First send in the missiles. Then send in the Marines. Then send in the missionaries.
That was a strategy I heard on “Christian talk radio” about how to deal with Islam and the Middle East.
Kill. Then convert.
In a battle against a radicalism, which says one must convert or be killed, why is a common answer among many evangelical Christians is to kill, then hope to convert?
I wish I could say such an extreme theological world view was limited to extreme radio hosts. And I wish I could believe that deep, deep down they are really only talking about those extreme sects of Islam, not the whole 1.2 billion.
But they aren’t. Bad theology grafted with current events have infected parts of the church for a long time, just below the surface, like a low grade fever.
In 2007, during our last semester of seminary, my wife and I were on a study abroad trip to the Holy Land. One day our group went to Ashkelon, a beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast. As the sun set and we posed for pics in the sand and surf, a Blackhawk helicopter flew low overhead, making it’s way south towards Gaza a few miles away. I snapped a picture, and as the loud thump thump thump of the rotors grew quiet, a fellow seminary student said, “Arabs are such a hospitable people. It’s a shame they have a natural tendency towards violence.”
I wasn’t surprised. The idea of Arabs/Muslims being “the more violent ones” is an idea I’ve heard for a long time.
In September 2001, the first Sunday after the attacks, I was standing outside the sanctuary of my church as clumps of people grouped together to talk about what had happened five days before. I stood next to a friend of mine who summed up the entire event with, “Well, what would you expect from the descendants of Ishmael?”
These stories bother me because, while I am a Christian and a pastor, I am also one of them. I am a descendent of Ishmael. I am an a Arab of Muslim descent. Because of this, I can’t divide my prayers by region, race or religion. It shouldn’t be that way for anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ.
So let’s finally answer the question: What are we praying for when we pray for peace?
That’s what we’re praying for.
The Hebrew word in Scripture for “peace.”
Salaam in Arabic.
We tend to define peace as the absence of conflict. If we can just get the bombs to stop and everyone to quiet down and go about life… BOOM. We got peace.
But the theology behind shalom is more than just an end to violence. In the Scriptures, shalom is understood as wholeness: The ideal human state, both as an individual and a society, which is the ultimate gift of God. *
Shalom was only in the presence of God, and humanity became seperated from that presence when Adam and Eve went for their own security and bit the fruit. Next in the story came violence and death, the ultimate result of being out of the presence of God. And where there is violence, there are the wounded.
And when we’re wounded, we often respond with violence. Which leads to more wounds. So more violence. And more wounds. So more violence…
And so, as Thomas Cahill says, “The problem of all unresolved conflict is the same: Each side makes the same one-sided claim, “Only my wounds matter.” *
Let’s take this a bit further. If shalom is the perfect wholeness in God at creation, then what do the New Testament writers have to say?
Genesis opens by telling us in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. John clarifies by telling us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth through Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul details it even more in his letter to the Colossian church: Christ made everything, and Christ holds everything together. Every human on earth exists because Christ breathed into them the breath of life.
So if Jesus is the one who created all of humanity in his image, I cannot simply change my twitter icon and pray only for Chrisitans who are being slaughtered.
It doesn’t stop there.
Paul finishes by telling us God restored peace with everything by Christ’s blood on the cross.
I tend to focus on the cross as the place where God deals with our sin. But it is also where God deals with our wounds. As my friend Steve Seamands writes, the cross of Christ deals with us as both villains and victims.
Seamands points out how Christ was beaten, mocked, and hung naked.
In other words, he was violently wounded physically, verbally and sexually.
But by his death and resurrection, the Scriptures are clear he is healing and restoring all of creation from the wounds of violence.
So the cycle looks like this: We are hurt. We respond by hurting, either each other, ourselves, or both. We are victims. So we become villains. Which makes more victims. Who create more villains.
This cycle started in the Garden of Eden, and Christ confronts it in the Garden of Gethsemani.
Therefore, peace is not just the absence of conflict. Peace is healing and wholeness, found in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who created us and makes all things whole again.
And as we allow ourselves to be made whole in Christ, we are then free to create that space for others. In other words, as we are healed from being victims, we are no longer villains.
The cycle can’t end by inserting more violence. The cycle begins to break with the prayer forgive us our sins and we forgive those who have sinned against us. And forgiveness does not start with I’m okay, you’re okay, or it doesn’t matter or let bygones be bygones. Forgiveness begins with I willfully choose not to retaliate against you.
Which then creates the space to say, with honesty, your wounds matter.
So maybe praying for peace starts with asking for my wounds to be healed, and then praying the same for my enemy and the other. To pray like this, instead of for bombs to clear the way for baptisms, is to take on the real enemy: the spiritual forces who tempted humanity into this mess in the first place.
Because the natural tendency towards violence doesn’t come from the descendants of Ishmael, it comes from the descendants of Adam and Eve.
To be continued.
Shalom… Salaam… Peace be with you.
* Harper Collins Bible Dictionary
* from Thomas Cahill’s introduction to the LIFE magazine special “Holy Lands: One Place Three Faiths.” Copyright 2002, Time Magazine.