Balancing Acts – Peace and Justice 101-Revisited

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.

by Tom Beutel

I wrote the following article seven years ago for Peace Signs. It seems appropriate to re-visit it again as we reflect this month on MCC Peace Sunday.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

John 14:27 (NRSV)

I recently received an e-mail from a friend that included several questions related to peace that had been posed to her. As I considered responding, I was again reminded of the fact that often we who talk about peace assume that everyone means the same thing by the word “peace,” yet this is not necessarily the case.

First and foremost, peace is much broader and richer than simply the absence of war or violence (or for that matter than the absence of anything). The word that is normally translated peace in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word shalom. One way to think of shalom is that it denotes healthy, right relationships including those between people and God, people with and within themselves, people with other people (including nation with nation), and people with the rest of creation (the land, “nature”, the Earth).

Perry Yoder, in his book Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, & Peace, describes the use of the word shalom to indicate not only right relationships, but also material prosperity and moral integrity. Peace, in terms of shalom, is not present if one or more of these three conditions is absent. For example, there is not peace (shalom) when some have prosperity at the expense of others. It does not matter whether the inequity is intentional or not. Because all do not have prosperity – and by implication, a healthy, right relationship with each other – the state of affairs is not one of shalom.

Yoder also defines shalom less formally as “things being as they ought to be.” Whether “things are as they ought to be” is determined by whether all (not just some) are doing better than just getting by, whether relationships (including those with God, self, and the rest of creation, as well as with others) are healthy, and whether there is moral “rightness.”

This informal definition of shalom can be helpful in understanding whether there is peace in a given situation. If North Americans have abundant, inexpensive goods while those in developing countries endure sweatshop workplace conditions to make these goods, there is not shalom – things are not as they ought to be. If a friend, relative or neighbor does not know the person of Jesus Christ, does not understand the rich, satisfying life available in right relationship with God, there is not shalom – things are not as they ought to be. If people are hungry, or without clothing or a home or health care or work, there is not shalom – things are not as they ought to be.

Shalom is only possible when there is justice. Where injustice exists, at least one of the three components of shalom will not be present. Typically, we tend to think of justice as “fairness.” However, the Biblical idea of justice is richer than this. An excerpt of the commentary to Article 22 of The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective [1995] reads:

According to Greek and Roman ideas of justice, people should get what they deserve.

According to the Bible, justice involves healing and restoring relationships. That is a

reason for the special concern for the poor and the oppressed evident in the Bible

(Deut. 24:10-22; Matt. 20:1-16; James 2:5).

This is a key concept. Biblical justice is not based on merit (deserving) – either positive or negative – but rather on need. Biblical justice is not about punishing those who have “done wrong,” nor is it about rewarding those who have “done right.” God’s justice provides what is needed to restore shalom – material prosperity, right relationship, and moral integrity. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, “your Father in heaven … makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This is “just” because, it is what is needed. Whether “good” or “evil,” “righteous” or “unrighteous” all need the sun and the rain so that they may have the basic provisions of life.

A perfect example of justice as what is needed rather than what is deserved is Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. In this parable the owner of a vineyard, goes to the marketplace throughout the day hiring laborers to work in his vineyard. The first ones hired, early in the morning, are promised a day’s wages. Those hired later in the day are promised that they will be paid “whatever is right.” When the end of the day comes, those hired last, near the end of the day, are given a full day’s wage as are all of the others, including those who were hired first. According to the way we typically see justice, we would say that this is not fair since those hired last did not work the full day and therefore do not deserve a full day’s wage. However, if we look at justice as providing what is needed rather than what is deserved, we see that this is “fair.” Each man hired needed a day’s wage to buy food and take care of his family. Thus, each received a day’s wage.

There are many books related to Biblical peace and justice. Some that I have found helpful include:

  • Choosing Against War by John D. Roth, 2002, Good Books
  • Letters to American Christians by John Stoner and Lois Barrett, 1989, Herald Press
  • What Would You Do? by John Howard Yoder, 1983, Herald Press
  • The Politics of Jesus (2nd edition) by John Howard Yoder, 1994, William B. Eerdmans
  • Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, & Peace by Perry Yoder, 1987, Evangel Publishing House
  • Kingdom Ethics by Glenn Stassen & David Gushee, 2003, Intervarsity Press

The following links provide general information and resources related to peace and justice and opportunities to take action to promote peace and justice in practical ways:

As we try individually to live lives of peace and justice and work and advocate for peace and justice in our communities, the nation, and the world, it is important to keep in mind that God’s peace, shalom, is characterized by material prosperity, right relationships, and moral integrity. There is peace when things are as they ought to be.


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