What Peace Really Means

May 19, 2005

I was reading an article recently by an Australian reporter of Palestinian descent. She set out on a pilgrimage to discover her roots and to see what was happening in Israel firsthand. She had heard of the horrible tragedies for years, but wanted to be a living witness of the culture of fear they live with every day. On her return from living in Israel, she wrote a series of essays on the experience. Here is a quote from one of them:

Israelis have always talked about peace, sung about it, made art and poetry about it as if it is something almost supernatural, some kind of a paradise that they yearn for but that has nothing to do with their everyday reality, and that they have no idea how to create. But what peace really means to these exhausted, anxious Israelis is to be left alone.

In this, Avigail Abarbanel voices the definition of peace that so many ascribe to: the absence of problems, the avoidance of the issue. However, she personally does not accept that definition of peace, and neither do I. Further down in the essay, she states, “ In family therapy there is an accepted principle that unless serious injustices are addressed, there cannot be real peace.

Avigail, who comes out strongly on the side of a Bipopulace principle for Israel (ie. Jews and Palestinians living together), believes that peace must address the issues of the “ethnic cleansing” that took place when Israel was born again in 1948. In this, she is actually much closer to the biblical definition of peace than what most people hold to. She wants something from the past resolved.

Adding his voice to this discussion on “true peace” is Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Israel. He makes this comment in a Christmas letter sent out this last year:

In our Palestinian context, “peace talk” is often a good recipe for managing the conflict rather than resolving it. As the world continues to talk peace, Israel continues to build the wall and while Christians continue singing “O little town of Bethlehem”, Israel makes sure that this town stays as little as possible. As little as 2 square miles, surrounded with walls, fences and trenches with no future expansion possibilities whatsoever.

To all concerned, the peace of Bethlehem is ensured by building a wall around it to keep out those who would disrupt its peace. It does not ask why someone would want to do that or why the birthplace of the “Prince of Peace” should be so fought over.

The Greek word for “peace” tells us a lot about why we don’t find it often enough. The word is irenai (we get the name Irene from it). The root word it comes from is the word which means “to divide”. Irenai is the opposite form. It means to take two divided pieces and join them back together again. Therefore, the true definition of peace cannot be the absence of something (absence of fighting, war, bickering, nagging, seeing atrocious things) but rather the presence of something (resolving issues, bringing forgiveness, working out agreements, settling disputes). Today’s Israeli/Palestinian peace talks always focus on armistice, not arbitration…and that is why it never seems to last.

People want me to counsel them with the goal of bringing peace to their lives. By this, they hope to accomplish less conflicts in the home, less complaining, more times of smiles. They are often surprised that I don’t ask to see the others who live in the home with them right off the top. I want to know why they don’t have peace. I want to know why they are divided inside. Traditional Behavioral counseling teaches students to bring in all parties in a household so the counselor can observe the interactions and relationship clues. Out of this, the counselor can then ascertain the best course of action to correct the problems.

Work-related peace is the same. It amounts to adversaries not talking to one another openly (however, they talk to everyone else instead), perhaps even transfering to different departments or branches of the company. Peace means that managers go to both parties and get them to “agree to disagree” for the good of the company. This happens in sports all the time. Recently, the coach of the Houston Rockets told the world that his Center, Yao Ming was being singled out by the league’s officials for fouls in games, and a referee was the one who told him. The league commissioner threatened him with lifetime expulsion if he didn’t recant. Instead of taking the story back, he “rewrote” the details and said he didn’t say what he said. All the reporters who asked him to explain his previous comments received the same answer: “You must have misunderstood what I said.” There is now peace in the situation, but nothing was resolved, and the league is not proceeding with his lifetime ban. Who knows, Pete Rose may end up in the Hall of Fame yet.

No, peace is something much more than all of this. Peace is actually bringing two broken pieces back together and making them stronger than they were before. The reason we don’t see much peace is that the process requires repentance, forgiveness, honesty, humility and a heart of love and acceptance.

My favorite example of this happened many years ago in my life. An elderly woman used to clean the small church of which I was pastor. She didn’t attend our church, but would occasionally come to potlucks, where she would bring a mound of perogies. Look up a recipe for them…they’re to die for. Many days, she would scour my office while complaining about her life. She had been through five marriages. She had six kids, none of whom spoke to her any more. She was lonely, depressed and suicidal…all the time. I tried to share the love of Jesus with her, but she just retreated from the idea of God with a vengeance. But, one day, she gave up her resistance to God and received his love into her heart. Obviously I am condensing a very long and beautiful story. During the next few years, God spoke to her about the things that had taken place in her life. My constant advice to her was to seek forgiveness from them by repenting. She really seemed to agree with me. I lost track of her after awhile because she moved back to her old home town to a nursing home. Several years later, the director of the nursing home called to tell me that she had passed away. He also told me about the last five years of her life. They were spent contacting former husbands to make amends. She called all her children, and by the time she died, she had asked forgiveness of them all and walked in humility in front of them. She reconciled with all of them before she died. She also used to sit in the main meeting room of the nursing home and teach about humility to the other residents.

Here were the final words of the nursing home director to me: “She changed this place. She brought peace here.”

Now you know what peace is. Now you know what it isn’t.


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