On Peace and Getting Along

Divisiveness is in the news again at the BYU, and, it seems, we must all pick a side. On the one side, we have same-sex marriage, commandeered commencement speeches, disobedience, sin, and disunity. On the other side we have institutional dignity, unequivocal love, loyalty, swords beaten into plowshares, and peace. Easy choice, right? Who wouldn’t want peace? That is, after all, what all disciples of Christ should work for.

But we have to be careful when striving for peace. Like most beautiful and powerful words, “peace” can mean several things, not all of them worth striving for. The ancient world gives us two profound metaphors for peace: the desert and the river. Both deserve careful attention.

The concept of desert peace comes to us from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome and the much-vaunted Pax Romana. Without any context, his famous phrase “Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (They make a desert and call it peace) works like a wrecking ball on the idea that peace is always a good thing. It reminds us that one can get to a permanent absence of war simply by destroying every living thing. Where there is no life, there is no conflict.

In its original context, the phrase is even more devastating. It comes in 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 500 years earlier, “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 we see that justice does too. Or at least should: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (5:4). I don’t think that this is a coincidence. River peace—the kind of peace that we should always seek and strive to produce—cannot exist without justice.

This was perhaps the major theme of Amos, Isaiah, and all of the Hebrew Prophets. They had no interest in desert-peace, or in peace defined simply as the absence of open conflict. The desire to eliminate conflict comes, not from a desire to create real peace, but from a desire to minimize discomfort. Human beings like to be comfortable, and, when we are not uncomfortable, we often imagine that we are happy.

The elimination of discomfort, however, is not a gospel principle. The gospel is supposed to make us uncomfortable. So is a university education. We don’t grow in our comfort zone. We grow when we allow ourselves to experience discomfort and then try to figure out why. When a BYU student recently used a commencement address to acknowledge that he was “proud to be a gay son of God,” a lot of people were uncomfortable. Some of them wrote angry letters. But some of them also grew spiritually and discovered the expansiveness of God’s love.

I doubt that anybody ever made anybody else more uncomfortable than Amos and Isaiah and the other prophets of the Old Testament made everyone they encountred. They were, as Abraham Heschel has written, “some of the most disturbing people who ever lived.” But they were supposed to be disturbing. They were supposed to annoy and harangue and overwhelm people with God’s anger at their greed and their pettiness. God called the prophets to bring peace to the world, but river-peace, not desert-peace. To create peace they first had to bring about justice.

If we want to define peace as inherently divine, then we must make very sure that, by “peace,” we do not mean the absence of conflict or the elimination of discomfort. Otherwise, we place the burden of everyone’s comfort on the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community. We create desert-peace, and we make river-peace impossible.  

Dr. Martin Luther King came to just this conclusion when a group of white pastors, who opposed segregation and supported with the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, criticized him for being too divisive. His response to their criticism became the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it, he wrote:

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.

Let us always seek peace like a river—even if, by doing so, we must first disrupt the deserts that have too long passed for peace in the minds of those who have no need of water.


  1. Excellent distinction; thanks, Michael.

  2. Holly Miller says:

    Good topic

  3. Rivers overflow their banks, sometimes. They gouge out the growing gardens planted along their banks, sometimes. Just because something starts out looking like a river and sounding like a river doesn’t mean it’s always peaceful. The current river is quickly turning into a raging flood, causing damage to the fields it was designed to water, destroying relationships, becoming the watery equivalent of a mob. That isn’t peace.

  4. Didn’t you first post this on August 2, 2017?

  5. Michael Austin says:

    Different version. Maybe half the same.

  6. +1

  7. Doesn’t discomfort cut both ways, though? Maybe someone is uncomfortable with someone coming out at a graduation, and maybe someone is uncomfortable with E. Holland’s talk. I imagine both think they’re being reasonable.

    I guess my main quibble with this post is less about its gravamen and more along the lines of pluralism. If we’re going to live in a pluralistic society, then *how* we disagree almost has to be as important as *what* we disagree about. Is there room in your post for that caveat? Or do we simply believe s/he who is correct–whatever that means–should feel comfortable making others uncomfortable?

  8. Stephen Hardy says:

    Michael: please post this again, tomorrow. Then daily. MLK gave many versions of his “I Have A Dream” speech, and I wouldn’t be surprised someday to learn that Jesus honed his “Sermon On The Mount” for sone time. For me, it brought comfort to someone who has been hurting for a few days. I don’t know why, but your post was like a deep drink of cool river water to someone who was parched in the desert.

