If there is one thing that it would be safe to say that everyone desires, other than his or her own happiness, it would be the goal of world peace. From people who express their hope for peace on their bumper stickers, to an NBA basketball player who incorporates it into his name, to contestants striving for the lofty title of Miss America, many delight in expressing their hopes for universal harmony. Those who support a particular war usually do so because they see it as the means of establishing a future peace, and even the most twisted mind thinks that his tyrannical actions will bring about some warped view of concord and order. In some way or another, every human being has some wish for world peace.
Yet this is a wish that often goes unfulfilled, and seems unlikely ever to be realized in the world. A glance at the newspaper these days shows war and conflict on a global scale: between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and ISIS and anyone with whom they come into contact. Even our own nation is not free from civil unrest, as seen in the recent riots and protests in Missouri. With all the violence on display throughout the world, one may wonder: how is the universally desired goal of peace attainable?
Pope St. John XXIII, at the beginning of his social encyclical Pacem in Terris, written months before he died, offered this answer:
Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.
A bold claim indeed—yet not a strange one. We may try to make peace on our own efforts, such as by withdrawing troops from a war-torn region. Yet the peace that we all seek does not come from ourselves alone, as the Second Vatican Council fleshed out a couple of years later:
Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder . . . That earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men (Gaudium et Spes, 78).
This promise of peace comes from Jesus himself: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (Jn 14:27). For even when the long-expected Prince of Peace (Is 9:6) first came into the world, the peace that the world could give proved to fall short. The Roman Empire, which encompassed the known world, entered an extended period of stability, called the Pax Romana, under the reign of its first emperor, Caesar Augustus, who rose to power through victory in a series of internecine conflicts and styled himself a Son of God (Divi Filius). After he established his rule, Augustus closed the gates of the Roman temple of Janus, thus declaring world peace. The Christmas liturgy evokes this setting: “…the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ… was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah.”
But even during this Pax Romana, which continued for several decades after Augustus’ death, the Empire still struggled with the peoples it conquered. Regional governor Pontius Pilate consented to the execution of the true Son of God, hoping it would prevent a rebellion in Judea, whose leaders found it “better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (Jn 11:50). The Romans would, however, take Jerusalem by siege and destroy the Temple decades later. So much for Roman peace!
Yet the death of Jesus Christ did bring forth a peace that no emperor could have foreseen: peace with God, as St. Paul describes, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). The death of Christ on the cross satisfied for our sins and restored the human race to friendship with God, or charity, whose proper effect is the true peace that the world cannot give.
Moreover, Jesus invites us all to take part in his work of spreading this peace throughout the world: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9). Only through acknowledging the fatherhood of God and the order that follows from Him can we build a true brotherhood of men, and become God’s children much more so than Caesar Augustus, with his imperfect peace, ever was. For as recent Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers states:
Peacemakers are not the sons of a world torn by unending human dissension and war. They win the name of sons of God because they bring to the world the peace and reconciliation which can only come from Him—we can even say, the peace which is God.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Buckland Organ Pipes (St. Mary the Virgin)