CURRENT PEACEBUILDING PRACTICES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
In our current world, it is usually assumed that those holding a position of power have the responsibility to call conflicting parties to the negotiation table. Peace brokers, such as the United States, European countries, Russia, or some other “strong nation,” will engage in diplomatic gymnastics to prepare conflicting parties for negotiations through the “Track I” approach—via professional diplomats or governmental authorities. Each of the parties in the conflict, in the meantime, makes every effort to gain a stronger hand, usually by taking greater hold of what they know their enemy wants (whether land, control, influence, demands, arms, or power), so that they would have a stronger position at the negotiation table. This approach, however, usually leads either to a temporary truce or to no deal at all. It is often a sinister power dance between parties mostly driven by self-interest and ambition. No permanent peace has been brokered in the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations through such Track I diplomacy, from Camp David (1978) to Madrid (1991) to Oslo (1993), or any of other countless attempts. Similarly, little advance has been made in the Syrian conflict beyond temporary cease-fires, across a series of Geneva and Astana talks, from 2012 to the present.
In the case of Lebanon, the Taif Accord of 1989 is the Track I achievement seen as having brought the 15-year civil war to an end. But having brought internecine hostilities to a merciful halt, very little real reconciliation was achieved through the Taif Accord, either at the grassroots level or indeed among our political players, who are still for the most part warlords and war criminals with deep-seated antagonism for one another. These so-called Track I diplomacy efforts, therefore, if useful to bring wars to a formal end, do little to actually resolve conflict or address the deeper issues that will likely lead to further conflict and war. To address deeper issues in conflict, we need to look elsewhere than Track I diplomacy, partly perhaps because though immediate reasons for hostility may be land, water, or tribal and ethnic belonging, these triggers tend to stir deeper issues that often express themselves along religious and sectarian lines. In a 2009 article entitled “Secular Roots of Religious Rage,” Barker and Muck argue that in most cases historically, conflicts did not begin for religious reasons. In many cases, however, religious rhetoric enters the conflict in order to capture the popular imagination. “Once this shift occurs,” they argue, “the religious identities become so salient that all future interactions tend to be defined along religious lines, which in turn lends itself to intractability.”1 Numerous examples, from Northern Ireland to Israel/Palestine, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Lebanon to Syria, confirm this hypothesis. The question then becomes this: Why should a conflict saturated with sectarian and religious complexities be solvable through negotiations undertaken by politicians and diplomats with little influence among the religious grassroots?
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the realization gradually emerged that Track I diplomacy was no longer sufficient to bring about permanent, long-term peace between nations. Joseph Montville, a former foreign service officer who had participated in Arab-Israeli negotiations, coined the concept of Track II diplomacy, which involved citizens in nonformal peacemaking efforts.2 Increasingly today, a multitrack approach to diplomacy is viewed as most promising for bearing fruit and achieving deeper gain in complex conflicts. Track I, however,can never be abandoned or replaced. Some- where along the line, heads of states will have to sign those documents. But it is the multitrack efforts that will rebuild trust, addressing intercommunal hurt and considering multiple narratives of history. These will usually be undertaken in the shadows, often under the media radar, with no handshakes on well-trimmed lawns and no signing of official agreements in the media limelight. The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy proposes a holistic approach comprising nine different tracks. It identifies Track 7 as “Religion, or peacemaking through faith in action,” defining it as an examination of “the beliefs and peace-oriented actions of spiritual and religious communities and such morality-based movements as pacifism, sanctuary, and non-violence.”3 Multitrack diplomacy may still be too fresh for proper long-term evaluation, and it is perhaps not clear yet whether it can harvest national- or international-scale results. But the approach seems the most promising for now in resolving the numerous intractable conflicts currently in existence that are imbued with religion and sectarianism.
If the “way of the world” in building peace has been failing us, and if there is increasing recognition that religion renders conflict intractable, then it is perhaps time for the church to reexamine its legacy in the realm of conflict as well as its biblical mandate for peacebuilding. We must ask ourselves, as people of God, whether we have been part of the problem or part of the solution, and how we will tackle the way ahead.
