At a time when words like "fact," and "truth' are often treated as essentially meaningless, how should we understand a more elusive word, like "peace?" This Advent season, after all, finds us in the midst of what people are calling a "post-fact" world. Calmly and rationally examining our politics, relationships, or faith is so "twentieth-century" these days! Now that we're admitting to that — and many of us are only grudgingly admitting to it — how do we find it within ourselves to understand "peace" as a concept?
When we talk about peace, can we admit that we are not now experiencing, nor have we ever truly experienced, it? When we look at the world around us, it can sometimes be easy to look at the words of the Old Testament prophets, like Ezekiel and say that bad times are coming because we let ourselves be mollified by people who have lied to us - especially when their lies includes false promises of peace. If we are all truly honest, we might instead understand peace as something that lives in the distance, in a place toward which we will continuously strive, rather than a place where we are or have been. Of course, this is a hard thing to consider, when there are so many who would promise us that we've already achieved it, or could, if we just let them do what they wish to do.
So here we are, preparing for the coming of someone who we have come to know as the "Prince of Peace." How might we do that? When we are content to lie back and treat Advent as a time when we celebrate Jesus's coming to us with a "bag full of goodies," peace is just another one of those things in the bag. Preparation is easy. Just wait until you see something that puts you at ease and makes you feel peaceful, then join hands with those around you and sing a nice carol to celebrate its arrival. At the very least, you should be properly thankful that you are not currently caught up in a martial or marital conflict somewhere and that no one is out to personally harm you or the people you care about. Maybe you can be glad that you are getting along with the people around you, too. If God has given you such gifts or others like them, after all, it is right to be grateful for such grace. Hopefully, asuch a response might call others to share such a wonderful gift, as well.
But there are still a great number of people who do not enjoy such gifts, and there's really no use pretending that everything would be all right with them and others if they could all just share a soft drink and sing a song, like they do on television. This is what makes peace so hard: it has to be striven for, even though it cannot be reached, and ultimately it has to be made. When Jesus was talking about the kind of people God would prefer us to be, he did not say "blessed are the peace accepters" but, rather, "blessed are the peace makers." Even then, our "Prince of Peace" was telling us that peace is something that you need to be actively engaged in creating. We may have worked that out a long time ago, but if you dig deeper, you might understand that there is more to this "making," than forgiving someone (hard as that is) or taking punishment, or refusing to fight, or working to understand and embrace your enemy. All of those are good, passive strategies that have stood us well through the centuries as we've occasionally taken breaks from our orgies of hate and destruction and tried to make nice. Are the enough?
As we make peace in preparation for Christ's coming, as hard as it might be to do those things, can we also find it within ourselves to take some "next steps?" This is not to knock the importance of putting an end to open conflicts. While we are not likely to repeat the Christmas Truce of 1914, it is still important to strive to get enemies to put down their arms and celebrate their common humanity. It is likewise important to make peace with ourselves and with those with whom we struggle to find common cause. The hard part, for us, is to find some understanding of the fact that real peace calls for us to not be satisfied with the cessation of hostility and warm human moments, but to constructively engage in conflict. In many cases, peace and the absence of conflict might be quite different.
Want to make peace? Make justice first. Work to create a world where people are not so driven by desperation, fear, and distrust that they resort to conflict. Deny the urge to engage in someone else's moral sickness. Actively engage in non-violent resistance to people who seek to terrorize or dominate others. Speak up when something is not right - even if it costs you to do so. There is a troubling conflict going on in the United States right now, where Native Americans are standing between the energy industry and their water supply and sacred lands. A recent article in Code Switch discusses how this ongoing conflict is both unprecedented and part of an ongoing way of life, but you could easily read it to understand that, had justice been done in the past, none of this would be necessary now. Making a commitment to a peace that is born out of justice, and standing for justice, is what peacemakers do. Merely stopping the fighting, while leaving the underlying causes for it intact, just ensures that conflict will return.
Yes, this is a call to not be "peaceful," in preparing for recognizing the arrival of the Prince of Peace, but to, instead, be a disruptive and annoying force that disturbs a false "social order" in favor of a divine one. But we're never going to make peace by stooping to be like those who seek to dictate peace on their terms; by accepting the forces who seek to dominate and destroy; or by pretending that strife will just go away if we would all be nicer to each other. Jesus has always been such an annoyance to those who would displace justice and peace that he and his followers have been killed for it. We can hardly prepare for the arrival of such a person if we're afraid to rock the boat!