Making Peace sans Evangelism (Part Three)

Read Part One and Part Two before you wade into these waters with me.

In the first two parts of this three-part blog-versation I raised some questions about traditional understandings of evangelism as it relates to the desire to make peace with our religious ‘others’. In Christian history, much of our peacemaking efforts have looked more like evangelistic endeavors to convert our enemies to our own religion so that they are no longer enemies but brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, these efforts have often caused as much division as they have created unity and peace.

And, I’m not so sure that this is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to love our enemies. He didn’t say, “Love your enemies so that they might become like you and in turn cease to be enemies.” Rather, his rationale was much simpler; we are to love our enemies because that’s what God does. He sends sun and rain on the just and the unjust alike. We are to demonstrate this compassion and mercy in the same way, towards our friends and our enemies.

The underlying idea of this command is often missed by us, which is this: God has a relationship with every human being that is based upon compassion, love, and mercy. God isn’t simply relating with Christians in this way. He is literally in relationship with everyone on earth, those who notice and celebrate it and those who do not.

This relationship can be seen in the natural cycles of death and rebirth/resurrection. In order for life to exist on our planet, millions upon millions of stars had to die. Or, consider a forest fire. Forest fires are necessary for the health of an ecosystem. Trees have to die in order for life to be sustainable or even possible. And, even in that death, millions upon millions of fungi transform that death into the possibility of rebirth. Mushrooms are God’s agents of resurrection. They are one of the myriad ways in which God is in relationship with not only all of humankind, but also all of creation.

Likewise, human relationships across lines of difference are the means by which God transforms destruction and death into the possibility of life, rebirth, and peace. Part of what makes the Christian story so remarkable is that we believe that God’s compassion and mercy extends through Jesus to all humankind. That, through Jesus, God is reconciling all humankind back to himself. Where there is death, life is just around the corner. And that life is a gift widely given but not widely opened and enjoyed. That life is exclusively inclusive.

What we discover in relationships with people who believe and live differently than we do is that the above paragraph is true. What Peter discovered when he went to Cornelius’ house wasn’t a man who was missing something so much as a man who already had everything he needed. Cornelius, a Gentile, was already living life in submission to God. God was already reconciling Cornelius to himself. Peter encounters this incomprehensible truth and recognizes that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He goes on to give perspective to Cornelius and his friends on why he understands this to be true — Jesus is God’s impartiality to man.

Would Cornelius have been ‘saved’ if Peter had not come to his house? Would Peter have been converted to a new understanding of the width, breadth, height, and depth of God’s love for humankind through Jesus if he had not encountered Cornelius? We may never know. But what we do know, thanks to this story, is that both Cornelius and Peter were transformed through their encounter with one another. It took a relationship across lines of religious and cultural difference for both of them to be changed into better versions of themselves.

This is what making peace involves: coming to the proverbial table with one’s commitments, encountering the other and his or her commitments, and being changed/transformed in the process. Peace-making is mutually transformative. Peter left some of his commitments on the table in his encounter with Cornelius. He could no longer carry the commitment that Jews are the only ones who were included in God’s project of rebirth/resurrection. It didn’t work anymore.

And that’s the risk we all take in engaging in relationships across lines of religious difference. We risk being transformed, because relationships are dangerous for theology but are necessary for peace.

What you have probably realized, if you have read all three of these posts, is that I am not saying that evangelism has no place in peacemaking. What I am saying is that traditional ideas about evangelism need to be challenged if we hope to truly make peace with our religious others. We can’t afford to enter relationships with people with the sole purpose of changing them: their minds, their beliefs, or their faith. Rather, these relationships must involve mutual risk and mutual reward. If the good news is really good news, it has to be good news for everyone.

Our beliefs will always shape our conversations. If they don’t then we aren’t fully present in the relationship. The risk we take involves allowing our friendship to change us as much as it changes our friend. This is what makes peace possible across lines of religious and cultural difference. We need to seek to understand as much as to be understood. When we do this, we really do participate in God’s redemption and reconciliation, not only of others, but of ourselves.

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