Peace now

At home I have a recording of a choir singing the hymn whose first verse runs:

O God of love, O King of Peace
Make wars throughout the earth to cease.
The wrath of sinful man restrain,
Give peace, O God, give peace again.

Well, I have lots of music, writes the Revd Mark Woods, editor of Christian Today. But this is special because it was recorded in 1918, at the end of the First World War. For that reason, it’s extraordinarily moving.

It was sung by those who had fought, or who had served on the home front. The singers may have included those who’d been wounded in mind or body, or who’d been bereaved.

Whenever I listen to it, I imagine them singing with tears in their eyes. It’s a prayer, shot through with the language of the Bible, that God would not let the world tear itself to pieces again. When I was in pastoral ministry I often chose it for the service on Remembrance Sunday.

I’d also choose to read the famous words from Micah 4, where the prophet has a vision of universal peace when all the nations will ‘beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore’.

I would read Revelation 21:1-4, too, and the verse that said, ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ was never more meaningful than on that day.

Christians live in an in-between space. We pray in the light of the prophecy. Someone’s defined peace, cynically, as the interval between two wars. That’s meant to make it sound as though the natural condition of human beings is warfare; peace is just an interruption.

But what those biblical prophecies tell us is that this is not true. They offer a vision of peace that has roots too deep to tear up, because it’s spiritual, not just institutional.

It can be very hard to hold on to that vision, given the world we live in. We’re saturated with images of violence and tales of horror, thanks to our instantaneous communications. Actually, it’s arguable that the world is getting less violent - the Middle East is an exception - but in general fewer wars are being fought with fewer casualties than a few decades ago. One war, though, is one too many; one death is one too many. Why should we keep praying that God would ‘make wars throughout the earth to cease’ when he doesn’t seem to answer?

The Bible offers two things here. First, it speaks directly to believers about the future. Scholars argue about what exactly it says, but most would argue that it talks about an end point to history, when God will make all things new. This, however, is out of our control. It is something that God will do when God chooses and speculating about it is pointless.

Second, though, these promises speak to us now. The ministry of Jesus was about the Kingdom of God breaking in to the everyday. The future becomes present; there’s an overlap between what will be and what is. When Jesus healed the sick and brought reconciliation and hope, that's what was happening.

Christians want to say that it’s still happening. When we pray for peace, we’re rejecting the ‘old order of things’, which includes violence and war. We are asking God to make a new thing happen now. And more than that: we’re saying that we will be part of bringing that new reality about. We’re citizens of the new kingdom, reshaping the old.

The decade after the war, the 1920s, was a time of hardship and hope. The war brought, for many people, a sense of solidarity and fellowship that survived its ending. Contrary to the popular myth, churchgoing rose. Powerful volunteering movements began with visions of a better world, like Toc H, founded by an Army chaplain, Tubby Clayton. When they prayed that God would ‘make wars throughout the earth to cease’ they meant it. They wanted to make Micah and Revelation come true now.

That’s still what Christians try to do today, as part of what the Archbishop of Canterbury has described as ‘the greatest movement for good the world has ever seen’. We're painfully conscious of the gap between how things are and how they ought to be - and the gap is there in ourselves as well.  The final fulfillment of those visions of the future is in God’s hands. But they are what we try to make real now, and we try as hard as we can to close the gap. The old order of things is passing away.

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