The ancient historian Tacitus reports one of the generals of the Britons describing his Roman adversaries like this: ‘To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a wilderness and call it peace’ (Agricola 30.6).
And so often this is the experience that goes by the name of ‘peace’ or ‘reconciliation’ in our world, isn’t it? Peace not as the fullness of relationship but its absence:
- Think of the vanquished foe, pacified, crushed (or even annihilated) and thus ‘at peace’ with the victor.
- Or of chronic conflict avoiders — who achieve an apparent end to conflict by severing relational connection altogether.
Either way, what we have is just a wilderness — alienation masquerading as reconciliation.
And this is where the Christian gospel, and hence any pastoral care we offer that, has something distinctive to offer. God has achieved true and lasting peace in Christ, reconciling all things to Himself in Him, overcoming the hostility between human beings and Him (and between human beings and human beings). And He offers to us — as a gift — participation in it.
On the one hand, this frees us from the burden of needing to forge peace for ourselves. God has done it! Receive the gift with thankfulness and rejoice in it. This gives us such tremendously good news to bring to bear in the messiness of life.
On the other hand, it calls us to be agents of peace and reconciliation. To take up the task of forgiving as He has forgiven us. And this can be a hard ask — almost impossibly hard in some of the conflicts we know and bump up against from day to day: divorce, generations of ploughing deep furrows between ethnic groups, estranged children.
But it’s a task we can’t shirk if the church is to be the arena in which God’s reconciliation breaks out. This is the beauty of some of Jesus’ trenchant, down to earth teaching in Matthew 18, where the key is repentance in response to receiving God’s offer of forgiveness (which perhaps takes us back once again to sanctification by faith)…