A Peace that Passes All Understanding

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7)

-Apostle Paul

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

-Iñigo Montoya

Everyone says peace, peace when there is no peace. On the global scene, we broker our treaties and walk tenuously on days when tensions run high. Our national politics are marked by a strong partisan divide. Closer to home, violence erupts where it should not—at churches, concerts, and playgrounds. Prejudices affect public policy, marring our police forces and our justice system. We sign Christmas cards that say Peace on Earth, goodwill toward all people, but peace is not our lived reality. We keep using that word but I do not think it means what we think it means.  

Our understanding of peace evidences a lack of imagination. We understand peace to mean the cessation of war or conflict (or perhaps, a blissed-out tranquil state). The Hebrew concept of Shalom is far richer than just that. Certainly, it includes the idea of the end of war but it also describes a whole new world:

  • Shalom is health and prosperity, a profound experience of total well-being.
  • Shalom means to be complete, full, and whole. It describes life as ample, abounding, and brimming over. Everything just as it should be.
  • Shalom is a bountiful harvest. The locust and famine have not wasted the crops. There is more than enough to share with everyone.
  • Shalom is to live in a state of friendship with others.
  • Shalom means restoration and restitution. Repayment for the wrong we’ve done and all relational brokenness mended.
  • Shalom means justice, putting the vulnerable, the oppressed and the marginalized in your sphere of care.
  • Shalom is an open-hearted right relationship with yourself, with others, with Creation, and with God.

Underpinning the definition of shalom are some biblical pictures that envision peace: the Garden of Eden (Gen 2), the eschatological vision of the Hebrew Prophets (cf. Isaiah 2, 11), the Kingdom of God(see: Jesus), and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).

We need to allow this vision of shalom to shape our hopes and vision for what peace may be if we are to speak and live as witnesses of another Kingdom. Too often, our public rhetoric of ‘keeping the peace’ is used in ways that are anti-shalom. 

Telling NFL players to stand up and respect the flag without addressing the reality of racial inequalities, and state-sponsored violence against black people, there is no shalom.

When we claim we are about ‘law and order’ and advocate policies that incarcerate minorities at higher rates and for less than what white people get slapped on the wrist for, there is no shalom.

When we are told we ought to support leaders who support policies that hurt the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and alien, there is no shalom.

When we ignore the cries of victims because our party’s agenda is too important, there is no shalom.

When we claim that social programming will bankrupt our country and we need to first be fiscally responsible if we want our society to function, we ignore commands and biblical exhortations to live open-handed lives toward the poor (Deut. 15:11).  There is no shalom.

When we deregulate environmental protections, poison waterways, pollute the air, and destroy the earth, we are not caring for creation. There is no shalom.

In a series of recent Facebook posts, Mark Van Steenwyk challenged the way  pacifism and calls for peace have been used by the powerful and privileged to oppress and silence the poor and marginalized:

Any anabaptist theology that isn’t re-baptized through liberation theology reinforces oppression.

Anabaptism, on its own, only makes sense as a religion of the oppressed. Just like the Gospels are unintelligible to the middle and owner classes apart from the experiences of the oppressed.

In other words: Any calls for pacifism, meekness, and simplicity that come insistently from the powerful are attempts to keep the oppressed docile and poor.

Nonviolence must be a tool of the oppressed in their struggle, with the aid and support of repentant allies. Otherwise, in the hands of the powerful it becomes an ideology of oppression.

To be clear: I’m a pacifist. But pacifism and nonviolence must be in service to liberation or they become a force for oppression. If you’re a pacifist that isn’t working alongside (and following the lead of) those who struggle for liberation, then your nonviolence is just the velvet pouch sheathing the hammer of oppression (from RadicalDiscipleship.net)

Children, who understand such things better than us, sing out, “I’ve got the peace-that-passes-understanding, down in my heart (where?), down in my heart to stay.”

Come Lord Jesus and

give to us your Spirit of Peace,

enliven our imagination 

that we may live out 

peace bigger than our 



(photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

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I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

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