Conflicting thoughts on peace


13 Nov 2022

Peace doesn’t come easily – it has to be sought and worked at.

Peace is a lovely, restful word. It evokes tranquil thoughts. But when we pray for peace it is usually to ask for the end of a terrible war or of inner turmoil of spirit. Or perhaps we pray in sudden thanksgiving that we are actually experiencing it.

Peace always seems to be locked into a dance with conflict. St Augustine remarked that everyone desires peace. Even kings that went to war did so to establish a peace on their own terms. In his day the tragedy of the dance of peace with war was that the eventual peace was marked by the enslavement of peoples and the destruction of cities. A Latin writer remarked bitterly of the Roman Empire, ‘They make a desert and they call it peace’.  

Certainly, in our world conflict often seems to trump peace. Science makes wonderful technology, for the healing of sickness and the making of a peaceful world. But it also makes the weapons that could now reduce our whole world to smoking ruins beyond healing. 

This might tempt us to think that our natural condition is not peace but conflict and war.

When visiting Europe it is thought-provoking to see how on many of the loveliest hills there are the relics of grass or stone castles that provided instant defence against invading forces. Some of the most moving and best tended open spaces, too, are burial grounds holding the bodies of soldiers known and unknown.

Jesus, who preached a Gospel of peace, knew the realities of conflict. He lived in a nation subject to foreign rule and always threatened by an overwhelming military response to any insurrection. War featured in many of the metaphors and parables that he and the Scriptural writers used to illustrate our human lives.

In the Gospels Jesus often speaks of peace, but conflict and disturbance are never far away. When angels appear they commonly greet people, ‘Peace be with you’. People usually need the greeting: they are scared stiff when God comes close. The angels may promise peace but their message often disturbs a peaceful life. Think of poor Joseph.

For that reason, when in John’s Gospel Jesus promises peace he makes it clear that it is different from earthly peace. It is a peace that can coexist with pain, with family division, with war, with persecution and imprisonment. It is the peace that comes from a deep trust in a God who will be with us whatever the circumstances of our lives. Jesus emphasises that he came not to bring peace but the sword, division and not unity. This is echoed in the experience of the early Christians whose families often rejected them for joining this new Jesus sect.

At all levels of society, from families to nations, peace is always a desire and not an assured achievement or gift. We need to work at peace making. That, too, can be risky. To desire and press for peace are often also dangerous. In times of hostility peace movements are suspect because they erode the determination and courage needed to win a war. Peace loving is identified with appeasement and allowing our aggressor to have a free reign. People will see true peace as total victory and contrast it with negotiation. In its extreme form this attitude was caught in the Cold War by the phrase, ‘Better dead than Red’.

To love peace is different from desiring peace at any cost. That would lead us to avoid conflict, flee from it, and to want never to be disturbed. This kind of peace is the fruit of fear and passivity, and not of commitment and trust. We should be compassionate to people who have adopted this attitude in response to a constant threat of violence. They live in a prison as real as one made with iron bars.

Jesus also associates peace with friendship. We find it within a community of people who respect and care for one another.

In such communities conflicts do not disappear but are accepted and worked through. They are strong enough to hold people together in a safe place. Such communities in Central America gave courage to women to front soldiers and demand the release of their seized husbands and children. In their lives the peace that came from mutual trust overcame fear and the violence that fear provokes. That was the peace of which Jesus spoke.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022-23 edition of Madonna magazine, which is from where the daily prayer reflections are taken. To subscribe or support Madonna magazine, see

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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