Peace Is Not a Verb: An Advent Sermon (2)

Peace is not a verb. One cannot go through the street “peacing”—not even during Advent. One might, in a very limited sense, use “peace” as a verb by appending to it the words “out” and “dude” in quick succession. But only if one drives a VW bus and wears love beads. For the rest of us, peace cannot be an action word, nor do we have good one-word alternatives to replace the unwieldy infinitive “to make peace.”

We do, though, have plenty of bad alternatives. According to the people who make thesauruses (thesauri?), the equivalents of “make peace” include “pacify,” “placate,” “appease,” “conciliate,” and “propitiate.” These words all describe actions that may bring about something that we might mistake for peace but that we should never confuse with the real thing.

Appeasing, conciliating, and placating can remove tension from a situation, usually through bribery, and make everyone feel more comfortable. Pacifying a group of people can stop a war through the use, or threat, of military force. And propitiating a divine being can (and least in theory) quell the god’s anger until the next time they get angry.

These actions all lead to a negative peace—or an absence of overt hostility or conflict. The Roman historian Tacitus referred to this kind of peace in Agricola when he wrote that Rome “makes a desert and calls it peace.” Martin Luther King also drew a sharp distinction between negative and positive peace in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he defines negative peace as “the absence of tension” and positive peace as “the presence of justice.”

Jesus also talked about negative peace from time to time, but he didn’t have many good things to say about it. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, he makes it clear that he is not the guy who will bring this kind of peace to the world:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:24-25)

As I read this passage, Jesus is saying something like, “I’m not here to make you comfortable or to help you keep living they way you have always lived. Something truly magnificent, the Kingdom of God, is within your reach. But you can only have it if you want it more than anything else and are willing to sacrifice everything else to get it.” The only rational response to such a statement is profound discomfort. In his great Christmas poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Elliot explains this discomfort through the eyes of his narrator, one of the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus:

There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The hallmark of discipleship, I think, is being “no longer at ease” in the world that we inhabit. Christ makes, and should make us uncomfortable. To understand this week’s Advent theme, we must find a way to reconcile the discomfort that Christ brings with the peace he promises. We can start by acknowledging that comfort and peace are not opposites but elements of a sequence. Discomfort with injustice is a prerequisite to creating a just world, and creating a just world is a prerequisite to the peace of Christ and the Kingdom of God

Unlike negative peace, which is something we can wait for, positive peace is something we are called to create? So how do we do peace? What are the verbs? What concrete actions can we do to increase the amount of positive peace in the world? Among my favorite candidates are “understand,” “accept,” “advocate,” “care,” and “love.” We create a positive peace when we see people as Christ sees them and do the work necessary to learn how to love people who look, act, and think differently than we do. We create a negative peace when we skip the learning and loving parts of the process and simply suppress our disagreements so that everybody can be comfortable.

Immediately before ascending to his father after the resurrection, Christ turns to his disciples and says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27). The peace of Christ is different than the peace “as the world giveth.” The world’s peace is defined as what it is not, namely war. The peace of Christ must be defined as what it is: justice, righteousness, caring, compassion, and a profound feeling of discomfort in a world organized by other things. This is the cost and the crux of discipleship: we can choose to have peace forever, but once we make that choice, we will never be comfortable again.     


  1. Antonio Parr says:

    MY MOTHER’S APARTMENT by candlelight was haven and home and shelter from everything in the world that seemed dangerous and a threat to my peace. And my friend’s broken voice on the phone was a voice calling me out into that dangerous world not simply for his sake, as I suddenly saw it, but also for my sake. The shattering revelation of that moment was that true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake—even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death—that little by little we start to come alive. It was not a conclusion that I came to in time. It was a conclusion from beyond time that came to me. God knows I have never been any good at following the road it pointed me to, but at least, by grace, I glimpsed the road and saw that it is the only one worth traveling.

    Frederick Buechner
    -Originally published in The Sacred Journey

  2. Brilliant! For me, this sermon introduced an entirely new way to view peace. I yearn for a General Conference address on this level. Perhaps, Michael, you could offer to ghost write for the Brethren? The only problem I foresee is that as soon as the GA starts speaking, we would say “oh, that sounds like Brother Austin!” Sort of like knowing that Ted Sorenson wrote JFK’s speeches. We remain inspired, however. Thank you Michael for posting this sermon at this particular time.

  3. Being of the VW bus and love beads generation, I’ve got several uses for peace as a verb. I was thinking about taking offense when I read
    “The peace of Christ must be defined as what it is: justice, righteousness, caring, compassion, and a profound feeling of discomfort in a world organized by other things. This is the cost and the crux of discipleship.”
    So much this, and such a hard lesson that needs to be repeated, that all is forgiven.

  4. Linguistic Pedant says:

    Any noun can be verbed if you try hard enough. You don’t even have to logic it very hard, just sentence it right and you will verb your noun.

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