The United States was born in war, nearly split in half by war, and entered into a whole century of wars less than fifty years later. As the country prepares to celebrate its Declaration of Independence 246 years ago, our warlike past should not escape notice beyond remembering the sacrifice of life and treasure over our relatively brief history as nations go (and come). Conflict has preoccupied us far more than peace. Now would be a suitable moment to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of that elusive goal in a continually troubled and warlike world.
Jerusalem, the focus of attention in our first reading today, means something like “possession of peace.” The principal city of the Kingdom of Judah and of Israel from the tenth century BCE, its history stretches back to about 1400 BCE, during the Late Bronze Age. Over its long history, Jerusalem has been fought over, seized, occupied, destroyed, and rebuilt by successive rulers, from the ancient Canaanites to the British. It is the “Holy City” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Even so, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” is not an exhortation to be taken lightly. But Isaiah’s promise of prosperity and peace awaits to be fulfilled.
If peace is an elusive goal, war is the worst disaster human civilization knows — although I worry about the eventual impact of global climate change. As the present war in Ukraine shows, the waste of life, treasure, and natural resources is appalling. And in the end, despite war, we are fortunate to have preserved the vestiges of freedom and prosperity after centuries of struggle. Not only democracy but civilization itself often seems frighteningly fragile. While nations are focused on conquest and defense, tyranny and oppression lie festering in the shadows along with the hunger, squalor, and lasting misery war brings in its wake.
As many towns and cities in the United States prepare to parade battalions of veterans and ever more sophisticated weapons of war down our festive main streets during the annual Independence Day celebrations, pause for a moment to pray for the peace not only of Jerusalem, but of the world.
In our first reading, Isaiah’s address to the exiles after they return to Jerusalem following their long imprisonment in Babylon begins with the promise of shalom. An almost untranslatable term, it is usually rendered by the single English word “peace,” but embraces good health, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, friendship, and well-being in general. Today it is still used as a personal name and a daily greeting in both Hebrew and Arabic. It envisions not only freedom from anxiety and distress, but also harmony among men and women and between them and their God. In today’s gospel Jesus instructs his disciples to bless their hosts with such shalom on entering their houses. Later, it is his first greeting to the grieving and frightened disciples when he suddenly appears in their midst (Luke 24:36, John 20:19-26).
In our second reading, Paul includes it as a blessing of his Galatian converts as they struggle to reconcile Jewish ritual observance with the freedom of the Gospel that Paul preaches: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! Peace and mercy on those who will follow this rule — and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:15-16).
The world still manages to beat the same drums of war that have forestalled peace for millennia, a simple fact of life that I reflected on just before Independence Day twenty-one years ago, two months before the terrible events of that early September:
It’s foolish to think that God loves one nation more than all others; the question we face is whether we love God — whether we have responded wholeheartedly to the graces and blessings God has bestowed on us as a nation. Are we a beacon of hope and freedom to the oppressed people of the earth? Or have we also fallen back into yoke of slavery to the sinful social structures of the world — expedience, self-service, exploitation, and even tyranny?
Tomorrow, in this year of heightened conflict and the ever-elusive quest for a just and humane world order, can we at least pray that by the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will yet break upon us, bringing light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
To know and not to act is not to know. —Wang Yang-ming