Peace Theology

On Friday a friend asked me what I meant by “peace theology” in relation to a class I had just completed in Central America. I wrote the following response (with a few subsequent revisions) while sitting in a coffee shop waiting for my wife to get off work. This location meant I didn’t have books to reference, except for one by EG White that was in my bag. My only tools were Google, Bible Gateway and White’s book, Welfare Ministry. This is how I responded:

Basically, by peace theology I mean that the Bible couches its conversations in a framework of peace (shalom & eirene), especially, but not only, in the New Testament. For starters:

Peace is a broad term; the biblical usage goes way beyond our common conception of “absence of violence.” Any injustice breaks peace as much as outright war. Righteousness and justice are integral to peace, and in contrast to how we normally use them, they are quite related (Colson Center, IV Press). An understanding of the Jewish words for compassion and justice helps make these connections (e.g., 7 words, Just Action). Peace is a very relational word–right relations, harmony, the weak are safe, there is no oppression/injustice, needs are met.

Thus the peace Jesus brought definitely included peace and reconciliation with God, but it did not stop there. If we are to be faithful to Jesus and the gospel of peace, we must not stop there! People say to me, okay, they post online comments to me like, “Do this peace thing on your own time. Don’t distract the church from the work of preaching the gospel.” But this limited definition of Jesus and the gospel is reductionistic and misses Jesus’ point. Jesus’ way was not abstract theology, it was love, it was peace, it was relational, it was lived. A few examples from Jesus and the early teachers:

  • Matt. 23:23 — Justice is more important than tithe. But which have you heard more sermons about?
  • Matt. 5:23-24 — Relational reconciliation should precede religious expressions. Steps are given in Matt. 18.
  • Matt. 22:36-40 — Love of God and others are inseparable.
  • Matt. 25:31-46 — Sheep and goat designations based on loving actions, not abstract theology.
  • 1 John 3:17 — Love of God doesn’t exist when love for others is also lacking. Compassion, mercy, justice, love and meeting needs are all elemental to God’s shalom.

I shouldn’t just limit this to the New Testament since peace and justice are prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Matt. 23:23 listed above echoes Amos, who said God hated their religion that lacked justice (Amos 5:21-24). This also echoes Micah 6:8, quite possibly the most well-known verse in this essay. Isaiah actually connects justice with God’s presence, a connection I, as an SDA, interpret as applying to the end of the age. Is. 56:1 makes God’s approaching salvation the motivation for pursuing justice, not a reason to neglect it. Deut. 16:20 also comes to mind in this regard–“Follow justice and justice alone.”

Ellen White saw this social dimension as part of the gospel, not as an optional add-on. She writes, “Much more than mere sermonizing is included in preaching the gospel….The union of Christlike work for the body and Christlike work for the soul is the true interpretation of the gospel” (Welfare Ministry, pp. 32-33). The first 30 pages of that book just emphasize this over and over, especially in relation to Isaiah 58.

We see this in the early church as they lived the gospel of peace. It brought together men and women in amazing new ways, same with Jews and gentiles, slave and free, rich and poor. Social relations were turned upside down. Unity with God brought amazing peace to relations as never before. Paul (not to mention the prophets and Psalms and…) says way too much about peace in relationships to limit the ministry of reconciliation to our relationship with God alone (1 Cor. 7:15; 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-17; 4:3; Col. 3:11; 3:15; 1 Thes. 5:13, and more). The Bible just doesn’t make this divide like we do (just like it doesn’t divide justice and righteousness; which might affect one’s reading of Matt. 5:6).

It can be argued that there is no good news of God apart from living the truth in community (1 John 1:7). We are not used to this language because we are used to using terms foreign to peace, justice and righteousness of the early church. Our lenses have been significantly affected by our post-Constantinian world view, as well as by post-enlightenment and post-Luther theologians. Here are two examples of how these lenses affect our selective reading of the Bible and God’s priorities. Common:

NT (Eph 2:8-9): For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

HS (Is 1:18): “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

In context (adjacent verses to those above):

NT (Eph 2:10): For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

HS (Is. 1:17): Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

When we read Jesus’ inaugural address that laid out his ministry, we see that justice, oppression and the spirit of the jubilee were central to what he was doing in proclaiming what his kingdom looks like.“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Even the Magnificat or Mary’s Song rings with these themes (Luke 1:46-55), as does Jesus’ later verification of his ministry to doubting and troubled John (Matt. 11:4-5). And we remember that John prepared people to meet Jesus by focusing on ethics when he could have just as easily highlighted the scriptures that were later considered by the early church to be prophecies pointing to Jesus (Luke 3). I believe this is important for the SDA church because we focus greatly on the 3 Angels’ Message but we tend to neglect balancing our message with Is. 58. White instructed us, “The whole of the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah is to be regarded as a message for this time, to be given over and over again” (Ministry of Healing, p. 29, emphasis added).

This lead my thoughts in two directions. First, this emphasis on justice (again, integral to peace) is consistent with Jer. 9:24 and 22:16, where doing justice is tantamount to knowing the God who exercises justice. This connection between (a) knowing that God exercises justice and (b) us doing justice makes sense when we remember that as the church we are Christ’s body on earth (1 Cor. 12:27), we are to do his work.

Second, Jesus was clear about how citizens of his kingdom live. How does Jesus end both the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7; Stassen’s triads, see also Kingdom Ethics) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-41)? With the comparison of the wise and foolish builders. He meant action, not abstract ethics for a perfect world that will never exist this side of the resurrection and 2nd coming. He asks, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). This fits with Matt. 7:21-23 about doing God’s will. James echoes this (1:22); no wonder Luther didn’t like the book. I believe all of this is consistent with Abraham’s original call to teach righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19).

The summation of righteousness, justice, reconciliation, fellowship, and love is peace. This is (my current understanding of) peace theology. I should have included sections on empire, nonviolence, and the environment; maybe I’ll add them later. And any theology has to take into account complex teachings (e.g., Luke 12:51), but that would greatly expand this already lengthy essay. This isn’t meant to be exhaustive, just an introduction. For more on peace, I highly recommend starting with the following (notably, all by Mennonites/Anabaptists, but others like Stassen, Wink, Hauerwas, Brueggemann, Grassi, Arnold, and others really should be on the list as well, like this Jewish book):

The original question that sparked this post was in reference to a class I took in Guatemala that looked at how to live peace theology in a violent society. We studied how churches have worked to promote a culture of peace and justice in a historical context of massive human rights abuses. They risk death threats when they stand with abused women. They give of themselves to help those economically destroyed when husbands and sons have been disappeared. They walk with lawyers to thwart a culture of impunity. They build schools for people groups ignored by government development projects or targeted by government violence. They teach conflict resolution classes to infuse society with new ideas for dealing with differences. For more ideas, see the organizations we visited.

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