Beware of politicians quoting random Bible verses at Christmas. Earlier this week, on Christmas Eve, David Cameron said:
“The Gospel of John tells us that [Jesus] was life, and that his life was the light of all mankind, and that he came with grace, truth and love… Indeed, God’s word reminds us that Jesus was the Prince of Peace. With that in mind, I would like to pay particular tribute to our brave servicemen and women who are overseas helping bring safety and security to all of us at home.”
The Prime Minister’s words remind me less of the Bible and more of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the government declares that “war is peace”.
When the word “peace” appears in the Bible, it means much more than an absence of violence.
In English translations of the Bible, the word “peace” is usually a translation of “shalom” (Hebrew) or “eirene” (Greek). “Shalom” refers to far more than a lack of violence. It is about justice, healing, wholeness and the restoration of right relationships at personal, social and political levels. The meaning of “eirene” is contested, but when Jesus speaks of leaving “peace” with his followers, he is clearly talking about something more than the fact that they are not killing each other (a practice that didn’t develop amongst Jesus’ followers until a few centuries later).
There have been occasions on which UK troops have been used to contain or limit violence, although this in itself requires coercion and the threat of violence. Whether or not this is justified, it is certainly nothing to do with “peace” in the biblical sense.
However, recent use of troops by UK governments has gone way beyond this. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have been acts of aggression that have done nothing to make the British people safer and have added to death and suffering in other parts of the world. The young men and women sent to their deaths by Cameron and Blair have been sacrificed in the name of values and powers that Jesus firmly rejected.
The notion that violence is the best, or ultimate, answer is contrary to Jesus’ active nonviolence. John’s Gospel, the book that Cameron quoted, records that Jesus’ last instruction to his disciples before his death was “put away your sword”.