by Dustin Ellington
I was inspired by what I saw and heard at this year’s Middle East Consultation (MEC) focusing on “My Peace I Give You: Practicing Peace in the Middle East.” It was my first time attending the MEC. What I found most inspiring was hearing stories and explanations from many believers in diverse settings engaged in a multitude of peacemaking initiatives. So many people are stepping out in the name of Jesus Christ to bring peace where they are.
Moreover, I found it meaningful that the conference understood peace as holistic, made up of layers including national, intergroup, interpersonal, and inner peace. As Sherri Ellington shared in an earlier blog post, “Peacemaking… 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.”
I also witnessed a number of ABTS student attendees saying that the lessons, testimonies, and examples of initiatives were highly relevant for their contexts. They were inspired to have conversations with others about complex circumstances in their own lives and ministries, seeking wisdom and discernment for the path ahead. This made me feel proud of God’s work through ABTS, that our seminary could hold such a conference. Little did we know just how relevant the conference was, given the violent events to our south starting October 7, less than two weeks after our gathering.
Amid feeling inspired and impressed with the MEC, two aspects of the conference struck me as good and important, yet also made me wonder if they can benefit from further thought: the term “initiatives” and the energy of speakers and attendees around “confrontation”.
On one hand, the word “initiatives” is appropriate because, indeed, we heard many examples of people taking initiative to start groups and activities with the goal, in one way or another, of making peace. Regular Christians had stepped out and made a difference. Being active for peace, not passive, is something to celebrate, and an example to follow. But I also wonder at times if the term “initiatives” is a bit of a misnomer for Christian peacemaking, so that it needs clarifying.
As Christians, it’s worthwhile to think about the theology of “initiatives”. Our initiatives are more like “cooperations,” because God is the real initiator. The apostle Paul can look back on experiences in ministry and say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Yes, Jesus’ words “Blessed are the peacemakers” invite us and empower us for the role of taking initiatives. But our being invited into this role reflects a larger biblical view of God. When I take a brief survey of how Scripture speaks of peace, I tend to see verbs with God behind them as the real doer, the real maker of peace. God is the activist. Our job is to join.
Here are good mentions of God’s peacemaking initiative quoted at the MEC: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). “He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near” (Eph 2:17). These examples only scratch the surface of what we would find if we were to dig deeper in Scripture.
I don’t mean to say that we should not speak of peace initiatives as Christians. I mean to say that it captures the whole picture of Scripture better, and the Christian faith better, if we fill out our use of the term “initiative” and clarify that when we embark upon an “initiative” we enter into and cooperate with God’s gestures toward peace. We are peace joiners and peace responders. God is the real activist. As I heard the examples and testimonies at the MEC, I sensed that people had truly responded to and joined God’s work of peacemaking.
This takes us to another area where I wonder if more thought might be beneficial.
At the MEC, I sensed a lot of excitement around the theme of facing conflict with confrontation as a step toward peacemaking. The gathering seemed palpably moved by Jesus’ words: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt 18:15). I recognize that this energy likely arises from seeing interpersonal and intergroup conflict go undealt with; for cultural reasons, conflict tends to be avoided. (To learn more, see Bassem Melki’s most recent blog here.)
This renewed focus on facing conflict with confrontation as a step toward peacemaking apparently feels very relevant for Christians in the Middle East. However, I felt somewhat concerned because almost all the energy and talk seemed to go in one direction. I kept hearing examples about others in the church needing confrontation. Or some other group in society needs confrontation. There was energy around mustering the courage to start confronting, and it seemed understood that if we can start confronting, we will have taken a great step toward establishing a better culture of peacemaking. This may indeed be true.
But I can’t help wondering if that big step might begin to approach only half the problem. I didn’t hear much encouragement saying that we need to be ready to be confronted by our fellow Christians (or from others who have something important to say to us). How do we become the “listening brother,” the person in Matthew 18:15 who can indeed be won over by another? How do we become the kind of Christians who can be “gained,” as Jesus says, when we have gotten off track? Bassem Melki’s blog, mentioned earlier, also says: “Now as mature Christians, we need to be the kind of people who invite others who can speak into our lives… For every Christian who musters up the courage to go and sensitively confront, there needs to be a mature enough Christian on the other side ready to receive that person.”
We can’t always be the confronter. Statistically speaking, it’s more likely that we will be the one who gets confronted half the time! And in real conflicts, we may find that the one we confront also has his/her own concerns about us which we also need to face, before real progress happens. Confrontation tends to occur back and forth.
What would it look like to put as much energy into helping people develop skill and grow in courage toward being calmly confronted, as much as the skill of confronting others? Can we get trained and train one another to be ready to receive confrontation?
I want to suggest that both the issues which I have named, our slightly mis-named “initiatives” and also the energy around “confronting the other,” take us to the roots of the Christian faith.
We Christians believe in God’s loving initiative in sending Jesus who accomplished the means of forgiveness and redemption through his blood shed on the cross. We needed that initiative because we were (and still are) sinners. God has taken initiative to rectify the relationship, moving toward us with grace. We, in turn, had the humility to admit we are sinners in dire need of Jesus.
When it’s our turn to be on the other side of confrontation, we can go back to the roots of why we’re Christians in the first place: God’s gracious and redemptive initiative toward us, sending Jesus on our behalf. It’s the same reality that made us Christians in the first place that can help us become people who are open to being confronted. Because we believe in Jesus’ powerful death, more than our belief in our own rightness or innocence, we can be curious to explore how we’ve wronged someone else, and give permission to others to talk about that, even exploring it in front of us.
In all likelihood, the process of interpersonal and intergroup confrontation can only be productive if we have humility about ourselves and our own perspectives. This kind of humility flows from the truth of Jesus’ death for us. Our humility about our own rightness (and lack thereof) can give us the freedom to respect the dignity of the other just as much as we respect our own dignity.
Aware of God’s grace and initiative toward us, we can become the kind of people who make confrontation easier for others.
In closing, I suggest we be extra clear to frame our peacemaking initiatives as the attempts they are to join God’s own gracious initiative. He is the original and real activist for peace and reconciliation. Our work is learning to recognize God’s initiative-taking and invitations so that we can join him. And I suggest, alongside learning to confront, that we also explore how we can become the kind of people, and train others to become the kind of people, whose Christian humility and maturity make confrontation easier for others.
Dustin Ellington is Associate Professor of New Testament at ABTS. He enjoys getting to know people whom God is calling to ministry and encouraging their learning and growth.