CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Peace on Earth and Interfaith Dialogue

Nov 30, 2008

There are all sorts of reasons why people get involved in interfaith dialogue. Some are better than others. Some Christians, for example, may think in so doing they are being Christlike, or fulfilling biblical injunctions to be peacemakers and the like.

Peace is certainly an important biblical theme. Both Testaments make much of it. And Jesus is the supreme example of peace. Indeed, Jesus is the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). In a world of strife and division, Jesus brings peace. And Jesus did say, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). Thus being a peacemaker is part of the calling of the disciple of Christ.

But the mission of Jesus – and what the followers of Jesus are meant to be and do – is not always the same as what the interfaith folk are on about. Part of what the interfaith movement seeks is to create peace by means of dialogue, discussion, and getting people of differing religious communities to better know about one another.

That in itself is not too bad. But what often accompanies such attempts is worrying: usually the idea is that theological differences must be muted, and theological distinctives must be played down in the interests of obtaining such peaceful outcomes.

But for the biblical Christian there are limits to such things. Biblical Christians can certainly strive for peace and harmony, but it is not to be at the expense of the Christian Gospel. It is not to be at the expense of Biblical truth. To flesh this out a bit more, I want to look more closely at the biblical notion of peace, and the ministry of Jesus.

The peace Jesus brings takes different forms. Because of his life, death and resurrection, we can have peace with God. And because of this, we can have peace with one another. And there is an eschatological peace, when Jesus comes again, puts down all his enemies, and establishes his universal kingdom of peace and righteousness. This peace will have wide-ranging effects. Swords will be beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) and even the lion and the lamb will lie down together peacefully (Isaiah 65:25).

But there is more to the biblical understanding of peace than just getting along and seeking to not rock the boat, as the interfaith movement tends to view such matters. Indeed, peace in the Bible never means the mere absence of hostilities. Whether we speak of shalom in the Old Testament or eirene in the New Testament, peace means much more than the simple cessation of conflict.

In fact, sometimes when we seek to fulfil our biblical calling, we will not be peacemakers. We may in fact appear to be troublemakers. To follow God in a hostile world may in fact mean we create division, enmity, opposition and trouble. I have written before about this theme: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/10/27/on-being-a-troublemaker-for-jesus/

Jesus, Confrontation and Division

Indeed, the coming of Jesus brought much polarisation and division. His life and mission was confrontational. Usually when he spoke the people were divided because of him. Consider for example such passages as John 7:40-43; 9:16; and 10:19. Here I want to look at just one passage to make this point. I refer to Luke 12:51 (and its parallel in Matthew 10:34): “Do you think that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, No, but rather division.”

The context of this verse is Luke 12:49-53, in which Jesus says he has come to earth to bring the fire of judgment, and he warns about how even families will be divided because of him. Thus this text offers us a further understanding of what Jesus meant when he spoke about peace. Darrell Bock comments,

“This passage stands in contrast to other Lucan declarations about Jesus’ offering peace to humans (Luke 2:14; 7:50; 8:48; 10:5-6; Acts 10:36). But in these texts, peace comes to those who have responded (cf. Eph. 2:13-17, being tied to the offer of the message and thus contingent on a favourable response.) Without such response, division occurs. The peace that Jesus brings in his coming to earth is not universal, because some do not respond favourably to his offer. Jesus’ offer contains the choice between aligning with the kingdom and standing against it. One must take sides.”

As Michael Wilkins puts it, “Jesus’ claim to messianic identity and authority is a divider between people, including one’s own family. One either believes in Jesus or rejects him; there is no middle ground.”

The radical demands which Christ makes of those who would have peace with God will always bring about division. As R.T. France remarks, “the peace the Messiah brings is much more than the absence of fighting, which men dignify with the name of ‘peace’; it is a restored relationship with God. And in the bringing of such ‘peace’, paradoxically, conflict is inevitable, as not all will accept it.” And this had always been the case in the Gospels. As Joseph Fitzmyer rightly notes, even the divisive “effect of his ministry has been foreshadowed in the infancy narrative: Jesus was a child set ‘for the fall and rise of many in Israel’ (2:34).”

The parallel passage in Matthew 10:34 is slightly different: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”. But its meaning is the same. The context of this passage is much like the Lucan passage. It too speaks of family members being divided one against another, and the high cost of radical discipleship.

In fact, the passage ties in various themes, not least of which is the persecution a follower of Jesus will experience. Because of the exclusive and radical demands of the Gospel, those who preach it and/or seek to live it will face strong opposition and censure. As Craig Keener comments, “persecution and proclamation are inseparable”.

