A friend recently asked me, “Why do you focus on ‘peace building’ in your work rather than engage in traditional Christian mission work?”
It’s a great question, so here’s an attempt at an answer.
Our world is diverse and increasingly globalized as people from different backgrounds come into contact on a regular basis. In spite of the positive intentions we have to share the joy and hope we’ve found in Jesus, often that hope is being communicated by Christians and through the Christian faith less and less clearly to the world around us. We want to respectfully share the love, joy, and truth we have found in Christ, but in so doing we are often perceived stereotypically as arrogant, disrespectful, and un-Christlike – so much so that our efforts have historically and often continue to create wedges between ourselves as Christians and others.
Particularly in this changing world, we need to pay special attention to how we can continue be faithful followers of Jesus in our interactions with non-Christians.
To be honest, for most us it’s hard to know where to begin conversations with people who are different. And many Christians are so afraid of offending others that we really don’t know how to engage in productive conversations about faith with people who have different beliefs.
This awkwardness isn’t new – beginning a conversation with someone of a different faith or background has been tough for centuries. Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 is a great example about how God pushed Peter out of his comfort zone to become (unintentionally) a peace builder.
We can learn a lot from what we read in Acts 10. If we, like Peter, choose to listen and recognize our own limited understanding of how God is already moving in others’ lives, we can open ourselves up to God moving throughout friends to transform us. At the same time, genuinely opening ourselves up to transformation shows respect and love to others, depends our new friendship, and opens up the possibility that our new friends will also experience transformation in surprising and unexpected ways.
our opportunity – reclaiming our role as peace builders
By reclaiming our identity as peace builders (Mt 5:9, 44; Rom 12:18; Heb 12:14), we can empower our local faith communities to reengage with non-Christians around us in new and productive ways. Rather than allowing difficult conversations to happen only in heated debates or angry online comment posts, we can reclaim our role as a community that breaks down “dividing walls of hostility” (Eph 2:13-17) by boldly entering into conversations that honor God, respect our neighbors, and bring healing to our broken and divided world, which also giving us more opportunities to clarify our experience of the presence and love of Christ.
definition & clarification
For many, peace building work sounds a bit “secular,” in the sense that it has nothing to do with religion. And it can be. So doing “interfaith peace building work” (that is, doing peace building works between different religious faith communities) as a Christian can sometimes be confusing to Christians, especially when pursued as distinct from traditional Christian mission work.
Peace building includes a wide range of efforts to address the root causes of conflict and violence between groups and facilitates a process that establishes a durable peace. When peace building is done in conversations between people of differing beliefs, worldviews, or faith backgrounds, it looks like building respectful, trusting relationships and reducing misunderstanding about one another’s convictions, beliefs, and practices, so that we can collaborate to bring healing and wholeness to our divided communities. When we engage in peace building as Christians, we need not hide our faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ and his way. Actually, we find the reverse is true. Peace building requires an openness and transparency about one’s own beliefs, assumptions, and values. Without that transparency, our relationships will be shallow and we have little opportunity to address misunderstandings about our differences.
a key difference
A key difference between Christian peace building and traditional Christian mission is in peace building’s commitment to prioritize mutuality. This mutuality works itself out in two ways.
First, as we build respectful, trusting relationships with our conversation partners, we follow Peter’s example – we listen to their stories and perspectives, open and attentive to how God is already working in their lives. By choosing to listen first, we show that we respect the other person as they are, not as we hope them to be. Taking that posture builds genuine trust in the relationship. We also acknowledge that we can’t possibly know how God is working within other people – God is bigger and more incomprehensible than our finite expectations. Acknowledging that fact builds genuine humility in ourselves. Many sensitive missionaries do this as well, but in peace making, the goal is slightly different. Through respectful conversations, our main focus is not that the other person changes their worldview or beliefs to match our own. Instead, we open ourselves and our faith community to being the ones who are transformed by God, while allowing time and space for God do the transformation work in our new friends. The mutuality isn’t just who listens to whom – it’s who is changed in the process.
Second, as these relationships grow, peace building tries to break down misunderstandings parties have about one another’s convictions, motivations, beliefs, or worldviews. We Christians too often assume we know what our non-Christian neighbors believe, what they value, and how they are motivated. Much of what we think we know about Muslims, for example, comes from the news or media rather than from Muslims themselves. Peace building prioritizes our own need to understand more fully and accurately who our non-Christian neighbors are and what they believe, even while we also hope to share more deeply about who we are and what we believe. And when this is done in relationships that are based on trust and respect, our perception of who Muslims are (for example) can change drastically – and others’ perceptions of who we are as Christians can change just as drastically in their communities, as well. If we started the relationship one-sidedly, not pausing to listen but focusing instead on the rightness of our beliefs or the potential of conversion, we would lose out on so much: the opportunity to clarify what we believe to someone who is open to listen, and the possibility of God working through that someone to transform our own lives so we might follow Jesus more closely and be better disciples in the process.
As we engage with people around us who are not Christian, we will be changed, like Peter was. We will discover how God is always at work in unexpected people and places. We will be discipled. And intentionally focusing on peace building (reducing misunderstanding and building relationships based on trust and mutual respect) allows people to encounter the positive aspects of our pursuit of Jesus, as well. Christian peace building is both a faithful way to follow Jesus in a changing, broken world and a transparent and humble testimony to our allegiance to Jesus and his way.