The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Peace

It is hard for me to think about the Advent Theme of Peace without also thinking about what one of Christ’s near-contemporaries said about peace just a few years after most of the books in the New Testament were written.

The near-contemporary I refer to is Tacitus, the great historian who captured the life, times, and conquests of the early Roman Empire. In one of his earliest histories, Agricola, Tacitus chronicles the Roman conquest of Britain, and in a particularly famous passage in that book, he places a speech in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain named Calgacus that explained what the Romans really meant by “peace”:

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.’

When I first heard it years ago, the phrase “they make a desert and call it ‘peace'” hit me with the force of a very unpleasant revelation. Like most people, I think, I have generally seen peace as a negative–not an undesirable or bad thing, but as the absence of something rather than its presence. Peace is what you get when there isn’t war or conflict. The way to promote peace, then, is to eliminate conflict.

Tacitus taught me that this is how we get deserts. We substitute a shallow counterfeit for the divine attribute of peace. This counterfeit goes by many names. We call it things like “comfort,” “order,” “tranquility,” “quiet,” “civility,” and “getting along.” But all of these are essentially negative virtues. Those who seek them work under the tragic illusion that peace breaks out automatically in the absence of overt hostility. To make everybody peaceful, you just have to make them comfortable.

Christ, the author of genuine peace, has little to do with the comfortable absence of conflict. Almost everything he tells us to do should make us–and everyone around us–uncomfortable. The wealthy young man took no comfort when Jesus told him to sell everything he had to give to the poor (Matthew 19:21). And it definitely was not a comfortable thing for Peter and Andrew to drop their nets, quit their jobs, and become Fishers of Men (Matthew 4: 18-22).

And then there is this bit:

Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. (Luke 12: 51-52)

Conflict, discomfort, disagreement, and not getting along are all necessary to our spiritual growth. When we minimize conflict with someone without actually learning how to love–how to see them as Christ sees them–we create a desert. And we make the fatal mistake of confusing the absence of something bad with the presence of something good.

Tacitus understood this concept well. So did Jesus. Another person who understood it was Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail sharply criticized those who were “more devoted to ‘order than to justice; who prefe[r] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

All three of our experts agree: justice must be present for peace to become something other than a purely negative virtue. Justice transforms the desert peace of Tacitus to the river peace of Isaiah, who prophecies that God would “extend peace . . . like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream (66:12); and Amos, who proclaimed, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)

The Advent Theme of Peace has been part of the Christmas celebration from the original angelic annunciation: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14). Let us celebrate peace. But let us celebrate the real thing and not the comfort that comes with the absence of conflict. The peace that comes through love and justice is one of the most powerful things in the world, and those who learn to create it will create much more than a desert. They will create the Kingdom of God.

Comments

  1. Is this like Ultron’s position? “I think you’re confusing peace with quiet.”

  2. Beautifully written

  3. Frances Fry says:

    Thank you for this. It’s spot on!

  4. Thank you for putting these poignant thoughts into words for the rest of us to enjoy and learn from. I do want peace like a river, not like a desert!