The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.
-- Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature*
A child has been born for us, . . . and he is named . . . Prince of Peace.
-- Isaiah 9:6 (NRSV)
One of Christianity's great contributions to the world is its dissemination of the Hebrew scripture, of its history, poetry and prophecy. One of Christianity's great crimes is its misappropriation and willful distortion of that scripture.
Every reader has the right to see his own experience in what he reads. That's how literature survives, how ars becomes longa. Every youth maturing into a rotten Denmark can see himself in Hamlet, his "most royal" life postponed by his father's ghost demanding an inconvenient revenge for his own decease. Is my life really all about you, Dad? Who among us does not contend with his parent's ghost? Every raging, shriveling curmudgeon, his reach exceeding his grasp, can see himself in Lear, sinned against by the sycophants he favored, saved by the friends whom he betrayed. Couldn't you just have said no to me? Who among us should not have grown wiser before they grew older?
The enslaved have a right to see in the Hebrew exodus a campaign plan of their own liberation. We have a right to see, in the prophetic longing for peace, a foreshadowing of our own.
Isaiah and Micah gave us the words for peace; swords, they said, would be beaten into plowshares, and the nations would no longer prepare for war, and each person could sit under his own vine and his own fig tree without fear. The prophetic words can shape our hope because the prophets knew so much about violence, much more than we do. They spoke for a tiny kingdom besieged by enemies, caught between the hammers of Assyria and Babylon, and the anvil of Egypt. They saw their city razed, their temple smashed, their homes violated. Horrible things were done to them, and the horrible things they did in the name of security are recorded in their deuteronomic history. Israelites and Judeans knew firsthand about violence, and looked forward to peace not as an ideology but as an infrastructure for salvation and survival.
So when Christian pastors say "Jesus is the Prince of Peace,"** they commit cultural crimes of a high order. They are saying that when the prophets spoke they didn't know what they were speaking about; that the prophets were robots programmed by a disdainful God, speaking nonsense to their own audience but predicting the leader of an unborn religion concealed two thirds of a millennium in the future; such pastors claim ownership of tropes to which they have no right, and attempt to alienate those tropes from their authors. This appropriation asserts an ancient accusation, that the Jews to whom Jesus came were "his own, and his own people did not accept him" (Jn 1:11), that they babbled about his coming but did not know what they were saying.
Jesus was not the Prince of Peace. Or rather, the Prince of Peace is not Jesus. Jesus appears to have been a peaceable fellow, to the great disappointment of some of his disciples. But the Prince of Peace would have been, among other things, a military hero. If we assume that Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah knew what they were saying, and that what they said was more or less what they meant to say; if we read the prophecies in their entirety, and not just the verses that made it into Handel's Messiah, we learn that the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counsellor, was a mighty king whose "authority will grow continually," who will re-establish "the throne of David and his kingdom" (Isa 9:7). Jesus's kingdom was "not from this world" (Jn 18:36), and was founded in weakness, to be inherited by those who suffered for the sake of righteousness; but the Wonderful Counsellor's kingdom would be real, here, now, founded in the power of a righteous and legitimate king. It was power that would make peace possible.
Has it not always been this way? Turning the other cheek may be a good way to save a soul for the kingdom of another world, but rarely produces revolution in this one. Lions do not lie down with lambs unless there is a power to feed and restrain them. Nevertheless, lions do sometimes lie down with lambs: and our nation founded in racial sin has re-elected its first black president. This would not have happened if the 101st Airborne division had not gone to Little Rock in the autumn of 1957. Nor could it have happened without the Civil Right Act of 1965.
The worst thing about Christian usurpation of the prophets is that it conceals what the prophets were trying to tell us: that the world will be saved, not by hoping we will be kind to each other, but by creating institutions, instruments and traditions of justice. These works of civilization are never perfect. They're just the best we've got so far, which is no small thing to say.
*The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 692.
**"Become Doers of Peace," Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Sojourners (February, 2013), p. 22.