God of Peace
Conflict is Messy
We like our stories to have clear good guys and bad guys. In real life, though, there is often moral ambiguity when conflicts are involved. So for example, we like to think that the Allies were the good guys in World War II. While Hitler was undoubtedly evil, there were things our side did that were also evil (firebombing Japanese cities, using nuclear weapons, and teaming up with the Soviet Union come to mind).
We often also allow ourselves to think that war can bring peace. In reality, war usually leaves one side feeling unjustly punished, which sows the seeds of future conflicts. An example of this could be the province of Alsace in France. It started as a German-speaking province of the Holy Roman Empire (the predecessor of Modern Germany), but France, as a winner of the 30 years war, took it from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648. Angered by this, the Prussians, who were uniting Germany into a single country, took it back from France following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Anger in France at the loss contributed to the tensions between France and Germany that erupted in the First World War. In 1918 after that War, France took it back. And in World War II, Germany re-annexed it when France fell in 1940.
World War II is often seen as an example of how war can bring peace. I believe that it was not the war that allowed for a long period of relative peace, but the nature of the peace. The US, not wanting Western Europe or East Asia to fall under communist influence, treated their vanquished foes as friends, paying for their reconstruction. It was a more just peace, not a righteous war that led to cooperation.
Conflict with God
What happens when people get in conflict with God? If God has very high standards, must he punish sin? Does that leave us feeling wronged and likely to sin more? Before long there is a vicious circle of anger and recrimination. We might rightly ask if a holy God can be loving and if a loving God can be holy. But God shows us that his vision of justice isn’t about retribution against evildoers, but about restoring evil doers. God himself takes the initiative to reconcile with his errant children.
The Case of Saul of Tarsus (The Apostle Paul)
We see this impulse for reconciliation in God’s treatment of Saul of Tarsus (better known as the Apostle Paul). Describing his religious experience, he says, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison.” But God forgives Saul and sends him as his messenger to tell people about him. Reflecting on what God did in him at the end of his life, Paul tells his protege Timothy
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
This understanding of God’s work of reconciliation leads Paul to say:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
God reconciled with Saul while he was his enemy to show others just how gracious he could be. But he also entrusts Saul with the ministry of reconciliation. In Saul, we see how the reconciled become reconcilers. If you are a Christian, you have been reconciled to God, and God intends for you to become a minister of his reconciliation to others.
Being Ministers of Reconciliation
God wants us to be ambassadors of his reconciliation. Ambassadors represent the interests of those who send them. So, for example, if the Canadian government wants to communicate with the American government, they send their ambassador with the message. God’s interest is in reconciling, so he sends us to tell people that that’s what he wants. What does that look like practically?
Offering Personal Forgiveness
If an ambassador’s personal life contradicts the values of whoever sent them, they can’t be effective ambassadors. So for example, Microsoft hired Oprah Winfrey to be a brand ambassador for their Surface tablet (Microsoft’s competitor to the iPad). Oprah took to Twitter to tell everyone how much she loved her Surface Tablet, but the metadata from her Twitter feed clearly showed she sent the tweet from an iPad, not a Surface. More recently, Adidas severed ties with Kanye West when he made remarks disparaging Jewish people. They didn’t want to be seen as endorsing anti-semitism. As God’s ambassadors for peace, our representation of God loses credibility if we don’t practice what we preach. So telling people that God has forgiven them requires that we forgive people for what they’ve done to us. If we don’t, we undermine God’s message. God feels so strongly about this, that he conditions our receiving forgiveness, on our offering forgiveness.
Advocacy for Peace
God forgives us and commands us to love our enemies. This means that the Christian Church should be opposed to war (which is incompatible with loving our enemies). So the church must resist the allure of militarism. Calling for peace is easy to do when we are not directly involved in the conflict. So for example, it’s easy to call for peace in Israel/Gaza if we don’t directly know anyone involved in the fighting). But it’s much harder to stand for peace when our own people are a part of the conflict.
Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, many American pastors were caught up in the wave of patriotic anger that swept over the country. They started talking about how God was going to bring vengeance on those who carried out the attacks. While this response was understandable, it was not faithful (I’ve heard many pastors since repent of how they responded). The truth is that when our people feel threatened, we must put aside what feels emotionally satisfying (the quest for revenge) and instead embrace Jesus’ example of seeking peace.
This is even more important when it is the church that feels threatened. Christian populism has led many Christians to embrace demonization and dehumanization of their political enemies. Some have even engaged in political violence. When asked how this is permissible when Jesus tells us to love their enemies, they often rationalize the bad behavior by saying it’s because the church is under siege. But it is more important at these times, not less important, to respond with love and compassion. When the church is mistreated, the world watches to see if its response is faithful to Jesus’ command of enemy love. When we are attacked we have the greatest ability to show God’s power by responding with love. Paul puts this in practical terms when he says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Christians can’t just stand for peace when it’s easy. We must stand for peace when it is hard.
Creating a Culture of Respect Despite Difference
We also represent God’s peace by cultivating a church culture that teaches respect despite differences. I recently saw a social science paper that challenged conventional wisdom about why social media is polarizing. Most people have assumed that the algorithms show us content that confirms our biases, and so we just think that’s how everyone thinks. But the data suggest otherwise. What the study found was that people’s real-life relationships aren’t very diverse. And while we have disagreements with the people around us, we have real-world relationships that knit us together, so we don’t hate each other. On social media, however, we encounter all sorts of views that seem alien to us. These anger and outrage us (because they reflect a different set of values) which leads us to seek group identity with people who agree with us. The important part I take away from this is that cultivating a relationship with people who are very different is really hard work. But this is what the church is supposed to be. The good news is supposed to go to people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.
We often fall for the temptation to think of the church as ‘real Christians’ (who believe the same things we do on the issues we think are most important) and ‘not-real Christians’ who disagree. Our disagreements might be over issues of doctrine and biblical interpretation (like the role of women in the church, LGBTQ inclusion, and the function of spiritual gifts) or they may be on political issues that have very little, if any direct connection to the life of faith (issues like how much regulation the government should pass, or what the appropriate tax rates should be).
But Jesus calls us to extraordinary unity, praying that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” The church is supposed to be unified in the same way that Jesus and the Father are unified. This can’t happen when we insist that the only true Christians are the ones who agree with me. Unity also can’t be achieved by forcing everyone to agree with me and my values (that is domination, not unity). So we need to come up with a way of cultivating a sense of shared identity despite our differences. The church needs to be welcoming to progressive Dutch Christians, charismatic Nigerians, conservative Baptists, the Amish, and Indian Roman Catholics. The differences are significant, but making them an obstacle to unity is a choice. We can fall victim to the temptation of getting into theological fights. We tell ourselves it’s so that they know the truth, but it’s really that we want to be seen to be right. Instead, we must live with the disagreements and even hold our deeply-held views with enough humility to acknowledge we might be wrong.
If we can transcend our differences, we become a sign of God’s reconciling work. After all, if God can knit a large and diverse community of people together into a unified family that loves and cares for each other, people might come to understand that God knows a thing or two about reconciliation.
God has every right to treat us as enemies, but instead, he has made peace with us through Jesus. If we’re among those who have been reconciled to God, we’re also invited to spread the word about God’s invitation to peace with everyone else: we become ambassadors of God’s peace. To do this, we must forgive our enemies, advocate for peace, and work to make the church an inclusive and unified place.
When those outside the church see our life together, what values do they see us represent: Self-righteousness, anger, and judgmentalism, or peace, love, and reconciliation? God wants our lives to community the same appeal as Paul’s did: “Be reconciled to God.”