Though friendly greetings were exchanged by the 20 people convened in a downtown Jerusalem meeting space, I could detect an almost palpable spiritual electricity crackling just beneath the the hum of polite conversation.
Could there ever be harmony? I remembered some of the conflicts I’d seen within the church in my lifetime. In every case, reconciliation was a rarity.
My husband and I were in the Holy City for a board meeting of a ministry we both served; we’d been invited to attend a small gathering of leaders from the Israeli Messianic Jewish community and pastors from the Palestinian Christian community. The enmity between the two groups could be traced all the way back to the fractured relationship between Isaac and Ishmael (Gen. 12-21) yet remained current as the day’s headlines. I wondered if shared faith in Jesus would be enough to bring these two groups together.
I appreciated the desire of the meeting’s host to cultivate gospel cooperation among those assembled. At first, I felt a surge of hope as attendees prayed for one another and shared updates about what was happening in their various ministries. But then the spiritual static I’d detected broke through.
A Palestinian Christian said, “It can take hours to cross a border checkpoint just to see a doctor. How are we supposed to provide care for our people under these inhumane conditions?”
A Messianic Jew retorted, “Those checkpoints save lives. The threat of ongoing violence from those living in the Arab community never ends.”
It was as if both picked up the old familiar script their ancestors had been following for generations. Accusations peppered the now-tense exchange between the groups. Many people in the room had lost loved ones in the ancient conflict. Could there ever be harmony? I remembered some of the conflicts I’d seen within the church in my lifetime. Some had been over inconsequential things like the way a lobby was painted. Others had been more serious theological divides. In every case, reconciliation was a rarity. If we couldn’t agree on a paint color in my own community, then what hope could there be for these deeply divided brothers and sisters in Jerusalem?
Crossing the Line
The apostle Paul crossed the old dividing line when he came to faith in Christ and received his calling to Gentile and Jew alike (Acts 9:15). That calling was very costly throughout the rest of the apostle’s life, in terms of both physical safety and his once-secure network of relationships with his own spiritual family of origin, the Pharisees. When Paul told the young church in Ephesus that he believed Jesus could bridge the seemingly impossible divide between Jew and Gentile, his words carried the weight of hope in the power of Jesus’s resurrection:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Eph. 2:14-16 NIV)
Further, Paul insisted that these two groups could live as one single holy community, sustained by the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.
We tend to substitute either a calm mood or a brokered truce for the far more radical kind of peace Paul advocated.
The man who wrote these inspired words had no problem disrupting the status quo in both Jewish and Gentile communities. A skim of the New Testament letters attributed to Paul shows a man willing to confront just about every kind of person. Most of the time, our idea of a peacemaker is someone who has an extra-mellow personality and possesses the skill set of a trained hostage negotiator. We tend to substitute either a calm mood or a brokered truce for the far more radical kind of peace Paul advocated.
Though Paul found himself branded as a fiery troublemaker, he was in fact the kind of peacemaker to whom Jesus was referring in Matthew 5:9—the only time the Greek term eirénopoios is used in the New Testament. The root of the word peace in peacemaker means “to join.” It is not a passive, “chillaxed” sort of word. It is instead a call to mirror the purpose of Jesus’ ministry when we insert ourselves into a conflict to foster reconciliation.
Nobel prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously noted,
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.
The kind of peacemaking to which Wiesel refers is nothing less than an intervention. And interventions are messy and uncomfortable—they may even appear to make things worse, at least at first. No one likes their status quo disrupted, no matter how dysfunctional it might be.
The kind of peacemaking to which Wiesel refers is nothing less than an intervention.
As I sat in that meeting in Jerusalem, I kept my eyes on the person who’d convened the gathering. I marveled that he’d managed over time to build meaningful relationships with people on both sides of the divide. I noticed that his voice stayed level when passions raised the volume in the room. He made sure everyone had a chance to be heard. He sought clarification when a comment seemed to further confuse or divide. Most of all, he did all he could to keep everyone in the room when it would have been easier to dismiss the meeting—or not gather at all.
He was committed to interfering, to use Wiesel’s term, and this interference navigated the narrow balance between justice and love. “The incentive to peacemaking is love, but it degenerates into appeasement whenever justice is ignored,” said author John Stott. “To forgive and to ask for forgiveness are both costly exercises. All authentic Christian peacemaking exhibits the love and justice—and so the pain—of the cross.”
True peacemaking names and confronts injustice head on. Peacemakers also recognize that forgiveness is often an ongoing seventy-times-seven process rather than a neat bow that ties up a frayed relationship. We have been culturally conditioned by sitcoms and happily-ever-after movies to expect a tidy resolution to conflict. However, a kingdom mindset calls us away from our preconceived notions and toward a dogged willingness to stay in the room with one another when it would be far easier to simply walk out the door.
Doing the Work
Not long ago, I found myself deeply troubled by something that occurred during corporate worship in a church my husband and I had attended for only a short time. We’d been strongly considering making this church our home, but the question of this practice kept nagging at us both. It would have been easier to slip out the door and just continue our search. After all, who wants to be the annoying new person asking uncomfortable questions?
Peacemakers recognize that forgiveness is often an ongoing seventy-times-seven process rather than a neat bow that ties up a frayed relationship.
I found myself presented with an opportunity to ask it of one church leaders in a meeting I’d already scheduled with him about another far more mundane matter. He told me this practice was tied to the 100-year-old church’s history. In other words, they’d always done it that way. I was quite surprised when the pastor wholeheartedly agreed with my concerns and said our conversation was just the prompt he needed to talk the issue through with the rest of the staff. It had been bothering him, too. Change wouldn’t be easy, he said, but it was long overdue. I left the meeting hopeful about a positive way forward. I also recognized that it meant my husband and I couldn’t choose to head for the door. In this case, being a peacemaker meant affirming that the exit was barred for a time and we needed to stay in the room.
Some of us may be tempted to romanticize the way in which Jesus disrupted the status quo during His day. We cheer those accounts of His healings on Sabbath days, the times He dined with thieving tax collectors and other sinners, and the unvarnished way in which He spoke truth to those who seemed to hold the reins of power. But we often find ourselves unsettled by the idea of confrontation and conflict here and now. There are so many deep, ugly divisions today in both church and culture. It is easy to demonize those who aren’t like us, and we may choose to avoid conflict entirely as a result. That may buy us some temporary respite, but it is not the way of Jesus.
Jesus knew the religious status quo might have been comfortably familiar to those who cherished the boundaries of their particular social or spiritual tribe. But the divided world in both Jesus’ day and our own is not a reflection of the kingdom of God. Revelation 7:9-17 reminds us that our distinct familial and cultural identifiers will be still be distinguishable in heaven. And yet Scripture also highlights the reality that Jesus is returning to this world for a spotless Bride (2 Corinthians 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27; Revelation 19:7) –one single, unified Bride.
The divided world in both Jesus’ day and our own is not a reflection of the kingdom of God.
I’ve learned that those meetings in Jerusalem have continued, though not in the same form as when we attended a few years ago. A few key players have left the region, but I am heartened to hear there are other peacemakers continuing the disruptive pursuit of true biblical shalom among the believing Messianic Jewish and Palestinian Christian communities. Movement is slow, but people are endeavoring to maintain relationships.
Though I witnessed deep, intractable division in that room, I also observed something else. For a moment, amidst the raised voices and deep pain, I caught a glimpse of what the family reunion might look like when we are together with the Lord, who will wipe away every tear. I saw the bride making herself ready for her Groom, and she was beautiful.
Illustration by Adam Cruft