How do we live in peace when there is no peace?
By Nathan Hunt
At the climax of his message to the Colossians, you can almost feel Paul lift out of his seat to deliver his central charge: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” (Col. 3:15).
We still crave these words today: to be a people of peace; to experience peace for ourselves; for Christ to rule.
But what does it mean to be at peace? Can we have peace in our hearts if there is not peace in our world and in our relationships? We must be careful here. Jeremiah once called his people to task for claiming such things carelessly. “‘Shalom, Shalom’ 'ayin shalom,” he wept. “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, Peace,’ they say, but there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14).
Whose peace reigns in Colossae?
The Colossians aren’t foreigners to false claims and poorly attended wounds. They live under the Pax Romana, an imperial peace imposed through military and economic domination. Rome declares that her rule marks a glorious new age, one upon which the blessings of the gods rests. All who live within Rome’s sphere and bow to Lord Caesar will find peace.
Paul drops the letter of Colossians into this context with an alternative story that takes off like a subversive virus. With Jeremiah, he rejects the empire's claims to peace when there is no peace. The story Rome is telling is false! All have not found peace here. The wealth of a few is built on the backs of many. Some are privileged while others suffer as slaves.
In a world where the image of Caesar is printed on everything from money to city gates to cutlery as a reminder of who is king and god, Paul declares a different lord: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17).
Jesus—the one Rome tried to kill on a cross—is the resurrected King, the true image of God, the creator of all the world Caesar claims as his own. In place of a false peace, Jesus redefines the means of salvation. Instead of military conquest, he makes peace through radical self-sacrifice. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20).
For Paul, the truth of Jesus has implications across every dimension of creation: individual, family, church, communal, societal, even ecological. All things are being made new, and we get to have a role in it! But once again, Paul doesn’t dumb down the difficulties of entering this new world.
This draws us back to a central question: What exactly is the anatomy of peace? Steeped as he was in Scripture, Paul’s thought clearly reflects that most freighted word of the Hebrew language: shalom.
When Paul talks about the “peace of Christ,” he is talking about shalom.
While Rome’s peace is based on allegiance to the emperor, shalom begins with first commandment faithfulness: to have no other gods beside Yahweh (Exod. 20:1-3). This is the main reason Paul instructs the Colossians to turn from sexual immorality. These acts are associated with pagan worship practices, which, as Paul succinctly reminds his readers, “is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). There is no peace without the worship of God.
While Rome’s peace only benefited a few, shalom is a fundamentally communal experience. If anyone in the community is excluded, shalom is broken for all. “Shalom is always tested on the margins of a society and revealed by how the poor, oppressed, disempowered and needy are treated,” writes Randy Woodley in Shalom in the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “Shalom is never the private property of the few.”
While Rome’s peace is based on social hierarchies and systems of oppression, shalom emerges where systems are just and relationships are reconciled.
Colossae sat on a key trade route through the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor. Diverse peoples from all over the empire called it home. Cultural differences and power differentials made for a relationally fragmented society. Paul cannot simply encourage them to cozy up to one another and work things out.
Rather, God’s shalom lifts them out of injustice and reconciles them into Jesus where they discover a new way of life with one another. Their former selves and social mores cannot facilitate true community. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Instead, they will learn to be one church through their shared identity in Jesus. “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:10-11).
A daily vocation
The truest thing about our world is that Jesus Christ is Lord, firstborn from the dead, creator of all things, making ALL things new. Therefore, writes Paul, live like it!
Colossians 3:12-17 walks a well-worn Old Testament tradition. The most common Hebrew word pairing is mishpat and sadiqah (e.g., Jer. 22:3-5; Isa. 28:17-18). The first word relates to justice in society and the second to personal righteousness. The two are continually held together in the biblical imagination. Paul follows this vein in his instructions for Christian living. The Jesus-ethic he describes forges an intimate marriage between personal holiness and social justice. It is, therefore, a powerful weapon against the divisions and oppression that continually encroach on the people of God.
What does it look like to have died to self and come alive to Christ in normal life?
Paul says it is to have compassion, literally to “suffer with” one another. It is to commit to the Christ-like, self-sacrificing, listening postures of kindness, humility, meekness and patience (Col. 3:12). When differences and difficulties flare up, Paul urges to “bear with one another” and live not in perfection but in forgiveness (v. 13). And finally, that glorious thing which cinches everything together: “put on love” (v. 14).
“Clothe yourself” in all of this, we are told (v. 12). The power of the empire will keep trying to creep in. Each day you must re-dress yourself in these virtues, remembering that you are God’s beloved people.
In the following of Jesus there is indeed true peace. Peace that lets us sing with the great Southern preacher William J Barber II: “to pain and problems and suffering and racism and injustice, ‘You may be real, but you are not the final reality. There is another hope! There is a resurrection!’”
Nathan Hunt is completing his final year at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and will graduate in the spring of 2016 with a master’s in Urban Mission. He blogs at leadingtoshalom.blogspot.com