What does it mean to believe in the Prince of Peace?

Whether in Handel's "Messiah" or Isaiah 9, Advent heralds the coming of the Prince of Peace. What does that mean to a society where religion and war are often interconnected?

Image by Khoa Lê from Pixabay

Every year, I make a point of attending the sing-along of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Stanford University’s Memorial Church. The place is packed to the rafters with believers and non-believers, musicians and hacks, trained vocalists and those, like myself, who can hardly carry a tune in a bucket. Together, we sing our hearts out as we proclaim: “For unto us a child is born, Unto us a son is given, And the government shall be upon his shoulder And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5).

Advent is a season of hope and seeing God’s promise in the unlikely person of a child. It is a time of celebrating the birth of the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah and heralded by Handel as the “Prince of Peace.” While American Christians may love to sing these words or hear them read as a part of the Christmas Eve service, few of us seem to really grasp the implications of such a title. This is hard to do when religion and war have become so interconnected in our culture.

Indeed, to suggest that war and militarism are antithetical to the message of Christ is to risk, in some circles, accusations of treason or heresy or both.

Most Christians are unaware that for the first few hundred years of the early church, many Christians were committed to pacifism as a result of their faith. A vein of this ancient ethic has persisted throughout history. But in the dominant culture, the reverse is true; religion and war have become so enmeshed that evangelical proselytizing and messaging has become common in the U.S. military. But this is not an issue just among the more conservative churches, it has just as big a hold on those who call themselves progressive. Welcome LGBTQ folk into our community? No problem. Support for sanctuary cities and churches? No problem. Disavow war, militarism and violence in the name of the Prince of Peace? That’s a little radical.

A 2021 study reports that the U.S. has spent $8 Trillion dollars on post-9/11 wars while killing more than 900,000 people. And yet even the conservative think tank Ripon Society concedes that “[t]he number of Islamist-inspired foreign terrorist organizations more than tripled from 2000 to 2015, and the number of terrorist attacks and fatalities also rose, and especially in the countries where the U.S. military had been most active.” In other words, the War on Terror was unsuccessful.

When I read such statistics, I remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. … Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But what does pacifism look like? What does it mean to follow the Prince of Peace? The Sermon on the Mount offers some lessons here: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

If you are anything like me, this passage has always seemed difficult. First of all, “Do not resist evil,” seems antithetical to Christ’s call to bring about the kingdom of heaven. Fortunately, Walter Wink offers some insight about this in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.

Wink explains that the translators who were hired by England’s King James to create the King James Version of the Bible (the first English translation) decided to interpret the Greek word antistenai as “resist not evil.” But in ancient texts, this word is used to describe a violent military encounter or armed revolution. A more accurate translation would be “Do not resist violence with violence” or “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” Given the context of England’s empire, you can understand why the translators might have some ulterior motives for selecting a self-serving translation.

But what about “turning the other cheek”? Many readers or hearers of this Scripture know the ways that it has been used by abusers and tyrants to taunt those who are being oppressed. How can Jesus ask this of us?

Wink emphasizes that Jesus’ specification of the “right cheek” is important. “ A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent . . . The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the right hand. What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure, but to humiliate … Why then does he counsel already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. …This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance.”

As the season of Advent reminds us, peace on earth and goodwill to all will not be achieved through the machinations of war nor will it be achieved through passivity. It will arrive in the unassuming form of child amidst a clash of empires. It will arrive as God invites us to share God’s love, sometimes by standing up to power but always with nonviolence.

May the light of God’s love and Prince of Peace dwell in our hearts and lives this season and all through the year.