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Being truly Christian in times of conflict

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Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, militarism and the polarization of the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” has been up. The current war in Afghanistan has made this immediate for Canadians. In such a world, what should characterize Christians?

To be Christian in times of conflict is to be more than “Christ-like,” which is a descriptive phrase. To be Christian in our actions and attitudes points to our identity and identity runs deeper than description.

Let us consider five ideas of what it is to be truly Christian in times of conflict.

To be Christian in times of conflict means to catch God’s vision. The biblical story, in a nutshell, is something like this. In the beginning God created a good world. The people were God’s people, and all creation lived together in harmony. But humanity rejected God, and the world became disordered and in need of healing and restoration. And since that time, God has been working to heal, renew, and restore this fallen creation.

God’s saving and renewing process shines most brightly in Jesus. In his life and ministry, Jesus proclaimed God’s reign of peace by healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, eating with outcasts, forgiving sin, and loving his enemies. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the sin of the world and let evil do its worst to him. He forgave his enemies rather than fight back. To redeem people from evil and death, God did not inflict violence; rather, God absorbed violence.

The cross also announces peace between enemies. Jews and Gentiles (all humanity) were at enmity. When Christ was crucified on behalf of all humanity, enmity was crucified with him. Thus Christ broke down the dividing wall and opened a way of peace to both Jews and Gentiles, that is, all divided peoples (Ephesians 2:13-17).

In the resurrection, God vindicates the way of enemy-love.

The resurrection is God’s great “Yes!” to the healing, loving way that Jesus lived and taught. In the life, ministry, cross, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s vision for reconciliation and healing shines out.

God holds the same vision today. Several years ago, there lived in Canada a black man from South Africa named Joseph.* Joseph had long hoped and prayed that one day blacks and whites would live together in peace, that one day whites and blacks would share the Lord’s supper together in love. But he had never experienced it.

In Canada, he lived in the home of a white Christian family. This family had a five-year-old boy with light blond hair. Joseph and this boy soon became good friends. And one day, for the first time in his 22 years, Joseph did what had been forbidden in his native South Africa; he placed his hand on the white boy’s head. Inside, Joseph trembled, and thought, “This is how life should be.”

One glorious day, God’s healing work will be complete. The prophet Isaiah dreamed of God’s coming age this way: “[On that day] the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6 NRSV). If Isaiah had lived in modern South Africa, he might have added “On that day the black man will place his hand on the head of the white boy, and they will eat together at the table of fellowship.”

When reconciliation and peace break through, whether big or small, we share and taste God’s vision. Every time we help people make peace with God or with each other, we offer the world a taste of that day when “the wolf shall live with the lamb…and a little child will lead them.”

To be Christian in times of conflict means to creatively engage the world. Many Anabaptists, and later Mennonites, separated from the world rather than engage it creatively. But some Anabaptists differed. One socially involved Anabaptist around 1530 was Pilgrim Marpeck, who believed that since Christ engaged the world actively, Christ’s followers should also engage the world, even as they reject violence in favour of God’s loving way.

When Jesus said, “Give your oppressor not only your coat but also your shirt” (see Luke 6:29, Matt. 5:40), he was not caving in. He was being creative. The scene is in court. Someone is suing you for your coat. The jury is watching. If, after handing over your coat, you also give your oppressor your shirt and stand shirtless, especially in winter, the whole court will see how cruel your oppressor is. He may be surprised, caught off guard, shamed, and may even see his cruelty. In a creative, nonviolent way, Jesus calls the oppressor to see the light and change his ways.

Creative engagement in the world continues today. At one point in World War II, Hitler sent troops into Denmark, ordered Danish Jews to wear the yellow star, and demanded that the Danes manufacture and deliver ships for the German war effort. By the thousands, Danish workers worked very slowly, went home early to work in their gardens, attended mass “picnics” in parks where they sang Danish national songs, and secretly whisked Jews across the water to Sweden. They resisted the Nazis and protected the Jews in legal, creative ways.

Today there is an organization that flies Palestinian and Israeli children from the Middle East to the U.S. for summer camp. Of course these children become friends. This is a legal, creative way to nourish reconciliation in the Middle East.

To be Christian in times of conflict means to emphasize communication and relationship. In the Pentecost story of Acts 2, the Holy Spirit does two things. First the Spirit translates, causing people of 17 languages to hear of God (verses 8-11) in their own native tongue. The Spirit does not demand that everyone understand Aramaic or Greek, but translates so that all can understand, and God’s healing is available to all.