  9. @jimbob I think the key is getting curious about and examining your discomfort instead of immediately putting up defenses. Are you uncomfortable because something is truly wrong (like some human is being mistreated)? Or are you uncomfortable because something is new to you (like many people are and have been when they see an interracial couple)? We tend to mistake the second type with the first, which prevents us from meaningfully examining our own biases and getting better.

    Sometimes I have been uncomfortable with, say, a General Conference talk because it was calling me to repent of something I really did need to change. That’s not fun! But it’s good. Other times I have been uncomfortable with a General Conference talk because it has been contrary to what I understand to be the nature of God / teachings of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, it can be very difficult to tell the difference.

    @OP I loved this post but am definitely left wondering “how”? Feels impossible.

  10. Larry the Cable-Guy says:

    I wasn’t around to experience the early Sixties, but I suspect there was a lot of momentum in being a comfortable “moderate” while the work of reform was done by the radical fringe.

    But, today, I see untenable fringe positions at all 360 degrees of perspective — politically, socially and to a milder degree within the church. When reading most op-eds or blogs, I think to myself, “They don’t really expect everyone to come around to that, do they? Really . . .?”

    Is there lazy complacency in the middle? Sure. But, you’ll also find critical work happening there to hold the center and keep the the fringes from floating into their own orbiting echo chambers once they reach critical mass. It’s not hard to be partially right and ride that pony all the way — but it is increasing difficult to keep multiple and competing demands and stakeholders harmonized. Maybe the Body of Christ needs connective tissue as well as the hands that scratch and claw new territory.

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.” (W.B.Yeats)

  11. Paul Simon is one of the poet prophets of my life, so Peace Like A River has a strong attraction. On the other hand, one of my top ten lifetime almost-died experiences was in a river that tried to crush me. And I live in high-altitude desert conditions that are healthy for me. I think I could flip the metaphors and write a contrasting essay.

    I take the point to be that certain words are used as rallying cries with coded meanings. I want to pay attention to the code, beyond the emotion. In this week’s context, I’m thinking of “peace” but also “love” and “unity.”

  12. How the Romans conquered Gaul: Killing everyone until no one could object. You are right. When everyone is oppressed, everyone is quiet and the the dictator is at peace. Note Syria.

    This is the problem now, how to live in a society with other people’s irrationality (projections of the unconscious mind). Racial tension is a result of unconscious xenophobia. Female repression is a result of some deeply flawed male archetype. It appears that a large portion of the population would desire a dictator because obscure unconscious needs (history has shown). There are people who would clamor for war, again, for weird testosterone-fueled reasons. There are people who deep in their guts abhor homosexuality for deeply buried (but probably denied) feelings. Belief in paranoid generated conspiracies.

    Maybe peace is in your own private solitude in company with a few perceptive souls.

  13. Thank you for this eloquent post. I listened to Elder Holland’s address this morning, and felt disappointment most of all. I joined the church in 1981, in the midst of the church’s fight against the ERA, which I supported then, and still do. I have never been comfortable in the church, and I have often been embarrassed, humiliated, frustrated, angry, and yearning to leave. But I am still here, with all of my discomfort, because I have sought diligently and received a witness that testimonies like mine are needed and welcome here. That reassurance has helped me immensely to stay and to live with my discomfort and to remain true to the people I love and the truths that run deeper than comfort. That witness has also given me peace with my firmly-held beliefs that may make others uncomfortable. In the Church, I have found more knowledge and insight into myself, the nature of God, His relationship to all of us, the plan of salvation, and the path to more knowledge. I take to heart the constant message of the Book of Mormon that if we do not harden our hearts, we may know the mysteries of God.
    As a convert, I am aware of what else is out there — and it’s not the supernal truths revealed in the Doctrine and Covenants (but I do harbor some holy envy of other things). Sherry Dew’s little book, Worth the Wrestle, (which I read in order to help my grandchildren) resonated with me. President Nelson’s observation that the Restoration is not complete (and likely will not be any time before the millennium) helps me feel peace and patience with the unfolding, but painfully slow, progress of the Restoration.
    I cannot endorse Elder Holland’s plea for a false peace and superficial comfort for those who put their faith in BYU, but I have often been succored by his insights, testimony, and encouragement. I must stand in my place on this wall of faith in order to call encouragement to those who need to be succored by testimonies like mine (to channel Martin Luther). I recognize that discomfort is the price of helping others gain their own foothold in the saving grace of the gospel or simply to find consolation from a friend.

  14. Michael’s posts always make me want to try harder and be better than I am. They sum up why, despite everything, I’ll always need the gospel in my life.

