Back in ’71 when 8-tracks were the rage, one album I kept looping forever on my brand new player contained the song “Peace Train”, by Cat Stevens (from “Teaser and the Firecat” – which means – I give up). Everyone sang it – Dolly Parton, 10,000 Maniacs, people in the shower, on the street. It was a “call to arms” for the peace cause, warning everyone to get on board the train or else! (I’m not sure anyone knew what “peace” meant, beyond ending the Viet Nam war.)
Then Cat became Yusuf Islam because he grew up and became a Muslim, losing both his fans and his “Peace Train” convictions when he joined cause with the infamous Ayatollah of Iran and called for a revenge killing (a “fatwa”) of Salman Rushdie, the British author who insulted the story of Mohammad.
“He must be killed,” Yusuf (Cat) said. “The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” (To Yusuf’s credit, he later clarified he was only stating that blasphemy is a capital offense according to the Qur’an – but it did sound like an endorsement!)
There lies the peace-rub: everyone wants it, but nobody knows how to get it. John Lennon and David Bowie tried hammering it into our collective subconscious, repeating over and over, “All we are saying is give peace a chance!” So then Lennon was murdered – our sense of peace is so fragile, it only takes one crazy man with a gun to shatter it. The assassin of Archduke Ferdinand triggered World War I, and 50 million died.
When the Viet Nam debacle finally ended, America launched a long chain of endless wars, culminating in our longest war in history: Afghanistan. Now Syria and Iran are standing in line with North Korea (“take a number, please!”) hoping to create America’s next war-without-end. To be fair, most nations are regularly engaged in warfare – ask the Germans. Ask any European. Ask the Chinese.
Is peace impossible? Oh yes, peace is quite impossible for us, the Bible says of all humanity: “The way of peace they have not known.” Why are we peace-handicapped? Because our “feet are quick to shed blood,” God said – which is exactly how most wars begin: suddenly, swiftly, and lots of blood.
Here is an amazing fact: we are still at war even in our “peaceful” lives. Capitalism is economic warfare, company versus company. We fight all day and then come home at night to fight with our spouses, kids, neighbors, or whoever else we can find. Our leisure time is spent in barroom brawls – check out the bars Saturday after midnight. Nothing attracts a crowd like a good street brawl.
Speaking of brawls, last night 13 innocent bystanders were shot, including a 3-year old child, in gang-related violence in Chicago’s South Side. It wasn’t even front page news, and was largely ignored by news agencies. Such is the commonness of “street brawls” in our modern, violent world.
Solutions, anyone? Proposals?
Bear with me for a brief survey of proposed solutions for peace found in human history. The contrast against Jesus Christ is striking.
Rome was a legendary bastion of peace, in a sense. They called it Pax Romana and Rome took great pride in her munificence. You might disagree if you were among the thousands and tens of thousands crucified at their frequent mass executions. Slaves felt different about “Roman Peace,” since they came from the loser’s side in military campaigns, and slaves comprised 80% or more of the Roman Empire.
Many foreign populations feel the same way about Pax Americana today, as America assumes the role of global police. (It should be acknowledged our kill-tactics are far more humane, however.)
Islam is reputed to be a peaceful religion, but again the peoples conquered by Islamic armies would disagree. Certainly everyone knows Mohammad was a great warrior who taught revenge was both necessary and important, so “Islamic peace” sounds very much like Pax Romana. (Crucifixion is also proscribed and sometimes practiced today, according to PBS FRONTLINE, for traitors.)
No doubt the vast majority of Muslims are, in fact, peace loving. Only a small fraction are crazy enough to embrace the mindless violence we saw on 9/11, but unfortunately that small fraction is aggressive and often ends up in leadership positions in the Muslim world, encouraged by Mohammad’s military career and his teachings in the Koran: “The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” Yusuf was politically incorrect but theologically correct by the Koran.
Eastern religions equate peace with passivity, which is not very helpful in the real world. Buddhist monks withdraw from society’s pressures and violence, and through meditation they find peace. Some monks famously starved themselves to death while embracing this unreal peace.
Hippies took a similar approach, back in the day. “Peace, baby!” was a way of saying, “Wanna smoke a joint?” As long as they were high – blasted – there was no desire to fight or go to war. It was a restful state (so I’m told), but this peace never lasts long enough.
“Secretary General U Thant of the United Nations once cried out in bafflement and bewilderment as to why the secret of peace…seems to elude men,” Ray Stedman noted. “The answer, of course, as expressed by Paul in Romans 3, is that ‘The way of peace they have not known.’ Men don’t understand what brings conflict and, therefore, what brings peace.”
