I read last week that we have ‘the UK Peace Index’ and the news was that peace was up, and violent crime was down. Obviously good news for everyone! However, their definition of ‘peace’ felt off. ‘Peace’ was defined as ‘the absence of violence or fear of violence’.
Is that really all ‘peace’ is? Is it simply an absence of nastiness? Can peace only be defined by what it isn’t?
An ancient Roman historian, Tacitus, once criticised his countrymen saying ‘to ravage, to slaughter, … they call Empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace’. Making something empty, creating a desert where once there was violence, isn’t real peace.
In the Bible, the Hebrew word for peace is Shalom; a word still used as a greeting in Israel today. But it means a huge amount more than just the absence of violence. Shalom means completeness, soundness, wholeness, well-being, harmony and concord with others. It is a ‘filled in’ word that is defined by what it is, not a ‘vacuum’ word that takes its definition from what it isn’t.
Divine peace has a filling effect. It has been my privilege to sit a number of people who have faced tragedy, disaster or even impending death and yet some have managed to do so calm, ready, and full of peace. God’s peace. The peace they know is, as the Bible puts it, ‘a peace that passes all understanding’. A peace that doesn’t make sense.
This kind of peace isn’t about an absence; about taking away the situation or taking away any of their feelings. Rather such people speak of something else, something brighter, something more weighty that fills the space and leaves no room for fear or anxiety.
At base level, it is a peace we can all relate to because it is peace built on love. When we know the love of another person in a relationship, or the love of a mother or father or son or daughter, there is great confidence in such unconditional acceptance. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us when people sense God’s unconditional acceptance, that it leads to a ‘filling-up’, a shalom kind of peace.
Elsewhere, in his writings, Tacitus made mention of Jesus and the disciples in his histories. It is one of the few non-Christian historical references to Jesus that help to verify him as a factual, historical individual. One of the disciples to whom Tacitus refers gave this advice to those wrestling for a sense of peace:
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4.5-9 (NRSV)