Gushee, David (ed.), 2013, Evangelical Peacemakers: Gospel engagement in a war-torn world

Peacemakers-CoverGushee, David (ed.), 2013, Evangelical Peacemakers: Gospel engagement in a war-torn world,  Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 150pp, £12, pb

Synopsis

This volume, edited by Dr David Gushee, Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia, USA, is a collection of papers presented at the ‘Summit on Christian Moral Responsibility in the Twenty-first Century’ sponsored by Evangelicals for Peace and held at Georgetown University on September 14, 2012.  It is indicative of a renewed interest in peacemaking amongst evangelical Christians especially in the USA and has particular relevance to Christian-Muslim relations.

Reviewer

Dr Richard McCallum

Fellow, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

REVIEW

Pacifism and peacemaking have historically been associated with ‘peace churches’ such as the Quakers, Mennonites and Christian Brethren.  The engagement of large numbers of evangelicals in ‘just peacemaking’ – especially in the Muslim context – is a relatively new phenomenon in the post-9/11 period.  This volume provides an excellent introduction to some of the important voices and initiatives which are emerging.  However, it also highlights a general lack of thoughtful political theology on the part of many evangelical churches and Christians.  How should the church and individual Christians relate to the state?  How should a political leader who is a practising Christian behave in office?  What is a proper response to violence particularly in the form of religious terrorism?  These are questions which the whole church needs to wrestle with afresh.

There are an increasing number of books on such topics written from many different perspectives.  One recent book from a Christian scholar defending the just war tradition is Nigel Biggar’s In defence of War.

Evangelical Peacemakers would benefit from hearing other evangelical voices.  How would those who tend to demonise Islam and see it as a significant threat respond to the authors?  Perhaps such a dialogue needs to take place at a future summit with serious theological and academic reflection on both sides.  It would also be interesting to hear the responses of Muslims to such evangelical initiatives, outside of the heartening anecdotes recounted.  Recent books on Islam and nonviolence by Muslim authors include Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam, Islam and Non-violence (x2) and Unity in Diversity.

Whilst there is much to learn from these mainly American contributions, if there is to be a widespread engagement of evangelicals in peacemaking with Muslims, then other voices need to be heard…

Furthermore it would be good to see the discussion extend outside of the American context.  The USA has a particular religious makeup and evangelicalism there has tended to be extremely patriotic and supportive of government foreign policy.  Whilst there is much to learn from these mainly American contributions, if there is to be a widespread engagement of evangelicals in peacemaking with Muslims, then other voices need to be heard – especially from the non-western world (with Sami Awad’s paper being an excellent example) where such initiatives often carry a higher price tag and have greater consequences as the sobering story of Shabhaz Bhatti demonstrates.

For most readers, however, the challenge of this book will be ‘what does the Lord require of me?’  If we are to ‘act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly’with our God (Micah 6:8), then what role does ‘just peacemaking’ play both for Christians approaching Muslims and for Muslims approaching Christians?  How should we as individuals, churches, mosques and organizations respond?

SUMMARY

The summit was convened by Rick Love, founder of Peace Catalysts International[1] and a self-confessed former missionary to Muslims.  In his chapter Love highlights the problems that some evangelical Christians have moving beyond a ‘narrow understanding of the gospel’ as evangelization to appreciate that peacemaking is not just for liberals (106).  He believes that Christians can be ‘truly evangelical’ and ‘truly peacemakers’ at the same time without peacemaking becoming a strategic tool for evangelism: ‘peacemaking has great value in and of itself’ (107) – a theme that underpins the approaches of all the contributors.  This is significant because as Gushee points out ‘evangelicalism is arguably the most vibrant sector of global Christianity’ (111) with both positive and negative consequences.  On the positive side a commitment to the example of Jesus and the presentation of stories of bridge building, solidarity and partnership suggest hope for evangelical relations with Muslims.  On the negative side a lack of depth in political theology, an over-patriotic attachment to the state (on the part of some) in the USA and a fear of Islam (again for some) highlight potential future pitfalls.

The book is set against the backdrop of concern over increasing US involvement in wars and mushrooming military spending in spite of the financial crisis.  Indeed American military spending is now twice as high as it was in real terms during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.  Gushee describes the three classical approaches to war taken by Christians in different eras: crusade, pacifism and just war.  Other authors later develop these ideas further.  However, reflecting after the summit, Gushee appeals for a sharp distinction to be drawn between ‘an ethic for Christian disciples and an ethic for the leaders of nations’ (5).  Whilst the church is to be nonviolent, for him, this cannot be the position of the state.

Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners expands on the pacifist tradition.  Since 9/11 mass shootings in the USA have been on the increase and she suggests this is a result of the US responding to terrorism with a ‘paradigm of war’ (12).  War only ‘transforms the principled into perpetrators’ (13).  All nations and all peoples are affected by the Fall (that is the inherent sinfulness of mankind) and so what is needed is not violence but redemption. ‘Jesus did not fight because Jesus believed in redemption’ (11).  Christians today should also be concerned with redemption and so ‘we must do everything within our power to find another way’ to violence and war (13).

However, according to Eric Patterson, violence is sometimes necessary.  As Dean of the School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA he rehearses the traditional criteria for a just war as developed by Augustine and Aquinas stressing that these principles are grounded in love of neighbour and the necessity of political order for the common good.  Whilst he condemns ‘holy warriors’ he is also critical of ‘radical pacifists in evangelical churches’ who he sees as being ‘naïve’ (20).  After calling on Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis amongst others for support he concludes that ‘the best way to operationalize neighbor-love in the real world of limits, fallenness, and evil is by employing the moral reasoning provided by just war theory’ to defend the innocent (23).

