AT 21: Is a Peace Church Possible? The Church's "Foreign Policy"-Worship

Third article in a series by Alan Kreider
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 21, Summer 1999

“Grace and peace to you.” What difference does it make to our churches, and to the world, when we take peace as seriously as grace? What differ-ence does it make when we allow “the God of peace [to] sanctify us”, not just as indi­vidu­als or in bits of our lives, but “wholly” – making us peaceful, holy, in all the dimensions of our life (1Thess 5.23)?

In the two earlier articles in this series, I have argued that it makes a big difference when we allow “peace” to help shape our identity as churches. It changes the way we think. Furthermore, there is a “peace dividend” for our churches. This transforms our churches’ common life; it helps build communi­ties of people who are learning the skills and disciplines of peacemaking. It also – as I want to demonstrate in this article and in the next issue of Anabaptism Today – changes our church’s witness, our way of living in the world and reaching out to others; it transforms our “foreign policy”.

Living in a World of Multidimensional Conflict

Twenty years ago, many people in the West were frightened. They were living in a polarised world of Cold War, divided between two power blocs, both of whom had nuclear arms. Now, post-Cold War, nuclear weapons still loom over our world, but the conflicts of the world seem more complex than they did. It’s not a world divided between vast alliances or among nation states. Rather it’s a world divided among intermingling cultures, tribes, ethnic and religious groups. Throughout the Cold War this multi-cultural world was there, but it had been suppressed; now it has emerged, with cultural identities that fragment nation-states and that ignore political borders. These cultural groupings – the Serbs and the Albanians, the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Kurds and the Turks – often elicit immense passion and lethal violence. And it is not “out there”; for many of us, it characterises and enriches our own neighbourhoods. Ours is a multicul-tural world, and it won’t go away. We have to learn to live with it, and that means living with complexity and conflict.

So this is the setting for our churches’ witness – our “foreign policy”. And my belief is this: as we discover how to be a peace church, we can have an impact for God and for good on our world. In this article I show how this will deepen our worship; in a final article I shall show how this will trans-form our approaches to areas of work, war and witness.

Peacemaking Worship

Is worship a part of the church’s “foreign policy”? Isn’t worship an intra-mural activity of the Christian family? Granted, worship services often do have nothing to do with the world. Worship services at times remind me of the first astronauts, just back from the moon, who were put into quarantine. Nobody wanted the moon to contaminate the earth. That’s how it often is with our churches’ services; the world is quarantined; we don’t want it to contaminate what happens in the church. This leads to unreality, and to phoney worship. The worship of the church should be a truthful encounter with the God who loves the world and who wants to empower his people to participate in his mission to the world. God is a personal God, and he is eager to meet with us. But God is also Lord of history, and he is serious about being Lord of all peoples and nations, principalities and powers. Furthermore, worship is a meeting with other people in God’s presence. Through this meeting with God and with each other, we see the world in a new light – and things happen. We change; adoration transforms us, so we are ready to do God’s work in a difficult situation. And somehow, mysteri­ously, things change too on the earth and in the heavenlies. Worship is the motor of history; it is an engine of peacemaking.

1. We acclaim Jesus as Lord. When we gather to worship God, we gather “in Jesus’ name” to confess that “Jesus is Lord”. This is powerful. We are asserting that – although there are lesser lords – our ultimate loyalty is to him. If there is a conflict of sovereignties, it is Jesus whom we will obey. So his teaching is authoritative for us, and his way is normative. As we gather, we open ourselves to seeing the world from his perspective. In worship, we use our Lord’s words and tell his stories. By doing this we will come to see reality in such a way that Jesus makes sense. And if Jesus makes sense, a lot of things that pass for common sense in our culture won’t make sense. Jesus’ teaching on wealth, peace, truth, enemies, sex and trust is not good late-twentieth-century English common sense; in worship, God gives us “liberation from common sense” and encourages us to “cultivate holy madness.”1

So when a peace church worships, there will be a YES and a NO: a choosing of God’s way and a rejection of much of the sensibleness of our age. In the worship of peace churches, we will seek the perspective of our Lord, and we will discern what in our life and experience is in keeping with the way, truth and life of Jesus, who shows us the Father. What, in contrast, is worldly wisdom which God wants us to unmask and discredit?

2. We affirm solidarity with God’s global family. Because there is one Lord, ultimately there is one people who acknowledge his gracious rule. By grace we are adopted as children of the same King, and hence we are brothers and sisters in an incredible family made up of people from every tribe and nation. Wherever around the globe Christians gather, we acknowledge this fundamental fact – in Christ we are one in our praise and one in our belonging. The implications of this are prophetic; our worship is a reminder to the world of “the arbitrariness of the divisions between people…”2

Why should this be surprising? Because society programmes us not to think of people as Christians who are one in Christ, who are made brothers and sisters by his grace, who share bread and wine at his table; society pro-grammes us rather to think of people above all according to their race or nationality – as Serbs, not as Orthodox or Baptist Christians. A symbol of this is the nuclear bomb that in 1945 destroyed Nagasaki. It was dropped by a US plane, piloted by Catholic crewmen who were given spiritual support by Catholic padres, upon a target whose epicentre was a Roman Catholic cathe­dral at the heart of the largest Christian community in Japan; the bomb wiped out two orders of Catholic nuns. War causes pain in the body of Christ.

