Christian Peacemaking, post-September 11: An Abrahamic Paradigm for Just Peacemaking Practices

I am a doctoral candidate in Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, the largest non-denominational evangelical seminary in North America.  I am honored by this invitation to take part in an interfaith panel seeking salaam, shalom, peace in our post-September 11 world. For the last three years it has been my privilege to be a research associate with Fuller’s Conflict Transformation Grant.  This project seeks to build bridges between Muslims and evangelical Christians and strengthen the peacemaking capacities of both of these Abrahamic faiths.  One model the project draws upon is a new angle on conflict resolution called “just peacemaking” theory, a stream of thought pioneered by my mentor at Fuller, Dr. Glen Stassen.  Glen collaborated with twenty Christian scholars to identify ten concrete practices that have been tested in the laboratory of history and proven effective in preventing, reducing, and transforming conflicts. 

As I thought about peacemaking in the Christian tradition, four sets of faith fathers and mothers came to mind.  The first pair is my own biological parents!  My parents were part of an American Mennonite mission team of five families and several single people who planted a church and did community service work in Saigon, Vietnam from 1960-1975. They did this in the midst of America’s misguided and highly destructive intervention into Vietnam’s civil war.  My parents and three older sisters have some great stories to tell about living through the Tet Offensive, when the war came right into their neighborhood!  I was born two years later, so missed out on that excitement.  My dad’s ten-year “tour of duty” in Vietnam more than met the alternative service requirements placed upon him by the American state as a conscientious objector to war.  

In the aftermath of that tragic conflict, my Dad used his fluency in Vietnamese and connections to North American Mennonite churches to help resettle several thousand South East Asian refugees on this continent, many of whom have become productive citizens of the USA. My Mom taught English as a Second Language to refugees and immigrants for several decades in the American public school system.  My dad recently traveled back to Vietnam several times to help strengthen the Vietnamese Mennonite church and advocate on its behalf in face of periodic harassment, beatings, and even imprisonment of its leaders by the Communist government over there.   

My parents’ lives are examples to me of how God uses our commitments in ways we can’t foresee, especially when we work within communities and not as lone rangers. Their experience also shows me how God blesses nonviolent approaches to peacemaking, especially when we are willing to cross cultural boundaries, take personal risks, and learn the languages of others.  Those who are willing to die for God’s cause but not willing to kill for it were the kind of peacemakers Jesus Christ called “children of God” in the Beatitudes.   

The peace church tradition my parents walk in has its roots in the Radical Reformation of the 16th century, in particular the Anabaptists, who got their name from for their practice of baptizing adults.  My second pair of faith parents, Michael and Margarita Sattler, lived in this tumultuous time of European Reformation. In 1525, the state-church—the wealthiest land-lord in
Europe—ruthlessly crushed a movement of Christian peasants seeking a more just society. Michael Sattler was a Benedictine abbot in charge of monastery in
Austria at the time.  He was so upset by the violence and greed of the church hierarchy that he left his religious vocation, married a like-minded nun named Margarita, and joined up with the emerging Anabaptist renewal movement. 

The Swiss Anabaptists who became their new faith family took seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies. They believed that when Jesus told his disciple Peter to “put away his sword,” he disarmed his followers for all time.  If you know the story, Peter had just sliced off the ear of a soldier sent to drag Jesus off to his torture and execution on a Roman cross.  In restoring this soldier’s ear to wholeness, Jesus demonstrated in a single action both the healing vocation of the church and its rejection of violence as a means for doing God’s will.    The Sattlers followed Jesus into the path of martyrdom.  Both Michael and Margarita were tortured and executed by the Catholic Inquisition.  One of the charges against Michael was that he publicly stated he would neither fight nor kill the Muslim Turks who at that time were advancing on Vienna, one of the imperial capitals of Christendom.  In fact, Sattler declared he would rather fight against his fellow Christians than Muslims, if they could so distort Christ as to persecute their own sisters and brothers in faith.  It may sound paradoxical, but the peace church I belong to was born out of violent conflict.  