He elaborates, “Although Jesus values families (5:27-32; 15:4-6; 19:4-9), the division his mission brings appears particularly in families (cf. 10:21). Jesus’ example demonstrates how this division is accomplished: although God’s agents are ‘harmless’ (10:16; 12:19-20), they proclaim the kingdom uncompromisingly and thus face hostility from others (13:57; cf. 12:46-50; Jn 7:5). Jesus’ mission separates disciples from the values of their society, and society responds with persecution.”

Or as David Turner puts it, “The kingdom message of repentance is confrontational (cf. 11:12), and conflicting responses to this message can fracture even the dearest human relationships.”

Jesus, Pluralism and Tolerance

The sad fact is, many people, including lots of Christians, simply have a wrong picture of Jesus. They see him as a sort of 60’s flower child who wants to make love, not war. They see him as a pacifist, or a postmodernist who downplays truth and plays up mushy notions of tolerance and acceptance.

As Darrell Bock says of the passage from Luke, “The contemporary portrait of Jesus is skewed. Our culture tends to see him as a man who did not engage in confrontation or talk about judgment. He came as the ultimate peacemaker, who sought peace at any cost. He never challenged anyone other than to call for love and tolerance. As a teacher of wisdom and a teller of parables, Jesus did not force anyone into hard choices…”

But if that is the real Jesus, then why did he face so much violent opposition? As Scot McKnight notes, “such a Jesus would never have been crucified, would never have drawn the fire that he did, would never have commanded the following that he did, and would never have created a movement that still shakes the world.”

Says Bock, “Jesus sees himself here as a figure who brings division. He forces choices, not only about how life is lived, but also about how he fit into God’s plan. . . . His call is not to bring peace at any price, but to sort through humanity in order to draw some to him, while others turn away. He was and is the Great Divider. His ministry burns consciences, and our reaction to him determines the nature of his judgment.”

D.A. Carson, commenting on the Matthew 10 passage, also notes how modern notions of pluralism and tolerance have resulted in an anemic understanding of who Jesus is. He is worth quoting at length:

“Jesus, the Jesus who confronts the world, is quite frankly a divisive Jesus. This divisiveness is unavoidable, not only because of the unyielding truth-claims he makes for himself, but because at the heart of his message and purpose is the bold insistence that men and women can be rightly related to God only if they know him and come to him on his terms. This unabashed, exclusivist, either/or mentality lies at the heart of the New Testament, and can be removed only by radical surgery on the documents. To resort to such devices because we are uncomfortable with the historical Jesus is merely another way of saying that we reject him in favour of a tame Jesus, a domesticated Jesus who will not challenge us or tell us we are wrong, force us to rethink our most fundamental assumptions, or question our most cherished priorities.”

Conclusion

But some might be asking, what about those other verses which speak about the importance of peace? They need to be seen in the light of all that has been said thus far. Consider one well-known passage: Luke 2:14. Craig Blomberg offers some helpful comments here:

“The inferior text of Luke 2:14 in the KJV has led generations of people celebrating Christmas to promote the false notion that Christ brings ‘peace on earth, good will to men.’ Instead, Jesus promises peace on earth to men of good will, namely, to ‘those on whom his favour rests.’ To those who welcome him, he offers eirene (‘peace’ – from the Hebrew shalom). Such peace brings the wholeness of restored relationships with God (Rom 5:1) and interpersonal reconciliation within the community of believers (Eph 4:3). Jesus’ peace does not preclude wars between nations, conflicts among unbelievers, or the persecution of Christians which Jesus has already predicted. In fact, not only does Jesus not come to eradicate all human conflict but he actually promises hostility (v. 34). His ministry proved so confrontational that he either attracted people to himself or visibly repelled them.”

Thus for all the good things interfaith ventures might seek to achieve, the biblical Christian can only go so far with such endeavours. The biblical Christian knows that to be faithful to Jesus and his message will inevitably bring division, conflict, opposition and persecution.

Jesus experienced this, and he promised his followers that they would as well. The truth is, Jesus was no meek and mild wallflower. He was a confrontational radical who always stirred things up wherever he went. And for his efforts he met all sorts of opposition and hatred, culminating in his violent death. And we can expect no less.

So when my Christian friends who are into the interfaith movement tell me they are just trying to be like Jesus, I remind them that being a peacemaker is part of what Jesus was all about. But being a troublemaker and a divider of men is another part of who Jesus was. As always, we must present Jesus in all his fullness, and not just pick and choose those bits which we like.

