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: https://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.”
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.