Editor’s note: The remarks below are excerpted from a speech given by Bruce Prescott at a peace conference Sept. 14 in Ames, Iowa.
Peace (shalom) in the Hebrew Bible means more than the mere absence of conflict and strife.
It speaks about the joy, prosperity, well-being and wholeness of a life that exists when men and women are in proper, loving relationship with God and each other.
Peace is so central to Jewish thought that the renowned Rabbi Hillel defined the heart of Judaism as “love peace and pursue it,” and the Mishnah says that “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace.”
In Jewish thought, shalom is associated with the idea of the covenant. Fidelity to the covenant means living in accord with the just laws and principles that preserve and promote peaceful and loving relations.
Shalom stands against anything that violates the order God intends for life. Standing against injustice leads to conflict, and conflict can lead to violence.
God’s preferred way for restoring order and peace is to call a prophet. The prophet speaks a word from God against injustice and incarnates God’s message – making it clear by standing before the people visibly, by speaking in an audible voice and by seeing that it is written down.
The prophets call for repentance and work to renew the peace and harmony of covenant relations.
I don’t think God ever intended for peace and order to be restored by violent means. If people would hear and heed what is spoken, the prophetic word alone has sufficient power and authority to create peace.
Unfortunately, people don’t all listen at the same time. People hear the word of God’s covenant at different historical moments. Making peace by the power of the word alone takes time.
In the meantime, few have patience for the work of the prophets. The children of Israel demanded a king. They wanted someone to organize them and restore order by force if necessary.
The prophet Samuel warned that was a mistake and warned them their kings would become their oppressors. But the sons of Israel insisted and God relented, and the rest is history.
The reign of God is always beyond the best human efforts. Every historical social order falls woefully short of the kind that God intends for us.
Any sign that righteousness and peace is near is “good news” to the poor, the oppressed, the sick and the brokenhearted. That is the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed.
Like the prophets before him, he spoke against injustice and incarnated God’s message. But Jesus was different from the prophets before him.
He spoke of God as his father with a familiarity and intimacy that was unique. He called God “Daddy.”
Another way Jesus differed was the way he separated religion and government. He said God’s kingdom was within you – not earthly, but spiritual.
He rejected every temptation to assume political power or exercise physical force and employ violence.
He told his disciples to turn the other cheek when struck with a fist, to return good for evil, to love even their enemies, and he commanded them to put away their swords when the authorities came to arrest him.
Jesus’ way of ushering in the kingdom of God and bringing peace was the arduous, time-consuming way of self-giving service, nonviolent resistance and sacrificial love.
Before Constantine, church and state were separate and distinct. Christians were a small and oft persecuted group.
That changed when Constantine decided to employ the Christian faith to pacify conquered nations and unify the Roman Empire.
The Pax Romana had as little to do with the peace of God’s kingdom as does the Pax Americana today.
Every association of the violence-prone peace forged by earthly empires with the kind of peace that Jesus proclaimed is sacrilegious and idolatrous.
Unfortunately, Mohammad never witnessed the kind of faith among Christians that Jesus preached. Constantinian Christianity prevailed for 250 years by the time he was born.
Mohammad is the prophet of God’s covenant in the Muslim world. The root meaning of Islam, derived from the word “salaam,” literally means peace, security and well-being.
Like the Hebrew prophets, Mohammad spoke against injustice and incarnated God’s message. Unlike Jesus, Mohammad condoned the use of force in self-defense.
Despite his approval of military force, there is remarkably little in the Quran that condones violence in the name of God.
Frankly, there is nothing that stands comparison to what can be found in the Hebrew Bible or to what can be found in fundamentalist Christian interpretations of the New Testament book of Revelation.
The major thrust of the Quran teaches Muslims to be forbearant and forgiving toward those who do wrong to them, to be patient and longsuffering in times of persecution, and to trust that, in his own time, Allah will judge evil and secure a just punishment for it. Sura 42:20 is typical:
“But there shall be a way open against those who unjustly wrong others, and act insolently on the earth in disregard of justice. These! A grievous punishment doth await them. And whoso beareth wrongs with patience and forgiveth; — this verily is a bounden duty.”
There is no guarantee that Muslims will be faithful in putting into practice the peaceful intentions of the Quran. No more than Christians are guaranteed to put the teachings of Jesus into practice or that Jews will be faithful to put the shalom of Hebrew covenant relations into practice.
Historically, there is sufficient evidence to condemn all of our communities for their resort to violence.
Despite the shortcomings of our faith traditions, all three share a common hope for peace. The hope proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah:
“And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation. And never again will they learn war.”
Let us all pray that conscientious and faithful people in all of our traditions – Jews, Christians and Muslims – will rise up together and work to see that the peace that Isaiah proclaimed becomes a reality.