My third faith father is the Jewish prophet, healer, exorcist, and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.  The faith mothers I cherish from this era are the Jewish disciples that followed Jesus, like Mary Magdalene and Joanne of Galilee—who funded Jesus’ peacemaking ministry with their own wealth—and the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany, who were two of Jesus’ closest friends.  The Gospels indicate that Jesus’ greatest political temptation was to join the Jewish revolutionary movement we call the Zealots.  Not unlike the Palestinian group Hamas today—Hamas means “zeal” in Arabic—these Jewish militants desired to violently throw-off an oppressive occupation.  Pagan Rome occupied the land of Palestine at that time, via the cooperation of Jewish collaborators like the high priests who ran the Jerusalem Temple-State. Inspired by the legacy of the Maccabbees, one group of Zealots called the Sicarii, or daggermen, would assassinate high priests in Jerusalem in broad daylight, during great religious festivals like Passover, which celebrated the Hebrew liberation from slavery in Egypt.  These extremist Jewish nationalists could be called the terrorists of the first century. They sought to sow fear in the hearts of all who collaborated with the occupation of their land through sudden, unpredictable acts of murderous violence.   

Jesus rejected the Zealot option repeatedly throughout his public ministry, just as he would repudiate terrorist violence today.  Yet he obviously was not a supporter of Roman rule either, or he would not have been executed as political rebel by the Romans! Jesus decisively called his first-century Jewish followers away from collaboration with the superpower of his day and its Gentile ways of domination, just as he would call his 21st century Christian followers away from complicity in imperial violence, especially when such violence is being commanded by a so-called Christian leader.   

We see a vivid example of Jesus’ anti-occupation, pro-justice stance in his famous encounter with the Jewish tax collector Zaccheus.  As a local tax collector for Rome, Zaccheus was despised by his own countrymen. After his life was turned upside-down by a personal encounter with Jesus, however, Zaccheus gave half of his wealth to the poor and restored any money he had stolen from his neighbors four-fold. That Jesus was the greatest peacemaker of his day can be seen in the fact that his band of disciples included both former Zealots, ex-revolutionaries against Rome, and former tax collectors, ex-collaborators with
Rome.  Together they led a nonviolent revolution to subvert pagan domination with transforming initiatives of love and justice, like those found in the Sermon on the Mount. The Apostle Paul called this “overcoming evil with good” in his letter to the Romans.

My final faith father is Abraham, set alongside the faith mothers of his wives, Sarah and Hagar.  Abraham, of course, is claimed as a faith father by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, thanks be to God, for he was indeed a great prophet of God and a peacemaker.  I believe Abraham provides a powerful paradigm for the Just Peacemaking practices identified by Dr. Stassen that I mentioned at the outset.  I will conclude by offering ancient examples of these contemporary-sounding practices taken from the life of Abraham, as witnessed to in both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran.    The first just peacemaking practice highlighted by Dr. Stassen and company is nonviolent direct action.  This powerful new way of fighting for justice was made famous in the 20th century by a Hindu named Gandhi and black Baptist named Martin Luther King, both of whom read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and put it into practice. This method has subsequently been used by people-power movements to overcome Communism in Eastern Europe, apartheid in South Africa, and dictators like the Shah of Iran and Marcos in the Philippines.    

You could say that Abraham undertook a kind of nonviolent direct action when he intervened with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.  The residents of these cities had committed great sins of violence, threatening Abraham’s own family.  They no doubt appeared to Abraham the most wicked of Canaanite peoples and his personal enemies, yet Abraham repeatedly prayed to God they be spared for the sake of even a few righteous people living among them (Gen. 18:22-33). Seems like the opposite policy to those who are willing to wreck whole nations as the result of the actions of a violent few, as we have seen in the US response to September 11 in Afghanistan and Iraq or Israel’s recent bombing of Lebanon in response to Hezbollah border skirmishes.  Anywhere from 20 to 30 times the number of innocent civilians have been killed in these retaliatory attacks than died in the original provocations.  This is nothing like the way of Abraham.  

Another nonviolent direct action of Abraham’s is recorded in one of the most amusing and amazing stories in the Qur’an.  Our hero, young man Abraham, audaciously undermined the authority of his own people’s idols, risking his own life in the process.  Abraham pretended to be sick during one of his community’s great religious festivals.  When the priests who maintained the idols weren’t around, he smashed every one but the largest, hoping through this dramatic initiative to reveal to his people that there was only one Creator God worthy of worship. One Islamic commentator adds the detail that Abraham smashed the smaller idols with an ax and then tied the ax to the largest idol’s hand! When the priests returned and asked who had done this outrage, Abraham suggested that the biggest idol had destroyed all the rest, and that they should ask the idols themselves if this was not true.  The priests were then forced to confess that their idols could not even speak!  They knew it was really Abraham who had done this iconoclastic act of civil disobedience, and they wanted to burn him in a fire for his prophetic courage.  But, like Daniel and his three friends in the Hebrew Bible, God preserved Abraham’s life from the fire of pagan tyrants.  Progressive Muslims around the world today might take inspiration from Abraham’s fearlessness in challenging the authoritarian violence and narrow-minded thinking of his own people’s religious leadership.   

