September 14, 2011

Peacemakers in the Midst of Conflict

Parents like to see their children play together, talk friendly, and care for one another. When children quarrel, scream rudely at each other, or even fight physically, parents intervene. Malachi, the prophet, picks up on this and asks a pointed question: “Are we not all children of the same Father?” (Mal. 2:10).1 A “yes” seems to be the obvious answer. But Jesus questions the obviousness of this “yes” when He talks about those who have the devil as their father” (John 8:44).
The Original Plan
The first book of Scripture tells a number of stories involving favoritism. Abraham favored Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac favored Esau over Jacob, and Jacob favored Joseph over his brothers. This act of favoring caused jealousy, conflict, hatred—even an assassination plot. We may also easily favor one child over the other, one classmate over others, or tribal relatives over others, but Scripture is clear: “God has no favorites” (Col. 3:25; see Acts 10:34).
“Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun” (2 Cor. 5:17), writes Paul. Our faith in Christ affects how we treat each other. “How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” asked the apostle James (James 2:1).
John makes a clear distinction between those who are children of God (who belong to God) and those who are children of the devil. It has nothing to do with age, gender, nationality, education, or IQ. John states: “Anyone who . . . does not love other believers does not belong to God” (1 John 3:10).
To live together in peace in this evil world is not just a gift from God to those who ask for it. We have to be willing to live in peace. We have to decide in our heart to live in peace—and live it. We have to be peacemakers even though it may endanger us. “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace” (Eph. 4:3) is Paul’s challenge to us.
Jesus identified love to one another as the basis of God’s reign. This was not new and had already been stated in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18). This love for one another would be the mark of discipleship for a world watching carefully (John 13:35).
Division Among God’s Children
Tribalism, racism, nepotism, prejudice, and favoring one cast over another are not new phenomena in our modern world. These mind-sets existed from ancient times, and Scripture contains many examples illustrating that.
2011 1526 page14In the wilderness “Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman” (Num. 12:1)—a woman from another tribe (and most likely from a different ethnic background). Because of this marriage they questioned Moses’ authority. God’s reaction was prompt and telling. Miriam got leprosy on the spot, and Aaron himself had to recognize their foolishness.
Judges 9 tells a story about nepotism. Abimelech said to the leaders: “Remember that I am your own flesh and blood!” (verse 2). Following this hint, the tribal leaders chose him as king “just because he was their relative” (verse 18), even though he was a murderer. They didn’t call a search committee to appoint the best person for the position. They didn’t ask God for advice. How easily can we be tempted to favor “our own flesh and blood” when we control an open position, stipends, or other blessings to be shared!
Philip was among Jesus’ first disciples. He went to Nathanael and told him: “ ‘We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ ‘Nazareth!’ exclaimed Nathanael.  ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” (John 1:45, 46). Nathanael “knew” that people from Nazareth were useless. That’s what he had been taught—what everybody knew. Later, however, he had to recognize that his own Savior actually came from Nazareth.
God’s Solution to Division
The secret of unity is found in the recognition of equality! God does not value us according to worldly possessions, education, position, status, family, or ethnic background. God’s price tag on each of us is the same—the cross! No matter if we have “president” written on our business cards or if we are beggars in the street without business cards—we are all purchased by the blood of Christ. In His eyes we are all His children, and He has no favorites. “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters,” said Jesus (Matt. 23:8).
When the people of Israel left Egypt, it was not only the 12 tribes that crossed the sea. The Bible tells us that “a rabble of non-Israelites went with them” (Ex. 12:38), which reappeared later during the wilderness years, when they “began to crave the good things of Egypt” (Num. 11:4). This rabble was not necessarily of any help to the Israelites. Most likely they caused more grief and complicated matters. They had another nationality, language, culture, religion, etc. How did God treat this rabble, and how did God want the Israelites to treat them?
Listen to this important principle of Scripture: “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19, NASB).2 This rabble ate manna from heaven and drank water from the rock. Their clothes and sandals did not wear out. What a loving and embracing God we have—blessing both Israel and the foreigners accompanying Israel.
When foreigners move into our area, we can be tempted to give them the lowest-paid jobs and a dwelling that is below our own standards just because “they don’t belong to us.” They don’t talk like us. They don’t eat like us. They don’t smell like us. For generations we might remember that “they don’t belong to us!” We might even feel it our duty to keep them down and separated from us.

But this is not God’s plan. “Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33, 34). Which government has ever come up with such a clear law about integration?
Solomon expressed this undivided wish for the well-being of the foreigner in his prayer during the dedication of the Temple: “In the future, foreigners who do not belong to our people Israel will hear of you. . . . When they pray toward this Temple, then hear from heaven where you live, and grant what they ask of you” (1 Kings 8:41-43). We might ask ourselves how often we say a prayer like this for those from other countries, religions, tribes, or families.
Paul describes this integration with these words: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We can’t be “one” according to human law, or according to logic, or due to merits. We can only be “one in Christ Jesus.” He is the only real unifying person.
How difficult it is to be president in a country torn by civil war. How challenging it is to be parents when children fight. How painful it is for our heavenly Father to see His children filled with hatred. When Moses blessed the people, he stated: “The Lord became King in Israel—when the leaders of the people assembled, when the tribes of Israel gathered as one” (Deut. 33:5). First we gather as one—then the Lord can be our King!
“Among You It Will Be Different”
Jesus Christ, the Creator, served the people He created. The prototype of Satan, garbed as king of Babylon, on the other hand, said: “I will ascend. . . . I will preside. . . . I will climb . . .” (Isa. 14:13, 14). Somehow we can hear the echo of these words far and wide all over the world in different languages and cultures. But we Christians are to be different. Jesus said: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people. . . . But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).
We see more and more conflicts in this world. Daily headlines scream war and strife at us. This is a sign of the times. The psalmist is clear: “I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying, for he speaks peace to his faithful people. But let them not return to their foolish ways” (Ps. 85:8). Note the psalmist’s logic: the opposite of peace is foolishness.
Peace is not something that can be voted by a church board and then it just works. Obviously, we can decide to actively work for peace, but lasting peace requires that the Lord of peace reside in our hearts and take dominion of our motives and thoughts. It is so easy to pretend that we love others, while in our heart we may even hate them. “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them” (Rom. 12:9). This love is not sentimental but requires a conscious decision.
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all” (2 Thess. 3:16).
1 Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, have been taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
2 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

At the time of writing this piece Philip Philipsen, a native of Denmark, was treasurer of the East-Central Africa Division, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. He is now finance and marketing director for the Adventist Publishing House in Norway, and literature evangelist coordinator for the Norwegian Union. This article was published September 15, 2011.