By Jesse Wheeler
One reason, among many, I love working at IMES is its heartfelt commitment to peacebuilding and peace education. Yet, in the course of our work, we have often encountered opposition with regard to the task of building peace and its relevance for Christian life and service. As an evangelical organization, “Why,” we are asked, “focus on peace?”
“Is not the primary task of believers to make disciples?
To preach the Gospel?
To know Christ and make Him known?”
To which my response is: “Yes, absolutely!”
“Should not such tasks be left to international bodies like the United Nations or secular NGOs?”
“Not entirely, no.”
Questions like this can be asked in such a way as to seemingly challenge our evangelical credentials, yet I in no way intend to disparage such questions. They are supremely important in serving to remind the church to never lose sight of its first calling and first love: Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, the manner in which such questions are asked often highlights an incomplete, if not necessarily inaccurate, understanding of mission of the church in the world – on the part of BOTH evangelicals AND peace advocates. In this series of two of posts, I therefore wish to explore the following questions:
- What, if anything, does religion have to do with peace?
And it’s corollary:
- What, if anything, does peace have to do with the Gospel?
So to begin, what in the world does religion have to do with peace?
Religion, especially as it pertains to the modern Middle East, has long been accused of being a primary cause for regional and global conflict. A simple look at the contemporary landscape of conflict in the region lends credence to this belief. One readily observes a proliferation of religiously tinged conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, and elsewhere – along with instances of sectarian militias, religious radicalism, apocalyptic millenarianism, and ethnic, or one might say ‘confessional’, cleansing.
In response to religious violence, popular wisdom from the West has been to regard religion as passé and advocate for the elimination of religion and religious expression from public life for the sake of national and international accord. This instinct runs deep in Western, post-enlightenment thinking. Emerging from the bloody chaos of the confessionally-driven 30 Year War, it was René Descartes who intentionally sought to revolutionize humankind’s epistemological foundations for being by eliminating any reference to religious or communal belonging when he so famously declared: “I think, therefore I am.” Upon this universalist statement is built the entirety of the modern secular project and, as such, the internationalist institutions to which it has given birth. As Miroslav Volf explains:
The modern trust in abstract, universal, and timeless reason was a response to social chaos created by particular [confessional] loyalties. [T]he rational method as an antidote to violence was part and parcel of the Enlightenment’s optimistic vision as a story of humanity emerging … into peaceful social civility.
Such thinking has dramatically shaped the manner by which diplomacy is perceived and peacebuilding undertaken, as well as the evangelical movement and subsequent global evangelical conversation.
The result has been an unfortunate reductionism with regard to the perceived role of religion in public life, overstating its role as a source of conflict and ignoring its potential role as a catalyst for peace. It is supremely important, therefore, to point out that “rarely is conflict between two religious groups simply a matter of theological difference or religious misunderstanding” and this is especially so in the MENA region. The oft-repeated popular notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply the continuation of a millennia long struggle between the children of Abraham is to fundamentally ignore key drivers of a very modern conflict. To describe the ‘new cold war’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran as simply another episode in the centuries long Sunni-Shia divide would be to glibly dismiss the very legitimate political-economic factors and socio-cultural dynamics currently at play.
And yet, traditional diplomatic efforts have largely proven ineffective. One can legitimately challenge the authenticity of the motives of the various actors involved in the diplomatic process, but to say that religion has no role to play in perpetuating conflict would also be problematic. Referencing the Israel-Palestine peace process in their book Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East, Muhammad Abu-Nimer, Amal Khoury, and Emily Welty state that:
There is an apparent secularization of the peace process. The religious aspects of the process – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – have been ignored by politicians and decision makers in all formal and informal negotiations. [B]y failing to integrate the religious dimensions of the conflict, these political agreements and processes have alienated significant segments of both Palestinian and Israeli societies.
As such, failure to understand the socio-political makeup of Middle Eastern society and the central role religion plays within that society in transmitting historical narratives, shaping worldviews, motivating behaviors and in defining the relationship between oneself and one’s wider society, is bound to result in a largely ineffectual peace process. Marc Gopin, also in reference to Israel-Palestine, writes:
The role of religion in perpetuating the principal conflict hardly needs delineation. [B]ut even more lies below the surface, much more that needs to be exposed. It is essential, therefore, as an outgrowth of such analysis, to integrate the relevant cultural values of these people into a deepened peacemaking process. This has not been attempted until now by most scholars of conflict, conflict resolution activists, or diplomats, and as a result the peace process has barely penetrated the moral consciousness of either side.
