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GUEST EDITORIAL

On Defining "Peace" in the Middle East

J. Dayrl Charles

Christians ought to be particularly discerning regarding popular non-Christian notions of "peace." This discernment should affect the way we live, including the way we pray. There is a "peace" after which unregenerate humans clamor -- the absence of conflict -- and a biblical peace which is rooted in covenant relationship with God. To blur or neglect this distinction is fatal -- if, that is, the Christian community is to be cooperating with and not unwittingly "working against" the purposes of God.

While "peace = the absence of conflict" is a foreshadow of heavenly, eternal peace, and therefore, something to be desired, it becomes an idol, a false god in essence, when divorced from its source. Modern man does not want the yoke of God's (= Christ's) lordship. But a Biblical peace has at its center the redemptive, atoning work of Christ which brings reconciliation to God. Therefore, it is possible for an "unjust" peace to arise. Both the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul decry such an "unjust peace" in a context of divinely intended judgement: "`Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace." (Jer 6:14 and 8:11). "While people are saying `Peace and safety,' destruction will come on them suddenly..." (1 Thess. 5:3).

Similarly, Jesus Himself appeals to an "unjust peace" when He states, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). The context of this statement is divided loyalties in light of the cost of Christian discipleship. And since the nations will hear none of Christ's lordship, they are at war with God's purposes and His people. The nations still rage, and the raging is fundamentally spiritual in nature. As the Psalmist declared:

Why do the nations rage

and the people plot in vain?

The kings of the earth take their stand
   and the rulers gather together against the Lord

and against his anointed.

The inherent danger, whether in our preaching or our praying, is to parrot and hence succumb to the popular notion of "peace" (i.e., the absence of conflict), a notion lacking in Biblical support. The prayer "Lord, send peace (i.e., an absence of conflict) to the nations in the Middle East," however desirous this may be, should yield to the cry "Lord, work out your purposes in the Middle East, and cause the nations -- all of them -- to acknowledge your might and salvation, even if this means events which shake the earth."

The mission of the church, which incarnates the presence of God in the earth, is to "speak the truth in love," since it is a "pillar of the truth." Implied in this calling is the fact that speaking the truth will provoke resistance. That is to say, the Church is armed with and advances the unchanging truth of God in a world which, whether pacifistically or militaristically, defiantly rejects the truth. This "prophetic" posture necessitates at times conflict with the consensus -- a conflict which, historically, may mean gross unpopularity, even persecution.

The Church should highlight its prophetic role as the world's attention is riveted anew to the fragility of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The complex scenario of the Mediterranean world, where hostilities between Arabs and Jews have simmered for several millennia, is not about to be resolved simply because of United Nations involvement or fragile "peace-keeping" missions by the diplomats of concerned nations.

The sacred Scriptures afford insight into the Middle East cauldron. Furthermore, they indicate a peculiar relationship between the Church and ethnic Israel which is not merely "theological." Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that the Church is indebted to Israel. This "debt," a matter of grace which precludes any notion of "repayment" in a strict or literal sense, does not arise because the Jews as a people are perfect, righteous or impeccable. Rather, it is because they are the divinely-chosen instrument through which the messianic seed was brought into the world.

Because of this correlation between the Church and ethnic Israel, the Church, though not oblivious to political error, is forever grateful for its spiritual heritage. This gratitude, not confined to the political sphere, is primarily spiritual in character. Moreover, it has at its core the desire for ethnic Israel to come into a realization of the eternal purposes of God -- not the least of which are the full implications of divine atonement. Hence, we may pray, along with the Psalmist, for the "peace of Jerusalem." Here it is important to bear in mind the full-orbed (and prophetic) character of shalom, at the heart of which is found covenantal faithfulness of God. Such an understanding of "peace," regardless of differing convictions concerning the precise nature of the Church's relationship to ethnic Israel, will aid the Church in conceptualizing -- and praying for -- a Biblically-founded notion of "peace." This awareness will prevent the church from capitulating to prevailing notions of peace which are humanistic in nature.

The Church thus prays for the "peace" that is only a result of the revelation of God's reconciling work. As antecedent action in history affirms, God will do something extraordinary among the nations (though not necessarily in conformity with desires of the status quo) so that His glory will be revealed in the Middle East -- and the world.

The Christian community must come to grips with the critical importance of not buying into the seductive and unbiblical notion of "peace" so rampant around us. It is the Church which comprehends the true notion of peace -- a notion not grounded in pragmatic thought but rather in a Biblical precedent.


J. Daryl Charles is Scholar-in-Residence at Prison Fellowship Ministries, Washington, D.C.
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