The year is 27 BC, and Caesar Augustus is on the rise. He inaugurates a period we know as Pax Romana (Roman Peace). The roughly two-hundred-year period, when relative peace hummed throughout the world, ended with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. An extended period of peace gets its own name because peace times were rare in the ancient world. Warfare typically prevailed in the ancient near east. Dictators didn’t enter into many negotiations; it was strength against strength, and the strongest would prevail. As Tony Stark once said, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” He would’ve made a great Caesar.
Peace was achieved through power. No one could oppose the might of Rome, therefore, they brought pacifism to their lands through power, violence, and sheer force. Opposition was squelched; dissenters were quieted. The peace they achieved was a rarity, but that is only because their force was unparalleled.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to achieving peace through power, and Jeremiah and Jesus show us the way.
Peace has a long, rich history throughout the Old Testament. Our English word, “peace,” is often how we translate the Hebrew word shalom. Nicholas Wolterstorff is a prolific writer and theologian, and he offers a succinct definition of the expansive concept of shalom:
“Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature . . . the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not being in right relationship. Shalom, at its highest, is enjoyment in one’s relationships.”
Shalom is not merely the absence of hostility or tension; it is the highest enjoyment of one’s relationships. Shalom is not only between God and us, it is also between our neighbors and our environment. Shalom, or peace, is all-encompassing.
Peace is flourishing and enjoyment in our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the physical world around us. It is something that is both individual and personal as well as communal. This is the vision of peace throughout Scripture, not the kind of peace Rome accomplished that was merely the absence of war, hostility, or avoidance of violence, but the flourishing and enjoyment in every facet of life.
We get a glimpse of what peace can look like in Jeremiah 29 (not that one verse lots of us know). Jeremiah is writing to the elders of Judah who are in exile. They believe their life of peace and prosperity can only happen when they occupy their holy land promised by God. But Jeremiah is helping them reimagine what the enjoyment and flourishing of life—true shalom—might look like, even when they’re exiled and uncomfortable. He writes in verses 6 and 7, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Jeremiah illuminates a profound connection between peace and presence. He is helping them reorient themselves to see that peace and prosperity are possible wherever they might be, even in exile. They can find flourishing and enjoyment in their relationships with God, their neighbors, and the ground they work. They can find it exactly where they are, not where they once were or where they want to be. They can settle down, build houses, cultivate the land, and trust in the slow work of God.
The tension of flourishing in exile sat with Israel and Judah for the next six hundred years as they waited for a savior to bring them peace and flourishing.
There are few better places to talk about peace than Luke 2 and the birth of Jesus, which takes place during Pax Romana. Why would God send the ultimate peace-bringer in a time of peace? The beauty in Christ’s arrival abounds, but one facet of it is the subversion it offers to the idea of peace through power. And we can see it in the language of the story. As the angels declare the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace on to those on whom his favor rests,” they utilize several words and phrases that are typically reserved to reference Rome or Caesar. Good news, glory to God, and peace on earth were all phrases used to reference the ruling empire.
To the original hearers, the good news was the word of Caesar, and peace came to those in favor of Rome. What Rome and many others believe, Tony Stark included, is that violence could beget peace. However, we’ve seen that story unfold: violence can only damn the waters of hostility for so long. Violence begets violence, and submission by force isn’t peace, at all. With the birth of Jesus, the angels declare that he has come to bring peace that is not through violence or coercion but through service and humility.
Jesus went to extreme measures to avoid violence, opposition, or force and condemned those who used violence to protect him. The life of Jesus shows us that nothing about force, power, or coercion can produce flourishing in ourselves or the world around us; flourishing can only happen by following the way of Jesus for whom gentleness, kindness, and meekness—power under control—defined his days.
As for Us
We might be entertained by the Tony Starks of the world, but we are peacemakers in the ilk of Jesus, who was executed on the cross (Rome’s biggest stick). As we follow the likes of Jeremiah and Jesus, we become peacemakers. We seek the highest enjoyment in our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and the world around us. We renounce violence, oppression, and coercion in the name of flourishing.
Being a peacemaker typically means a posture of humility: knowing our needs, being teachable, being humble, being non-anxious, and asking questions. We sit in the tension and conflict of our world. We may even feel like Judah—lost in exile. But, we find ourselves with a radical dependence on God, desperately hoping for a world where it can be said we have the highest enjoyment in our relationships with God, others, and the world around us. Shalom, shalom.
Cover image by Lucian Alexe.