This month, our family has been gathering on Sunday nights around an Advent wreath of four candles encircled in garland, and another at the center that we will light on Christmas Eve. Each Sunday night, we light another candle in anticipation of the birth of Christ. Two Sundays ago, we lit the Candle of Peace. After reading aloud from the Bible and other devotionals, we talked about that week’s theme. I asked, “What does peace mean to you?” One of us shared how peace means that war and violence stop, and nations live together in harmony. Another shared how the meaning of peace is found in nature, revealing itself in creation. But if Advent is a season of preparing our hearts, our lives, and the world around us for the birth of a savior called the Prince of Peace, what does that peace mean for us all?
Prince of Peace comes from the pronouncement in Isaiah 9:6: “A child has been born for us, a son given to us ... and he is named ... Prince of Peace.” The term “peace” is the word shalom, which biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann clarifies as describing not only an absence of hostility, but the maintenance of a prosperous social system, so that the intent is to promote the general welfare, to build up the common good. In ancient Israel, the context into which Christ was born, peace meant practicing justice for the poor and needy, and working toward prosperity for all people, not just an elite few who were socially located closest to power. That kind of peace was not the reality then, nor is it now. For Christians to prepare for the Prince of Peace requires that we work to expose the contradiction between reality and that vision of shalom that Christ calls us to make known.
This is macro level stuff. For vision to become reality, peace requires us to be generous and ready to share. It requires us as a society to care for the vulnerable and those who are forgotten due to being mentally or physically incapable of producing — of “contributing to society” as our economy-obsessed rhetoric demands of us, which sounds more like Pharaoh’s talk than the speech of any Golden Rule-minded person of faith. To cut billions of dollars in food stamps — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — and to place more stringent conditions on access to those resources meant to help the poor and vulnerable contradicts the peace that Christ comes into the world to reveal.
But this is where it becomes micro level stuff. Each of us has different political opinions on the role of government, but Christ’s peace — shalom — came into the world in direct confrontation with societal peace — status quo — which is not so much maintained by the government as by our self-absorbed reasoning that supports and complies with it. As Brueggemann advises, “Peace requires humility in the face of exaltation, being last among those who insist on being first and denying self in the interest of the neighbor.” Worldly peace teaches me to look out for number one, to vote for my interests only, and to pay the vulnerable and the unproductive no mind. In contrast, the peace on earth that we sing about at Christmas tells me that even if there is tranquility in my home, food on my table and clothes on my back, so long as there are people in need of food and shelter, so long as families are separated from one another, so long as any of my neighbors are systemically vulnerable, there is no peace.
It’s not only micro level stuff in how we see our neighbor ethically. Peace comes down to how we engage one another practically. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends out his disciples to spread the peace he exemplifies with these instructions: “Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you.” Peace on earth is big picture stuff, but it starts on a person-to-person level. It requires that we set aside arrogance and preconceived notions of one another to actually commune together as people who recognize that we are all made in God’s image, and that we need one another to truly live. This is the kind of peace — shalom — that disrupts and can ultimately bring down the hollow peace that feeds on our antagonistic divisiveness and that is maintained by its result of toxic tribalism.
Around the Advent wreath, we remembered how the Christ child grew up and preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peacemakers, not peacekeepers. The illusion of peace in our context is a passively accepted status quo maintained by keeping the marginalized as far from the center of public discourse as possible. Why do we think Herod ordered all children under the age of 2 to be killed when he heard some kid born to lowlife Nazarene parents might come to power with a revolutionary message of peace that could overthrow him? If we’re going to prepare the way for the Prince of Peace, we’re going to have to rock the boat for something to be be born. If nothing changes, nothing changes. Peacekeeping only asks us to keep singing about “peace on earth.” Peacemaking asks us to question societal tranquility that is maintained by sweeping the sins of demonizing the poor, criminalizing the homeless, and refusing to address racial injustice (to name a few) under the rug.
Unto us a child is born. That baby may look meek and mild, but the Prince of Peace doesn’t mess around.
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.