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Missing Peace

By February 1, 2008 No Comments

Peace has been marginalized in the study of the New Testament. That is Willard Swartley’s claim not only in his clever subtitle but also in the introduction to this valuable work. And he documents this claim in an appendix that analyzes a number of significant works in New Testament theology and ethics.

In the body of the book he attempts to correct that deficiency, displaying the central significance of “peace” in the New Testament. Swartley exposits the understanding of peace in the various New Testament materials, consistently arguing that we do not understand the New Testament–in its wholeness or in its parts–if we leave out this “missing peace.”

He starts with some attention to Jesus, arguing for what he calls “the foundational thesis of this study: peace is integral to the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and brought in his own person” (23). These three themes, peace, gospel, and kingdom are “wed together” (14), Swartley insists, and they should not be put asunder. After one more introductory chapter, a word study of “peace” in the Old Testament, the Greco-Roman world, and the New Testament, Swartley turns to an exposition of the New Testament materials.


Chapters on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts are followed by three chapters on Paul, one chapter on Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter, and three chapters on the Johannine materials. This is the strongest section of the book. It reports on and engages a good deal of scholarly literature. One might quarrel with Swartley here or there, but the cumulative effect of his expositions of the parts is a strong case for the significance of this “missing peace” to the whole of the New Testament. These chapters by themselves should restore “peace” to an important place in New Testament studies.

The concluding chapters of the book turn toward synthesis, toward an effort to see and describe the whole theologically and morally, and toward appropriation of the material in theology and ethics. The first of these concluding chapters focuses on the imitation of Christ; the second, on “God’s moral character as the basis of human ethics”; the third, on “New Testament peacemaking in the service of moral formation”; and the final chapter provides a summary. This section of the book, while it also engages a good deal of scholarly literature, is not as strong.

In the chapter on imitation, the paradigmatic significance of the cross is very nearly reduced to self-sacrifice and is inattentive to the cross as an emblem of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Entering the conversation about “the violence of God,” the chapter on God’s moral character rejects talk of “God’s violence” but accepts talk of “God’s vengeance.” This works if we were to agree to use “violence” to mean always the “unjust use of force” or “unjustified injury.” Then no one, of course, would be able to (or want to) justify “violence,” whether divine or human. But the question would remain whether the use of force or an act that injured a neighbor, whether by God or by a human being, can sometimes be justified. Swartley’s compelling sentence, “God’s vengeance, however executed, stands against human violence” (395) might then be paraphrased, “God’s just and right use of force (or ‘vengeance’)…stands against the unjust use of force by human beings (or ‘violence’).” We would have no quarrel about this sentence, then, but we would not have settled whether and when to count some human acts of force or injury to a neighbor as “just.”

The chapter on “moral formation” puts the stress exactly where it belongs, on the formation of character and community, but it seems, nevertheless, to take non-violence to be an unexceptionable moral rule. I surely agree that Christians may not be lovers of violence or disposed to violence, that we must be formed to peace and patience. But as Augustine argued long ago, violence is sometimes necessary and justified to defend the neighbor still threatened by the violence or greed of another. (And it is worth observing that “peace” was hardly “missing” in Augustine’s account of things.)

If violence is absolutely prohibited, absolutely inconsistent with Christian peaceableness, then I suppose police officers who are members of the church should be disciplined, perhaps even excommunicated. The community’s discipline should start, of course, with an honest conversation. Suppose the police officer replied that he just loves violence and hungers for the power this role gives to shove people around. Then the church should indeed call the policeman to repentance, and if he adamantly refuses repentance, the church should declare that he has cut himself off from the community. But suppose the police officer replies that she shares the church’s vocation to peacemaking and the hunger for justice that characterizes discipleship. Suppose she says that she has a vocation to protect and to serve her neighbors and especially those who are vulnerable. Suppose she says that she hates it when her role requires the use of force, when she risks injuring one neighbor for the sake of protecting another, but acknowledges that it sometimes does. Then the church, I think, should not excommunicate the police officer. It should continue the conversation. And in that conversation, there should be talk about things like legitimate authority and a presumption against violence, about last resort, a just cause, and a right intention, about proportionality and discriminating between the guilty and the innocent, and about vigilance against the evil we sometimes do in resisting evil. There would be talk, that is, that echoes the conversation about criteria for a just war. (Indeed, it may well be that the criteria for just war echo such conversations in the early church with soldiers in the community.) The church might well discern that within the vocation of the Christian community there is a place for those with a vocation to public justice, because “the things that make for peace” include justice, and because the law and its sanctions make a small but real contribution to both justice and peace. Something like that was the case I tried to make in Remembering Jesus, but perhaps, as Swartley’s note on that book suggests, my argument is distorted by my Reformed assumptions (448).

I am grateful for Swartley’s book and for its emphasis on peace, and I recommend it, but I think the argument that attention to “the missing peace” will require us all to become pacifists is mistaken. Of course, if “violence” simply means the unjust use of force, then we should all, of course, be pacifists; but then “pacifist” simply means one who rejects the unjust use of force, like most of those who honestly accept just war criteria.

Allen Verhey is professor of Christian Ethics at the Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.