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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

30 September 2006

Peace Among Different Faiths?

Q: Are there any instructive examples for our time of Biblical people of different faiths living together in peace?

Three ReligionsA: Actually, most of the examples from Scripture and history show strife and struggle rather than peace and harmony. David asked in Psalm 2:1, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” Psalm 46 tells us that while God’s holy dwelling “shall not be moved, (v. 5)” here on earth, “the nations rage, the kingdoms totter. (v. 6)” Jesus told His disciples that a sign of the world’s end would be that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. (Matthew 24:7)”

This is nothing new: Adam’s finger-pointing (Genesis 3:12) introduced strife between people immediately after the Fall and their firstborn son brought murder into the Creation (4:8). A few generations following Noah, Babel’s curse clustered like-speaking people together, making enemies out different tongues (11:1-9). The time of Abraham included raiding tribes, some of which grew into the hostile nations that would inhabit the Promised Land during Exodus and conquest. Joseph’s actions established peace with Egypt but a change in dynasties led the Egyptians to oppress Israel’s heirs and to begin genocide against them.

Pharaoh's Army DestroyedWhen Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, God “pacified” Egypt by destroying her army. Joshua then led Israel into the Promised Land and into a series of battles against hostile nations and city-states. The Lord several times commanded attacks on the peoples of Palestine, often including their total destruction as a condition of battle.

The Judges served during a steady stream of conflicts with Phoenician and Canaanite forces — a situation inherited by Saul when he became Israel’s first king. The Lord finally allowed David to complete the conquest of Palestine. Perhaps the longest period of uninterrupted peace with the neighbors Scripture records came in the latter part of David’s reign and into that of his son. Solomon, whose name means “His [God’s] peace,” led Israel during a time of unprecedented and unrepeated growth, prosperity, and peace.

At Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two and occasional battles between them persisted. Other lands resumed armed conflict with the sundered kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The north eventually fell to Assyria’s sword and never rose again. Judah suffered Babylonian conquest and exile and the return home saw the nation smaller and weaker than before.

The time between the testaments saw battles, defeats, and domination by Alexander the Great and his generals, the armed resistance and retaliation of the Maccabees, and Rome’s eventual conquest. There was earthly peace in the land — and in most of the surrounding Mediterranean region — during Jesus’ time. This peace, however, came with the price of pagan Roman rule. In one of God’s delightful ironies, He used the peace enforced by heathen Rome’s military might to protect Christ’s early messengers as they traveled from place to place with the Gospel’s words of reconciliation between God and man.

Abrams TankScripture shows brief periods of relative harmony regularly interrupted by conflict. Secular records reflect this same sad truth. Almost any time one group of people grouped together for mutual benefit, support, and economic growth, others sought ways of oppressing or killing them and relieving them of their wealth. Speaking in earthly terms, the most effective way to guarantee peace was to be well armed and prepared to fight. Ultimately, however, warring ceased only when God established the peace. And since He often used warfare as a means of judgment upon His people or as retribution on their behalf, fighting often persisted for years on end.

I imagine that your question stems especially from what our news media often term “sectarian violence.” Certain religions determine to stamp out or totally subdue those who differ from them. Even some Christians have used the Faith as an excuse to take up arms within and without the Church. While we admit that such an attitude is contrary to God’s will, we deceive ourselves if we think that our forsaking the sword for religious purposes will bring peace with false religions or hostile nations.

There will always be those who resist Christianity’s exclusive claims. When Thomas asked about following Christ, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6)” This message is so offensive to some that they not only stop their ears against it but they actively and violently seek to silence the messengers — us.

If we believe that the fulness of God’s truth is revealed in Jesus Christ and that the Scriptures point to Him alone as our Savior and King, then anyone who disagrees will resent our claim that we possess the only true faith on the entire earth. For many people, tribes, and nations, these are “fighting words” — and through the centuries, the fight has continued. Left to ourselves, we would be completely outnumbered and hopelessly outfought. Whether in spiritual warfare or physical conflict, Christ’s Church would have long disappeared, except that He promised that even “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)”

ArmorThe Church persists only because we have Christ on our side. Along with sending His holy angels to defend us, He also arms and equips us for war. He does this not so we can fight earthly battles, since “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)” These satanic powers will attack our beliefs directly and our bodies indirectly, by stirring up false believers against us. But as we dress in the full armor of God (vv. 10-20), God equips us to participate in this cosmic struggle of His good against Satan’s evil.

He arms us not to slay the unbeliever but to stand firm in the Faith and to testify to the truth of salvation in Christ Jesus. Essential to this armor are “shoes for your feet” ... “the readiness given by the gospel of peace. (v. 15)” This peace is not primarily between individuals or nations but between God and man. Only when all people are at one with God will they be at one with each other. This image in Ephesians leads us to conclude that we are to boldly carry into this world the message of peaceful reconciliation with God through forgiveness in Christ.

While we live here, God may bring times of earthly peace or He may allow deadly conflict. He may use some of us to stop the violence — at least for a time — or he may call some of us to take up arms and defend family or nation. Yet even when the battles rage most fiercely, the believer lives at peace, for his eyes are fixed not on earthly struggles, temptations, and doubts but upon Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2)” Through Him, we have what the angels promised: “peace among those with whom [God] is pleased! (Luke 2:14)”

Fear, desire, and hatred will continue to cause the nations to rage and kingdoms rise up against kingdoms. However, we have Jesus’ promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)” While we remain pilgrims in this world, “our citizenship is in heaven, (Philippians 3:20)” that eternal, unshakeable dwelling place of God.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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