The Abraham remembered in Islamic tradition also had a showdown with Nimrod, the King of Babylon.  Nimrod claimed for himself God-like powers, saying “I give life and death.”  Nimrod graphically demonstrating this to Abraham by having two men brought to him, killing one in that instant, and pardoning the other.  Again staring death straight in the face, Abraham calmly responded to the King, saying “God makes the sun rise in the east.  Can you cause it to rise in the west?!” (Q: 2:258)  The enraged Nimrod also wanted to burn Abraham, but God made the fire “peaceful and cold for Abraham.” (Q: 21:69)    (Such masterful rhetoric by Abraham reminds me of what Muslims have called “the jihad of the pen” and the Apostle Paul refers to as “spiritual warfare,” fought not with carnal weapons of war but the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and not against flesh and blood but the “Power and Authorities” who would unduly claim our earthly allegiance.)   

The confrontation between Nimrod and Abraham seemed headed for an armed showdown.  But God’s victories are not won by human-made weapons.  Rather, Allah causes a swarm of mosquitoes to devour Nimrod’s armies (not unlike the way Yahweh drowned the chariots of the Pharaoh in the Red Sea in the great escape of Exodus).  The Muslim commentator Zayd bin Aslam further reports that God sent one pesky mosquito up Nimrod’s nose, where it buzzed around inside his head for 400 years.  Nimrod kept bashing his own head with an iron rod in a futile attempt to crush the agitating mosquito, until God mercifully allowed him to die at his own hands! 

I cannot think of a more apt analogy in ancient literature for the persistent “people power” movements I cited above.  By continuously agitating against tyrants like a little, annoying mosquito, people-power movements reveal the illegitimacy of corrupt rulers (whether they be Islamic, Zionist, fascist, neo-conservative, neo-liberal, or Communist in their ideological garb).  Such pesky agitation inevitably draws out the tyrants’ desire to coerce the consent of the ruled.  Like Nimrod repeatedly bashing himself with his own rod of iron, however, all oppressors ultimately self-destruct.  This is how God designed the political laws of the universe.     

The second JP practice is to take independent initiatives. Abraham provides us a classic example of this in relation to his own ambitious nephew, Lot. When Abraham and Lot’s animal herds began competing for grazing land, Abraham willingly conceded to his nephew the first choice of land.  He accepted the land
Lot didn’t want, even though he had the prerogatives of power as the elder Patriarch (Gen. 13:2-12). In the end, Abraham got the better deal, as Lot’s choice to settle in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah proved ill-fated!  God works in mysterious ways for those willing to humble themselves, as seen in the Creator’s vindication of the suffering servant leadership of Jesus the Jew. 

The third JP practice calls for the use of conflict resolution skills. Abimelech, king of the Philistines (who later became archenemies of
Israel), freely
invited Abraham to “live where he will” and graze his animals as needed.  Abimelech was willing to share the resources of the land with this new immigrant in his territory, even after Abraham tried to deceive him.  Abraham, in turn, prayed for Abimelech’s people, healing their diseases and an increasing their numbers (Gen. 20:8-18).  Already Abraham is fulfilling his God-given mandate to be a blessing to other nations, not a curse! He thus succeeds where the later Israelite kings Saul and David would fail, making peace with the Philistines and not resorting to war. 
King Abimelech was so impressed with the integrity of Abraham that he make a treaty with him, declaring to Abraham “Swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants.  Show to me, and the country where you are living as an alien, the same kindness I have shown to you” (Gen. 21:23). This binding agreement became the basis for resolving a potentially explosive dispute that arose between them later over the ownership of a well of water, a resource as important for ancient nomadic peoples as oil is today in our industrial economies! (Gen. 21:25-31) It would be edifying for all the children of Abraham living in this same land of Israel/Palestine today—whether Jew, Muslim, or Christian—to remember this ancient oath taken by Abraham in the name of all his descendants.  

The fourth JP practice involves taking responsibility for conflict, by acknowledging one’s mistakes and asking for forgiveness.  According to Genesis, Abraham does this twice—first to the Pharaoh of Egypt and later King Abimelech—when he admits to his initial deceptions and asks for forgiveness. (Given later developments in which the Hebrew children were enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, it is ironic that it was an ancient Pharaoh who forgave this “wandering Aramaean” and provided the first seed-money of Abraham’s wealth.  A potential diplomatic disaster is averted, as Abraham is able to make friends wherever he goes, even with the Pharaoh. (Gen 12:10-Gen. 13:1).)   

