Kees van der Knijff
From September 21 to September 23, ABTS hosted the online Middle East Consultation 2022 entitled “Peace I Leave With You: Theories and Practices for Peace Ministry in the Middle East.” A collection of contributors gathered virtually to help us consider how the Church can be peacemakers in times of conflict. To do this, MEC explored the topic through lenses of peace ministry across personal, group, and national dimensions. This is the third article in a 3-part MEC 2022 ABTS Blog series reflecting on the consultation’s sweeping discussion.
Peace-Making and the Sins of Passivity
Over the past weeks, my colleagues have provided excellent coverage of conversations that were going on during the recent MEC on peacebuilding. When I read their reports, and checked my own notes, especially from the third day, which covered peacemaking at the national level, I noticed I am left with a number of conflicting feelings. In this final blog post of the MEC series, I want to focus on what I consider the most crucial of those feelings.
Throughout the three days, I repeatedly wondered what the theological dimension of this MEC was. Of course, there were biblical references. Of course, there were theological arguments. But somehow, I got the feeling that God was largely missing from our reflections. There was an activist tendency to the consultation, with a heavy focus on all the things that we need to do as peacemakers.
This is not to say that all those activities are not important. Nor am I suggesting that we should be idle and wait for God to act. But apparently when we are talking about peacemaking, we have difficulty finding words to express how our involvement is related to and depends on God’s prior mission of reconciliation. We might lack adequate words to connect God’s kingdom to our involvement. We do not link God’s character as the God of Peace to our peacemaking, except through the way of personal inspiration and empowerment. That is more of a critique of our theological reflection than a critique on all the beautiful ministries that are going on in the region.
As I mentioned, this critique of activism was part of conflicting feelings. Where does the conflict lie? Well, alongside this activistic focus I detected a thread of passivism throughout my notes. Whenever the speakers were talking about hindrances to peacebuilding, they did not focus on active troublemakers, on those who openly oppose peacemaking. Instead, they focused on passivistic tendencies in the evangelical church. In what follows, I want to highlight four of those sins of passivity.
The sin of forgetfulness
In his presentation of the work of the Action Research Associates, Martin Accad focused on the importance of dealing adequately with the past when it comes to peacemaking. Covering up a rotting wound while proclaiming ‘peace, peace’ (Jer. 6:14) is no solution, but unfortunately this picture is very similar to what has happened in Lebanon. Instead, the biblical keyword is remembering. Therefore, in order to build lasting forms of peace, people’s experiences deserve to be told and those responsible should be held accountable. When we commit the sin of forgetfulness, we maintain and strengthen a culture of impunity.
The sin of self-centeredness
Rev. Najla Kassab focused on the public role of the church in processes of peacemaking and reconciliation. All too often, the Christian (evangelical) church in the MENA region suffers from a minority complex and finds neither the desire nor the courage to have a voice outside the walls of the church. The focus is on serving those within, instead of being hospitable to those outside. According to Kassab, the church should venture into new spaces, calling out injustice and welcoming all good initiatives it encounters. Those new spaces are not restricted to, but definitely include, the public sphere, engaging the powers that be. When someone asked during the panel session whether the church can have a public voice, her answer was resolute: “Can the church not have a public voice?”
The sin of complicity
Pastor Sabet from Sudan shared the complexities of being a peacemaker in a society that is deeply rotten with corruption. For how can you fight injustice and work towards peace, when the structures you need for doing so are themselves deeply unjust? Does the church have a chance of staying pure and honest in a society where corruption is rampant? Sabet warned that a church that goes too far with the system becomes corrupt itself, and loses its voice to speak out against evil. No one will have made a decision to become a corrupt church, but all the small, incremental acts of complicity can easily become part of the culture of a church.
The sin of silence
For many participants, Manal El Tayar’s incisive retelling of the Old Testament story of David’s daughter Tamar (2 Sam 13) was the most shocking part of this final day. For who was responsible for her rape? Or, might I ask, who was not? Manal addressed the sin of silence, of not speaking out. Drawing also from Jesus’s interaction with the bleeding woman (Mark 5), she highlighted how there is a double sin of silence we can commit when confronted with injustice: the sin of not speaking out, and the sin of not giving a voice to those affected. Jesus invited the woman to speak up and share her experiences of what happened, and what her motives were for touching him. Likewise, Manal urged the participants to actively give a voice to women in reconciliation processes, and to speak out against attempts to pardon sexual violence in appeals for general amnesty.
In the days since the MEC, the concept of the ‘sins of silence’ has been frequently in my mind. How often do we notice things that are not right, but do not find the courage to speak out against them, either personally or as a church? How often do we sacrifice truth and justice at the altar of our personal comfort and convenience?
There might be important implications here for relationships between MENA ministries and their Western sponsors. With all the troubling developments going on within Western evangelicalism, I suddenly realized that major challenges might be ahead on this front for many Christian organizations in the MENA region. Innumerous wonderful initiatives in the region cannot survive without their sponsors in the West. Many of those organizations screen their newsletters for views or phrases that might be offensive to their donors. But to what extent can we neglect this tension? Will there come a moment that we have to choose between truth and justice or receiving support? And if so, are we ready not to commit the sin of silence? Relationships of dependence, like the ones many MENA churches and Christian organizations are involved in, are a sure breeding ground for many of the sins of passivity I have mentioned.
In light of the dangers of passivity, it was good after all that there was an activist tendency to the MEC. But only as long as we keep trying to see all our efforts towards peacemaking in light of the one of whom it was declared: He is our Peace!