Peace, Not as the World Gives by C.B. Peter
C.B. Peter is Senior lecturer in Old Testament Studies at Saint Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya. He reflects here on Biblical Models for Conflict Resolution.
The much lamented contemporary ideological rift within the Anglican Communion is much too small compared to the greater rifts in the universal church of Christ and the continual remapping of the contemporary political and economic world, characterized by newer re-groupings of nations. The rift would look even smaller if viewed on a historical scale. Adam and Eve, by their first blame-game in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:11-13), inaugurated the gender rift forever. Cain and Abel became the protagonists of the hideous drama of mutual extermination of shepherds by farmers and vice versa throughout the history of Israel, the history of colonialism in two-thirds of the world’s continents, the never-stopping bloodbaths in the Middle East, and the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008. All religions of the world have always stood divided along sectarian lines, and Christianity is no exception.
In the Anglican scenario, both those who fell out of the Communion and those who remained in committed the same error—not listening to one other. And if indeed they did listen, perhaps their system of encoding their message to the other side, or decoding the message from the other side was so subjective that they went on seeing damnation and hellfire in the other camp, thus drifting farther and farther from one another and widening the rift. Against such a scenario the listening initiative launched by the Indaba project is a very welcome step. In the present paper I have attempted to explore and highlight seven of the Biblical models for conflict resolution.
“As it was in the beginning…”
The Wider-Context Model
Any conflict, viewed on its own and divorced from all historical and cosmic perspectives, begins to look much larger than it really is, and causes greater despair and desperation than due. We begin to succumb to a state of “shock and disbelief.” Such succumbing may intensify our desire to fight back for self-preservation, thus accelerating conflict. The contemporary division in the Anglican Communion seems to be characterized by such a spirit of shock on both sides of the divide. They seem to be fighting back and forth in a crusade that they imagine is the first of its kind, and perhaps mark the end of the world. On the other hand, when a conflict is viewed in a wider historical context then it starts looking smaller and smaller, fostering a feeling of greater relaxation thereby giving us better opportunities at resolution. Thus the first model for conflict-resolution that the Bible repeatedly offers is what I call the “Wider-Context Model.”
The Bible mentions such a “wider-context” model of conflict resolution in several instances. We may consider certain paradigmatic texts from both Testaments. Jeremiah 26 records the infamous trial of the prophet. The prophet preached his “Temple Sermon”
at the height of the Jewish political crisis caused by the obviously imminent Babylonian overrun. People had expected Jeremiah to preach hope and solace, but were instead told to brace for even tougher times since the LORD was going to make “this house [the Temple of Jerusalem] like Shiloh and this city [Jerusalem] an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth” (Jer. 26:6). This incensed the bigwigs of Judah so much that they recommended the death sentence for Jeremiah. At this point some elders came forward and recommended to reexamine the crisis in a wider historical context arguing that it was NOT indeed the first time that such a thing had happened. Said they:
Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah. “This is what the LORD Almighty says,
Zion will be ploughed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
The temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else put him to death? … Now Uriah the son of Shemaiah from Kiriath Jearim was another man who prophesied in the name of the LORD; he prophesied the same things against this city and this land as Jeremiah did…
The point of the elders’ approach in their argument seems to be that a crisis situation should be seen within a wider historical context and it will no longer look as big as it looks now. A similar approach may be noted in the speech of Gamaliel at the trial of the Apostles. He also appealed to history and urged the prosecutors to take a wider look at the crisis caused by the Apostles.
Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claimed to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and he came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 5:35-40)
A more magnificent version of the “wider-context” model is found in Yahweh’s speech in the Book of Job (chs. 38-41). By asking the rhetorical questions “Where were you?” and “Do you know?” the LORD is reminding Job that his apparently mammoth problem of the present is actually less than atomic on a grand cosmic scale.
Jesus incorporated the element of the future to help the weeping women of Jerusalem see their present crisis in a wider context. The Way of the Cross is actually the beginning of a far more agonizing journey into a bleak future of death and mayhem. Thinking about the future can help reduce the horrors of the present. Jesus said:
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you say, “Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then, “They will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us! and to the hills, Cover us!’ For when men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Lk. 23:28-31)
The Self-Criticism of the Prophets
The Radical Model
A major reason for the conflict is each side believing that they alone are right. This self-righteous approach characterizes the contemporary battle in the Anglican Communion over such a delicate matter as human sexuality. If each side could only take a break from the incessant drums of war and give the other a concession—“What if we are wrong?”—it could suddenly open up hitherto unrecognized avenues leading to possibilities of resolution. The prophets in the Old Testament took this approach even at great peril to their own life. The people of Israel had always held onto certain given absolutes—election by God, the Promised Land of Canaan, being beneficiaries of God’s Covenant, the immortal institutions of the Law, the Monarchy, and the Temple of Jerusalem. The Israelites’ faith in their own invincibility set them on a collision course with the rest of the world.
