By Sherri Ellington
This year’s Middle East Consultation – which happens to be my first ever, and I was touched, impressed, and inspired – was called “My Peace I Give You: Practicing Peace in the Middle East.” It was the second year in a row for the MEC to be focused on peacemaking in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; last year’s consultation focused on different theories and theologies of being peacemakers, while this year’s had more to do with the “how.”
Between the two consultations was also a February 2023 mini-MEC where nine leaders from five countries in the MENA region (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Sudan) came to ABTS to receive training on how they might implement peacemaking on the ground in their respective contexts. Reports from them were among the case studies we heard during the September 25-27, 2023, Middle East Consultation.
Several levels or layers of peace were addressed at the MEC, focusing specifically on:
and – from a little different perspective than the above layers – Peace from the Margins.
The fullest expression of shalom/salaam will be a textured peace with all of these layers of society being thoroughly addressed. Meanwhile, peacemaking and peacebuilding that begins at any layer can and will affect the other layers as well, because nations and groups are comprised of persons with inner lives and interpersonal relationships. Lack of wholeness can seep in at any level, thus also providing opportunities to seek reconciliation through God’s grace, toward healing and a renewed peace.
Each of the above layers took center stage for a few hours of the hybrid conference, during which over 120 in-person plus over 20 online MEC participants from 16 countries had multiple learning and growth opportunities about that particular level of peace: biblical teaching, case studies from around the MENA region, a discussion panel, and small group workshops in both Arabic and English.
Perhaps as a model for real-life integrated peacemaking, we did not start at the “highest” level, nor at the “lowest” level, but somewhere in the middle, with Intergroup peace. This was followed by Interpersonal Peace, Inner Peace, Peace from the Margins, and National Peace.
Intergroup Peace might include peace between different ethnic groups, different religious groups or church denominations, or even groups within the same church that may have some kind of conflict. At least two speakers mentioned having been part of meaningful ongoing meetings between leaders from different evangelical denominations, in Egypt and in Lebanon. Here and in other sessions we began to consider what can help to develop a culture of peace in the church. Beyond the church, Bread and Salt is a peacemaking initiative that began in Lebanon in 2016, where youth from Christian and Muslim faith traditions share a bite to eat and come together for social action, while having a safe space to share their thoughts about faith and life, journey toward inner healing, and seek reconciliation with people different from themselves. Similarly, we heard from Nabila, via video from Sudan, of “Benatna Ishrah,” translating roughly to “Among us there is Understanding,” where 8 different groups of 5 Muslims and 5 Christians – a total of 80 young women over three years — have come together with a facilitator to be trained in peacemaking by having peaceful conversation, getting to know people different from themselves, and doing social action together for their community. Biblical principles we considered for Intergroup Peace included Respect, Honesty, and the importance of Confrontation done prayerfully and wisely.
For Interpersonal Peace, as well, we were challenged to not let issues fester between individuals in the family, the church, or any other relationship, and reminded among other things that there is “No reconciliation without confrontation.” Somewhat surprisingly for a conference on peace, “confrontation” became a theme throughout these days, both in teachings and in the touching case studies that were shared. But it’s not really so surprising once one realizes that the purpose of confrontation done well is not to explode at others in arguments (nor to accuse or blame anyone), but rather to develop courage and skills to lovingly, carefully, and prayerfully face issues that already exist, inviting the Holy Spirit to pour out grace and healing for full reconciliation between people. An attendee from the UK offered the phrase, “I want to give you a ‘supportive challenge’” as one way he has learned to initiate confrontation. Pastor Moufid from Lebanon shared biblical advice that included key steps before confrontation, such as seeking wise advice (Prov 12:15), praying for the person (Prov 5:44), forgiving them before you confront them, remembering to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44), and being sure to take personal responsibility. In a comment on the final day his wife, Jessy, who had also been one of our speakers, emphasized that those of us who aren’t used to practicing healthy confrontation may switch from one extreme to the other and explode all our frustrations at the other person. Instead, we must learn the skill of measured, wise, respectful, and prayerful