Peace and safety

Our Assistant Priest, Professor Michael Hull, writes:

Jesus tells us, ‘Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me’ (Jn 5.39). As the aggression and violence escalate in the Holy Land, I found myself reading St Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, especially chapter 5. It is extraordinary that our earliest piece of Christian literature spills so much ink on the end times, that is, our latest days.

Extraordinary, yes, but not surprising because those early Christians in Thessalonica faced trials and tribulations as we do two millennia later. Paul uses a variety of allusions to the Old Testament, for example, ‘times and seasons’ (Wis. 8.8) and ‘day of the Lord’ (Amos 5.18). Yet, there is a phrase that does not come from the Old Testament but from Paul’s first-century socio-political context. It is ‘peace and safety’.

Paul writes, ‘When they shall say, peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape’ (1 Thess. 5.3). In Paul’s day pax et securitas (‘peace and safety’ in Latin) was a Roman slogan. The Romans of the Julio–Claudian period were wont to boast of the peace and safety of the Empire or the Pax Romana. For Paul, it is false peace and safety, though, for those at the margins of empires are usually the ones for whom ‘peace and safety’ are but a slogan, not a reality; such slogans rarely consider the oppressed and marginalised. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that worldly and unjust structures will fail them. True peace and safety are in God alone.

On the one hand, we do well to wait in hope for the glorious return of Jesus Christ, who will bring everlasting peace and safety, particularly as we do in the Season of Advent. On the other hand, the socio-political structures that we set up today do not guarantee peace and safety on earth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Holy Land. There is no need to detail the horrors well known to us, but there is need to ask what we are to do about them. One thing is blindingly obvious: our governments have failed and are currently failing miserably to guarantee peace and safety for the oppressed and marginalised in the Holy Land.

The paradox is that we should soon commemorate the coming of the Prince of Peace in a Land made Holy by His nativity whilst sickening injustice and violence engulf it. The fact that young mothers would flee their homeland at this very moment, just as Mary fled into Egypt to protect her new-born Child from vicious and ruthless murderers, is stupefying. 

You and I have a moral obligation to do something. Why you and me? Because Paul is right. The boast of the Roman Empire to bring peace and safety was a chimera. Two thousand years later, the boast of a Pax Americana is also a chimera. Pathetic as they may be, our collective failures as a world community and as nations do not in any way mitigate our obligations as Christians. The onus is on us as individuals: it is not on institutions about whose breakdowns we may remain indifferent.

What can we do? I have three suggestions. First and foremost, we must pray. We must storm the heavens. Second, we must give money. Abraham’s Children in Crisis is a worthy charity, as is the Al Ahli Hospital Appeal, among others, to help those babies and mothers who are not even able to flee to Egypt. Third, we must lobby the movers and shakers. We must go out on limbs. We must talk to those who may have some power in this mess. As Rachel wept for her children in Ramah, let us raise our voices for the children in Gaza (Jer. 31.15; Matt. 2.18).

Two millennia ago, Paul did not conclude First Thessalonians on a sorrowful note because sorrow may rationalise inertia. Paul says that even if things are dark, ‘Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darknesss…. Let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation’ (1 Thess. 5.5–8). We have the means to make a difference, even a small difference, by supporting the suffering people of Palestine with our prayers, our money and our influence.

Lo, He comes! Advent is upon us! How can we welcome the Christ Child into our homes at Christmas unless we have made a personal effort to make Christmas in Palestine peaceful and safe for the children of Abraham? How can we sing ‘O come let us adore Him’ and ignore them?

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He became Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute this Summer after eight years as its Director of Studies.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.