“World leaders will gather here in New York Monday…but unity, as ever in the United Nations, will be very hard to come by,” national news correspondent Johnathon Hunt said yesterday. Was it one journalist’s opinion or a well-known fact?
Then along comes Jesus Christ, cut from a different cloth. He shatters conventional peace wisdom. From the beginning, His was depicted as the very
embodiment of peace.
Take the prophecy found in Genesis 49:10, from about 4,000 years ago: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes. And to Shiloh shall belong the obedience of the peoples.” Shiloh is a Hebrew word that means peace. Genesis is the first book of the Bible, people!
Then again, around 650 BC, we have this prophecy from Isaiah 9: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.“ It is prophesying the human birth of God on earth, of course, but what makes no sense at all is a description of His career: “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,” it says (Isaiah 9:7).
How can anyone increase the size of their government through peace? Does not expansion require war? Mohammad would certainly say so. Yet the Bible is clear, prophesying the Prince of Peace will conquer by peace, not by war: “and he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near.” (Ephesians 2:17 quoting from Isaiah, 600 BC).
Christian preaching (which includes evangelism) is an amazing quest for peace, really a peace movement: “How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!’” This approach to world peace defies conventional wisdom. So the prophesy concludes: “…for Isaiah says, ‘LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?’” (Romans 10:15-16).
It does sound too good to be true, doesn’t it?
“Yes it does,” someone might say, “because there is no difference between Christian history and all the others – Communism, Pax Romana, whatever – they all murder and oppress, even if they call it ‘peacemaking’.”
The objection is unfair and untrue. Communism, for example, has killed hundreds of millions of innocent souls through Communist Russia and China alone. While it is true certain bullies hijacked the “Christian” name and began using quasi-Christian institutions to kill and oppress innocents, but this scar on Christian history lasted only briefly, and secular historians estimate there were less than 1000 victims (the Vatican was meticulous in recording and preserving its dirty history, and its archives were opened to public scrutiny in the ’90s).
Most important, this shameful behavior did not last. It did not work. Such oppression is fundamentally incompatible with the “Good news of good things” from Jesus. The Prince of Peace Himself stepped in and dismantled the apparatus used in His name to oppress others.
That was over 500 years ago. Is there any Christian church still carrying on an Inquisition, or anything like it? Are there any Christian groups teaching and preaching revenge killings? Where is all this “dirt” to be found, except in the dust of distant Vatican archives, long-dead, buried, and gone?
People get belligerent when the Bible says, “There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved except the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 4:12), but is this exclusivity God’s fault? Not at all. The historical facts are clear and indisputable: the path to peace charted out by Jesus Christ is the only feasible, workable peace available. Nobody else has ever proposed a peaceful solution for peace, and nobody ever will. Nobody else can. It is a solution only God can propose.
Peace and salvation are intimately tied together in the Bible, because our greatest need in life – and therefore the greatest global need – is to find peace with God: there lies the very definition of “salvation”.
Jesus made that peace freely available for anyone willing to take it: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). He died for us on the cross to bring us that peace: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:10) We are reconciled to God by His initiative.
This is belligerent peace: God took the first step – really, the first 10,000 steps, if dying on the cross counts for anything. (He really took the first 1 million steps, because God forgave all our violations against Him.) Somewhere along the line, the next step is up to us. Some grateful response is required in order to find our peace with God.
“Why do I need to be reconciled to God?” someone may ask. The answer is simple if we look at our own lives.
Everyone knows what it’s like to be violated in some way or another – treated unfairly, ignored, belittled, ostracized, cheated against, lied against, or whatever. Everyone carries such scars – valid grievances we ruminate over and over.
We don’t appreciate how sensitive God is to such violence. He never treats others that way – He never has, and never will – yet we all have done these things to others, yet we complain and lash back when others violate us. Hypocrisy is a familiar theme in all our lives.
At the center of His peace movement is that unconventional wisdom: “love your enemies,” He said, and then He demonstrated how that works towards peace: “while we were enemies we were reconciled” by His death on the cross, which paid the penalty of justice demanded by God’s perfect justice – an indictment God makes against everyone, because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Peace is available.
Rather than revenge, Jesus taught forgiveness. Rather than killing, He taught loving enemies. He said to “turn the other cheek” when struck, and He lived it out – this is why His enemies could so easily crucify Him.
Jesus broke the cycle of violence that comes from “revenge killings” like Mohammad taught. This is why Jesus is rightfully called the Prince of Peace.