  15. Doug Hall says:

    Not coincidence that ‘Peace Sells Who’s Buying’ was on my playlist this morning.

  16. There is the “peace” of the desert, there is the peace of the river. And then there the “peace” of what you don’t see. For years my business partners were OK with me being trans as long as nobody knew. When it started to become evident and when I started to come out to my patients, my partners voted me out of the practice. For my whole life I felt like I had to hide myself from the world, and from the church. When I expressed my intention to eventually openly socially transition to female roles, (a process that literally saved my life), the church excluded me from the temple. There are many who are just fine with gay or transgender people as long as they are invisible. Elder Holland’s talk conflates invisibility with unity, and shows how truly unwelcome LGBTQ people are to express themselves in the kingdom. And stings especially when coming from someone who has sought to eloquently in the past to say that LGBTQ people have a place in the church. That was perhaps just pearl-clutching lip service, our place has been shown, once again, to be in a silent corner.

  17. When peace like a river attendeth my way
    When sorrows like sea billows roll
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
    It is well, it is well with my soul

  18. Jennifer, your testimony helped me. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate the post as well and the distinction between peace and being comfortable.

  19. Your church sounds way better than those mormons. Could you post its link?

  20. Billy Possum says:

    Beautiful metaphors, Michael. And more beautiful still for the Latter-day Saints, who pioneered irrigation in the American West by literally turning a river’s peace out onto the desert. (Ignore the myriad ecological complications for purposes of the metaphor.) I hope we will also pioneer in bringing real peace, with justice and inclusion, to a world that is fast desertifying, literally and politically.

    Thank you for writing.

  21. Jeremiah S says:

    I wish that E Holland would just come out and say that they want no more trouble at BYU, and they’re willing to sacrifice the LGBTQ+ community BORN INTO their own families to get it.

    Because whether it’s the intention or not, the effects will be the same.

  22. Isn’t every group that is willing to cause discomfort convinced that it is in the right, and usually that it’s oppressed? Think Cliven Bundy and his boys. They see themselves as fighting against injustices imposed by the powerful. So who gets to define which injustices are actually worth fighting for?

    And what level of discomfort is acceptable? Shouting at a politician you see in a restaurant? Protests that shut down freeways and airports? How about vandalism and theft? What about storming a government building? We’ve recently been reminded that many in the world, for good reasons, see the US as the oppressor. Are you okay with the discomfort they are causing? I suspect the level of discomfort you are okay with depends on how much you sympathize with the cause of the people causing the discomfort.

    Let’s be clear about the extent of this justice first, peace second argument; most of us would agree that some injustices are so great that war is justified to end them. So we better be right. But everyone is convinced that they’re right. And if enough disparate groups say justice first, peace second, do we ever arrive at peace?

  23. So to be clear, are you saying that Elder Hollands idea of peace is the destruction of everything? If not, why strawman?

    There’s another way to look at peace with a less sinister meaning. Through the lens of Islam. Peace is submission to the will of God. As long as you fight against God’s will you will always be in a struggle.

    You might even say thats synonymous with “let God prevail”.

    The truth is, the Brethren have created the asked for safe spaces to the best of their ability (while not departing from doctrine), and activists within the church have used that good will to further their agenda (which they sincerely feel is crucial) and press the issue on more fronts from within the enlarged safespace beachhead.

    Elder Holland us saying, if you keep pushing against the church and Christs teachings, you won’t have peace.

    He’s right. You’ll never be at peace if you keep pushing for the church to capitulate (when it won’t). I realize the hope is social pressure will bring a revelation, but if that never comes your needlessly engaging in an endless war.

  24. Cosmo the cougar is going on the fire like all false idols god rules and sinner will repent or move on into the dark black hole for there sod eternity

  25. Public discourse and fighting for our beliefs is good. But we shouldn’t leave our morality behind; we should fight fair. The BYU student was invited to give the speech, as he was the valedictorian of his graduating class (not guaranteed, though; they could have chosen the class president, for example, or someone whose message would be more palatable to parents and donors). The student had the speech text approved by the school administration beforehand, and he didn’t go off book. To characterize this as “commandeering [the graduation podium],” is a low blow, especially from a *Church Apostle* to a young man at the start of his adult life, who by all accounts followed the rules and the commandments. It’s punching down, and not in the spirit at all.

  26. I am not one to comment on BCC, but this post is one of the best posts I have ever read on here, and it was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you so very much.

  27. Joshua Fairbanks says:

    I think this is a beautiful exploration of these scriptural themes. I hope to think more about how peace often afflicts the already afflicted and buoys up the comfortable.

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