“Are they trying to make the Catholic Church a peace church?” This sentiment was among the reactions to the pastoral letter that our U.S. bishops issued some years ago, called The Challenge of Peace (1983). I recall finding that response provocative and illuminating. I knew what the speaker meant: there are Christian denominations such as the Quakers and Mennonites that have made peacemaking and even pacifism a dominant theme in their devotion and action; and no historian has ever grouped Roman Catholics in that category.
But as soon as I recognized that fact, I had to ask, “Why not?” Is not peacemaking central to the teaching of Jesus? There was no doubt of that in our bishops’ minds when they wrote their peace pastoral. And they were echoing powerful statements from recent popes. (“If you want peace, work for justice,” said Pope Paul VI.)
Each of this Sunday’s readings invites us to ponder the centrality of peace and justice in the mission of Jesus and in the mission of any of us who claim to be his disciples.
The selection from Isaiah contains the famous figure of the Servant of Yahweh. Commentators have debated long and hard whether this servant stands for Israel as a whole or for an individual within Israel. The consensus now is that, in the full context of Isaiah 40-55, the servant stands for both; that is, the figure of the servant represents Israel in her mission to be a light to the nations, and at the same time the language points to the role of a person within Israel who enables her to fulfill that mission. The poem is written as a divine oracle, and the words promise a special endowment of the Spirit of God, thus marking the mission as prophetic. It is also in the language of kingship (“establishing justice on the earth”), with the startling difference that this reign will come about not through military conquest but through conspicuously nonviolent means (“a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench”).
When Luke summarizes the meaning of the baptism of the Lord in the speech of Peter to Cornelius's household in Acts, he draws on the portrait of the Servant in Isaiah.
You know the word [that God] sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the holy Spirit and power. (Acts 10:36-38)
The thrust of this biblical teaching suggests that any community calling itself Christian is necessarily called to be, in a profound sense, a peace church. Our Pope and bishops have been trying to call our attention to this for some time now.