In his truly fascinating book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider describes a practice that was widespread in the early church, the “kiss of peace.” Kreider writes:
After the believers have concluded the prayers, according to Tertullian “they shall give the kiss of peace.” Tertullian is the inventor of the term “the kiss of peace.”…When Tertullian wrote, peacemaking in worship already had a considerable history. From a very early date, both the author of the Didache and Hermas saw reconciliation as a precondition for the community to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; and in the mid-second century, in the early stages of the morning service tradition, Justin Martyr reported that in his Roman house church “we greet each other with a kiss” after the common prayers, evidently as a means of preparing relationships for the Eucharist that followed immediately. In the morning service tradition, the peace greeting occupied a sensitive, crucial position between these central actions of early Christian worship, the prayers and the Lord’s Supper. The kiss of peace formed a ritual bridge between them that had its own significance. At the heart of Christian worship was a community whose habitus both celebrated and made peace.
Christians early on exchanged a “kiss of peace” as a sign that their relationships had been transformed in and through Christ Jesus. The practice came from Romans 16:16a, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” It was act that had to be monitored, of course, for it could give way to abuses. So you find in the early church warnings about keeping the “kiss of peace” chaste and appropriate and worshipful. This practice has continued into our own day in some churches literally and in many other churches verbally through the “passing of the peace.” In these churches there is a time in the service in which the congregants go to one another and say something like, “The peace of God with you” and you are to respond, “And also with you.” This is one modern continuation of the “kiss of peace” without the awkwardness (for modern Americans) of an actual kiss. And, perhaps more familiar to us, the tradition has continued on in many churches in the form of the handshake and hug that happens in our worship services. These are all varied modern expressions of the ancient Christian “kiss of peace.”
Now, I am not in favor of bringing back a literal kiss of peace. There is too wide a cultural disconnect and I can frankly think of few things more horrific in modern North American churches than asking everybody to start kissing one another! But what intrigues me is the fact that this practice was so ubiquitous in the early church. In his book Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church Michael Philip Penn calls the “kiss of peace” “one of the most prevalent features of early Christianity.”
In fact, intentional efforts at fostering peace in the body of Christ are evident in numerous ways in the history of the early church, be they symbolic or more literal. Kreider quotes the early Christian Clement in this regard:
Throughout his writings, Clement described these nonkilling, nonadulterous people as people of peace who are formed in catechesis. God has created humans to be peaceable: “man is an instrument made for peace.” But humans have been stunted by sin. The catechumenate is a time to “cut out sins like parasitic growths.” In the course of their catechesis, God’s people “are educated not for war but for peace.” Clement comments: “We do not train our women like Amazons to manliness in war; since we wish the men even to be peaceable.” In their catechesis Christians become “a peaceful people,” “soldiers of peace” in God’s “bloodless army” who wear “the armor of peace.” Marshaled by God in “the ranks of peace,” they “stand in array against the evil one.” The peaceableness of the Christians’ culture is expressed by telltale things, such as the signet rings Christians buy in the markets to authenticate documents. What images should there be on these rings? According to Clement, the rings may have an intaglio of “a fish or ship in full sail . . . or a ship’s anchor” but not of “a sword or bow, for we cultivate peace.”
When I hear all of this I am left with an obvious question: if peacemaking and peacekeeping was such a fundamental value in the life of the beleaguered early church, why is it not so in our own day? If the early Christians fought so hard for peace, why do we simply assume that peace just happens, on its own, as it were?
No, peace does not just happen. Peace is cultivated and fostered and fought for in churches of peace. And this happens especially in times of conflict and community distress. This raises another interesting and important question: what exactly should the church do when conflict arises in her midst? What is our job, the job of the community of Christ, the wider church, when members in her midst begin to clash?