by Emad Botros
I have prepared many lectures for theology students during my time on faculty at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, but I was recently reminded that the most meaningful lectures sometimes happen through conversations outside of the classroom. Last week I had an interesting chat with a student.
“I am not sure if I can still pray for Lebanon or those in authority, and I doubt we will see any change in the near future,” he said.
I wanted to understand more. “Why do you feel this way?” I asked.
“The whole system is corrupted,” he replied in a disappointed voice. His frustration and sense of hopelessness were obvious to me.
While I listened to this frustrated student, of whom many of us living in the Middle East can easily relate, God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah came to my mind: “But seek the peace (Shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace” (Jeremiah 29:7). As these words ran through my mind, I was hesitant to offer false hope to a disappointed person by promising him that if we pray for peace, God will fix every single problem in this country. I know this will not be the case, not because I do not believe in the power of prayer, but because I do not wish to be a “false prophet”- like those in Jeremiah’s time who deceived the people with their empty promises (Jer.29:8). My struggle was this: How can I encourage my student to continue praying while at the same time help him understand what we are praying for and how this can change us?
I began a “short” lecture by explaining what the Lord asks from his people: to seek the shalom, the peace. My student and I agreed that in a region like ours, nothing is more needed than peace since the reality we are experiencing today is entirely the opposite of peace, that is chaos. Chaos is experienced when people witness corruption, injustice, discrimination based on their religious, political, and sectarian affiliation, limited access to medical service and onwards. This chaos, which leads to turmoil in the country, reflects a deeper stage of disorder within our communities. Simply put, nothing is working as it should and people are longing for peace. In this sense, peace is seen as the absence of chaos. It is not a feeling nor a state of mind, though it could be. It is rather the total harmony within the community where people experience justice, and this justice is the fruit of righteousness. Justice and righteousness thus become the ingredients of the peace that we seek. This is what the prophet Isaiah tells us: “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (Isaiah 32: 16–20).
As my student was politely listening, I finally realized that I should give him a chance to respond. He did, but with another question.
“Do you think that we can achieve this peace here on earth?”
I answered like a typical seminary instructor. “You are right to think that this is an eschatological hope, where physical, spiritual, and social peace will be achieved one day in the future. But this eschatological hope can be the foundation for our prayer and mission now; as we seek peace, we pray for what is on God’s heart and seek after his will. Such prayer can change us in many different ways.”
I went on to explain three ways in which I believe prayer for peace can change us.
Our prayer for peace motivates followers of Christ to examine whether our mission work is on track with God’s desire to seek peace. A number of examples come to mind. One is from a local context where people take to the streets seeking justice through protesting. It is our mandate as followers of Christ to be part of such efforts, in some way or another, working towards bringing God’s values to the table as we work with others to shape the future of our countries. Our role in this is important but very complex, and we will discuss it in more detail at ABTS in our upcoming Middle East Consultation in June: The Gospel in Public Life. The second example is at a global scale. As the world attempts to work towards a “peace agreement” between Palestine and the Israel, we must ask, “is it possible to achieve this peace when justice is absent?” If we ask Yohanna Katanacho, a Palestinian Christian theologian, regarding the “Deal of the Century,” he would say that it is indeed hard for this agreement to accomplish its purpose since justice is absent. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, and other global matters, followers of Christ should acknowledge that there will be no peace when justice is missing.
Our prayer for peace challenges us to examine our hearts and behaviors individually and collectively. When a society reaches a state of chaos, each member of that society tends to blame others for the situation they are in, as if they did not contribute themselves to the chaos. It is indeed ironic when the whole population reaches the point where they wash their hands of a situation. Followers of Christ can too also easily fall into this trap.
In God’s message to Jeremiah, he encouraged the people to seek peace while also warning them about “false prophets,” those who give wrong hope to people in times of distress. The followers of Christ are encouraged to guard their lives from such false prophecies that lead us to distance ourselves from any responsibility for chaos. Here I am not trying to judge anyone but rather remind myself of God’s message to Jeremiah: My people are here because of their sin. They cannot wash their hands of this, but they must repent. Therefore, it is our responsibility to allow God to search us, to test our ways, to see if there is any injustice and unrighteousness in our hands, and to lead us to work towards peace (Ps 139: 23). This examination gives the followers of Christ the virtue to humbly speak into situations of chaos.
As long as God is working, we are serving. We will not give up because we know that he knows and sees that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. He is leading the whole of creation towards this peace. The day is certainly coming, and this is our hope. Isaiah tells us that the gift of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 32:15) enables us to follow the example of the King of Peace, Jesus Christ, as we continue to work towards this endless hope of ultimate peace (Rev.21:1–8).
As my student and I were about to end our conversation, I remembered the vision and mission of our seminary: to see God glorified, people reconciled and communities restored through the church in the Arab world. I closed by saying,
“You and I are here to work towards peace. You are here to be trained and equipped to go back to your own country, joining God in his work of bringing peace, seeking and praying on behalf of your country towards this peace.”
Afterwards, I could not help but feel sorry for this student. He came to share his feelings but ended up receiving a lecture. I wonder if this is what usually happens when students share their emotions with a lecturer.
Emad Botros is a lecturer in Old Testament at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.