The Bible tells us that true and lasting peace will only come about when Jesus returns and sets up his rule and reign on earth. Until then, conflict and division will continue. Sure, we can work toward being peacemakers – being aware that this can only go so far. But we must also realise that to stand up and proclaim the truth of the Gospel will result in divisions, enmity and trouble. In a fallen world we can expect no less.

[1973 words]

16 Responses to Peace on Earth and Interfaith Dialogue

  • Edmond Burke famously noted that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
    But how much more does evil triumph when good men appease those who are evil.
    PM Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler was justified on the basis of preventing war and ensuring “peace in our time”. It failed!
    Christians of good will who engage in interfaith dialogue probably never start out with the intention of appeasing the non Christian but it appears that they nevertheess end up doing so.
    Good will without the fortitude to hold fast to the Truth of Jesus’s teaching leads to appeasement in interfaith dialogue.
    Your article correctly explains that “peace”, as Christ meant it, is very different from the human concept of peace, which is more concerned with the prevention or avoidance of conflict.
    The pursuit of peace in the human sense when sought through the process of interfaith dialogue necessarily leads to the peacemaker abandoning, ever so slowly but ever so inevitably, the message of Christ.
    The pursuit of peace in the human sense can lead people of good will to lose the real “peace” of Christ in their lives.
    The irony appears to be that the stronger a persons belief in and understanding of the fact, that to truly follow Christ means accepting the rejection of the world, then, the less likely it is that that person will be found in the interfaith dialogue process.
    Even though it is exactly that type of person who should be engaged in interfaith dialogue.
    Interfaith dialogue should be part of the evangilisation process and thus should be a responsibility accepted by all Christians.
    But as with any evangilisation each of us needs to be prepared and ready to defend the faith, even at great personal cost.
    Your article is a timely reminder for all of us.
    John Ryan

  • Thanks Bill.
    All this reminds me of king Jehoshaphat, who allied himself with the godless Ahab in his military ventures together: “I am as you are; my people as your people; my horses as your horses” (1 Kings 22:4). The whole affair came to a terrible end when Israel was defeated, just as Micaiah prophesied (1 Kings 22:17), and Ahab killed. What was the LORD’s final verdict? See 2 Chron 19:2. Jehu son of Hanani condemned the returning king, “Should you help the wicked, and love those who hate the LORD, and so bring wrath on yourself from the LORD?”
    Ecumenical endeavours, whether OT-style or NT style do NOT have God’s blessing, and attempts to smooth over differences and ignore the chasm of separation only “brings wrath from the Lord”.
    We see the same in the time of Ezra: when the locals heard of the Jewish return and plans to rebuild their temple, they tried the inter-faith approach. “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God.” (Ezra 4:2). But Zerubbabel and Jeshua were firm in their rebuff, “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God…” (v.3) They realised that such compromise had brought about the disaster of the Exile, and they would have none of it.
    Likewise, God will judge the modern compromised church for its dallying with pagan religions, just as He did with ancient Israel. Let Biblical history serve its lessons!
    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Thanks Murray for some very helpful and relevant OT references here.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Neither should we forget that almost immediately following Christ’s birth there was the massacre of innocents. How would this go down on Christmas Cards?
    David Skinner, UK

  • There is one Biblical example of an interfaith service: 1 Kings 18:17 – 40. Perhaps we should participate in the New Age festivals with this in mind! 😉

    It is true that division is part and parcel of the Gospel. How many times have you heard a call for division from the pulpit? Never is division in the church nice, but I think that at times it is necessary if the fundamentals of the Gospel are at stake.

    David Clay, Melbourne

  • Thanks David Clay

    Yes, one does not hear much from the interfaith mob about Elijah’s strong stand against the false religions of his day. He not only rejected any religious syncretism and dialogue, but he was quite sarcastic and negative about these false gods. And he did not say very nice things about Israel’s leadership when it went in for such interfaith baloney. No wonder he was known as “the troubler of Israel”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I absolutely agree that Jesus is a divisive figure and that his presence in the world catalyses God’s judgement. Certainly we Christians must not present a watered down, or tame view of our faith. But like John I feel that this is no reason to avoid the interfaith movement. If you think that Christians involved in interfaith are guilty of syncretism then get involved and show a different way to dialogue.