Second, the Holy Spirit reverses alienation. In the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11), the people lose the ability to communicate because of pride and ambition. They are scattered and alienated. Now at Pentecost, shouts Luke, with the coming of the Spirit, people who were scattered once again communicate and understand. In causing people of 17 languages to hear of God’s work in their native tongue, the Holy Spirit reverses age-old alienation. Today, wherever there is misunderstanding, mistranslation, and alienation, the Holy Spirit calls us to translate, and to open doors so that opposing sides may understand each other.

In the 1990s, I taught in a seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1995, four years after the first Gulf  War against Iraq, we had a delightful, bouncy student named Esther* who came from Iraq. On faculty we had a Christian education instructor, Mrs. Smith,* who came from the U.S. Shortly before Mrs. Smith returned to the States, I asked her, “What was most important to you about your time in Lebanon?” She answered, “I got to know Esther. I had never met an Iraqi before.”
The human encounter transformed Mrs. Smith’s vision. She became able to see Iraqis, not as the great Satan or the axis of evil, but as human beings made in God’s image, and in Esther’s case, deeply devoted to Jesus. Relationships shatter stereotypes.

The same applies to complex international relationships. When Colombia and Peru were on the brink of war some years ago over their disputed border high in the mountains, negotiator Roger Fisher, co-author of Getting to Yes, was called in to see what he could do. Both presidents told him, “I can’t back down, for I have elections coming up the next year and I dare not look weak or lose face. But you can meet with my top officials.” So Fisher brought together the ministers of foreign affairs, the ministers of defence, the top generals, and others from both countries. Before commencing with business, he paired them off with their counterparts and asked them, for one-half hour, to get to know each other and to then introduce each other to the larger group.

When introductions began, Fisher started with the two military chiefs of staff. They had gotten so engrossed in their conversation, however, that they hadn’t gotten around to the introducing part. “You see,” the general from Peru had said to his counterpart, “I almost couldn’t make it today because I had trouble arranging for my mentally challenged daughter.” When the general from Colombia heard this, he had exclaimed, “What? I too have a mentally challenged daughter!” For half an hour the two generals had shared the trials and joys of raising their special daughters.

Needless to say, the ice was broken, goodwill was in the air and these 12 officials together resolved the conflict in a wonderful way. They agreed that the entire disputed border area would become a large international park, and that no military personnel would be allowed in the park.

To be Christian in times of conflict means to have patience for the long haul. The apostle Paul is a great example. Paul’s vision for equality and justice is clear: “There is no longer Jew or Greek,…slave or free,…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV). But Paul cannot realize this vision overnight; he needs patience.

When Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus the runaway slave and asks him to take Onesimus back as a brother, Paul knows he cannot overturn the social structure of the whole Roman Empire and abolish slavery. So with patience he plants seeds that will germinate and bear fruit 1,800 years later, thanks to abolitionists like Sir William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-65). Paul exercises patience for the long haul.

Sometimes it takes nearly as long to get out of a fix as it took to get in. The Crusades happened 900 years ago and the walls they created between Muslims and Christians are still high and hard. It may take nearly 900 years of peacemaking to bring these walls down.

Finally, to be Christian in times of conflict means to worship and pray. Worship declares our allegiance to God, and this threatens the powers that be, whether political or economic. In China, for example, simply going to church is a political act. It declares an alternative community with loyalty and allegiance to a non-Communist God, and so is seen as subversive.

Worship renders to God the praise God deserves but it also moves us in God’s healing direction. Worship gets us thinking differently. When we sing the song from Isaiah 52:7, “Our God reigns,” we also sing between the lines, “Our God reigns – and not Hitler, not superpowers, not terrorists. Not oil or the dollar.” To sing “Our God reigns” is a political act.

But, we ask, how can that be? It’s only a song. How can a song break us free from vicious cycles of violence? The civil rights movement in the U.S. had roots in songs – African-American spirituals. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 began with songs, prayers, and candles, and spilled from churches into the streets.

In worship, people think differently. In worship, people declare themselves free for the God of healing. But worship is more than words or a verbal political statement; worship does something. In a deeper, more committed sense, worship moves us in God’s healing direction, and this too is a political act.

Similarly, prayer opens us to God and God’s healing vision. Prayer aligns our will with God’s healing will. In prayer we realize we belong to God, not this world. And so, with hands free we engage the world rather than flee from it.

With minds free, we find creative ways to oppose evil without adopting its methods and becoming like the evil we hate, for we belong to God. Worship and prayer are essential to being Christian and to following Jesus in a nonviolent, healing direction.

In times of conflict, may we catch God’s healing vision, engage the world creatively, open doors for communication and relationship, and have patience for the long haul. May worship and prayer keep us true. May we be truly Christian.

John Derksen is assistant professor of conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College, Winnipeg, and a member of River East MB Church. A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in The Christian Leader, June 2003.

*Names have been changed

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