Depart from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it (Psalm 34:14, NRSV).
Henry David Thoreau once went to jail for protesting an injustice. (He refused to pay a tax that he felt was funding an unjust war.) When his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, went to visit him in jail, Emerson asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
It was hard NOT to think of that story when I watched news about Marina Ovsyannikova this week. She was the employee of the widely watched Russian television news station who interrupted the news to protest the war in Ukraine. On the top and bottom of her sign she wrote: NO WAR and RUSSIANS AGAINST WAR in English. The Russian text in between translated as: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”
The bravery of that act was breathtaking, especially in a place where just calling the Russian acts of aggression in Ukraine a war can get you fifteen years in prison…or worse.
It’s one thing to wish for peace. We may even pray for peace. But how many of us actively pursue peace, especially at significant risk to ourselves?
Psalm 34:14 suggests that peace is something we must actively pursue. The irony of that word choice is striking. The Hebrew word for pursue, radaph, is a word that is usually used in stories about war. There is a lot of “pursuing” in the book of Joshua, for instance. The word also features in some of the Old Testament’s most famous chase scenes, including the one where Joab’s little brother Asahel foolishly pursues Saul’s general, Abner (2 Samuel 2:18-28). It does not end well. There is a lot of blood and bad feelings.
But Psalm 34:14 commands us to pursue peace with the same single-minded focus that warriors use when they pursue an enemy in battle. What might that look like, I wonder—for nations, for political parties, for church factions, for families, for individuals?
Sometimes we talk about peace wistfully, as if it’s something that might drop into our lap like a bowl of popcorn thoughtfully delivered to us by a loved one as we sit passively in our favorite chair. This psalm seems to suggest that we need to take a more active approach.
What are you doing out there, Waldo?
Peace isn’t something that drops into our lap. We must pursue it.
Ponder this gem from Augustin’s Confessions: “For it is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge—another to tread the road that leads to it.”
Pray: Give us wisdom and courage, Prince of Peace, to know how to pursue peace. Guard and keep those who pursue it at great personal risk.