The Hebrew Bible and Gospel readings today seek to upend our understandings about peace. To understand what they are saying, we must first delve into what “peace” means.
Peace studies theorists talk about two kinds of peace. The first is a negative peace that is marked by an absence of violence, but that doesn’t address the issues that led to the violence in the first place. It’s frequently referred to as the “peace of the grave” or the “peace of the slave” because war has stopped but justice is denied. On the other hand, positive peace is a situation in which desirable outcomes are more available for all and people generally feel that power is applied justly. Positive peace often requires more struggle and upheaval in the short run, which leads to better outcomes in the long term. Jeremiah and Jesus both warn against the seductiveness of negative peace and urge their hearers to do the difficult work of pursuing a positive peace.
The prophet Jeremiah responded to the soothing words spoken by the false prophets in his time. The Babylonians had made repeated forays into Judah and were an existential threat to the kingdom. Yet, many prophesied peace and prosperity—that God would defend and protect the kingdom and temple at all costs (Jeremiah 23:17). God told Jeremiah that he must undermine these “prophets” and their visions and dreams of peace with the stark reality that doom was coming for Jerusalem and Judah (23-25). God saw that the people practiced the twin sins of idolatry and injustice. Indeed, the core of Jeremiah’s message was that the people neglected God, the orphan and the poor, and instead sought to enrich and delight themselves, no matter who they hurt (Jeremiah 5:24-29).
The rich of the land built up for themselves lives of “peace” where they could ignore how their choices hurt others, including God. These privileged Judahites naturally favored so-called prophets who told them that they didn’t need to repent or change their ways because God would always protect them. Jeremiah came with a different message—sin that harms God and marginalized people is a calamity, and such a “peace” will be overthrown.
Jesus came to upset the negative peace of might making right.
Several hundred years later, Jesus spoke similar words. People thought he had come to bring a peace similar to that of the Romans—conquest, power and the right to rule over others. The “Pax Romana,” a period of brutal suppression of peoples enforced by legions and crosses, is one of the greatest ironies in history. But Jesus was not—and is not—a war messiah. He came to upset the negative peace of might making right. Instead, we see in Luke 12:53 that children would upset the standards of power and argue with their elders, even their in-laws (which I would never dream of, Kathy!).
Jesus warned that people knew how to read the weather but not how to read the times. Continuing his message that we read last week, he insisted on readiness for what God would do next. Instead of building up lives of supposed safety and comfort, Jesus urged his hearers to pay back those whom they had abused financially (57-58). Indeed, every five minutes’ worth of work will be accounted for (59). Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, preached: “[N]ot to share our own riches with the poor is a robbery of the poor, and depriving them of their livelihood; and that which we possess is not only our own, but also theirs” (Discourse 2 on the Rich Man and Lazarus).
In reading about the history of the early church, and especially of the early martyrs, we come across the common theme of a newly converted Christian selling or giving away all their earthly property. The convert’s family is appalled at the waste of resources. This is the fire and conflict that Jesus promised. Since the earliest days of the church, being rich toward God and neighbor by generous giving has confused and alarmed some people. For Jeremiah, for Jesus, there is no other way to be truly peaceful but to settle accounts with those who have a claim on us.
A positive peace demands that humans address the means of inequity and abuse, and come toward just solutions for everyone, rather than simply enforcing the will of one party through strength. Jesus doesn’t come to bring a negative peace of silence and suppression, but a positive peace that undoes evil and sin while promoting justice.