However, the prophets in the Old Testament boldly preached a radical message of self-criticism. According to this radical prophetic message nothing could be taken for granted. God was going to punish Israel for their self-confidence. The Israelites would lose the Promised Land and end up where their ancestors came from—Babylon, and this time round they would end up as slaves! The Temple of Jerusalem would share the same fate as that of the first shrine at Shiloh (which had been razed to the ground by the Philistines long ago, I Sam. 4-7).
Obviously, such a message of doom did little to comfort the troubled Israelites and they predictably prosecuted the prophets. But it achieved a great deal in normalizing international relations to some degree, as is evident from the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Indeed, the concession that God could be on the side of our opponents instead of ours, can help a great deal to tone down some of our over-confidence and open our ears and hearts to listen to God through hearing the story of the other side.
Heathen Heroes and Gentile Role Models
The Extrovert Model
Closely related to what I have submitted above is the stereotype perception that all good people are always on our side and all bad people are always on the other side. Such a perception only helps to add fuel to the fire of conflict.
The Bible, however, offers a radical possibility that many times, the case could be the other way round. We learn this from the infamous story of David and Bathsheba (II Sam. 11). In that story the pagan (Hittite) Uriah emerges as the hero and role-model, whereas David, the anointed (messianic) king of God, emerges as the lustful and murderous villain. Uriah is not just a stray instance in the Bible to support my thesis. In the Patriarchal sagas we find the good guy Jacob emerges as the conman villain whereas the outsider, Esau, emerges as the innocent victim. Right toward the end of Israelite history, the pagan king Cyrus of Persia (now Iran, supposedly the bad guy to many Christians) is hailed as the “Anointed” (Christ) of Yahweh (Is. 45:1).
Of the four women listed among the human ancestors of Jesus (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, cf. Mt. 1:3,5,6), at least three—Tamar, Rahab and Ruth—were gentiles. Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, was a simple Canaanite peasant girl who at least once (perhaps for the first and the last time in her life) posed as a prostitute and convinced her unsuspecting father-in-law to give her children. She committed this apparently blatant sexual outrage not because she was burning with lust, but because she was earnestly concerned about the perpetuity of her father-in-law’s lineage. And indeed, for her noble motives Judah declared, “She is more righteous than I.” (Gen. 38:26). Rahab was a Canaanite sex worker, and Ruth hailed from the Tribe of Moab whose ethnology was traceable to the most abominable incest between father and daughters (Gen. 19: 36-38, Dt. 23:3). Bathsheba, the only apparently Israelite woman, had been earlier married to the Hittite Uriah before she was stolen by the good guy David.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan the hero, according to Jesus, emerges from the hated tribe of the Samaritans, whereas the good guys—the priest and the Levite—are dismissed as uncaring villains (Lk. 10:25-37). And when it comes to faith-heroes, according to the gospel records Jesus publicly commended the faith of two individuals, and BOTH were heathens. To the Syro-Phoenician woman hailing from the tribe of Jezebel’s infamy, Jesus declared: “Woman, you have great faith” (Mt. 15:28). In the case of the Roman centurion Jesus surpassed all praises that he would ever bestow on any human being, “I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (Lk. 7:9). If only both sides in conflict could look for heroes on the other side, among those apparently wrong, among the most hated and the most abominable, it would bring in a new impetus for conflict resolution.
“Turning neither to the right nor to the left…”
The Moderation Model
One major determinant of the contemporary conflict situation is the “right versus left” ideological alienation of Christians. Each camp is almost equally guilty of perpetuating this alienation by blocking their ears from listening to the other side. The rightists think that they are naturally right and the leftists think that they too are right. And so the ideological alienation goes on unabated.
But the ideological history of the previous century has witnessed that neither the right nor the left could redeem the world. Whether it was the rightist Nazi Party in Germany, or the leftist Communist party in Russia, they BOTH were equally guilty of shedding innocent human blood and wreaking havoc on earth.