A BIBLICAL EXPLORATION OF SHALOM AND METAPHORS OF PEACEBUILDING
In a recent blog on biblical peace, I examined the concept of shalom in the Old Testament as the semantic framework for our understanding of the New Testament teaching on peace.4 I discovered that God’s peace is a state of well-being into which God invites his people in fulfillment of his part of his covenant with them. The Israelite people are promised God’s shalom on condition that they remain faithful to him, keep the Sabbath, and obey his commandments (Lev 26:1–3). Under these conditions, they are promised that “the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit,” that he will “grant peace in the land,” that they will have victory over their enemies, and that he will increase their numbers and keep his covenant with them. And crucially from an Old Testament perspective, God promises, “I will put my dwelling place among you . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:1–12).
When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest, he affirmed: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” adding that the second is “like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:37–39). Clearly, Jesus agreed that our faithfulness to God is at the heart of the covenant and the core condition of our experience of God’s shalom. But he established as well the second commandment at the same level of importance. We cannot affirm that we truly love God if we don’t also love our neighbor. The Apostle John warns in his first epistle: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to peacemakers as the “children of God” (Matt 5:9). It is hard to think of any higher status than this in our understanding of the kingdom of God. If we are to under- stand what he truly meant by “peacemakers,” however, we ought to come to the realization that Jesus is inviting us, as God’s children, to bring the Old Testament notion of shalom into reality in our societies through our everyday life. When Jesus speaks of the children of the kingdom, moreover, he uses the intriguing metaphors of salt, light, mustard seed, and yeast, implying an utterly significant role for us in the world despite our virtually insignificant status. All of these metaphors convey the possibility of transformative action despite what I would call a “numerical minority” status. This is not to say that Jesus wished for his community to remain ever small, though in historical context his teaching is meant to encourage a community at its beginnings. But his words are particularly encouraging for Christians in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, who have lived for centuries now as rather insignificant numbers in largely Muslim societies. And as the church globally becomes decreasingly mainstream in our multifaith societies, the teaching of Jesus becomes increasingly relevant for Christians in the West as well. How, then, can we be significant catalysts for bringing peace and reconciliation in contexts of conflict when we are reduced to apparently such insignificant members of our societies?
Jesus’ calling that we should be “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13) contains at least two implications for the church in a position of numerical minority. The first is that it is often when we are small in number that we can be most effective in bringing meaning to a meaningless world. As I have argued elsewhere in an exploration of the sociopolitical process of “minoritization,”5 the majority/ minority dynamic is not merely a question of numbers. Numerically large communities can behave with a minority mindset, just as numerically small communities can behave with a majority mindset. Furthermore, I would argue that Jesus calls us, even when we become a numerical majority, to continue to walk humbly as though we were a numerical minority. An overbearing church in contemporary society, when it seeks to dictate morality, behavior, and even global politics, is as unpleasant to society as too much salt in food. The second lesson from being salt, and effectively the reverse of this same coin, is that if we blend into society to the point where we provide no prophetic challenge and no alternative vision for our world, we lose our raison d’être—and it would be just as well for us to be thrown out as trash! The second lesson is reaffirmed in Jesus’ use of the “light” metaphor (Matt 5:14–16). If a lamp is lit and then hidden under a bowl, it is useless. A third lesson—again from the “light” metaphor—is that we can sometimes try so hard to be light that we leave people blinded in our paths. If we become saturated with the teaching and spirit of Jesus, however, then our “good deeds” will reflect the light of Jesus in the world, rather than our own, and people will glorify our Father in heaven (v. 16).
Our third metaphor, of yeast, is used both positively and negatively in the New Testament. The common thread is always that a little of it transforms the entire dough. Jesus warned about the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt 16:6) and that of Herod (Mark 8:15), and later his disciples understood that he was referring to their teaching (Matt 16:12). In Luke’s Gospel, the yeast of the Pharisees is used as a reference to their hypocrisy (12:1). Paul uses the yeast metaphor in similar ways, warning the Corinthians that their boasting is like yeast that will corrupt the whole dough (1 Cor 5:6), and the Galatians that the false teaching to which they are falling prey, like yeast, “works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal 5:9). But the more significant use of the metaphor in the New Testament is for positive reference. Similar to his use of the mustard seed metaphor, Jesus uses it to describe the irresistible power of his kingdom message. In Matthew 13:31–33, Jesus uses the parables of the mustard seed and of the yeast in parallel, to capture the imagination—as he often does—of both men and women. Both the sower and the baker are thus able to understand the power of his message. Though small and apparently insignificant, children of the kingdom, both women and men, are invited to transform their reality, to invite many into the shade and shelter of the mustard tree and to feast around the bread.