confrontation done in love and in reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Inner Peace clearly can be a helpful foundation toward each of the above layers of peace. It is also something God can give us even in the midst of external trials. In our biblical focus talk on Inner Peace, Bassem Melki read Philippians 4:7 and asked us to consider how, why, and when we have tended to experience this “peace of God, which transcends all understanding.” He also recommended reading the short book of Habakkuk as an excellent example of being emotionally honest with God, then moving toward healing, victory, and an inner peace that allows us to still rejoice even if we haven’t yet seen reality change – because we have encountered God. Our case studies on inner peace included groups in Sudan and in Syria – places where external peace was not plentiful. In fact, hearing from Habil in Sudan we learned that the Ambassador of Peace groups he was leading had to stop suddenly when war broke out. As he shared this (via video, since he could not travel due to the conflict) bombing was audible in the background of his recording. And yet he expressed that he personally has experienced inner peace from God during these difficult times. Meanwhile, Pastor Mazen from Syria shared about the layers of difficulty people in his community had already faced – war, pandemic, economic trials – before the February earthquakes shook away their security and peace even further. But he saw God meeting people when his church team arrived to check on them, as “Jesus sent someone to care.” These and many others of the case studies didn’t just stick to the “official” layer of peace on that day’s schedule, but highlighted the interwoven strands of Inner, Interpersonal, and Group healing.
There was a session on Peace from the Margins, which wasn’t technically one of the four levels of peace, but also interplayed with them all. I think part of this session’s purpose was to underscore that peace does not necessarily come as a top-down pronouncement from those in power, but can show up through ministry among young people, people with special needs, the elderly, and others. Our biblical teaching from Grace Al-Zoughbi touched on the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4 who retained a nobility in the midst of trouble, living with confidence in God as she waited for things to be made right; Grace compared this to her fellow Palestinians who continue waiting for God to give back homes and land that they have lost. A touching story from Shant, of Youth for Christ Lebanon, was that of a boy in one of their Ambassadors of Peace groups who, himself a Syrian refugee, wanted to find a social action project that would specifically help Lebanese kids.
Finally, for National Peace, Martin Accad shared from Jeremiah 29:4-9 about seeking the shalom of the city/country where you live, even if you feel stuck there – which applied to Jews who had been sent into Babylonian exile, but also applies to anyone who may feel stuck today. “Seek the [shalom] of the city…If it has [shalom] you too will have [shalom],” it reads, even if some of the “shaloms” are normally translated as “prosperity.” This is because “shalom” – and a full perspective on its related Arabic word salaam, as well – is intended to include holistic wellbeing, prosperity, and wholeness, which Martin had shared about in a session on the theology of salaam the previous evening. Martin said we need to stop having a victim mentality so that we will be freed to pray for the city/country we live in, and to be involved in public affairs. Then Chaden, from Lebanon, shared a case study from Action Research Associates about seeking truth and reconciliation around a historical incident which is still emotionally charged today – Black Saturday, in December 1975, when the Lebanese civil war took a painful turn. This incident has always been viewed differently by different sectors of Lebanese. Chaden and team collected narratives of the same incident from different perspectives. To this end, they visited 50 Members of Parliament, as the Lord opened doors. They saw faces of people in pain as each recounted their memory of Black Saturday. Then they would deliver narratives – anonymously – from one group to a different group, and the groups would interact with narratives from the “other,” in an open way that the groups could not have managed face to face. They saw changed attitudes begin to emerge, including an effect on at least one MP who toned down a planned speech and shifted to more peaceful rhetoric. One MEC participant and speaker shared how this work inspires him to consider similar initiatives himself, making use of relational connections he already has with politicians in his home country.
What small steps of peace might God prompt you, personally, to pursue? On what levels? May the Prince of Shalom/Salaam (Isaiah 9:6) guide you in love, creativity, and wisdom, as you prayerfully lean into his own heart for our families, churches, communities, nations, and world.
Sherri Ellington is the English language editor for the ABTS blog and loves to spend time on her balcony inviting more of God’s healing presence for Beirut, for Lebanon, for the MENA region, and beyond.