Religion, while it may not necessarily be the cause for a specific conflict, can certainly play a crucial role in shaping the course of a conflict – if in different ways than initially thought. For a variety of historical and sociological factors, “identity” within Middle Eastern cultures is profoundly religious and, according to missiologist Jens Barnett:
Identity is closely related to narrative thinking. My identity—including all my relationships—is constructed in the present as I selectively recollect and appropriate experiences from my past. Not only does this narrated montage of memories tell me who I am and who is important to me, but by stringing these events together to form a coherent story, it also fills my life with meaning and purpose.
This sense of purpose shapes my values, goals and future choices. By projecting my story forward into the future, I know what I should do next. As I stay true to this idealistic narrative, my decisions grow into habits, and eventually take on a permanence that I and others begin to recognize as typically “me.”
More often than not, one’s identity, one’s sense of self, purpose and meaning, is embedded within a deeply religious narrative and embodied within a specific community of faith attached to a particular location. This naturally encompasses the political. In Lebanon, for example, topographical segregation and a confessionally based education system have resulted in the absence of a singular “national unifying collective memory. Each community has its own, which obstructs the creation of one common history,” and therefore identity. In Egypt, too, researchers “often found competing narratives about the reality of life in Egypt today” and “it became clear … that sectarian feelings predominate and supersede those of national unity.” Even in Jordan, “while Christians as a group were not singled out as ‘other’ … [t]he fact that the majority of the Christian population in Jordan happens to be Palestinian seems to be of consequence.”
What often results in the MENA is a situation whereby identities and worldviews, more than just individuals and communities, come into conflict. In the words of Abu-Nimer, et al.:
The Middle East… is deeply affected by religious identities and meanings, and its conflicts require reconciliation processes that recognize that religiousness. A comprehensive peace based solely on secular values, actors and frameworks will not be sustainable; peace must involve the religious believers and resonate with their faith.
Essentially, the central place of religion in the MENA region can be instrumental in the exacerbation and perpetuation of conflict, as well as in its mitigation and resolution. And, to promote peace by means of secularization is to in many ways challenge the very identity and worldview of those engaged in conflict, with the very real possibility of doing more harm than good. (This situation is only compounded when we remember that such secularization had for the most part been violently thrust upon the MENA region at the edge of the colonial bayonet and later under the steal-toed boot of the post-colonial dictator.) What, then, does religion have to do with peace? In this part of the world: everything.
Please return next week for Part 2, wherein I explore the question: What does peace have to do with the Gospel?
 Muhammad Abu-Nimer, Amal Khoury, and Emily Welty, Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 2007) 7
 See Brad J. Kallenberg, “The Master Argument of MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue'” in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics after MacIntyre, ed. Nancey Murphy, Brad J. Kallenberg, and Mark Thiessen Nation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003)
 I recognized that this is oversimplified.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996) 278-279
 See Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (New York: Trinity Press International, 2007)
Abu-Nimer, Khoury and Welty, Unity, 21
 Many great, as well as troublesome, histories exist of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, I would be remiss to not recommend Colin Chapman’s Who’s Promise Land? The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2015). Chapman currently serves as Lead Faculty for MENA Islam in IMES’ Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program.
 Numerous sources have begun in recent years to speak of a “Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For example: Curtis Ryan, “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria,” Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012)
 Abu-Nimer, Khoury, and Welty, Unity, 45
 Marc Gopin, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 6
 Jens Barnett, “Narrative, Identity and Discipleship” in Musafir: A Bulletin of Intercultural Studies 3:2 (Dec 2009) 3-5.
 Abu-Nimer, Khoury, Welty, Unity, 101
 Ibid., 141.
 Ibid., 148.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 9-10.
 Gopin, Holy, 7-8
I highly recommend Eugene Rogan, The Arabs: A History (New York: Basic Books, 2009)