GLEANING INSIGHT ON PEACEBUILDING FROM THE CAIN AND ABEL NARRATIVE
Working toward peace in multifaith contexts has its particular challenges. Aren’t people of faith supposed to affirm the propositional truths of their religion with confidence, to the exclusion of other contenders? How do we build peaceful relationships with people who—we are convinced—are in the wrong? Furthermore, how do we do this when we perceive them as being violent? If you are an Arab Christian, how do you respond when you have been ostracized through the centuries as a religious minority, even actively excluded and persecuted by the Muslim majority? I have found the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 to contain invaluable lessons for Christians living in multifaith contexts under duress.6 Verses 5–7 represent the pinnacle of the narrative:
In this primordial encounter between Genesis’s third human person and God lies the embryonic presentation of human history’s most recurring and ever-present problem: religion at the heart of conflict. Cain has just failed to please God through his religious ritual, and he is sorely aware of it. His brother Abel, conversely, has also just performed a ritual upon which, we are told, “the Lord looked with favor” (v. 4). To the ill-prepared reader, God’s attitude toward each of the sacrifices seems rather arbitrary, even capricious. Why should Cain’s offering of “some of the fruits of the soil” (v. 3) be received less favorably than Abel’s offering of “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (v. 4)? There are few clues in the text to help us understand God’s stance, and I will not dwell too long on this question here. I will focus, instead, on the symbolic meaning of the sacrifices. Both sacrifices were accept- able in the Israelite tradition, yet only the blood sacrifice was valid for the forgiveness of sins. From an Israelite perspective, the Cain and Abel story seems to stand as an affirmation of the Israelite religious ritual, in exclusion of other religious rituals of surrounding nations.
“Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil,” we read in verse 2, so each naturally brought to God the fruit of their labor. From an immediate reading of the text, they could hardly have done otherwise. Likewise, most of us will die with the religion in which we were born. I did not choose to be born Christian, and neither did my neighbor choose to be born Muslim. Some of us search and question religious matters more actively than others, even shifting religious allegiance in certain cases, and Genesis 4 affirms that not all ways to God are the same. From the overall perspective of the Hebrew scriptures, the narrative is likely best understood as an early signal promoting the centrality of the sacrificial system in Israelite religion. But though the cultic message of the narrative is important, this particular passage seems to be more interested in the human response to the existence of other “paths,” rather than in the correctness of the ritual. My intention is not to minimize the importance of correct worship ritual, but to focus on the message of this particular passage. This brings us face to face with Cain, a man who was “very angry,” and whose “face was downcast.” What we learn from God’s address to Cain in verses 6 and 7, first of all, is that God had not abandoned him as a result of his ritual- istic failure. He is still there, close to him. He questions him, beginning with a description of his state: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” (v. 6). God addresses Cain in this way as a sort of consolation. His botched sacrifice has neither cast him away from God’s face, nor does it necessitate anger and shame on his part. Cain is simply invited to correct his path: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (v. 7). Yet God’s consolation and correction comes with a warning. Given to anger and shame, Cain is exposing himself to a terrible fate. His anger and shame are referred to with a description fit for a wild and dangerous animal, lying in wait for its prey. As we reach verses 11–12, we learn that it was not inadequate religious ritual that would place Cain under a curse and turn him into “a restless wanderer on the earth” (v. 12), but rather it is the fact that he had given in to his anger and shame, leading him to the murder of his brother Abel.
