In January I took a class at Semilla, an Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala—Peace and Justice: Latin American Perspectives. In describing the course to a friend on Facebook, I used the phrase, “peace theology.” He asked what I meant by this, and since Facebook is an insufficient platform for life’s more persistent questions, I posted the following thoughts on my blog to clarify.
At the time of the conversation, I was sitting in a coffee shop waiting for my wife to get off work, so I had limitations of time and materials to reference. My only tools were Google, Bible Gateway and Ellen White’s book, Welfare Ministry. Even though I could now add additional sources, I have decided to leave the essay in its original form with only minor revisions.
The month-long class in Guatemala addressed how to live peace theology in a violent society. We studied how churches have worked to promote a culture of peace in a historical context of massive human rights abuses. They risk death threats when standing 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 funds or targeted by government violence. They teach conflict resolution classes to infuse society with new ideas for dealing with differences.
- Jesus as the Messiah is the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6)
- Jesus gives peace (John 14:27)
- Jesus came to lead our feet into the paths of peace (Luke 1:79)
- The good news of Jesus is the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:14-15)
- Refusing Jesus’ way of peace has real-world consequences (Luke 19:42)
- Peacemakers are children of God (Matt. 5:9)
- The God of peace makes a covenant of peace.
- Paul repeatedly wishes people grace and peace.
Peace is a broad term; the biblical usage goes far 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 conception of compassion and justice helps make these connections more clear (e.g., Judaism 101, 7 words, Just Action 3 & 4). Peace includes justice because peace is a relational word—right relations, harmony, the weak are safe, no oppression/injustice, needs are met.
People sometimes say to me, “Do this peace and justice thing on your own time. Don’t distract the church from the work of preaching the gospel.” But I believe this limited definition of the gospel is overly reductionistic. Jesus’ way was not limited to theological proclamations. It was love. It was peace. It was lived. A few examples from Jesus and the early teachers emphasize the relational aspect of the good news of Jesus’ kingdom:
- 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. 23:23 — Justice is more important than tithe.
- Matt. 25:31-46 — Sheep and goat designations are based on loving actions.
- 1 John 3:17 — Love of God doesn’t exist when love for others is lacking.
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 peace to relations as never before. Paul says way too much about peace in our relationships to limit the ministry of reconciliation solely to our relationship with God (e.g., 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).
Yes, the peace Jesus brought includes peace and reconciliation with God, but it does not stop there. Therefore, to be faithful to Jesus and the gospel of peace, we also must not stop there! Compassion, mercy, justice, love and meeting needs are all elemental to God’s peace, God’s shalom.
I shouldn’t limit this consideration to the New Testament alone since peace and justice are prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Matt. 23:23 listed above echoes Amos, who said God hated the religion that lacked justice (Amos 5:21-24). This is also consistent with Micah 6:8, and Deut. 16:20 also fits here–“Follow justice and justice alone.” Similarly, Isaiah actually connects justice with God’s salvation. That is, Is. 56:1 makes God’s approaching salvation the motivation for pursuing justice, not a reason to neglect it.
Consistent with these verses, Ellen White saw social realities 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 40 pages of Welfare Ministry emphasize this repeatedly, especially in relation to Isaiah 58.
Because peace is relational, it can be argued that there is no good news of God apart from living the truth in community (1 John 1:7). This may seem like an overstatement, but I believe our lenses have been significantly affected by our post-Constantinian world view, as well as by theologians such as Luther who have stressed God’s grace—which is amazing, to be sure—to such an extent that radical discipleship centered on Jesus and his values of peace and justice has been neglected.
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.
However, we tend to ignore the adjacent verses:
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, we see that justice, oppression and the spirit of the jubilee were central to what he was doing in proclaiming his kingdom. “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 Seventh-day church because we focus greatly on the 3 Angels’ Message while tending to neglect the ethical message of 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 leads 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 works for 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, to be about our Father’s business.
Second, Jesus was clear about how citizens of his kingdom should 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); little wonder that Luther did not appreciate James. 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, compassion, reconciliation, fellowship, and love is peace. This is (my current understanding of) peace theology. This overview should have included sections on empire, nonviolence, and the environment; they will have to wait. And any theology must take into account complex teachings (e.g., Luke 12:51), but that would expand this significantly. I don’t mean this to be exhaustive.
For more on peace theology and action, I highly recommend starting with the following list of books. Notably, all are by Mennonites/Anabaptists, but others like Stassen, Wink, Hauerwas, Brueggemann, Grassi, Arnold, and Rose/Kaiser/Klein should be on the list as well.
- Covenant of Peace (Swartley)
- Shalom (P. Yoder)
- The Politics of Jesus (J. H. Yoder) [simplified version]
- The Meaning of Peace (P. Yoder & Swartley, eds.)
- The Upside-Down Kingdom (Kraybill)
- Good News & Good Works (Sider)
- Social Holiness (Kreider)