Had a lovely class this morning on “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I shared the differences between English ‘peace’ (derived from Latin ‘pax,’ meaning rest or order achieved via the absence or suppression of conflict) and Koine-Greek/New Testament ‘eirene’, meaning diverse lives woven together in community. We talked about how ‘eirene’ doesn’t exist if your community consists of people stacked on top of each other hierarchically in separated, exclusive bolts of cloth, unwoven. We talked about weaving in the Greek world and in Greek literature, noted wryly that several centuries of primarily male translation committees for Bibles, until recently, couldn’t distinguish between ‘woven’ and ‘knit,’ and talked about what’s required for eirenepoein (peacemaking) to work. We talked about how in Galatians, ‘bearing one’s own load’ and ‘bearing each other’s burdens’ aren’t treated as opposites (not an either/or choice) but as both being a part of living in woven-together, responsible community (not dependent or independent, but interdependent). And one heaviness on my heart was that I have been a completely terrible peacemaker this week, because this season has made me harsh. And peacemaking requires patience, listening, self-control. There is a difference between strong and harsh. At least for me. So I will work on that.
What a peculiar culture we are, with a basketful of destructive and long-lived ideas inherited from the Romans. We think peace means ‘no one fighting, conflict avoided’ because that’s what kind of peace the Romans liked to demand of subject peoples. We think meek means weak, because that’s what the Romans thought (the Greek word ‘praeis’ actually means overriding your fears and appetites to serve something more important; it’s about restraint and service). We think of giving charity instead of doing justice, though in most ancient languages, there is only doing justice, without a separate word for ‘charity.’ We think ‘blessed’ means lucky or favored or happy, because Latin, again (the Greek word ‘makarios’ means ‘made big’ in the sense of influence in the lives of others). We think ‘pure’ means ‘unmixed’ (Latin) when the Greek word means ‘cleansed’ (using the same root as ‘catharsis’) because in the Koine Greek text it didn’t matter what you had done or what had been done to you, or what swear words you’d spoken or heard, or the status of some portion of your anatomy; what mattered was the process of cleansing the heart and what that cleansing would allow you to do in the future. We think truth means ‘a fact’ when it actually meant ‘a commitment’; the Greek ‘aletheia’ that we translate as ‘truth’ meant ‘unforgetting’/never-forgetting a promise, and we miss that because the Romans used a word that meant ‘that which can be verified.’ We think faith is a thing instead of an action. We think love is something you feel when it’s actually something you do, a way that you put everything on the line for another (Greek ‘agape’). We think hope is something wishful, when it was actually a vision of an alternate and sought-for future that you were going to walk toward no matter what may come at you in the dark. We talk about ‘salvation’ and forget that the Greek word means ‘given refuge’ and that the early Christians defined themselves as refugees in search of a home. As Margaret Atwood says, we think liberty is about what you’re getting freedom from instead of what you’re getting freedom for: we tell Exodus stories where God says ‘let my people go’ and we forget the rest of the sentence, we forget what purpose the freedom was to serve; we are always fearing and running away from things and missing what we’re running toward. Even after so many centuries, in the West we translate and live with the eyes of the Caesars always over our shoulder, and with the language and the quick march-step of the Romans shaping our thoughts, our religious texts, and our cultural ideologies.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!