Jesus came into the world during a period some might call a time of peace. Augustus Caesar had conquered most of the civilized world, establishing what became known as Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. However, Rome’s peace was that of an oppressor silencing opposition, peace through domination. The Hebrew people, subjects of the Roman Empire, waited for a Messiah. They wanted a man with a sword. Instead, they got the Prince of Peace.
Jesus’ words turned the normal order upside down. The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5, summarized one aspect of his theology: although believers may have a natural right to retaliate if someone hurts them, they should instead love their enemies and pray for them. These are not words of a stereotypical revolutionary, yet they revolutionized the world.
The Hebrew language has a word for the kind of peace Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, when he encouraged his followers by saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, ESV). Shalom is a Hebrew word that has been translated into English as “peace.” However, shalom is more wholistic than our term “peace,” which we often think of as meaning “tranquility.” Shalom is a form of complete satisfaction that comes from reconciled relationships with God and others. This differs from the domination of the Roman Empire, and it differs from the temporary peace we find when we get away for a moment of quiet in a busy house.
Shalom prioritizes relationship over righteousness. This includes our relationships with God and with other people. Putting others ahead of ourselves, we end up with restored relationships that ultimately meet our needs as well as others’ needs. We forgive with the goal of establishing reconciliation. As a result, we ourselves experience deep, comprehensive peace. This type of peaceful living means doing what we can to restore the perfection of the kingdom of God on Earth.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged humility and reconciliation, submission to others and thinking of their needs before our own. How does that reconcile with the Jesus I see in other places in the Gospel, though? At times I see him standing up to Pharisees, overturning tables in the temple, and assertively addressing social injustices. Wouldn’t a peace-loving man quietly accept these injustices instead of disrupting the peace?
In answer to that question, we look back at the definition of shalom, of peace as Jesus knew it. Shalom comes from true and complete reconciliation, not just a quiet acceptance, a swallowing of anger or outrage at the infliction of wrong on another person. Jesus seemed to know instinctively what each person needed. To those broken by sin and pain, he offered acceptance and kindness. To those wrapped in haughty superiority, he offered confrontation. Shalom does not mean overlooking wrongs. It means confronting when necessary, offering people what they need out of love with the goal of true reconciliation.
A Marriage of Peaceful Conflict
My husband and I exemplify these two aspects of shalom. Andrew loves tranquility. If he sees a potential area of disagreement, he does what he can to avoid it. I remember asking him before we got married what he would do in the classic situation of many newlyweds: what if he squeezed the toothpaste meticulously from the bottom and I squeezed it willy-nilly from wherever my fingers landed. He said, “I would just fix it the way I wanted it every time. I wouldn’t say anything about it because it’s not worth arguing.” Toothpaste is a trivial issue, but remaining quiet about things he did not like characterized his approach to our relationship for many years.
On the other hand, I was more vocal about my opinions. I don’t mind conflict, but I tend to say too much and be inconsiderate. Needless to say, these two approaches have taken some adjustment. Neither of us has been able to stay the way we were when we met. Sometimes he has had to confront because, as he put it, “Accepting something hurtful without talking about it can be like swallowing a grenade and expecting that it won’t explode inside you.” Sometimes I have had to remain silent and realize that confronting him can be more about me getting my way than caring about him.
When we love someone, we cannot allow them to continue doing something that hurts the relationship. In a drive toward peace, we sometimes must confront with love. We look at what another person needs, which may not be the same as what they want, and help them get it, even if that brings some conflict. At the same time, we cannot ignore our own needs, and we cannot confront just to make our opinions known. This is the tightrope we walk in finding peace. This is why striving for peace takes our entire lives.
In families, children learn to see the world as either a loving place full of possibilities or a threatening place full of danger. In this most basic element of society, children learn to forgive, extend grace, and practice empathy. Adults in a family must model these skills, teaching young ones to establish healthy boundaries and to respect themselves by respecting one another.
My friend John tells of the antagonistic relationship he had with his father. Growing up, he blamed his father for problems in the family. When John deepened his relationship with God, he began to forgive his father. In doing so, his relationship with his dad improved, but so did his relationship with God. Our relationships with others, beginning with those in our families, can either help or hinder our relationship with God.
In Colossians 3:15, Paul wrote, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” (NIV). In the church, we sometimes get the impression that correct doctrine takes priority over peaceful relationships. We hope to help people grow by correcting what we see as inconsistent doctrine, but if we do so without discernment, we reduce the possibility that the person might actually change. We break the relationship, and relationships serve as a force to bring real change to people’s lives. The likelihood of change increases when people feel safe enough to let down their guard and truly listen to one another without fear.
Not only does shalom bring reconciliation to relationships, but it brings restoration to communities. This means that a missionary who brings water to a village is taking a step toward shalom. A social worker helping parents learn healthy discipline techniques promotes shalom. In a culture that values social media, our community often happens over our Wi-Fi connection. Promoting peace in such a community might mean opening a private dialog to ask more questions of a friend instead of blasting them publicly without knowing all of the facts of their situation.
Jesus showed us what real peace brings. He showed us that peace comes from reconciliation, restoration, and willingness to love, even if that might mean conflict. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Laura McKillip Wood works as the registrar at Nebraska Christian College and a part-time chaplain at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives in Papillion, Nebraska, with her husband and their three teenagers.