Even in the present times, especially in the context of Anglican ideological alienation, while it is not difficult to blame the leftist radicals for all the Church’s woes, the self-righteous rightists cannot wholly escape responsibility. How can they, when it was their forefathers—the self-righteous scribes and the Pharisees in the New Testament—who crucified Jesus? And before he gave his life on the crossroads of right and left, Jesus bewailed the cold, ex-cathedra parochialism of the hypocritical self-righteous rightists of his time and prophesied that such would account for the blood of all the righteous innocent—from Abel to Zechariah (Mt. 23:35-36). “Abel to Zechariah” here is not meant to be merely the A-Z catalogue of all innocent victims of religious jihads through the historical time of Jesus, but all innocent human blood shed anywhere in the world, even now, in the name of God, whether by Christians, Muslims, or adherents of any religion, for that matter.
In such a scenario the biblical model of moderation provides the much needed sense of succour, solace, and sobriety. Perhaps the best single biblical source to study moderation is the Book of Ecclesiastes, which I have considered elsewhere.
A paradigmatic text from that book could be Eccl. 7:16:
Do not be overly righteous,
Nor be overly wise:
Why should you destroy yourself?
Do not be overly wicked,
Nor be foolish:
Why should you die before your time?
In another piece I have summarized the biblical concept of moderation in the following broad strokes:
None of the existing theological camps can boast of possessing and containing the whole of God, for He is too great, too big for any single of them! This perhaps was the mistake that Joshua of old made when he asked the Commander of the LORD’s army in the battlefield: “Are you on our side or the side of our enemies?” (Josh. 5:13). The Commander of the LORD’s army, instead of telling Joshua on whose side he is, gives a cryptic answer, “No.” (Josh. 5:14). The Christians’ God is too great a God to take sides (Acts 10:34). The Preacher of Old preached this holism in terms of his doctrine of moderation (Eccl. 7:16, etc). And finally, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ presented this holistic vision in his pregnant admonition of the pharisaic exclusivism in the following words, “These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23).
Metaphorically speaking, nothing helps to resolve the “right versus left” debate through the moderation model any better than the biblical cows who just went straight on the highway, turning neither to the right nor to the left (I Sam. 12:6).
The Borrowed God of the Bible
The Universalism-3 Model
The term “borrowed God” may sound somewhat sacrilegious since it tends to objectify God. But then is not all theology an attempt at objectifying God? Can we not say that God is the subject of the Bible, but the object of theology?
I will point out here that another main reason for theological conflict is often the belief in a sort of fixed stereotypical theology that identifies the certain chosen God with a certain chosen people. A belief of this type may be characterized by such terms as “our God,” “The God of the Bible,” “the Christian’s God,” “the Lord of the Church,” and so on. Such a theology only helps to alienate the warring groups more and more since each believes, “God is our God, and he does (or does not) want us to behave in this way or that way.”
But whose God is “our” God, for Pete’s sake? And indeed whose EXACTLY is the God of the Bible. As much as the historical critical method of the 19th century may have outlived its usefulness in our times, at least it has taught us something that is worth our consideration. We have been taught that ancient Israelites knew and adored their God by two names—Elohim and Yahweh. None of these were original Jewish deities. El was the Canaanite high-god and Yahweh was originally a Midianaite deity. Twentieth century scholars of the Old Testament (e.g., Gerhard von Rad and Albrecht Alt, among others) have argued that the “Elohim-Yahweh” type of the Jewish theology of God took shape as a result of centuries of socio-spiritual interactions between ancient Israelites and other peoples.
This means that a lot of contemporary theological squabbles may be traced to a deliberate process of classifying God, and what we need is a process of de-classifying him. By “classifying God” I mean identifying God with a certain class or sect. “De-classifying God” would be the opposite process, believing that God does NOT belong to this group or that, but all belong to him, a spiritual sentiment expressed in the opening line of the Kenyan National Anthem, “O God of all creation…” [Italics mine]
The Old Testament is clear about such a de-classified theology of God. The doctrine of election implies that God chose Israel not to show any sectarian favour on any “chosen” race, for Israel actually never deserved such an election (Deut. 7:7). But God chose Israel to be a source of blessing and a light to all nations (Gen. 12:3; Is. 49:6). While in our ideological battles we might regard certain groups as our friends and others as our enemies, in biblical realism all groups—even our perceived opponents—play an important role in God’s plan and thus serve his magnificent cosmic purposes. Thus Isaiah taught that the enemy Assyria was indeed the “rod of God’s anger” to chastise God’s chosen Israel (Is. 10:5),
and the pagan king Cyrus was hailed as God’s “Christ” (Is. 45:1). The Psalmist has twice stated, in ditto terms, that both we as well as our opponents, we all belong to God:
Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine;
Ephraim is my helmet,
Judah my sceptre.
Moab is my washbasin,
Upon Edom I toss my sandal;
Over Philistia I shout in triumph.
