What is peace?

California of the 1960s, where I grew up, was home to the social radicalism of Berkeley (later to be my alma mater) and the Haight-Ashbury district. As the war in Vietnam raged on overseas, people back home preached the gospel of love and peace. As a kid being raised in a non-Christian household, I had no idea what words like that meant from a biblical perspective. They just sounded, well, nice. Much better than war, certainly, though I knew precious little about that either. I sometimes wore a peace symbol around my neck because it seemed like the cool thing to do.

Since then, the biblical idea of peacemaking has become foundational to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, who taught that peacemakers would be called “children of God” (Matt 5:9, NRSVUE), showing the character of God by the way they live. This is a call to something active, as Father Gregory Boyle has recently written: “Jesus doesn’t call us to be peace feelers, or peace thinkers, or peace lovers. Peacemakers. We are asked to create something.”

That something is what the Bible knows as shalom.

The Hebrew word shalom is translated in different ways, showing the richness of its meaning. Most often, it’s translated as “peace” or “prosperity.” When English speakers use the word “peace,” we often mean the absence of conflict, the opposite of war, and biblically, shalom does include this. But primarily, shalom is not simply about the absence of the negative, but the presence of the positive, a sense of wholeness.

Think, for example, about the story of creation in Genesis 1. On each day, God looked at what he created and pronounced it “good.” We shouldn’t think of this as the muttering of a quality-control inspector walking the factory floor, content that things were being done to minimum standards. This is an aesthetic judgment by an infinitely wise and glorious God. After all, we smack our lips and say “That’s good!” when we get our spaghetti sauce just right. How much more so God and the beauty of creation?

As theologian Cornelius Plantinga suggests, that’s as good a picture of shalom as any: at creation, everything was as it should be, as a gracious and loving God created it to be.

We are called by Jesus to make peace. And lest we think of this as merely enjoying warm fuzzies with our fellow Christians, let’s remember the oracle of God as it came from the prophet Jeremiah. We may be used to hearing sermons on Jeremiah 29:11, where the text is ripped out of context and watered down into a message like, “So just be patient, and God will make everything okay.” Instead, the message is more like, “I know you hate it here in Babylon, but you’re going to be here for a long time. So you’d best settle down.”

And most controversially of all, God tells the people to seek the shalom of Babylon, for in its shalom they would find their own (Jer 29:7). This is despite the wanton destruction and violence of Babylon against God’s people. Read Jeremiah; read Psalm 74; read Psalm 137. Surely, this oracle had to be a hard sell. Seek the shalom of Babylon, Lord? You’ve got to be kidding…

Hmm. Against that background, I guess it makes more sense that just a few verses after saying that peacemakers are blessed, Jesus also taught that we should love our enemies.

What might peacemaking look like in everyday life? Here’s a simple application to ponder. Think back to the last conflict you had with someone. It may have been with someone in your own household — a spouse, a child. It may have been at work, on your street, or on the freeway.

Maybe it was even at church.

What happened? What did the other person do to make you upset? How did you respond, and why?

Now think. Imagine God watching the entire altercation unfold. What would you have to have done differently for God to look at your heart and behavior and say, “That’s good”?

Perhaps there was such a moment. You saw the other person as a human being with his or her own needs and concerns, even if the vision was only fleeting. You thought, “Maybe they’re right,” even if you quickly went back to defending yourself. You stopped talking just long enough to listen.

All of these, and more, can be movements toward peace.

This is not simply about adopting new behaviors. It’s about vision, about desire. What do you want? To be right? To be in control? To get revenge? Or do you want shalom, God’s peace, for yourself, for the world, even for those who at the moment feel like enemies?

Ultimately, God is the peacemaker. God is the one who is constantly at work restoring shalom to a broken creation. As the apostle Paul taught, that work is most centrally represented in the cross (e.g., Eph 2:14-18). But we are called to actively participate in God’s work by becoming peacemakers ourselves, by examining our motivations and behaviors and aligning them with the work of shalom.

What could you do, right now, that might delight God? What could you do in one of your relationships that God would consider good?

Think about it. That will prepare us better to hear what James has to say about peace.