What does it mean to want peace now?

The other day my parish priest circulated by email a prayer for peace in the world, inviting all his parishioners to pray it every day in Lent. I must admit that my heart sank on reading it. I suppose it is possible that if we had all prayed this prayer every day for the past two months, it might have somehow “worked” and Ukraine (and Europe) would not be in the appalling situation that they are in now. However, the metaphorical stable door has now been shattered and that particular horse has bolted. Once a war has actually broken out, there are historically only three endings:

  1. Peace at Any Price. The country which is the victim of aggression lays down its arms in despair and allows the aggressors to do whatever they like. It will then be only a matter of time before they try it on someone else.
  2. Checkmate. The war goes on until someone actually wins it. If this is the initial victim, the aggressor gets punished (as in 1945). On the other hand, if the aggressor wins, the victim nation will be worse off than if it had surrendered at the beginning.
  3. Stalemate. The war goes on until both sides are heartily sick of it and there is then a chance that a reasonably fair peace accord can be thrashed out. This was how the “troubles” in Northern Ireland finally came to an end in 1994. A variant on this scenario is when the aggressor decides that the cost has become too high, pretends to have won and goes home, like the Russians in Afghanistan.

Obviously the second and third scenarios are both going to involve massive loss of life, which can be avoided by going for Scenario 1. But there is a price for this too and it will again be paid by the victims of the aggression and not by the people giving free advice from the sidelines.

We like to believe that there is a right and a wrong answer to every problem. The right answer is usually the one that we espouse ourselves; the wrong one is the answer put forward by our opponents. But in real life, there are many situations in which there is no truly right answer. This is the case with the debate over abortion, where the inalienable right of a woman to control her own body clashes with the equally inalienable right of her unborn child to life, so that someone’s inalienable rights are certainly going to be alienated whether we allow the abortion or forbid it. We then have to decide which is the lesser evil, a decision we hate having to make.

The same applies when a nation is invaded and has to choose whether to fight or to surrender its independence. Clearly either option may lead to great loss of life. Surely it is for them and no one else to decide which is the lesser evil and I think we need to accept their decision. If they then ask us to pray for their victory (as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has explicitly done), I don’t feel happy about praying for peace instead. That amounts to being a pacifist at someone else’s expense.

When Christians turn to the Bible for guidance, they find equal support for both sides of the argument. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but there are innumerable Old Testament passages glorifying what we would now call just war. The wars by which Israel sought to maintain herself in the land that she believed God had given her are treated throughout as just. When Israel loses, it is always because of recent sins, which have dissuaded God from fighting on her behalf as He usually does; it is never because the Canaanites had any valid claim to the land that they had previously occupied. How could they when Israel’s God had created that land? God is frequently referred to as Jahve Sabaoth, usually translated as Lord of Hosts (i.e. Lord of the Armies). His prowess as a warrior is celebrated joyously in the psalms, and the historical books often show Him giving military advice to Israelite heroes such as Joshua and David.

About halfway through the reign of King David, that changed. Suddenly the enemies which had threatened Israel throughout the period of the Judges melted away. They had finally been defeated. Every man could now sit at peace under his own vine or fig tree. It was probably during this period that the developing agrarian laws were codified and incorporated into the Laws of Moses (the Torah). It is extremely unlikely that nomadic desert people would already have had laws to determine what should happen if a fire started on someone’s land and caused damage to his neighbour! The most striking thing about these communal laws is that they are not about punishing criminals but about mending fences between neighbours and ensuring that nobody feels exploited or victimised. This is what is meant by the Hebrew word Shalom, which means primarily a state in which people have no grudges against each other because disputes are not allowed either to fester or to be settled by brute force.

Much that we consider to be the province of criminal law is treated in the Torah as civil law, wrongs done by one citizen to another, which must be settled in a way that leaves both of them appeased. Nowadays we would call this restorative justice. Thus shalom is very different from the Latin word Pax as used by Roman writers, which meant little more than the absence of war. It made no difference at all to them whether people were not at war because they were contented or simply because they had been crushed into submission. As one Celtic rebel remarked of the Romans, “They will make a desert and call it peace”.

The New Testament is written in Greek, and the Greek word Eirene has a different meaning again: it often means peace of mind or serenity, the kind of thing philosophers were concerned with. This certainly seems to be the meaning in New Testament passages like Jn 14 v.27 or Phil.4 v.7. But the NT writers were all familiar with Hebrew thought and there are just as many passages (for example Eph.2 vv.14-18 or Col.3 vv.13-15) where eirene clearly translates the underlying idea of shalom, social harmony based on mutual consideration.

Jesus had his own recipe for ensuring shalom in the Church (Mt 18 vv.15-17) and interestingly it does not involve the kind of indiscriminate forgiveness usually ascribed to him. Here is a slightly expanded paraphrase:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him. Perhaps he didn’t realise how badly he hurt you. If he apologises, congratulations! You have won over your brother.

“ If he won’t listen to you, tell one or two friends the story. If they agree that you have been wronged, take them with you to talk to your brother. After all, it is said that two witnesses are required to prove any wrongdoing.

“If he won’t listen to them, tell the elders of the Church what has happened. If even they can’t get him to listen, then the whole Church must treat him as they would a pagan.”

I think the meaning of the last verse is that brotherhood is a transitive relationship. If John is Peter’s brother and Peter is Michael’s brother, then John is Michael’s brother too. But if Michael consistently refuses to treat Peter as a brother should, then he is no longer his brother and cannot claim John as a brother either, or indeed anyone else who is in brotherhood with Peter. Such a person must be frozen out of the Church, just as Russia is now being frozen out of the international community.

C S Lewis once wrote, "Forgivenness must never come as a rider to the refusal of justice." Turning the other cheek is something that must be done freely by the specific individual who has been attacked or not at all. No one else has any right to demand it.

The poor widow who wanted justice against the man who had wronged her is not condemned by Jesus. He condemns the unjust judge who would not give her what she needed and assures us that God will not behave like that when we are wronged and demand justice. His sardonic rider that God might not find anyone still prepared to believe in His justice when He finally acts could well be a prophecy of the effect of bad and sentimental teaching about forgivenness in the Church.

So I shall not be praying for peace this lent until the Ukrainians themselves ask us to do so. Rather, I shall be praying for victory for the Ukraine and the proper punishment for Vladimir Putin, preferably at the hands of the Russian people whom he has so grievously misled.

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