Peace and justice – what the Bible says about these key goals of peacebuilding work

Integral mission and theologyPeacebuilding
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

In the previous post in our peacebuilding series, we looked at some of the characteristics of peacebuilders and how these are connected to the Christian faith. In this piece, we are going to look at what the Bible has to tell us about some of the key goals or elements of peacebuilding work.

In thinking about peacebuilding as Christians, we need to ask ourselves what peace really looks like, according to God’s word. And what does justice really look like? Thinking about the answers to these questions will help us to understand what it is we are trying to achieve in our work and how we might best move towards these goals. 

In English, ‘peace’ is generally used to mean an absence of (or freedom from) conflict – either in a situation or in a person’s relationship to a situation. We often say that someone is ‘at peace’ with something. In the Bible, however, peace (shalom in the Old Testament and eirene in the New Testament) is deeper than this freedom from conflict – it also involves people living in good relationships with those around them, with creation and with God. 

Experiencing shalom means experiencing balance, well-being, wholeness, prosperity, security and justice. It is broken as a result of the Fall, and restored by Christ’s death and resurrection (as Isaiah 53:5 foretells). This is the peace we are seeking as peacebuilders: it is made truly possible because of Jesus’ sacrifice, but it also requires us to respond to God and to each other in ways that reflect this new relationship with God.

Watch Ben Chikan, a Tearfund project officer in Nigeria, as he talks about the importance of restoration, and Rev René August, a priest from South Africa, as she reflects on justice and shalom.

The Bible’s description of justice is also a little bit different to the understanding we might have from our societies today. This is especially true for those of us who live in Western legal systems, where justice largely involves the protection of people’s rights. The Bible tells us that justice comes from being in a right relationship with the God who made us, which counters our tendency to pursue self-interest at the expense of others. And it reminds us that if we have rights, then so do others – and therefore we have responsibilities towards them. 

The Old Testament tells us more about justice. Ancient Israel had two words – mishpat and tzadeqah – that describe different aspects of justice. Mishpat (for example, in Micah 6:8) is an active pursuit of justice, which punishes wrongdoing and gives people their rights. Psalm 146 uses this word to talk about the way God executes justice for the oppressed. However, tzadeqah refers to a life of righteousness and right relationships. This is the kind of justice Job talks about when he is describing his life of righteousness (Job 29:12–17; 31:13–28). If everyone lived life in a way that expressed tzadeqah, then mishpat would become unnecessary: but because of the existence of sin, we need both.

‘The Bible reminds us that if we have rights, then so do others – and therefore we have responsibilities towards them.’

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection continue to show us these two aspects of justice. In his death and resurrection Jesus deals with the reality of sin – as Romans 3:23–24 says, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ At the same time, Jesus’ life shows us what it means to live ‘justly’ in a way that reduces oppressions and allows people to live together in good ways. 

At Tearfund, we think both aspects of justice are important for peacebuilding. The pain of injustice must be acknowledged and recompense identified in order for restoration and reconciliation to happen. At the same time, by living in ways that reduce oppression and injustice – and as Christians, following Jesus as his disciples – we are able to shape the world in ways that make justice and shalom possible.

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Hannah Swithinbank
Hannah Swithinbank is Tearfund’s Theology & Network Engagement Manager.