Glen Stassen, an ethicist at the Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, does not disagree but is adamant that all other avenues should first be exhausted.  The three classical Christian positions on war outlined above are ’disempowering’ without explicit attempts at what he has termed ‘just peacemaking’ (33).  If Christians are to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously then they must engage in peacemaking initiatives to be both successful and, more importantly, faithful.  Possibilities include working with international bodies such as the UN, campaigning for human rights, lobbying for justice and working with other faith groups.  Many more practical examples are discussed in his latest book Interfaith Just Peacemaking.[2]

Geoff Tunnicliffe, the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, which apparently represents 600 million evangelical Christians worldwide, relates some examples of how WEA have been engaged in peacemaking around the world including in zones of Christian-Muslim conflict in Nigeria and Pakistan.  In this latter case he provides a moving reflection on his friendship with Shabhaz Bhatti, the Christian Pakistani cabinet minister assassinated for his opposition to the blasphemy law and support for human rights.  Tunnicliffe quotes the Apostle Paul’s admonishment to a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 as support for Christian engagement in such activity (40), although it should be noted that other Christians see this verse exclusively in terms of reconciliation between man and God and are concerned that such usage is inappropriate in the Christian-Muslim encounter.[3]  Such disagreement highlights the tension between those who take a confrontational approach to Islam and those, like the authors of this volume, who are rather more conciliatory.

The activities of the ecumenical Fellowship of Reconciliation recounted by Mark Johnson and the work of Joseph Cumming definitely fall into the conciliatory category.  Cumming is concerned that ‘Muslims generally perceive Christianity to be the most militaristic religion in the world’ (48) and he explicitly applies peacemaking to the Christian-Muslim encounter.   Through his involvement with A Common Word[4] he has had many opportunities to share his faith with senior Muslim leaders including Sheikh Fadlallah of Hizbollah in Lebanon.  It also enabled him to help diffuse the furore surrounding the film ‘The Innocence of the Muslims’ using his contacts within Al-Jazeera.  Specifically identifying the growing rift amongst Christians over the different approaches to Islam mentioned above Cumming observes that two types of books have been written by Christians in recent years.  Books that stress the need to love Muslims tend to have been authored by those, like him, who have themselves lived among Muslims.  The other type of books sees Islam as a demonic threat.  He suggests that ironically those who fear Islam are very influential in churches sending Christians to witness to Muslims whilst those who encourage peacemaking are maybe reluctant to share their faith.  He urges the church ‘to learn to keep witness and peacemaking together’ lest ‘a new generation of missionaries do more harm than good’ (49).

David Shenk, the Mennonite co-author of A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue, also focuses on Christian-Muslim relations and recounts positive stories and contacts he has had in such places as Nigeria, Iran – where he has been welcomed as a speaker at theological conferences – and Indonesia – where he met with a local Hizbollah commander who was amazed at the contrast between his own goal of killing enemies and the Christian command to ‘love your enemy’.  He recalls the advice of a young Christian pastor on how to enter into such peacemaking: ‘drink lots of tea’ (67).

Other authors also draw on their own experiences of peacemaking.  Lisa Gibson movingly describes how the loss of her brother on Pan Am flight 103 eventually led to an opportunity to meet Muammar Qadhafi and to extend forgiveness in a letter to Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the alleged bomber.  Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, sees the real problem in Israel-Palestine as being between those on both sides who desire peace and those who do not.  For him his identity is found not in his ethnicity, citizenship or religion – Christian or otherwise – but in following Jesus.  Former US senator David Beasley also places Jesus at the centre of peacemaking and is unworried whether a Muslim continues to call himself a Muslim or not.  The important thing is that communities are being transformed by the teachings of Jesus.  Bob Roberts, a US pastor, is not concerned about keeping the Christian label – as some evangelicals increasingly are – but is concerned about tribalism and shallow, politically correct multi-faith engagement.  He takes an objective look at American global influence and calls Christians to rise above tit-for-tat reciprocity.

Finally chapters by Douglas Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) and Jim Wallis of Sojourners both turn their attention to western foreign policy.  Wallis points out that ‘there are many peace lovers in this world (but) peacemakers are harder to find’ (99).  He goes on to catalogue many examples of Christian initiatives opposing war and recounts how a group of American church leaders almost managed to persuade the Blair British government not to join the Iraq War.  Johnston suggests that what is needed is more direct interaction with Muslim partners.  He explains the impact an ICRD program to improve education is having in the madrasas of Pakistan through working with 2700 madrasa leaders. ‘Bombs typically create additional terrorists by exacerbating the cycle of revenge. Education, on the other hand, both drains the swamp of extremism and provides a better future’ (57).  Amongst other likely partners he mentions in the US context Eboo Patel and Abdullahi An-Na’im[5] but admits that the problem with such partners – at least in the latter case – is that they are often seen as being heretics by many other Muslims because of their openness to the west.[6]  Wallis finishes with a heart-warming story of an evangelical church in the US which put up a sign welcoming a new Islamic centre in their town.  After seeing it reported on CNN a group of Muslims in Pakistan went to the local village church and cleaned it inside and out.  They then called the pastor in the US and said ‘we want you to tell your congregation, Pastor, that we don’t hate them. We love them, and because of what you’ve done, we’re going to look after that little church for the rest of our lives’.


[2] Thistlethwaite, S. (2011). Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives on the new paradigm of peace and war. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] See for example Sookhdeo, P. (2009). The Challenge of Islam to the Church and Its Mission (2nd edition ed.). McLean, VA: Isaac Publishing, p100.

[5] See An-Na’im, A. (2008). Islam and the Secular State. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press.

USEFUL LINKS

Get involved. What are you thinking?