Sometimes it takes new horrors of war to remind us that our world is not a peaceful place. Against the long-standing backdrop of violence in Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and beyond, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine took center stage for months this year.
As Christians, we believe the world is supposed to be at peace and that, one day, it will be. When John the Baptist was born and his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied God’s arriving redemption, it culminated with a vision of peace (Luke 1:67–79). Zechariah declared that God “has come to his people and redeemed them” from “living in darkness and in the shadow of death.” He would “guide our feet into the path of peace.”
When shepherds heard of Jesus’ birth soon after, that announcement too came with an invocation of peace. A host of angels glorified God, and out of all the blessings that could be given at Christ’s incarnation, they offered “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
The message God sent to the Jewish people, as the apostle Peter later summarized, was “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). As Christians, we have a gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15), a Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), both the peace of God and a God of peace (Phil. 4:7, 9), and a final hope of peace in a renewed world with no more death or crying or pain (Rev. 21:3–4).
That hope is not only for the future. Peace is not only for the eschaton, but that is too often how American evangelicals speak of it.
We tend to talk as if longing for peace and pursuing it is the province of Neville Chamberlain, Jimmy Carter, and John Lennon, a sign of weakness in peaceniks and appeasers who either don’t understand the evil that besets us or have no moral gumption to fight it. I’ve heard “wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:6) invoked to prooftext unrest as normalcy far more often than I’ve encountered confident Christian expectation of God’s peace.
When “the time is right, Jesus will indeed come again, ending all wars,” conceded televangelist Jerry Falwell in his provocative 2004 essay “God is pro-war” that promoted the Iraq War. For now, he said, we “continue to live in violent times.” Falwell argued that the Bible tells us war will be an ongoing reality until the second coming of Christ, and that bearing one another’s burdens means choosing war, not peace.
It seems evangelicals use Chamberlain’s infamous phrase “peace for our time” most often in derision, never sincere hope. We talk about peace at Christmas because it’s there in the text, but we don’t really expect to see it any time soon, and we’d be a bit suspicious if we did.
One reason Chamberlain’s phrase stuck so firmly in the modern mind is its echo of the familiar language of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The Order for Morning Prayer, to be said daily throughout the year, links peace with God’s unfolding plan of salvation as inextricably as does the Gospel of Luke.
“O Lord, save thy people,” the celebrant says, “Give peace in our time.” The people respond: “Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.”
I’ve been thinking of that prayer this fall and Advent season, after a year of headlines dominated by war between two countries where the largest religious groups are professing Christians. (The majority of Ukrainians and Russians—including Russian president Vladimir Putin—identify as Orthodox.)
It’s easy to be cynical about “peace in our time” in a moment like this, or to wave aside Zechariah and the angels’ words as nothing but early notice of a still-distant hope.
The prayer does not take that easy path. It assumes a world like ours, in which peace is sorely needed and in which we are often unable to achieve the peace we seek in our own strength. Yet, for all that realism, the prayer doesn’t consign peace to a perpetual tomorrow and accept war and strife for today. Neither must we.
God has come to his people and redeemed them. He wants to “guide our feet into the path of peace” and is more than able to give peace in our time.
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