The worship of peace churches repudiates these values. So, to make the desecration of God’s family more difficult, peace churches seek ways to remember the big picture. They keep in touch with Christians around the world, exchanging letters, photos, and e-mails; when foreigners visit our churches we listen to them with expectancy.

3. We tell God’s story. Worship in the Bible more than anything else tells the story of God’s actions. From the song of the sea (Exodus 15) through the psalms and Passover rituals to the table worship of the New Testament churches, the emphasis of worship is on remembering. All of these are means of telling the story of God.

Why is this important? Because we as humans are people whose identity is primarily shaped by the stories that we tell. Our beliefs and our sense of selfhood are rooted in our experiences, and in the stories that we have discovered to be true. The biblical writers knew this. They knew that the story of God and the people of God was strange. From the calling of childless Abram and Sarai to be the parents of multitudes if they would leave their securities to the breaking down of insider/outsider barriers through the work of Jesus Christ – this is a counter-cultural story. Its themes and values are odd. Christian worship is designed to instil that story deeply into our con­scious­ness. So we tell the story, ponder on its depths and ambiguities, celebrate it – and by God’s grace continue it.

In every era Christians face the temptation to replace the story of God by other, more sensible, stories that make powerful humans feel better about their wealth and violence. Some of these stories are fundamental, underlying many others. Two such deep stories are “the myth of redemptive violence” and “the metanarrative of military consumerism”.3 What do these mean in ordinary English? “The only thing that works is force.” “I deserve to be better off than my parents were.” “Well, the armaments industry provides lots of jobs.” “We’ll give the people a choice; either they follow our leadership or they can go elsewhere.”

We are constantly fed a diet of spin, which is designed to shape us to the dominant story of our society and make us good, pliant, well-adjusted, inwardly violent consumers. If we buy this story, there’s not a chance of our churches being peace churches.

That’s why it’s so important in our worship to tell, ponder and celebrate the story of another kind of God. Think about it: does your worship tell the story? Children’s stories, Bible readings, testimonies about God’s activities today, stories from the world church and church history, sermons, the words and rite of the communion service – all of these can help us to remember and inspire us to praise – and also to live differently. If we tell God’s story, we’ll be less likely to be choked by our culture’s diet of spin.

4. We cry out to God for the world. The biblical writers urge us to intercede – for the peace of Jerusalem, for kings and all people, that God’s Kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth. We come to worship as people who know God’s peace and whose churches are coming to be cultures of peace; so the places where peace is denied cry out. We hear the cries, and we join in them – to the God of peace who hears the groans of the inarticulate and receives the prayers of his people. God’s Spirit helps us in our praying (Rom 8.26-27); and our prayers make a difference on earth (Rev 8.3-4). We struggle with evil in our prayers – “against the rulers, against the authorities and the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph 6.12); we contend with powers that diminish and dehumanise people, and that express themselves in injustice, war, victimisation, scapegoating, persecution.

This prayer can have astonishing effects. Fifteen years ago, no one would have thought the following things to be possible – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the end of Apartheid without massacre, the Irish peace process. But some churches prayed for these with persistence and passion. “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (Ps 46.9). When we pray, we are entering into the work of God. We are praising God for all the places where his peacemaking is happening in new and exciting ways. We are interceding for human peaceworkers – including some of our own members whom we commission – whose power is minimal save in the

power of God. And somehow, through our prayers and the prayers of many others, God can change the world. “History,” wrote Walter Wink, “belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.”4 What impossibilities are we praying for at the moment? Right relations between Serbs and Kosovars? A world-wide abolition of nuclear weapons?5 Can there be a peace church without intercession as an integral part of its worship? It’s unthinkable!

5. We sing our theology. Our songs and hymns are important. We may talk theology, but we really believe what we sing. There is power and potential here for the energising and envisioning of peace churches. But there is also danger. The danger is in part the “music wars” which characterise some congregations – what we sing can be a source of conflict which, if handled badly, can be a source of destructive division. More seriously, the danger can be that one side will win. Some churches triumphalistically reject the old and, in the guise of piety, are tempted to sing the world’s theology of power and domination. Other churches defensively repudiate anything that seems emotive or new. Both of these approaches truncate the life and discipleship of the church. Peace churches need to draw upon the artistic fruits of God’s Creator Spirit both across the centuries and now – they need to “bring out of their treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13.52). And they must pray to God for songwriters who, inspired by the vision of shalom, will give poetic and musical expression to a theology of peace-making. What we sing is what we internalise – it will be with us when we’re weakest, when we’re old and are dying. Let’s choose wisely what we sing!