    When I read the Bible I see a Jesus standing in the prophetic tradition who was less concerned with religious labels than with how people treated each other. Zechariah 7 expresses this very well, especially in Eugene Peterson’s translation where God says ‘You’re interested in religion, I’m interested in people… Treat one another justly. Love your neighbours. Be compassionate with each other. Don’t take advantage of the widows, orphans, visitors and the poor. Don’t plot and scheme against one another – that’s evil.’

    The reason God was so strong against false gods was that they represented systems of oppression – the worship of money, power and sex. Only by turning away from these idols and worshiping the One True God, the Creator, the God of Love, would people treat each justly and with compassion.

    So yes, Jesus brings judgment and division. But it is not along religious lines but along the line between good and evil – and as Solzhenitsyn pointed out, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Look at how Jesus relates to the two main religious “others” of his time and place – the Romans and the Samaritans. Look at how he brings division within his own religious community – the Jews. There is a strong argument for saying that where he talks about division in the family, the family he is referring to is the Jewish people. Jesus emphatically refuses to side with those Jews who take a “us against them” approach to the challenge of Roman, pagan, occupation with all its brutality, exploitation and injustice. Instead Jesus presents us with a challenge, to repent and be transformed, starting with ourselves: to root out evil in our own lives first, to love one another and do justice, and then go out and challenge others to live the same way.

    Anyone who seriously tries this will find it is divisive. The rich and powerful especially find it confronting, and it was the men of power – the religious and political establishment – who decided to kill Jesus. This, to me, is the true ‘offense of the gospel’ – the radical call to fight evil by living God’s way.

    Yes, Bill, you are right. Jesus was a confrontational radical who stirred things up. Let us go full out to present Jesus and his message in interfaith dialogues. Let us not be too polite and ‘nice’ to avoid the difficult challenges. But also, let us follow Jesus’ example and not make it about “us against them”. All of us need to repent and keep turning to God. All of us fall short of the perfection demanded in the Sermon on the Mount.

    Mike Lowe

  • Thanks Mike

    Sorry, but I will not rushing off soon to join my local interfaith group. I would have thought that my article had made that point clear at least! But let me pick up on one paragraph of yours. You say:

    “The reason God was so strong against false gods was that they represented systems of oppression – the worship of money, power and sex. Only by turning away from these idols and worshiping the One True God, the Creator, the God of Love, would people treat each justly and with compassion.”

    But with all due respect, where in the world did you get that one from? There is not one passage anywhere in the entire Bible that makes such a claim. God does not reject false religions because of injustice or oppression. He rejects false religions because they are false religions.

    He rejects them utterly because only the one true God is to be worshipped and glorified, and because all other gods, idols and religions will ultimately lead people to a lost eternity. The inability of false religions to save anyone is one of the reasons God so detests these useless idols: “Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save” (Is 45:20).

    Sure, idolatry and false religions always have negative and harmful consequences. Immorality is one downside which is often connected to idolatry in Scripture. But that is not the main reason God rejects false religions and gods.

    And it seems that the God of the Bible is not too keen on interfaith ventures. We read in Deuteronomy 12:1-3 these words: “These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”

    Yahweh was not into syncretism, and did not allow Israel to engage in any compromise here. Indeed, Elijah did not sit down and chat with the false prophets. He first challenged them to come up with the goods, and then they were swiftly eliminated.

    Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:20 that “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God”. Paul was “greatly distressed” with his encounter with the false gods of Athens. He had dialogue with them, not in order to just get along and try to learn about one another, but to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That should be our only motivation as well when talking with people of other faiths. It should not be about encouraging “each person to go deeper in their own faith traditions” as your organisation seeks to do.

    So thanks again, but I will have to give the invite a miss.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, this is a great article and comments. As I know a Chrisian leader who is very pro interfaith activity, I’d like to copy and paste some of this material to forward on. I don’t think I could say it better than has been said here. Is this OK providing I give acknowledgment of authorship.

    Kind regards
    Michelle Shave

  • Mike I too believe it is an “us versus them”. You use Jesus’ engagement with Samaritans as an example of interfaith; but surely here with His talk with the woman at the well, He clearly makes a “You versus us“ statement when he says in John 4:22 “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” – not from Allah, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Paul, writing to the Corinthians in chapter 4:11 said “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

    The division is certainly not between good people and bad people or between loving and non-loving but the division between Christ and us. The only thing that we have in common with people of other faiths is that like them we are all sinners. What we don’t have in common with them is that we are saved, through, and only, through blood of Jesus.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks Michelle

    Yes feel free.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, the comment “the inferior text of Luke 2:14 in the KJV …” has added to my confusion. The text in my KJV is different and when compared to the NIV is different again. With the 2 versions quoted in your article and the 2 versions I found, thats 4 versions of the same passage and each one leading to a different result.