This brings us to the reality of our multireligious world. The pursuit of truth is certainly important. Theologians and philosophers of religions should and will continue to explore truth. People of faith will continue to invite others into the good news of the message of which they are convinced, presenting as best they can the coherence of their faith system. But besides this noble task of affirming “orthodoxy,” which is passionately argued in the affirmation of Abel’s offering and the rejection of Cain’s, the more important challenge that Genesis 4 seems to pose is the question of correct “orthopathy” and correct “orthopraxy.” How will we react when we are confronted with those of a different “doxy,” or system of belief? Will we give in to our anger and frustration and seek their destruction, or will we seek proper “praxy”? Will the appropriate “pathos” lead us to engage with them patiently and lovingly, ever seeking to remain, alongside them, in the presence of God’s gracious face? It is easy, when reading this narrative, to identify with the victim and to condemn the aggressor far too quickly and dismissively. This is where Miroslav Volf’s insight is particularly helpful:
If we condemn Cain too swiftly, without taking the time to ponder our own negative and exclusivist attitudes toward our brothers and sisters of other faiths, as abominable as his act was, we will quickly give in to self-righteousness. By identifying too strongly with Abel, we risk inadvertently turning into Cain. But when we take the time to ponder the mark that God put on Cain as a protection from harm (4:15), we begin recognizing ourselves in Cain, and we begin to give heed to God’s invitation that we should “rule over” our anger and shame, and respond to his plea that we be our “brother’s keeper” (4:9).
Our exploration of the concept of peace in the Bible brings us before Christ’s invitation to his followers to be peacemakers. Bogged down as we often are by conflict within our churches, we can understand Christ’s call as if it applied primarily to in-house conflict, easily overlooking his call that we are to bring about biblical shalom in society at large. As we have struggled with this realization at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, we have been reflecting on what it means to be peacemakers while at the same time holding onto our distinctive calling of being witnesses for the mission of God in the MENA region. This has led us to coin the expression “kerygmatic peacebuilding.” As followers of Jesus, we are called to be catalysts for peace at both the grassroots and national political levels. The challenge, however, is not to so take on the peacebuilding methods of the world that we forget the uniqueness of how Jesus has redefined peace and peacemaking. The gospel warns us about blending to the point of “losing our saltiness,” about lighting a lamp only then to “hide it under a bowl.” Jesus claims that the peace he gives us is a different kind of peace when he says, in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
This is where the word kerygmatic comes into peacebuilding. Kerygmatic peacebuilding distinguishes itself from mainstream peacebuilding in that it embraces Jesus’ model, method, and ultimate outcome of peacebuilding. To this we now turn.
REPOSITIONING THE CHURCH AS A KERYGMATIC PEACEMAKER
The challenge that presents itself to us as Christ-following peacemakers is this: Are we so vexed at the reality of pluralism that, like Cain, we are prepared to get rid of our “brother” in a violent expression of exclusivism? Or will we heed God’s call to “do what is right,” to follow his model of peace as the greatest peacemaker—and to see God’s face in the face of our “brother” as we seek to establish truth, justice, and peace in the world?
The church in the MENA region is so wounded that it will fail to practice its role as peacemaker and reconciler unless it learns how to find healing first in the one who was “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). Our wounds too often drive us away from our Muslim neighbors; our hurt contributes to fear, and as a result we develop bitter representations of the “other” and listen only to our own narratives.
The church globally needs restoration and healing when it comes to its relationship with Muslims. We need to begin with a confession of our own inadequacies if we are to become reconcilers in our societies. Until we do that, we will remain too blinded by our sense of rage, fed by our own version of the narrative of Christian-Muslim history.
I am convinced from my work in the formation of leaders for the church in the MENA region that the greatest threat to the future of Arab Christianity is not Islam, but rather the perception that Christians have of themselves and of their Muslim neighbors. I worry that the kind of slanderous representations of Islam and Muslims that are so common these days, not just in the MENA church but in the church globally, are becoming so toxic and hazardous that they are having a long-term negative impact on the ongoing health of the church. And I worry that our self-perception as victims will neutralize our ability to break the cycle of violence and prevent our wounds from becoming a source of healing rather than of a festering stench.
Kerygmatic peacemaking is rooted in our self-giving God who, in Christ, not only revealed his willingness to become vulnerable before his enemies, but also chose to reconcile the world to himself through a selfless life that led him to his death. The cross needs to become again a central symbol for the church’s kerygmatic peacemaking, not one that carries connotations of crusading, but one that carries the wounds of self-giving. When the church truly learns how to usher in God’s salam in the world, the cross itself becomes its kerygma, and the resurrection of Christ becomes the manifestation of a direly needed hope.