Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. — Matthew 5.9
We often define peace as an absence of violence. This is not a terrible way to define peace, just an incomplete one. The Hebrews used their word for peace (“shalom”) to describe a state of wholeness and completion. Shalom is about living and living well, both vertically (with God) and horizontally (with others). Jesus has this in mind in Mark 12 when he teaches the two great maxims of life lived well: Love God (Deuteronomy 6) and love others (Leviticus 19).
With his teaching on peacemaking, Jesus appears to be making a politically subversive statement. Residents of first century Palestine were surely aware, as was the rest of the world, of the imperial propaganda with regard to peace, the “Pax Romana” as it has come to be known. Roman peace was the product of power. Assault, conquest, assimilation; this was the imperial formula for peace and a reflection of the sovereign rule of Caesar, a “son of God” in his own right. In contrast, the peace Jesus offers takes the form of powerlessness: turn the other cheek, go the second mile, lay down your own life, take up your cross. Jesus counters the empire’s vision of peace with the peace-producing love of the God He reveals.
But Jesus is also speaking a direct word to the Zealots in his audience, the revolutionaries bent on birthing God’s kingdom reign through militarism. Righteous indignation no doubt fueled the Zealots’ desire to prove that they were the true “sons of God” through armed hostilities. But Jesus will speak the same prophetic word to these brethren. The peace spoken of by the prophets will not be brought about by the sword and “eye for an eye” foreign policy; God’s sovereign peace can only be achieved through revolutionary love and self-sacrifice.
Clarence Jordan clarifies this well:
It is the Father’s nature to make peace. He is called the God of peace. His Son was called the Prince of Peace. Paul says, “He is our peace.” The consuming desire of God seems to have been voiced by the angels at the birth of his Son: “…on earth, peace!”
I write this just a few days removed from two tragedies in our community. Two weeks ago a ninth grade student shot a fellow classmate in the back of the head in the hall of their middle school. Last Friday, a faculty member at a local university murdered three colleagues and critically injured several others. This is where our definition of peace as absence of conflict breaks down. Clearly the weeks and months leading up to these events were devoid of such senseless violence, but for these two shooters, shalom has surely been absent for quite some time. We long for something more: something more than a monastic existence, reading Scripture on some remote mountain top, cut off from the rest of society; and surely something more than the godless humanitarianism that drives many of our celebrity telethon aid-relief campaigns. Deep in our marrow, at the core of our being, we long for each of these spheres — the vertical and the horizontal — to intersect, for things to be right with God and with others. This is the peace, the shalom, of which Jesus speaks. More than that, this is the peace which he lived to reveal, which he died to achieve, which he rose to bequeath to our weary souls.