(Ps. 60:8; 108:9)
Such a grand vision of God can help all parties in conflict to realize their common belonging to the one and the same God and thus help in conflict resolution. I call this model the “Universalism-3 Model.”
“If I perish, I perish.”
The Self-Sacrifice Model
Yet another cause of conflict within the Anglican Communion is the identity crisis of both sides and a desperate desire for self-preservation. People often say, “We as true Anglicans (or true Christians, for that matter), should never identify with such and such groups.” Thus Christians contribute to the ongoing ideological debate either motivated by the desire to preserve their identity or, conversely, by the fear of losing it.
However our worst fears for losing our identity could be allayed if we took into account the biblical position that for Christians, faith actually does not entail the fight for preserving certain identity, but in fact losing it for greater good. This indeed is the position that Esther and Daniel and the prophets of the Old Testament took. This indeed was what Ruth had in mind when she declared to Naomi (the other side), “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:17). Because she stepped forward to lose her identity, God rewarded Ruth in preserving her identity forever as one of the earthly great-grandmothers of our Lord. Indeed, our Lord himself taught us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt. 5:13, 14). Salt cannot perform its cardinal function (that of flavouring the food) if it retains its own identity as a lump somewhere in the pot. Similarly, light cannot enlighten the world if it is not diffused everywhere making all things visible, while it remains invisible.
St. Paul, in I Corinthian 15, has used the analogy of the seed to illustrate his great message of the resurrection of the body. There can be no further life if the seed decides to live on just to preserve its own identity. But just because the seed dies and disappears, it brings forth life sixty-fold and a hundredfold (Mt. 13:8). Thus the biblical model of self-sacrifice opens up new vistas of faith for both sides in conflict by encouraging each to lose its own identity for the greater good and everyone’s reconciliation in God through Christ (II Co 5: 18).
“In a glass darkly”
The Process Hermeneutic Model
Finally, I present the seventh biblical model for conflict resolution, namely, the process hermeneutic. It would appear that the most telling cause of ideological conflict is a passionate appeal by both the warring camps, to the authority of the Bible. One camp chimes, “The Bible says…” The other camp roars back, “But the Bible also says…” And the battle rages on.
What we hardly pause to consider is the common assumption in each camp that it alone understands what the Bible means by what it says. The Bible does not contradict itself, but because we want to contradict one another to win our ideological battles, we choose to devise contradicting interpretations of the Biblical witness. George Bernard Shaw said, “No one thinks that the Bible means what it says; everyone thinks that the Bible says what he means.”
Thus it would mean that the current ideological battle in the Anglican Church (and in the world religious scenario at large) is not a battle between a sincere or insincere commitment to faith; it actually is a hermeneutical battle.
In such a scenario the model of process hermeneutic can be of help. Such a model of biblical interpretation allows for inclusion and dynamism in the process of meaning-finding and it offers a forward-looking perspective. I do not intend to discuss process hermeneutics here,
but in essence what the process theologians (Whitehead, Cobb, Pittenger, Hartshorne, among others) are saying is simply that meaning-finding in biblical narrative is a lifelong journey of ever-unfolding exciting new adventures of perception. Therefore, it is not worthwhile to continue fighting on the assumption that the way we interpret the Bible now is the only and final interpretation.
In his Great Hymn of Love (I Cor. 13), St. Paul has presented a process perspective. Because our love is always incomplete, our knowledge will always remain incomplete (I Cor. 13: 9-12). We cannot be sure that either side across the great divide can claim to be perfect in love. How then can they claim to be perfect in knowledge? And if they are not yet perfect in knowledge, then how can they claim that they know correctly what the Bible means by what it says? And if they cannot know correctly what the Bible means by what it says, then the best course is to call for a ceasefire until both sides gain perfect knowledge; and perfect love is the best path to perfect knowledge.
The prophets in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New repeatedly told the people that they had never understood the Law of the LORD.
The disciples of Jesus never understood Jesus (cf. Mk. 8:21, Lk. 24:25-26). St. Paul lamented that the Judaizers never understood true Christianity.
The Psalmist came to experience God through a life-long journey of joy and pain.
In his grand revelation, Yahweh demonstrated to Job that Job had never understood theology (Job 42:2-6). How then can either side in battle claim that they understand God’s purposes any better than did the ancient Israelites, or the disciples of Jesus, or Job, or St. Paul himself who had the courage and humility to admit, “Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (I Cor. 13:12).
