Peace Like a River/Peace Like a Desert

“Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” (They make a desert and call it peace)—Tacitus

 “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.” (Isaiah 66:12 NIV)

For years I have been haunted by two different symbols of peace.

The first comes from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome. When I first heard this quotation it was out of context, and I had no idea who this Tacitius fellow might have been. But it was a gut-punch nonetheless, as I immediately perceived the uncomfortable truth behind it. Peace, when defined merely as the absence of war, is at best a neutral value—one that can be achieved by destroying, as well as by building, a community.

In its original context, the phrase is even more devastating. It comes in the midst of Tacitus’s minor classic, Agricola, a family history of his own father in law, who served as a governor of Roman Britain in the early days of the conquest. Though the lines are the invention of Tacitus, he places them in the mouth of Calgacus, the Caledonian chieftain, in a speech addressing his men before a great battle with the Roman invaders:

Making concessions and being moderate isn’t going to save us from their tyranny.  They rape the whole world.   When they’ve finished devastating the land they turn their attentions to the sea.  If their enemies have wealth they want it; if they’re poor, it makes no difference, they still hunger for power.  Nowhere, east or west, is enough for them – they’re the only ones who lust after everything alike, rich or poor.  Abduction, massacre, plunder they misname ‘law and order’.  Where they make a desert they call it ‘peace.’

In this amazing speech, Tacitus lays bare the big lie of empire, which is that its actions can be justified by anything beyond the raw exercise of force—things like “law and order,” “duly constituted authority,” and even “peace.” These are simply the lies that the powerful repeat as they are imposing their will on the powerless. Or, as Thucydides put it, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

But peace can be something better than a desert. It can be a river. I first encountered the phrase “peace like a river” in the title of a Paul Simon song. And if this weren’t enough (but of course it is), it is also part of a prophecy from Isaiah found in Isaiah 66:12-13, speaking of the ultimate redemption of Jerusalem.

“I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will nurse and be carried on her arm
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

And peace isn’t the only thing that flows like a river in the Old Testament. In the book of Amos (5:4), we see that justice does too. Or at least should: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

And, for Amos, neither justice nor righteousness are vague or abstract terms. He defines them both in the beginning of the chapter. Or, more specifically, he defines their opposites injustice and wickedness. And here’s the thing, they both have to do with how a society treats is least fortunate:

     There are those who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground.
    He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns midnight into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the Lord is his name.
     With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin.
     There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
     You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
     Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
     For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
     There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
     Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil. (Amos 5:7-13 NIV)

Amazingly, Tacitus and Isaiah/Amos lead us to exactly the same place: the view of “peace” as one of those tricky virtues that can be really good or really bad depending on how it is achieved. It is the same place that Martin Luther King comes to in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

Those of us who take seriously the injunction to renounce war and proclaim peace must recognize that, in the absence of justice, “peace”—and its civilian equivalent of “all just getting along”—will usually benefit the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Thus it joins a large constellation of seemingly good values—including equality, consistency, comfort, civility, decency, and order—that can be invoked against agents of positive change by those with a strong interest in keeping things the way they have always been.

Peace is a grand thing, and we should spend our lives in its pursuit—as long as it is like a river, and not like a desert.


  1. Kevin Barney says:


    This made me think of the expression Pax Romana, which literally means “the Roman peace,” but according to the Lewis and Short lexicon the connotation of the word pax here is actually “dominion, empire. [of the Romans].”

  2. I am sometimes haunted by a class member’s comment from my Gospel Doctrine teaching days: “Well, we know that [status quo on whatever we were discussing] is what Jesus wants, or he would tell the apostles to do something different.”

    I know that doing something for the sake of doing something is almost never the right answer, but neither is “keeping things the way they have always been” just because they have always been that way. In fact, in very many questions, we have been told to do something different than what we are now doing. As long as we haven’t yet created Zion, we have to do something different. Do something different. Do something different

  3. Yes, Ardis — excellent point. This is a major problem with Mormon culture today. Morality is reduced to the following maxim: “We do it therefore it’s right.”

  4. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Mike. I believe in the kind of peace you’re on about here. It’s hard even to imagine.

    Ardis: excellent point as always.

  5. Well stated, Michael. We won’t see “peace like a river” until the meek inherit the earth.

  6. Peace like a desert is stable and quiet, and . . , sterile and lifeless except for the lone narcissist observer. I do believe that’s what some people want.
    Peace like a river is fluid, messy, noisy, riotous. It comprises innumerable individual components that bond and break and bond again. I believe that many people don’t really want “like a river” peace. But I want it, and I believe it is approachable in this life in this world.
    Paul Simon again (from “Peace Like a River”):
    You can beat us with wires
    You can beat us with chains
    You can run out your rules
    But you know you can’t outrun the history train
    I’ve seen a glorious day

  7. Olde Skool says:

    Bro B:

    “The meek don’t want it.”
    –James Galvin, “Avatar” (from Elements [Copper Canyon, 1988]).

  8. Great post, Mike. And great comment, Ardis.

  9. Matt Witten says:

    I love this. I have a question though. What do you make of the internal tension between Amos’s the prudent keeping quiet and MLKjr’s the moderates needing to stand up?

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