I recently came across a photograph from the Australian War Memorial taken in Sydney’s Martin Place on November 11, 1918. The crowds have come out in force at the announcement of the armistice in Europe. The length of the promenade is heaving with men and women jammed together in a mosh pit of jubilation. Flags and hats are waved in the air and the unbridled joy on each and every face is unmistakable. It’s a beautiful moment in time.
That moment didn’t last of course. Armistice Day eventually gave way to Remembrance Day – and a more sober reflection on all that had been lost. Sixty thousand young men dead. Thousands wounded, scarred and traumatised. The knock-on effects are incalculable. And even as humanity briefly laid down its arms, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the deadliest since the Black Death 600 years before, went ahead and killed more people than all the World War I battles put together.
“Peace does not come by killing people.” – Armenian pastor Marwat*
The “peace” that humanity longs for, in all its many facets, is defiantly elusive. It’s an elusiveness that U2 gives voice to in their song Peace on Earth, which feels like a biblical lament. “Hear it every Christmas time, but hope and history won’t rhyme,” sings Bono, reflecting on the gap between the dream and the reality, and imploring Jesus to “throw a drowning man a line”; to intervene in the tragedies and travails of human life.
The biblical tradition of lament – rarely given much attention in the modern church – provides a language to express the anguish, frustration and heartbreak a “fallen” world inevitably delivers. But it also conveys a dogged trust in God and the “peace that passes all understanding” despite the circumstances we find ourselves in. Plenty of believers can attest to that peace, as ill-defined and mysterious as it is real to them.
A few years ago, I interviewed Marwat*, an Armenian pastor of a congregation in the northern Syrian town of Aleppo. At the time Aleppo had just passed the 50th day without electricity. For nine months there’d been no internet. Fuel and water were in short supply and temperatures were freezing at night. ISIS controlled territory to the east and northeast of the city. Heavy fighting was taking place in the surrounding province and life was extremely tenuous. Two-thirds of the Christian population had fled the country. Death and fear were all around.
And yet, when I spoke with him in the lead up to Christmas, Marwat insisted that celebrating Jesus’ birth, even surrounded by such desolation, meant that “the Prince of Peace brings us inner hope and inner peace … despite these difficult days, the Lord is with us.” He spoke of a deep sense of Jesus suffering alongside his people in their pain, and that he and his congregation still believed that God had not abandoned them.
The violence of ISIS was all about human brutality, said Marwat, and he said he was praying for the perpetrators of such barbarity that they would “come to know the Lord and to discover what real peace is. To learn that peace does not come by killing people.” This stunning response was all the more remarkable to me given that at the time I was preparing for a typically peaceful and bountiful Australian Christmas. But the truth is we all long for that quality of peace, whether we are in war-torn Syria, or San Francisco, or St Kilda.
At its best, it sends us back to our seats and then out into our lives with a renewed sense of purpose …
It’s a peace that springs to mind at the time in a church service when communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is celebrated. Different traditions have different ways of doing this of course, but the general shape and purpose is essentially the same. My experience of this is one where, briefly, there is actual peace and rare stillness. A few moments to sit quietly and reflect. Approaching the communion table or altar or simply accepting the bread and the wine, there is something about the bodily enactment of these richly symbolic moments recalling sacrifice, pain and death that speaks to all of our pain; to our failures and disappointments; our anxieties and dashed hopes.
As such, there is an appropriate gravity to what is experienced. “Take and eat and remember Christ’s body broken.” “Drink from this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you.” But there is also (or at least there should be) an unmistakable hopefulness to what is taking place. The communal experience of this “meal” tells us we are not alone. The simple ceremony signifies God’s presence with us. This particular eating and drinking is a pointer to God’s continued redemptive action in the world; to new life and the promise of ultimate peace and true rest. At its best, it sends us back to our seats and then out into our lives with a renewed sense of purpose and of what the Bible means by peace.
The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of a host of scholars who suggest the English translation “peace” in our modern Bible doesn’t do justice to the much richer and multi-layered Hebrew word, “shalom.” Shalom, says Wolterstorff, is about more than simply the absence of conflict. Instead it captures a sense of finding the delight and joy of being in right relationship with God, with other human beings, with the natural world and even right relationship with ourselves. John Stackhouse adds that in a state of shalom individuals flourish, but so too do families and communities, even businesses, systems and institutions. It is a time or place where everything is what it can be.
It’s a vision that goads us to action, and at the same time makes us patient under the inevitable setbacks and disasters of a world that is divided and broken, groaning in anticipation of its restoration.
As John Stackhouse concludes in Why You’re Here, his book about shalom, Christians can work towards the flourishing of everything “with peace and joy, retiring each night to sleep in a world of unfinished business, because we hope in the God who one day will make all things new.”
* The name has been changed to protect the identity of this person.
Simon Smart is a Director of Centre for Public Christianity.