I have explored and discussed seven biblical models for conflict resolution. These models are: wider-context, radical, extrovert, moderation, universalism-3, self-sacrifice, and process hermeneutic. The essence of my entire argument may be distilled in just one question: Is the Crusade worth it? Indeed not all my readers would agree with my interpretation of the scriptural texts cited in the present paper. On what grounds would I agree with their interpretations? Process hermeneutic teaches us to hold our horses because reaching an absolute and universalistic understanding of the scripture may require more than a lifetime.
1 As characterized by the GAFCON versus Lambeth conferences in 2008. See, for example, the article “The Anglican Church is Divided but Not Fatally.” Daily Telegraph 19 June 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/telegraph-view/3559653/The-Anglican-Church-is-divided but-not-fatally.html accessed 5 October 2009. See also http://wangnews.com/files/windsor7.pdf accessed 20 September 2009. Also Andrew Atherstone, “The Incoherence of the Anglican Communion” (http://www.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_118_3_Atherstone.pdf, accessed 22 September 2009). It is, however, outside the scope of this paper to trace the history of the rift itself.
2 Arnold J. Toynbee has summarized the worldwide agro-nomadic conflict in his A Study of History, Vol III (Cambridge, 1934), 19-21.
3If I may use the premises of semiotic approach to language, as propounded by Roland Barthes Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Peirce, Christian Metz and others, for example see, “Semiotics” in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics accessed 20 September 2009
4 For an interesting comparison between Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount see Todd M. Compton, “The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon the Mount,” FARMS Review, vol. 3, issue 1: 319-22.
http://www.farmsnewsite.farmsresearch.com/publications/review/?vol=3&num=1&id=75 accessed 15 September 2009.
5Fr. Thomas Rosica in a recent article, “The Importance of Self Criticism and Humility” has articulately dealt with this theme. http://www.zenit.org/article-26945?l=english accessed 1 October 2009.
6Ernest Partridge in chapter three entitled “Right vs Left: The Elements” of his Conscience of a Progressive (2007) has analyzed the major elements of the rightist and the leftist ideologies. ttp://gadfly.igc.org/progressive/elements.htm accessed 20 September 2009. For a historical perspective see David Snoke, The Christian Right and the Christian Left—A Political History (2003) http://www.cityreformed.org/snoke/leftright.pdf accessed 30 September 2009.
7C. B. Peter, “In Defense of Existence: A Comparison between Ecclesiastes and Albert Camus.” Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. xii No. 1 (1980): 26-44.
8C. B. Peter, “Theological Polarization and Biblical Synthesis.” AFER, Vol. 35, No. 5 (October 1993): 297.
9 I have devoted a chapter on that topic in my forthcoming book “Weakness of God.”
10See for example International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, E-J, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 928. See also Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol 7, ed. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 253. Also Albert C. Winn in Chapter Four entitled “Yahweh: Warrior God” of his Ain’t Gonna War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War (Westminister: John Knox Press, 1993) has discussed this point. Available at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=3270&C=2717 accessed 30 September 2009. See also “The True Name of God” at http://personalpages.tds.net/~theseeker/Yahweh.htm accessed 5 October 2009.
11But just so that Assyria should not start boasting of such a grim office, the LORD finds the appointment woeful.
12I have opted to call this model “universalism-3” so as to distinguish it from the William Barclay’s type of cosmological universalism (William Barclay, “I am a Convinced Universalist” http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/barclay1.html accessed 2 October 2009) and N. T. Wright’s type of Christological Universalism (N. T. Wright, “Towards a Biblical View of Universalism” (http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/4.2_Wright.pdf accessed 20 September 2009). Universailsim-3 is more of a theological type of universalism.
13We learn from optical physics that like any other energy, light too is invisible. See, for example http://www2b.abc.net.au/science/k2/stn/archives/archive70/newposts/836/topic836439.shtm accessed 12 October 2009. Also http://www.spectrummagazine.org/articles/column/2009/08/21/what%E2%80%99s_cost_soul accessed 10 October 2009.
14Another version of this quotation is “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.” See http://thinkexist.com/quotation/no_man_ever_believes_that_the_bible_means_what_it/169760.html, accessed 12 October 2009.
15See, for example, David J. Lull, “What is ‘Process Hermeneutics’?” Process Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 1983): 189-201. A comprehensive bibliography on process hermeneutics is listed on http://processthought.info/publications/Biblio/Thematic/Hermeneutics.html, accessed 12 October 2009.
16E.g., the prophets’ critique of the cult and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his debates with Jewish clergy legal experts
17As perhaps is the case in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.
18Cf. the psalms of individual and communal thanksgiving and psalms of individual and communal lament