Dictionaries tend to define the word "peace" negatively. Peace is an absence of war, an absence of conflict. Inner peace is an absence of inner turmoil.
This negative definition of peace can affect our understanding of the word. Peace is something wimpy. It is a lack of virility, a failure to take a stand.
Such negative peace can be rooted in fear. It engages in endless dialogue, but has no principles over which it will go to the wall. This peace is a quest for appeasement rather than truth and justice. It will do anything to avoid conflict because, at its heart, it is cowardly.
Is this the sort of peace Jesus had in mind when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9) or "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you"? (John 14:27). Would the Jesus who frequently urged his disciples to "be not afraid" be satisfied with the mere absence of conflict?
The biblical notion of shalom has much more fibre than this negative peace. It is a fullness of life, a righteousness, a justice that is a fundamental virtue for both individuals and society.
Shalom is a right relationship with God. It is willing to endure hardship and sacrifice in order to witness to the truth. It seeks peace through reconciliation of relationships rather than backing away from hard stands.
When the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church speaks of peace, it means shalom. Peace is not merely the absence of war or a balance of power between enemies. It represents the fullness of life, an order based on justice and charity.
In fact, peace is ultimately more about love than about justice. Justice is about balance and equity. But love is more than justice. It is passionate and self-sacrificing for the good of the other.
Violence is the negation of shalom. But oddly, it is when a country is at war that it most values peace. When war is absent, we tend to fall towards the negative definition of peace.
When the memory of war dims, sometimes people grow weary of the negative peace and yearn for something with more backbone. If shalom is absent, the desire to avoid war may dwindle.
It is the same with sin. When we are aware of our sinfulness, our desire for reconciliation with God and other people grows stronger. Recognition of sin and war makes us yearn for peace.
Some may glorify war as an opportunity for heroism. But it is in times of shalom that the human person develops his or her noblest faculties. People raise families, form stable communities and feel confident enough to make bold initiatives. War not only kills people as sin kills the inner person, but both devastate the confidence that underlies human flourishing.
We shouldn't wait for war to become heroes. The real heroism lies in the pursuit of shalom, the fullness of justice and love. Heroism in war typically involves holding the line against barbarism - certainly a worthy and necessary task.
Heroism in peacetime can take the form of persevering initiative that overcomes laziness and the desire for comfort.
Turning off the TV in order to volunteer in the community may not count as heroism in many people's books. But it builds something new, whereas the hero of war is warding off destruction.
Moral theologian Servais Pinckaers notes that history is often portrayed as a succession of wars "interspersed by periods of peace about which there is little to say. Yet it is in periods of peace that a nation accumulates riches of all kinds; it is in wartime that its goods are squandered and devastated. Perhaps history needs to be rewritten" (The Pursuit of Happiness God's Way, p. 157).
Peace is not an absence of something. It is a positive situation rooted in a right relationship with God. Ultimately, peace is a quality of God himself. To have a right relationship with God is to share in that quality. It is to share in the life of God.
To the extent that we share in God's life, violence will be routed. More than that, however, the reign of love and justice will be extended. We will exercise our moral fibre to stand for truth even when it is difficult to do so.