In the last few weeks, our nation has found itself in a dark place. The two major political parties head toward an election in which each looks likely to nominate highly controversial figures, one of whom is mired in a lawsuit over his eponymous university and one of whom was nearly indicted for having been “extremely careless” with classified information (to name just a few factors contributing to the controversies). Racial tensions are on the rise as a pair of highly publicized police shootings of African American men sow doubt amongst us, and people draw conclusions along political lines before the facts have even been gathered. Tragic murders of civilians in Orlando and police officers in Dallas push us toward an almost paranoid fear that no place is safe.
Yet we strive to resist this fear and to overcome the blind anger and knee-jerk reactions associated with it, to put these aside and instead seek peace. In recent days many have recalled and shared on social media the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI from his 1972 message for the World Day of Peace: “If you want peace, work for justice.” This is a reference to Isaiah 32:17, which says, “The work of justice will be peace.” Pope Paul took this declarative statement and turned it into a directive: if this is your goal, here’s how you achieve it. We do well to remember these words, but they require deeper reflection to be properly understood. What do we mean by peace? Or justice? How do we work for them? Volunteering at soup kitchens? Supporting government welfare programs? Working in the legal profession?
When facing complex questions, it never hurts to turn to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas for a bit of insight, whose works was characterized by precision, fair-mindedness, and a Scripture-and-tradition-infused approach. What does St. Thomas have to say? Being a good Aristotelian, St. Thomas always begins by defining his terms. How does St. Thomas define peace and justice?
St. Thomas makes a distinction that we often do not, but which is crucial in this discussion. When we use the word “peace,” we often mean what St. Thomas calls “concord,” which is “between one man and another, in so far as the wills of various hearts agree together in consenting to the same thing.” In other words, concord is what takes place between people when they are on the same page, in harmony, or, as we often put it, at peace between one another. “Peace,” on the other hand, is what is found within a person when that person’s passions and desires are properly ordered—that is, when a person desires the proper things in the proper way and in the proper proportion in their relation to God. So, peace is harmony within the self, and concord is harmony between persons. (ST II-II, q. 29, a. 1, c.)
We could readily see the relationship between the two. We may be able to come to agreement with each other on certain priorities or goals, but that agreement will always be threatened if we lack peace within ourselves, for some other desire might suddenly arise to work against the harmonious arrangement. If we agree to share a cake out of a common sense of fairness, and my desire for the sweetness of the cake overtakes my commitment to fairness and our agreement, I may well try to devise some means to deprive you of your cake (be it the “look over there” gag or the “spinning the plate so that your portion’s on my side” routine). As long as my desires are not in control, our concord is threatened. The primary threat to concord is not the other, but the self.
This ties directly to the notion of justice, which St. Thomas defines as “the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right.” (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 1) The bedrock of harmony between people is respect for the others’ rights; and thus, the foundation of peace between people is justice. This is threatened at the most basic level by a lack of peace within individuals. When we are not at peace, when our desires and passions are controlling us more than we control them, we care less and less about others—about what they want, or even about what they need, or what they are owed.
But these three—concord, peace, and justice—are themselves tied together by something deeper. St. Thomas alludes to this in his discussion of peace, when he references the above-mentioned passage from Isaiah and writes: “Peace is the ‘work of justice’ indirectly, in so far as justice removes the obstacles to peace: but it is the work of charity directly, since charity, according to its very nature, causes peace. For love is ‘a unitive force’ as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv): and peace is the union of the appetite’s inclinations.” (ST II-II, q. 29, a. 3, ad. 3) St. Thomas reminds us that a virtue such as justice is perfected by the virtue of charity. Charity, caritas, agape, love in its deepest sense, is willing the good for the other for the sake of the other and God. When we have charity for each other, we want and work for their good, what will help them to flourish in perfection of their human natures. People have a right to what is good for them, and thus granting that to them is justice; but doing it out of concern for their well-being, and not merely as a duty, is charity. Charity is a greater incentive than duty—I am more likely to do something out of love for another than out of a sense of obligation. And charity, too, orders our various desires by putting the needs of others ahead of our wants. Thus, charity brings about peace, and justice, and harmony.
Our Lord told us that the greatest commandment is to love God whole-heartedly and to love our neighbor as ourselves. (John 13:34) Here we can see just how much is bound up in that, and why it is truly the way to peace in our society. If you want peace, work for justice—and do it in love.