Every year since 1981, the United Nations has observed 21 September as the International Day of Peace (also called World Peace Day) around the world. The day provides us with an opportunity to reflect not only on peace but also on our commitment and actions to promote peace. This is, I think, especially important for us Christians who, like Martha in Luke’s Gospel (10:41) are often “overly anxious and disturbed about many things,” thereby overlooking things that are more important.
It should be clear at the outset that peace — and all it implies — should be very important for every Christian, every parent who wants their children to have a future, every human being on a fragile very threatened planet.
I wrote “peace and all it implies.” Many years ago, in a discussion with a Muslim South African theologian who had lived and suffered under apartheid, the discussion turned to peace. Of course, who could be against peace? He certainly was not against peace. However, he said something I have never forgotten: “Peace is the desire of the powerful, whereas justice is the desire of the weak.” If peace is nothing more than the absence of violence, then one could talk of “peace” where the poor and the weak are so trodden down they offer no resistance. That may be the peace of the cemetery at night. It is not, however, the peace the UN is envisioning much less the peace that Jesus preaches and embodies.
The word peace (eirēnē) appears 21 times in the Gospels alone and most frequently in the Gospels of Luke and John, which tend to be more “theology-oriented” than Matthew and Mark. “Peace” is the greeting with which the disciples are to offer every town where they are to preach the Gospel (Mark 10:12; Luke10:5). “Peace” is the gift that Jesus bestows on the Apostles at the Last Supper (John 14:27) and it is also the greeting of the Risen Christ when he appears to them on Easter Sunday (John 20:19, 21, 26). The peacemakers are blessed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:9).
It is perhaps in the context of the Sermon on the Mount that my South African friend’s comment on peace is best addressed. The peacemakers in the Beatitudes are in a very specific context. They are not merely truce makers. They are listed and identified with the gentle (the non-violent), the merciful, those that single mindedly hunger and thirst for justice (Matt 5:2-10). Any “peace” that is not connected with gentleness, non-violence, mercy and a single-minded hunger and thirst for justice is not the peace of which Jesus is speaking, indeed, the peace which he demands his followers to promote.
Virtues among Christians can be more or less “popular.” In some quarters, things like purity, fortitude, righteousness and long suffering are treated as a “premier virtues.” Unfortunately, other virtues such a gentleness, non-violence, mercy, peacemaking, compassion and joy tend to recede in the spiritual lives — and examinations of conscience! — of many. That is a loss. It overlooks things that were central to the life and teaching of Jesus and also takes a great deal of joy and gentleness out of what is supposed to be Good News.
The UN understandably does not speak of peace in the same way as Jesus. However, it does stress that no peace is truly peace unless it is sustainable. Connecting with Matthew 25:31ff, any peace in which the hungry go unfed, the thirsty unslaked, the naked unclothed, the sick and imprisoned ignored is not a peace worthy of the name certainly for Christians but also not for the UN.
When Pope Paul VI addressed the UN General Assembly on 4 October (the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi) 1965, he made the clarion call jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus! “War! Never again, never again!” Every pope who has addressed the General Assembly since then has made a just and sustainable peace the center of his address. A just and sustainable peace — the peace Jesus preaches and demands, the sustainable peace of the International Day of Peace — is central to what it means to be a Catholic Christian, indeed any Christian!
As we observe another International Day of Peace, the 55th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s address to the UN General Assembly and the Feast of Francis of Assisi on 4 October, there is perhaps more injustice and violence — physical, psychological, social, racial and sexual — in our world than ever.
The UN International Day of Peace forcefully reminds us that we cannot be indifferent to this. The Gospel teaches us (Matthew 25:31-46) that our very salvation depends upon our response to it.