If only we knew the path to peace….

The prophets of Israel had announced peace –Shalom– for a later time, the messianic future that would witness the coming of the Messiah, the king descended from David, the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:5). Then, Isaiah wrote, “They shall beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives. Nation will not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war. (Isa. 2:4-5). Then “…the wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion will grow up together (…).There will be neither hurt nor harm in all my holy mountain; for the land will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11: 6, 9).  Then people will enjoy peace according to the dictionary definition: there will be no war, no weapons, no one will cause or suffer any harm or disaster. Then the Earth shall overflow with peace, as the seas overflow with water. It may be a near or distant future, future in any case. “Then”.  But it will come to pass, do not give up. Stand firm.

What would human history be without that dream, without that impetus and spur of utopia? The critical Marxist and philosopher of hope Ernst Bloch explained to perfection the two sides or functions of utopia: the critical or negative function and the operative or positive function; critical of the present, on the one hand, efficient and constructive in terms of hope for the future, on the other hand. We cannot content ourselves with the endless war we see, nor with mere criticism of what we have. Let us today build the house of peace of the future, the city of peace.

What if we fail to build it? Even if we never succeed, it is worth trying to bring about peace peacefully. Eduardo Galeano said it perfectly: Utopia is the horizon; the horizon cannot be reached because it recedes as we move towards it, but the horizon shows us which way to head, in which direction to advance.

Jesus was moved by the same spirit of the prophets, their cry of hope: there will be peace without anguish in people’s hearts, there will be peace without injustice on Earth. But Jesus gave a new name to that ancient prophetic hope: “the reign” or “the kingdom of God”. And, more than anything, he incorporated something new into his prophecy: the reign of God, namely, the removal of all injustice and oppression, the healing of all disease and unease, the taking away of all anxiety and distress, is not for later on, it is for today. The kingdom of God is nigh, it is on its way making itself present. Do you want proof? See how the sick begin to heal. Now is the time for the great peace. Did the historical Jesus speak in this way? It would seem so in fact, but we are not particularly interested in what the historical Jesus thought, or said or did exactly, but in the inspirational figure offered to us by the stories, freely re-read “spiritually”.

Jesus’ message of hope must have resonated and achieved success among the common people of Galilee, especially among the fishermen and farmers around Lake of Gennesaret.  However, the challenge was to win over Jerusalem, and that is where he headed, and where he “failed”. The social elite –the “Sadducees”– and the religious elite –the chief priests and scribes– of the “holy city” preferred “the peace of order”, as St. Augustine was to declare 400 years later, rather than the subversive peace proclaimed by the young Galilean prophet. And they decided it would be better to get rid of him. We know what happened after that. Jerusalem became the crossroads and way of the cross for Jesus. (Failure will, however, be recognised as martyrdom and, therefore, as Pascha, as resurrection).

Jesus foresaw what was coming, but did not shy away from it; he faced up to it. And he did so not with violence, but with sadness, the sadness of seeing how the holy city was refusing peace and, in doing so, was denying its own name and existence. For it is well known that Jerusalem in Hebrew means “city of Peace”, and since ancient times had been the image of all dreams and hopes of peace. When catching sight of the city from afar, pilgrims would greet it, wishing it peace, Shalom, and joyfully sing: “May those who love you prosper; peace be within your ramparts…. For the sake of these my brothers and my friends, I shall say, ‘Peace be within you.’(Ps 122:6-8). And for Jesus, too, hearing Jerusalem meant breathing peace, saying Jerusalem meant offering peace. He had come to the city as a pilgrim, perhaps cherishing the ardent hope that on the very occasion of his pilgrimage, the reign of God, the all-embracing peace that transforms everything, the peace that renews all things, would burst forth and flourish.

But it was not to be. It didn’t happen this time either. Sensing it, and looking down upon the city from the Mount of Olives, he wept over it, and in tones of grief and lamentation rather than complaint and reproach he spoke to it, and said: “If only you had known this day the way that leads to peace!”(Lk 19:42).  “If only you had known how to find peace!” There are no words of condemnation. But the path to peace is more difficult than Jesus had at first believed, and not only among the notables of Jerusalem, but even among those who followed him more closely and journeyed with him. And in Jesus himself, who is soon described as sweating with anguish in the garden of Gethsemane after peace had been lost; and shortly afterwards, too, when he cried out on the cross, that God, too, had been lost… How could we reproach him for having lost peace?

No one loses or takes away peace knowingly, but through ignorance. No one loses and takes away peace on purpose, but through powerlessness. Even those who start a war do so for the purpose of achieving peace in a way that suits them. Those who do harm do so in pursuit of some benefit. Those who renounce peace do so because they do not know peace, not because they do not want it or because they prefer confrontation. There is no enemy who does not prefer peace, no evildoer who prefers evil. We are wanderers who have lost our way, not guilty ones. Perhaps that was what Jesus himself understood, even better than when he spoke to Jerusalem in pain, when he suffered the anguish of Gethsemane and the cross. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk. 23:34). And his last word is the All, the emptiness and plenitude that remains when everything has been lost: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). What remains is the eternal Breath of Life.

From this his last word, and from his fullness of breath he speaks to us too, just as anyone who through anguish has found the path to peace would speak to us, would speak to us in sorrow and compassion: If only you could find the path to peace! If only you could distinguish between the semblance of peace and the gift of peace, between the peace of power and the peace of mercy, between the peace of the Empire and the peace of Breath, between illusory peace and true peace! If only you would stop punishing yourself and your neighbour and let the peace that dwells within you guide you along the path of peace! If only you could understand that; for all pilgrims and for you, too, it is not the goal but the journey that matters, that the journey itself should be the destination! It is up to you. The path to peace is right here, open before you: in yourself, in your neighbour, in nature, in all that is. Rise up and walk in peace. Let us walk in peace.

All the paths  –you yourself, your neighbour, nature, all that is– are one, as peace is one. The wayfarer of peace walks along all the paths at the same time. Not to reach full, definitive peace at some point, but to continue along the path in peace even if peace may be lost. The horizon of peace guides us along the path.

(Free version of the article published in Basque in the journal Hemen, no. 68 / 2020, October-December, pp. 8-11)

Aizarna (Basque Country). 2 December, 2021

Translator’s note: the Bible quotations have been taken from the REB-Revised English Bible – 1989

(Translated by Sarah J. Turtle)