2016-06-30
We have grown so accustomed to one war after another we forget to pay attention to possibilities for peace. Yet such a possibility is now blossoming in the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But even as we assess the political dynamics that make this a promising time for peacemaking, we must be aware of the moral, and ultimately spiritual, struggle that is involved in making peace a reality.

The basic outlines of a peace agreement have been clear for a long time. The United Nations and most countries, including the United States, have endorsed a negotiated two-state solution for decades. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to this concept in principle in the Oslo Accords. The sides must agree on final borders, the status of Jerusalem, security guarantees, and the issue of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. These are difficult but solvable problems, and during the last years of the Clinton administration they almost were solved. But the collapse of those talks was followed by a long and bloody four years of escalating violence and worsening mistrust.

Now both the Palestinians and Israelis may have leaders who are able to make a deal. Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon are both weary warriors who may have the wisdom to lead their people to make the hard choices required for peace. Washington also is ripe for involvement for a variety of reasons, including the fresh start provided by a second Bush term.

But if all this is true, why is peace so elusive? We need an analysis that goes beyond politics. We need to see the deeper spiritual realities of war.

Even if a nation or people enter war for rational purposes or with the declared intent of mere self-defense, it is a kind of intoxicant. When we cross the threshold to violence and release our guns, bombs, and missiles at our enemies, we often get a sick kind of pleasure out of it. This intoxication was widely reported at the beginning of World War I, for example, before it was replaced by horror over the sheer carnage of the conflict. But at the beginning of a war it feels good to kill the enemies who have so enraged and wounded us. This pleasure in settling scores and spilling enemy blood is an ancient human feeling, though intensified in recent years by the powerful images of wartime suffering offered in the media and by the enhanced capacity of our weapons of war. Our blood boils with a desire that is aptly captured by the ancient Hebrew law of retaliation: "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand" (Ex. 21:24). Those who have done us wrong must be paid back, and so we get to work on it. It satisfies us in some primal way.

This, of course, is one reason why Jesus and other biblical figures so passionately warn us about our anger, hatred, and desire for vengeance. Jesus turns the law of retaliation on its head by instead calling us to love our enemies and avoid even the anger and name-calling that leads to violence (Mt. 5:21-26, 43-47). Paul calls his readers to "never avenge yourselves...do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:19,21). If we weren't so enticed by the desire for vengeance, we wouldn't need anyone to warn us against it.

Also, as New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges titled his book so memorably, "war is a force that gives us meaning." Gen. George Patton said, "Compared to war all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God, I do love it so!" War fills us with excitement, resolve, pride, and purpose. The "us" here is both the individual and the nation; in fact, never is the boundary between individual and nation less clear than during war. "We" gain pride in our military victories and passionate, shared grief and anger in our losses. We thrill with a sense of purpose. We thirst for victory and await the celebration. War is more exciting than peace, headlines about military victories more interesting than those about farm subsidies.

But from a biblical perspective this means that we are trapped in the desire for something that is contrary to God's will and that harms our fellow human beings. Somehow we know that this is true, and so a part of us desires peace. But another part remains attracted to the elixirs of war. Both the desire for what is harmful and the inability or unwillingness to overcome that desire are decisive marks of sin.

But even so, as Augustine understood long ago, and as we know somewhere deep inside, peace is the condition for which we were made. Few really want to spend their entire lives on a war footing. God made us with other, higher possibilities that can only be realized in conditions of peace and security: studying sacred Scriptures, raising our families, reading good books, making a living, cultivating our love of beauty, and in general building rather than destroying civilization; this is really what we were made for.

War is a temporary violation of the just, peaceful, and secure order which we all need. We may get a perverse charge out of war, but upon reflection we must understand that only in conditions of peace can our communities and our personal lives flourish.

This is why the ultimate hope expressed in the Hebrew Bible is for the time of righteousness and peace when at last all will dwell in peace and security in their own homes. Peace is an aspect of God's kingdom, and we will know it has arrived in its fullness only when we no longer lift up weapons of war against one another.

There will be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians unless at a spiritual level the will to live in peace prevails over the perversely satisfying fury of vengeance. One way we know this is true is because the same reality can be found in our personal lives as well. Whether in a work setting or a marriage, a relationship damaged by injustices and wrongs can be healed only if the desire to reconcile prevails over the desire to wound the one who has wounded us. This is so hard for us to attain because the will to avenge ourselves competes with the will to forgive, and the pleasure of destroying one who has become an enemy likewise competes with the pleasure of reconciliation. For Christians, Jesus provides the ultimate model of how God resolves this problem: suffering in order to reconcile rather than inflicting suffering because we are not reconciled. We are called to do the same.

This will to live in peace is not the end of the process, of course; it is just the beginning.

It must lead to practical peacemaking steps such as acknowledging our own wrongdoing, confessing it, and forgiving the other who confesses the wrongs done to us. The spiral of conflict that spins down into destruction must be replaced by a spiral of peacemaking that builds trust and brings life. This is what Jesus was talking about when he called peacemakers blessed and commanded his followers to leave their offering at the altar and reconcile with estranged brothers and sisters (Mt. 5:9, 21-26).

The prophet Isaiah wrote of a time when God "will make peace your governor, and righteousness your ruler. No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders" (Isa. 60:17-18). Peace is our destiny, the quest for it our moral obligation.

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