Thomas Merton, reflecting on the 1958 Christmas Address of Pope John XXIII noted that
“Christ our Lord did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to His disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace, not only in their own hearts but in society itself. This was to be done not by wishing and fair words but by a total interior revolution in which we abandoned the human prudence that is subordinated to the quest for power, and followed the higher wisdom of love and of the Cross.”
Although his words were written during the height of the Cold War, they are as relevant today as they were then. We are still living in a world of violence. We see the effects of terrorism all around the world. We still seek to obtain power, whether as religious right or left, as conservative or liberal, or Republican or Democrat. We are often asked to compromise our convictions. We still find comfort in pursuing a tranquilizing peace that never quite solves the problems we face. It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the past fifty years.
The role of a tranquilizer is to soothe over issues and reduce tension. While it covers over problems, it never solves the basic issues. Merton’s statement leads us to a probing question. To what extent do we seek peace as a spiritual tranquilizer? If we do, we will find ourselves eventually willing to accept “peace at any price”. And this leads us down the slippery slope which ends up in a compromise with error and evil. Unfortunately it is all too easy to justify this in the name of peace. The Old Testament prophets excoriated the religious leaders who preached “peace, peace when there was no peace”. We saw what occurred when world leaders sought to appease Hitler during the 1930s. Many church leaders of his day also fell under his charismatic leadership, refusing to take a stand against the Third Reich as it became more and more evil.
But true Christianity never makes compromise with evil in order to achieve peace. We see this in the life of Jesus. Even though it eventually cost Him his life, He refused to go along with the religious leaders of His day whose teachings had distorted God’s intent. We see the same in the lives of His disciples when they declared “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19b). And we also see it in the lives of the Christian martyrs as they peacefully faced the wild animals and gladiators in the arenas before the taunting on-looking crowds Refusing to worship the emperor and live in peace, they gladly accepted death.
In the spiritual realm, peaceful coexistence never seems to work. Those on the side of evil will almost always come out ahead in the exchange. Despite our vain attempts to coexist with the world, Satan will never play fair, always manipulating things to his advantage. He simply cannot be trusted.
As Merton eloquently notes, God requires an interior revolution or transformation that totally changes our character and our lives. This alone brings true peace, even in the midst of violence, for it is an interior peace that only comes from a total allegiance to and complete trust in God. It relies upon complete dependence on Him. What kind of peace are we willing to live with? Is it a tranquilized peace that lasts only for the moment?