The fifth JP practice is “promoting democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.” Abraham took a “big tent” approach to politics:  he included many ethnicities within his extended family.  Abraham not only brings his own sons—first Ishmael (by his Egyptian wife, Hagar), then Isaac (by his Aramaean wife, Sarah)into the God-given covenant of circumcision, he also invites indigenous Canaanite peoples into this ancient ceremony of belonging (Gen. 17:22-27). The progeny of Abraham’s extended family become many nations: Arabs, Edomites, Israelites, Asshurites, Letushites, Ammonites and Moabites (Gen. 19 and 25).  In Genesis 18, all of Abraham descendants are instructed to “keep the way of Lord, doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19).  This means sharing land, water, and wealth with their neighbors.  Only by living in this hospitable way will the promise of God’s gift of good land be fulfilled.  No justice leads to no peace, no blessing, and exile from the land of God’s promise, as the rest of the Hebrew Bible sorrowfully narrates.  The violent seeds of conquest and ethnic cleansing sown by a later descendant of Abraham’s in this same land—Joshua’s “scorched earth” crusade—ultimately bears the bitter fruit of a failed mini-empire, the Davidic monarchy that ends in division, destruction, and exile.   

The sixth JP practice is to foster sustainable and just economic development. Several accounts in the Qur’an speak of Abraham’s remarkable ability to lead his neighbors into prosperity, security, and proper worship, that is, salaam, or the “common good.”  At Zamzam, Abraham’s prayers to the Creator God bring “fruits” to a barren place. (Q: 14)  Abraham established his most significant settlement at Mecca, of course.  This place was to be a “refuge for the people, a place of safety.” (Q: 2:125) 

While Abraham ultimately acquired great wealth, he maintained the spiritual stance of a “resident alien” or sojourner throughout his life.  He was always willing to share the bounty of the land with those who already lived there, and did not seek to dominate any other group. Ironically, according to Genesis 23, the only official ownership of the Promised Land Abraham ever acquired was a burial cave for his wife, Sarah.  Even this he gains not through military might or manipulation, but legal negotiations with the rightful land-owner, a Hittite king.  In classic Middle Eastern style, Abraham and the Hittite compete with each other to give the best price for the land, with the king offering Abraham the cave for free but Abraham insisting on paying a full and fair price.    The seventh and eight JP practices call for the strengthening of the United Nations and other emerging global networks of cooperation and mutual security. While these actions would obviously have been impossible for ancient Abraham, Abraham clearly possessed remarkable cross-cultural abilities.  God commanded that Abraham’s descendants be a blessing to all nations.  Abraham’s relations with other religious-ethnic groups were therefore predicated on the practice of hospitality.  (Middle Easterners have become rightly famous for this trait ever since!) For example, Abraham was blessed by God for his willingness to host three strangers in his tent (with help from his good wife, as is often true for us men). These strangers turned out to be angels from God, bringing unexpected good news of a promised child (Gen 18).   

JP practice #9 calls for the reduction of the weapons trade.  Alongside illegal drugs, war-profiteering is the most lucrative industry in the world today and one of the most unsavory.  While Abraham was not what we would call a pacifist (like one of his later followers, Jesus of Nazareth), he steered clear of the battles for conquest between squabbling Canaanite kings.  Abraham is much more devoted to increasing his herds and multi-ethnic children than his weapons!  When Abraham (in the Qur’an) smashes the many pagan idols of his homeland, he makes a history-turning move towards eliminating the primary reason that nations are willing to sacrifice their children to war:  their worship of the false gods of Mammon, Mars, and Eros.  These idols, often paraded under the banner of national security, Gross Domestic Product, and instant consumer gratification, frequently capture our deepest loyalties, regardless of the God to which we officially confess allegiance.  

Lastly, Abraham didn’t simply “encourage grass-roots peacemaking groups” (JP practice #10), he founded literally tens of thousands of them—more than the sands of the desert or the stars of the sky—as seen in his ramifying families and followers, who today we call Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in all their messy diversity.  Thank you.


4 Responses to “Christian Peacemaking, post-September 11: An Abrahamic Paradigm for Just Peacemaking Practices”

  1. jamie Says:

    Kent- I’m excited to finally see some of your Abrahamic peacemaking stuff! I like the narrative approach and the strong interfaith connections made throughout. I pray that tonight goes really well for you!


  2. Alex Says:

    Thank You

  3. Addiltcoafttom Says:

    krmpcnrkdkdmqifuwell, hi admin adn people nice forum indeed. how’s life? hope it’s introduce branch 😉

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