6. God reconciles us and forgives us. When we worship God, God is the main actor. God is at work pursuing his Kingdom goals of “justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14.17). God is at work reconciling us to himself, healing us of our sicknesses of body and spirit, forgiving us our sins, restoring our inner motives and our priorities. Worship is one of the main tools in God’s workshop – it is an activity which is God’s gift, which God uses to refashion us in the divine image and to end our alienation. This is glorious and gracious, a source of endless wonder and thanksgiving.

The worship of the peace church will not stop there. It will observe that, throughout the Bible, God does not simply plead with people to accept his forgiveness; he urges them to act forgivingly to others. God’s concern is not simply to be reconciled to people; it is for them to be reconciled to others. Paul put this so economi­cally: “Accept one another, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15.7). Miroslav Volf has commented: Paul’s injunc-tion “is to make the pattern of divine action toward us a pattern for our actions toward the other”.6 According to this vision, every church which experiences and celebrates the reconciling and forgiving love of God is called to be a peace church. It is called, not to hoard the reconciliation, but to pass it on. This is why the early Christians developed the rite of “the kiss of love” (1 Pet 5.14); it was a means, within their worship, of celebrating the peace of God and where there were broken relationships of restoring them.7 Jesus told his disciples that making peace between brothers who are at odds with each other is incredibly important, certainly more important than the offering (Matt 5.23ff). A peace church will be asking always: in our worship do we allow God to reconcile us to himself, and to each other – and to be empowered to be his ambassadors of reconciliation in the world?

7. God feeds us, making us a people of sharing and non-violence. Com­mun­ion is central to the life of the peace church. No place was more characteristic for Jesus to be with his disciples than at table. In our day it is also at table that we meet with Christ, who breaks the bread and pours out the wine and reveals his presence to us. At this table we all are equal. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23); and all of us are offered the same quantity of Christ’s limitless food and drink.

Communion is thus an expression of the radical egalitarianism of the gospel. It is also an expression of the gospel’s non-violence. Jesus said to his disciples, “Remember me. Remember my sacrifice for you. Remember my way of dealing with my enemies. Remember my teaching.” Communion offers us a rite by which we can keep from forgetting that Jesus has made things new. He was the last scapegoat; after him there is no need for further violence.8 Peace churches will use the communion meal in many ways to keep us filled with, and in tune with, our peacemaking Lord.

8. God shapes our vision and mission. Steve Finamore has proposed a life-cycle of worship and mission.9 1)When we gather for worship, we bring “reports from the front.” We bring the experiences and hurts and longings from our involvement in God’s Kingdom work in the world. We reflect the violence, are agonised by the hardness and are scarred by broken rela-tionships. 2) In worship we encounter “the God of peace who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ” (Heb 13.20). We tell the story of God and celebrate it. We learn the ways of God and come to view these as the path to abundant living. We praise God, give thanks, intercede. Worship thus functions as a filter; it purifies us, clarifies our vision. And it empowers us: it restores our belief, re-inspires us with God’s grace and vision for the world. 3) This equips us for mission. Re-visioned by our encounter with the God of peace, we go back into the world equipped with hope and vision and spiritual energy. We will be in the struggle with princi­pali­ties and powers. But we will find God at work, calling people to faith, suggesting new ways forward in intractable situations, and doing the new thing. We will not go unscathed, but the God of peace will be with us. We will fail, and the tasks will be too large. So we will come back to worship, bringing our brokenness and stories of God’s grace. And the cycle will continue. This cycle of worship is a sine qua non for a peace church: it heals us, energises us, and keeps us on course. It links God’s love with our lives, and with God’s world, in a swirl of new creation. Worship can thus be anything but quarantine: it is the heart and soul of the peace church’s foreign relations.

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He travels widely to speak on topics of discipleship, worship, mission and peacemaking.

Notes

1 Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press,1996), 96-98.

2 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (London: SCM Press, 1984), 100. A friend of mine has proposed a slogan which surprises people: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.

3 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 13; Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 718.

4 Wink, Engaging, 304.

5 For the post-Cold War “gift of time” in which nuclear weapons might be disarmed and banned, see Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (London: Granta Books,1998.

6 Miroslav Volf, “The Clumsy Embrace,” Christianity Today, 26 October 1998, 69.

7 Eleanor Kreider, “Let the Faithful Greet Each Other: The Kiss of Peace” Conrad Grebel Review 5 (1987), 29-49.

8 Clapp, Peculiar People, 110-111.

9 Steve Finamore, “Worship, Social Action and the Kingdom of Heaven” Theology Themes 4.2 (1997), 8-12.