By Martin Accad
In his significant visit to Cairo, Egypt, last week, Pope Francis delicately tackled a whole series of sensitive issues in the gracious way that has become his trademark. Many conservatives, both Christian and Muslim, were nervous about his visit. Christian conservatives feared that he would lean over too far in his search for Muslim dialogue partners. Muslim conservatives (with Muslim Brotherhood affiliation – some have claimed), put out the trending hashtag #بابا_الإرهاب (baba al 2erhab – “the Pope of terrorism”) on the eve of his visit. But Pope Francis was rather unequivocal in his message of peace, seemingly addressing militant Islamism with his assertion that “Religiosity means nothing unless it is inspired by deep faith and charity.” But no doubt his message also addressed rising anti-Muslim political populism around the world, when he affirmed that “True faith is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane.” He added with the all-embracing warning that:
“God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity! Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him.”
In affirmation and respect for common Muslim-Christian language, the Pope opened his Mass at Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium with the Arabic greeting (traditionally primarily Islamic), As-salamu 3alaykum! (“Peace be upon you!”). But he also ended it with the uncompromising Christian proclamation, Al-Masih Qam! Bi-l-haqiqa qam! (“Christ is risen! He is truly risen”).
The Vision of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary is “to see God glorified, people reconciled, and communities restored, through the Church, in the Arab World.” Stated in this way, our vision does not differ from the global Church’s vision, which is imminently relevant to the role and life of the Church in the Arab world. I have just returned from a conference on the topic of peacebuilding, organized by the Forum for Evangelical Theology in the Arab World. The gathering, which brought together some twenty-five Arab theologians and lay leaders from the Arab world, was organized by the Middle East Association for Theological Education. The group recognizes the crucial necessity for the church in this region to play its vital part as an agent of reconciliation, addressing conflict and religious violence, which have been alarmingly on the rise over the past few years.
In his second epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul affirms that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (5.18). “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith,” he observes in his epistle to the Romans, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5.1). Paul invites the Corinthians to “strive for full restoration,” to “encourage one another,” to “be of one mind,” and to “live in peace,” that “the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13.11). Love, peace, and reconciliation are central to Paul’s understanding of Christ’s ministry and calling of his followers. His thinking is fully aligned with our Lord Jesus’ plea in his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5.9). But with the diverse understandings of peace all around us, from peace enforced by war, so-called “just-war” theory, to other traditions that call for utter non-violence, how are we to understand what Jesus and New Testament writers meant when they spoke of peace? It is safe to assume that they were not speaking in a vacuum, and the surest way to understand their intent is to look at the Old Testament concept of peace, which represents the intellectual and theological background for their statements.
Peace (shalom in Hebrew), was the ultimate way that Israelite priests were to bless God’s people. In the book of Numbers, God commands Moses to tell Aaron,
“This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace’” (6.22-26).
God’s salam to his people, however, is not unconditional. It is represented in the Old Testament as a gift for a people who, in turn, play their role as peacemakers in the world. In Leviticus 26.1-13, God promises that if his people keep his commandments, “the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit” (vv. 4-5), he will “grant peace in the land” (6), they will have victory over their enemies (7-8), and he will increase their numbers and keep his covenant with them (9-10). And crucially from a New 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” (11-12). In the overall biblical vision, peace cannot be fully experienced until God himself walks among his people, and the New Testament picks up on this vision as the foundation of the Good News in Christ. In the closing verse of this passage (v. 13), God reminds the Israelites of his deliverance from their slavery in Egypt, “I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” The peace of God is the space where human dignity and honor are restored. The New Testament affirms that this was accomplished in the cross.
The book of Psalms is replete with reflection and rejoicing in God’s peace. Psalm 85 looks to the day when “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (v. 10). A full exposition of peace in the Psalms is beyond what can be presented in this brief article. In the prophetic vision of Isaiah, the longing for God’s ultimate salam culminates in the beautiful expectation of a Messianic savior, which the Gospels recognize as being fulfilled in the birth of Messiah Jesus (see Luke 1.31-33):
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9.6-7).
But in Isaiah already, there is a bleaker side to the inauguration of God’s salam – now universal, which New Testament writers quickly realize would be an inherent part of the Messiah’s journey:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5).
We are suddenly made aware that the peace of God does not come at a cheap price. Nor is it enforced through human understandings of power. The kind of peace inaugurated by Christ will only be fulfilled as a result of peacemakers being willing to pay the ultimate price for their calling. There is a sense from reading the New Testament that healing of our communities’ strife will only come through the wounds of the peacemaker, and that peacemaking is a mode of being which is not naturally accepted, either within the church or outside of it.
Despite the overarching discourse of the global church these days, 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 it is the perception that Christians have of themselves and of their Muslim neighbors that seems to be the most toxic and hazardous to the ongoing health of the church, not only in the MENA but globally as well. There is no question that the Arab church has been a victim of much violence historically, both past and recent, and that much of that violence has been inflicted by local authorities, rightly or wrongly self-identifying as Muslim. But there is a difference between being a victim and self-victimizing, between being numerically a minority and self-minoritizing. When we are numerically and demographically small, when we suffer violence, abuse, and persecution, we must ask ourselves whether this is a liability or an advantage. If suffering and death are viewed as a “problem” from a Gospel perspective, then Arab Christians are the most wretched of all people. But if suffering and death are at the very heart of the Gospel, if our ability to suffer and die well (i.e. redemptively) can become the most formidable challenge to the powers of the world, then as Arab Christians we are best positioned of all people to bring healing to the world! Pope Francis powerfully highlighted the centrality of suffering in the Christian understanding of redemption and salvation when he stated in his address to Coptic Pope Tawadrus that their growing bond was “sustained, in mysterious and quite relevant way, by a genuine ecumenism of blood.”
This, of course, sounds easier said than done. But as a church that has suffered throughout our history, I would argue that the MENA church has earned the right to speak to global power and to challenge it. The MENA church has this unique prophetic message to carry to the global church and to the world. However, I have also recently come to a grave realization. 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.” 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 only listen to our own narratives.
I have become convinced that we need restoration, beginning with a confession of our own inadequacy. We cannot become reconcilers in our societies until we realize that the “other” also feels hurt. Yes, Muslims too have a narrative of hurt from wounds inflicted on them by “Christianity” historically. Just consider again the hashtag #بابا_الإرهاب, which trended among some Muslims on Facebook and twitter surrounding Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt last week. They too feel that Christianity has lost its right to speak to powers so long as it does not condemn repressive Arab regimes and Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. We might respond by pointing out that many Christian leaders do condemn these, or by trying to justify the position of the church. The point is, however, that when we are wounded, we do not hear the alternative narratives. We self-victimize. We self-minoritize. And as a result, we dehumanize the other. If we are to “see God glorified, people reconciled, and communities restored,” in line with our vision, ABTS will need to engage much more aggressively in a work of healing from hurt within our own communities over the next months and years. We will need to work on hearing and understanding the alternative narratives of our Muslim neighbors. Only then will we be able both to experience and channel Christ’s restorative healing and reconciliation in the crucial years ahead.