    I’m aware that different bible versions exist but know nothing of the nature of the differences throughout. I’ve heard people comment about particular versions but they seem to be driven by the stance of their own denomination.

    I’m sure there are others just as confused as me. I lean toward a strict interpreation of the scriptures and I certainly want the most accurate interpretation in english of Christ’s words. Is there an accessible quick and ready source to get an understanding about the different versions? I’d like to know how many versions there are (in english language), where do they come from, who commissioned them, when, why, what was their theological stand or agenda, etc.

    Or perhaps Bill, if you have that information could you write an entry and give some guidance on which one/s to go to and which one/s to avoid. Any direction you or any contributors can offer will be much appreciated.

    Frank Norros

  • Thanks Frank

    You raise some very good questions here, so let me respond with three quick replies. Yes it would make for a good article indeed, so I will write it up soonish.

    I am sure there would be many good online articles on all this. I will do a bit of looking around for you.

    If you want to go into more details, here are some helpful books on the subject:

    Comfort, P.W., Complete Guide to Bible Versions. 1991.
    Dewey, David, Which Bible? IVP, 2004.
    Kubo, Sakae and Walter Specht, So Many Versions? Zondervan, 1983.
    Metzger, Bruce, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Baker, 2001.
    Grudem, Wayne, et. al., Translating Truth. Crossway, 2005.
    Ryken, Leland, Bible Translation Differences. Crossway, 2004.
    Ryken, Leland, The Word of God in English. Crossway, 2003.
    Scorgie, Glen, Mark Strauss and Steven Voth, eds., The Challenge Of Bible Translation. Zondervan, 2003.
    Wegner, Paul, The Journey from Texts to Translations. Baker, 1999.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • As a student of religious studies (in my senior years), I think the point of interfaith dialogue is to find the spiritual commonalities. The doctrinal beliefs and rituals of religions may be quite different but their moral precepts and spiritual values are rather similar. They commonly believe in the existence of a higher Power. They commonly use prayer, meditation and uplifting reading material to maintain a sense of connection to that higher Power. They commonly claim that a deep spiritual outlook, high moral approach and high standard of love and service to humanity are foundational to a well-functioning self and society. Interfaith dialogue doesn’t mean anyone has to give up differences in belief and practice. It does, however, mean giving more focus to the internal essence of one’s faith. It is important to note that the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels said little about doctrinal beliefs or external practices but a lot about values and how to live and love God and neighbour well. His diatribes against the scribes and pharisees sent the same message – that ritual and law are not what constitute ‘goodness’. Interfaith dialogue can shift the focus on to the internal spiritual dynamics of religion, surely the very thing Christ was on about, making the Christian contribution to interfaith work invaluable and essential.
    Alexa Blonner

  • Thanks Alexa

    Your course and its effects remind me of the remark made by Ronald Knox “The study of comparative religion makes people comparatively religious”. Sorry, but your fondness for commonality has apparently rendered you unable or unwilling to see the overwhelming differences. Take the issue of God for example. Buddhists do not even have to believe in God; Hindus can have as many as 330 million gods; while the monotheistic religions worship only one God.

    Your common ground approach is not very helpful. An analogy might be trying to put out a fire with three things: water, gasoline and oil. Hey, think of all the commonalities: they are all liquids for example. But in truth only one will do the job, while the other two will only make matters worse.

    Unfortunately your course is taking the usual comparative religion approach, which involves completely ignoring the unique message of the Gospels. Indeed, one cannot objectively read the Gospel accounts without seeing a man and message absolutely unique and distinct from all other religions and religious leaders.

    And your courses seek to downplay the overwhelming doctrinal message of Jesus. Jesus spoke constantly about truth and the necessity of right belief – about God, the world, and himself. He made incredibly exclusive truth claims about himself and his mission. No one can read such passages as Matt 11:27; John 1:12; 3:18; 8:12; 10:7-10; 11:25-26 and 14:6-7 (to cite just a few) and still think Jesus is merely one of many religion teachers or ethicists.

    Theological liberalism has always sought to downplay the teachings of Jesus, and elevate instead some wishy washy sentimental set of values and ethics. Sorry, it just does not work that way. As C.S. Lewis rightly warned years ago”

    “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Brilliant article – very clear. I think the only reason any Christian could not agree with this view, is that they’ve heard too many wishy washy sermons and read too many wishy washy books rather than reading and studying the actual Bible.

    Annette Nestor

Leave a Reply