The New Testament promises peace to the disciples of Jesus. In St John’s gospel, it is acquired by discovering the presence of the risen Lord (John 20: 19,21,26), and the presence of his Holy Spirit (John 14: 25-27). Disciples of Jesus do not have to rely upon their own inadequate resources to live good lives. Jesus, through his words and Spirit, is there to comfort, guide and strengthen them. Nor need Jesus’ disciples fear God’s wrath when they fail. As St Paul says, with faith in God’s forgiving love, they can live in peace, hope and joy (Romans 5: 1-2).
The peace I have just described comes from knowing the constant presence, support and love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This gives believers great comfort throughout their lives. But there is another dimension to the peace of God which is not often recognized. That is the peace that lies in the mind and heart of God Himself. With his Spirit we are able to see the truth plainly, and His will for us is usually simple, though following it can be difficult and taxing. The saints can tell us more about this I expect, though the Bible talks about “the peace of God that passes all understanding.”
What about peace on earth, for non-believers? Does the New Testament offer us hope of that? It hints at three paths to peace on earth, one mediated by Jesus, a second through the lives of his disciples, and a third a relying upon the power and authority of the state. It seems to me that none of these, by itself, is enough to promote much peace on earth, but together they could have substantial impact.
Isaiah, foretelling the coming of a Messiah, hailed him as “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9: 6). But when Jesus as Messiah rode into Jerusalem on an ass, Luke says, he wept over Jerusalem because it did not know what would bring it peace. If it had accepted him as its king, its history might have been different. (Luke 19: 41-44.) His failure to bring peace to Jerusalem, however distressing to Jesus, must have been no surprise to him. He is also quoted as saying : “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12: 51 // Matt. 10: 34-6.) He was always aware that his call to discipleship and his new message of God’s love and forgiveness would antagonize traditional authorities, who would try to suppress both him and his followers.
However, neither Jesus nor his disciples thought his death on a cross was the end of his mission. It seems that Jesus accepted the vision of the Messiah at the end of Isaiah as one who would establish peace on earth by force (Isaiah chs 62-63). Each of the synoptic gospels records his promise to return soon with mighty power to destroy the wicked and establish a kingdom for his disciples of peace and justice. The horror of those end times is elaborated in detail in the book of Revelation. According to this teaching, Jesus will ultimately bring peace on earth by force.
A second way of bringing peace to the earth suggested in the New Testament is via the agency of Jesus’ disciples. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5: 9). This call to be peacemakers is repeated by St Paul: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12: 18.) The contexts of these passages make it clear that this is done by loving others, even one’s enemies, forgiving them any harm they might have done and meeting their needs as well as one can.
Forgiveness and love are powerful instruments for peace between individuals. However it is not always enough to keep the peace in society. When people are intent upon hurting others severely, or exploiting others through criminal organizations, individual gestures of forgiveness and pleas for good behaviour are generally ineffectual. Then it is that the church turns to the state for help. The state formulates laws people must obey to respect and aid one another, and it enforces them by means of police, courts and jails. If the threat to peace comes from without, the state raises, equips, trains and deploys armed forces to protect itself from aggressors. Jesus allowed that church and state had different important functions (Luke 20: 22-25), and St Paul said that Christians should respect the state authorities as placed over them by God (Romans 13: 1-7).
How effective are these ways of bringing peace on earth?
Fear of the Last Judgement and fear of punishment by the state have been effective to a certain degree in curbing violence and lawlessness. After two thousand years, however, belief the Last Judgement is not widespread, so it is much less effective than it was in the Middle Ages. Fear of the state seems to be the main instrument for keeping the peace today.
There are two main problems with relying on the state to keep the peace. The first is that when those in charge of a state are not committed to justice, the power of the state is not used for godly purposes. In the Middle Ages in Europe the church and the state agreed that they were meant to support one another in the service of God. These days, however, many states are run by people in the interests of themselves and their supporters, often for financial gain at the expense of others at home and abroad. The pretend, and sometimes believe, that their own interests are those of the nation they rule.
How can this misuse of state power be checked? A world body to enforce human rights might be the answer. Until that is widely respected, however, I think the consequences of policies of unjust leaders should be examined and exposed in detail, so that people come to see how bad they are. Of course states will prevent such exposure as much as possible, by refusing to provide information about their activities, and even by censoring the press. Luckily mobile phones and the internet can sometimes circumvent these restrictions. The importance of freedom of information and freedom of expression should be explained to all citizens, as essential for exposing unjust acts of government.
The second problem with relying on the state to keep the peace is that the state seldom goes to the heart of the problem. The state limits crime largely through fear of punishment. But it is not usually equipped to tackle the causes of crime, which are social, psychological and spiritual. It can, however, use some of its income to support experts in these fields, and the programs they recommend.
Do Jesus and the church have a role, then, in fostering peace on earth? Unless the individuals who have responsibilities in the state, or who lead research into the causes of crime, are themselves dedicated to the creation of a just and loving society, they will not use their positions for peace, but for other ends. Christians, in whatever group or organization they belong to, should formulate and support policies that express God’s love most effectively. They should act, not just in their own interests or the interests of their organization, but in the interests of all who are affected by their organization’s activities. Christians will do this because they have committed their lives to Jesus, to doing his will in helping to meet the needs of others.
The Church used to coerce kings and magistrates to act justly through fear of the Supreme Judge before whose tribunal they would be held to account. Today, church members, guided by the Spirit of Jesus, must act within civil institutions, guiding them to act justly and generously, and in that way extend peace on earth.
Fear should still play a part in keeping the peace. Not fear of the Last Judgement, perhaps, nor just fear of the state’s punishment of criminals, but fear of the conflict that is the alternative to peace, conflict within the home, within a society and between states.
The world must learn that the greatest instrument for peace is not military might, but the love of God delivered through members of his church.