In Swedish we actually have two words for peace: frid which describes the inner peace one experiences when everything is calm and stress-free, and fred which is the absence of conflict or war.
This contrasts not only with English but also with Hebrew and Greek, where shalom and eirene are unified words, intimately connecting inner peace with political peace.
Swedish translators of the Bible thus have to make a lot of interesting choices when encountering shalom and eirene in the holy texts. Some are non-controversial: Ecclesiastes talk about fred when he contrasts a time for peace with a time for war (3:8), while Paul is thinking about frid when he talks about the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds (Phil 4:7).
But I have often rolled my eyes when I encounter translations that insist that when God wants peace on earth (Luke 2:14), when Jesus and James calls us to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9, Jam 3:18) and when James tells us to stop fighting and when Paul literally says that God has brought down the “dividing wall of hostility” to make peace between Jews and Gentiles, it’s all about frid. One translation is particularly guilty of this, only using the sociopolitical word fred thirteen times in the entire New Testament.
And when Paul states that peace is one expression for the fruit (not fruits, mind you!) of the Spirit in Gal 5:22, is he talking about frid or fred? Both, of course. Yet, even when you read his words in English, you might feel tempted to think that it must be the inner feeling of peace that he’s thinking of. After all, he’s also mentioning patience and self-control.
But just like love and goodness, peace is an interdependent virtue that strongly relates to our social environment. One cannot feel true peace unless one experiences peace around oneself. It’s hard to enjoy a relaxing, peaceful moment of quiet when there are bombs dropping around you.
How then can we achieve this? Peace is always dependent on at least two parties, which is why we might experience conflict even when our intention is peace. This is why Paul writes “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18). We try our best on our part, and pray that the other respond constructively.
What does this look like in practice? God seems to be very concerned with us asking that question, since the Bible provides us with several practical tools for conflict resolution and peacemaking.
1. Breaking the cycle of hostility
The first tool is given to us by Paul right after he says that we should seek to live at peace with everyone. He continues:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:19-21)
We recognize this from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where our Savior famously states that we should turn the other cheek and love our enemies (Mt 5:40-48). The idea is that violence and conflict is a feedback loop driven by revenge and retaliation, which we are called to break by doing the exact opposite of what is being done to us: love instead of hate, help instead of fight, doing good instead of doing evil. The Bible rejects the idea of fighting fire with fire; water is way more effective.
This is easy to say and hard to live by. Our instincts and passions often push us towards “getting back”, exclaiming “they started!” as a justification for our injustice. The Bible points us in another, nonviolent, direction.
2. Identifying and resolving incompatible goals
Paul also provides us with another tool to resolve conflict where we rely on our words:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:3-5)
All physical conflicts have an intellectual or ideological root, the incompatibilities of goals that are perceived (even though they sometimes aren’t real). This is why every single war is resolved with peace talks. When politicians claim “You can’t talk X” as a justification for killing them instead, they aren’t aware of history. Unless you’re planning an attempted genocide, talking is the only way to end a conflict.
As the church abandoned the pacifism that had been dominant during the first few centuries of her history, it also abandoned evangelism. Church father Augustine argued that it is good to use torture and persecution to turn Gentiles into Christians. Freedom of religion and expression are nonviolent ideas. Charismatic groups like the Anabaptists argued in the 16th century that the church needs to go back to these values. Ironically, they were persecuted because of this. But a few hundred years later, we see democracies spring forth that relies heavily on resolving differences of opinion with debate and discussion instead of punishment and violence.
Paul points out that God gives us power to demolish strongholds of the mind more effeciently than if we didn’t know Christ. And because he’s convinced that this is so effective, he argues that we don’t need the weapons of this world – swords, guns and the like. We go to the root of the problem directly. This involves identifying the perceived incompatibilities, discussing what can be done about them, and arguing against ungodly ideas with wisdom and love.
3 Jesus’ three-step plan for conflict resolution
Jesus envisioned his disciples to have a loving community, and love always brings conflict. If they don’t hurt, our relationships aren’t genuine. Jesus gives us a very practical method to deal with people who are sinning without feeling guilty about it:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
It fascinates and saddens me how often we fail to follow this plan, even though it is so concrete. Even in circles where we strive to live biblically and according to Jesus’ standards, we fail to take this process into consideration. Often when we see unrepentant sin, we jump directly into stage three – declaring in front of the whole church or, in the age of social media, the whole world that this person is
Jesus isn’t defending sin.