Today at church Andrew talked about the importance of understanding the historic context of Jesus birth in 1st Century Rome. Historians call the period that spans roughly 200ish years (27 BCE – 180 CE) the “Pax Romana” or Peace of Rome. Basically, this was a time of relative calm in the empire. The Roman Empire was the largest it ever would be, there were very few internal uprisings or external threats. Alexander’s policy of conquering an area and then keep their own customs and religions seemed to be working. Peace on (the known earth) seemed to be in effect.
So why is there all this talk of peace during the Advent & Christmas seasons? Why did the angels slip that “Peace to all men and women on earth who please him” thing into their message to the shepherds? Were they being polite? Was that just like saying, “Have a good one” in the parlance of the day?
I think the reason that peace is such a big part of this season is because God’s definition of peace differs greatly from that of the Roman empire and God intended to bring God’s brand of peace to earth through Jesus.
Scripture lets us know that Jesus was born during the time of Augustus, because historically Augustus is known as the one who ushered in the Pax Romana. Augustus is the Emperor of Rome, but Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
“Augustus faced a problem making peace an acceptable mode of life for the Romans, who had been at war with one power or another continuously for 200 years. Romans regarded peace not as an absence of war, but the rare situation that existed when all opponents had been beaten down and lost the ability to resist. Augustus’ challenge was to persuade Romans that the prosperity they could achieve in the absence of warfare was better for the Empire than the potential wealth and honor acquired when fighting a risky war. Augustus succeeded by means of skillful propaganda. Subsequent emperors followed his lead, sometimes producing lavish ceremonies to close the Gates of Janus, issuing coins with Pax on the reverse, and patronizing literature extolling the benefits of the Pax Romana.” (Stern, Gaius (2006). Women, children, and senators on the Ara Pacis Augustae: A study of Augustus’ vision of a new world order in 13 BC. and Momigliano, Arnaldo (1942). “The Peace of the Ara Pacis”. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5: 228–231.)
A few thoughts on the differences between God’s Peace & Rome’s Peace:
1. Rome believed that peace could only be achieved when their opponents had been beaten down to the point that they could no longer fight back. God’s peace involved opponents resolving differences and co-existing peacefully.
The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.
I think it’s important to note the interactions between these would-be enemies. There’s romping, sleeping (an act of supreme trust), sharing of food, tending, discovering. Killing and violence has stopped because there is the doing of everyday life together without the threat of danger. This is God’s definition of peace. The need for domination is gone.
There is also no need to make one into the other’s image. The passage doesn’t read, “The lion will give pouncing lessons to the lamb”. Each animal retains its identity but is able to live well with their counterparts. God calls us to look past our natural tendencies and calls us to peace by celebrating, not just tolerating, those who are different from us.
Finally, there is a clear absence of fear. Scripture tells us that God is love and that fear and love cannot co-exist. In this vision of the world to come, God is so present that fear is not even possible. When we are fully in pursuit of God and God’s view of a peaceful world, we can eliminate fear from our interactions with the other.
2. Augustus used the promise of personal prosperity to motivate his country to lack of conflict. God’s peace brings together communities and families and is focused on eternal benefits.
God’s plan is bigger than just a short-term, tenuous peace accord that keeps violence at bay. It’s a vision for what God intended for humanity and for the planet. When Jesus started explaining God’s kingdom to his followers, he basically said, “You’re gonna be poor, people will hate you and they might even kill you. Who’s with me?” It’s hard work, this peace thing, and it’s not always going to go well. God doesn’t sugar coat it for us. God takes the long view, knowing that the short term may be bumpy, but the effort is worth it.
3. Rome used a systematic propaganda campaign to convince the empire to follow his peace plan. God used a homeless guy, 12 other dudes, some rich women and a few other folks to talk about God’s kingdom – a new kingdom that was about the restoration of the world to what God originally intended.
God sucks at marketing. I’m just going to say it. If God would’ve gone to Madison Avenue with this plan, they would’ve led him in another direction – a You Tube channel, social media campaign, commercials, twitter feed, buying ads during the Super Bowl, etc. This is an important message. God is telling the world that there’s a crazy kind of peace coming where babies play with snakes. The Snakes-On-A-Plane Tie-In is a no-brainer. God knows that God’s vision of the world is what we all crave and that when it’s seen in real life, it’s going to attract people in droves.
Here in the US we’re about to mark the anniversary of the horrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Gun violence has continued to escalate in this country despite that horrific event that took the lives of 20 first graders. The NRA has used fear to convince its supporters that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Violence to end violence. How does this fit in God’s view of a peaceful world? I don’t think it does.
In August of this year, a woman called Antoinette Tuff took a different approach to a potentially violent situation and modeled another option for stopping a bad guy with a gun. Antoinette works in the front office of Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy just outside Atlanta. She was at work when Michael Brandon Hill slipped behind someone else into the school with an AK-47-type weapon. He went into the office and shot at the ground, then darted between there and outside to fire at approaching police. Antoinette didn’t have a gun but she had words. She talked to him. She told him about her personal struggles. She told him she loved him. She went with him and helped him surrender to police with no one harmed. Antoinette is a person of peace, modeling the effectiveness of words in the diffusing of violence in a difficult situation.
Last week, Nelson Mandela passed away. While much has been said about him, there are two quotes that stood out to me.
“It’s not that he didn’t feel rage. He just thought love would do a better job” – Bono on Nelson Mandela
“It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well.” — Barack Obama
Mandela modeled the importance of love over fear to bring peace. He also recognized the needs of the jailer as well as the needs of the prisoner. We’re all bound by fear on some level and that is what ultimately prevents true, God-honoring peace.