What are your first thoughts when asked to reflect on the word “peace”? You might think of a feeling of ease or comfort. The popular country rock group, the Eagles, had a hit song that echoed the heart’s longing for a “peaceful, easy feeling.” As you anticipate family gatherings this season one of your Christmas wishes may be: “I hope we have a peaceful time with family this year.” Invariably, there is always someone in the family who knows what hot buttons to push to get uncle or aunt so-and-so on his or her soapbox. Or you might think of a pastoral scene, like the one reflected in Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters.” You might think in negative terms, such as the absence of strife or conflict. The biblical meaning is much broader and deeper.
In the Greek world, “peace” was often employed to describe an inner state of well-being, whereas in the Hebrew tradition, the word was used primarily for interpersonal or social relations, coming very close to meaning “justice.” Both of these perspectives are found in the New Testament, and though a particular context may emphasize one or the other, neither meaning should exclude the other.
In a Peanuts cartoon Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “I hate everything. I hate everybody. I hate the whole wide world.” Charlie Brown responds, “But I thought you had inner peace.” Lucy replies, “I do have peace. But I still have outer obnoxiousness.” Whatever Lucy may have, it is not spiritual peace. In the biblical tradition, inner peace goes hand-in-hand with relational and communal wholeness.
In the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel, an angel announces the birth to lowly shepherds who were caring for their flock by night, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10–12). Then suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host joins in, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace among all humankind, on whom God’s favor rests!” (Luke 2:14, my translation)
In the Roman Empire, it was customary for poets and orators to proclaim peace and prosperity at the birth of one who was destined to become emperor. Following that familiar pattern, the angelic messenger announces the birth of Christ, the Lord, who is destined to be the Savior of Israel and the world. The irony is that Israel’s Messiah is Rome’s Savior as well.
Luke begins the actual birth story by setting it in the historical context of Emperor Augustus. Caesar Augustus was heralded as the greatest of the emperors. He was born Octavian and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Following his father’s assassination a great civil war tore Rome asunder, wrecking havoc on the empire until Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE at the Battle of Actium. He then assumed the position of emperor and became known as Augustus, the Divine (the imperial myth had him being conceived by the gods). Augustus ushered Rome into a great era of peace and stability. He was proclaimed throughout the land—on coins, inscriptions, and temples—as “Son of God,” “Savior of the world,” “Lord of the whole world,” and “God made manifest,” among other titles.
Undoubtedly, Luke is drawing a contrast between the one he believed would occupy the throne of David (1:32), and the one who brought peace to Rome. The peace ushered in by Augustus was a temporary peace, enforced and supported by imperial might that violently subdued all opposition. It was a kingdom maintained by violent power, exercised by the powerful.
How different is the kingdom of the Christ child! He was born, not in pomp and pageantry, but in a humble peasant’s house among the animals. He did not walk among royalty in palace halls, but among the poor, oppressed, diseased, and demonized in the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea. Lowly Jewish shepherds, often despised among their own people, came to honor him, for to them and their kind he had come, bringing hope of a new world where the power of love would take the place of violent force. He did not wield sword or spear and he admonished his followers to love and pray for their enemies. He taught his disciples a nonviolent strategy for asserting their humanity and dignity as children of God under the crushing hands of imperial force. He pronounced blessing on peacemakers, judgment on warmongers, and he challenged all security systems rooted in wealth and control. He is a different kind of king, the viceroy of God’s peaceable kingdom, and he manifested in his life, words, and deeds the character of a forgiven, healed, and restored world.
Why do so many contemporary Christians seem to favor the kingdom of Augustus over the kingdom of the Christ they profess to follow? How can disciples of Jesus support an aggressive war policy that reacts to violence with violence? Jesus told his disciples to put their swords away and when he stood before Pilate, the representative of imperial might, Jesus said that his kingdom was of a different nature altogether. Jesus, and those who would follow him, dance to the beat of a different drummer—Pa rum pum pum pum.
(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers (wipfandstock.com).