, Jesus also taught that he did not come to bring peace but a sword: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). What is one to make of all this? How does one sort through these seemingly contradictory texts? Is Jesus the Prince of Peace or a source of division? The answer is "yes."

Beyond the Slogans: Seven Meanings of Peace

An old Thomistic adage observes that the role of a theologian is to "seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish." This often sound advice is most appropriate when dealing with complex concepts such as peace. One must distinguish between different meanings and uses of the term.

Today we use the term "peace" in at least seven different ways. Three relate to the individual. Three have to do with society. The seventh pertains to both.

1. Inner Peace

The idea of inner peace speaks of the absence of internal conflicts. "Are you at peace about your decision?" we might ask a friend. This type of peace can reflect psychological health for a person with a well-formed conscience, or conversely, serious problems for the person who is "at peace" with doing something that is morally depraved. The latter is a false peace—the type of delusion that the prophet Jeremiah denounced when he wrote, "‘Peace, peace!’ they say, though there is no peace" (Jer. 6:14; 8:11).

2. Peace in the Community

The individual is at peace with his family, friends, and neighbors. Harmony with those whom we love and live with is vital to human flourishing and happiness. It also takes much hard work. The Scriptures praise friendship as an essential part of a full life: "A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth. A faithful friend is a lifesaving remedy, such as he who fears God finds; for he that fears God behaves accordingly, and his friend will be like himself" (Sir. 6:14-17).

3. Peace with God

By the grace of God, a person is placed into right relationship with him. God freely gives this peace of soul. Jesus spoke of this peace to his disciples: "Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you; a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid…" (John 14:27). Because this peace is God’s gift of reconciliation that he offers to all, we need only accept his offer of friendship.

4. Civil Order

A community is said to be at peace if it is not engaged in civil war or unrest, strife or rebellion. Some disharmony will always exist in any society. We speak of wars against crime and drugs, poverty and disease. But in an obvious way, Costa Rica’s civil society is at peace while Somalia’s and Sudan’s are not.

5. Absence of War

Any society that is not actively engaged in military action can be said to be at peace. Nonetheless, history and the present day offer us plenty of examples where this use of the term falls well short of what one would hope. The German occupation of France and the Japanese conquest of the Philippines in World War II created a "peace" of sorts, but use of the word in this context would be a very limited understanding of the fullness of peace between nations.

6. Tranquility of Order

St. Augustine’s classic The City of God gives us a more complete way of talking about peace between people and nation-states. Augustine writes that "peace is the calm that comes from order" (XIX:13). In Latin this reads, in part, pax omnium rerum tranquillitas ordinis (Peace is a result of a tranquility of order). Twenty years ago, George Weigel defined tranquillitas ordinis as "the peace of public order in a dynamic political community" (Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, 31). The most complete way of discussing peace between nations is to talk of the goal of a dynamic order that is based upon justice and respect for human rights.

7. Eschatological Peace

Finally, peace will come at the end of time, when Christ establishes once and for all the Kingdom. This is the eschatological peace of the end times when all things will be renewed in Christ and "every knee will bow… and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10-11). This will be peace in the complete sense, shalôm in its fullness. It is the peace described by the prophet Isaiah when he says that we "shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again" (Is. 2:4). At the end time, in the fullness of the Kingdom, the lion will lie with the lamb and the child play at the cobra’s den (cf. Is. 11).



Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland, S.T.D., was ordained a priest in 1991 for the Diocese of Peoria, IL. He received his undergraduate degree in Physics from the United States Naval Academy. Elected a Rhodes Scholar in 1981, he entered the...

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 3.