What Does Faithful Christian Witness Look Like in a World of Destructive Conflicts?

From Nigeria and India to the Balkans and Iraq, from Sudan and Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the mission of the Church takes place on a landscape of conflict, and increasingly so. In today’s world, there cannot be faithful Christian witness without an intimate relationship between mission, reconciliation and peace.

A question posed by a church leader in Rwanda helps to focus the challenge. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he commented, “Many of my parishioners participated in killing. How do we form Christians who say no to killing?”

Here we must say that our task to simply evangelism is not enough. Evangelism into what? Into what kind of Christianity? What are the implications for us when mission not only takes place on a landscape of destructive conflicts, but when the Christian community itself is often caught up in these conflicts?

 A serious impediment to God’s mission is the Church being caught up in conflicts—places where the blood of ethnicity, tribe, racialism, sexual domination, caste, social class or nationalism flows stronger than the waters of baptism and Christian discipleship.

These were the challenges we wrestled with three years ago at the Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization in Thailand. There, forty-seven Christian leaders from twenty-one countries met for the Issue Group on Reconciliation. Over several days of hearing stories of pain and hope, worshiping together, eating together and a dramatic foot washing between representatives of divided groups, we shaped our Lausanne Occasional Paper, “Reconciliation as the Mission of God: Christian Witness in a World of Destructive Conflicts.”

The convictions articulated in the paper, highlighted below, point to a troubling situation and the need for a critical re-examination of mission and discipleship.

Reconciliation at the Core of God’s Mission
For Christians, reconciliation is not optional. The mission of God is reconciliation and is God’s initiative (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Yet a serious impediment to God’s mission is the Church being caught up in conflicts—places where the blood of ethnicity, tribe, racialism, sexual domination, caste, social class or nationalism flows stronger than the waters of baptism and Christian discipleship. At the same time, even in the worst conflicts, signs of hope can be detected in the Church. Christians have shaped many of the world’s most hopeful breakthroughs for reconciliation. The Church must celebrate, study and follow their Christ-like witness.

The Church and Ideologies of Escape
It is crucial to understand that the transmission of the gospel and the ministry of the Church do not run in pure, separate historical streams, but are carried on inside of and tainted by the world’s poisoned, muddy histories.

Numerous ideologies of escape steer Christians away from faithful witness. These ideologies of escape include:

  • an adopting numbers of conversions or church plants as a primary measure of Christianity’s growth, allowing churches or ministries to grow with superficial discipleship or in ways that perpetuate social division;
  • dualistic theologies which are silent about social problems, teach individual salvation without social transformation or social involvement without personal conversion in Christ;
  • the fallacy of any ethnic, cultural, gender or national group’s self-sufficiency;
  • a false belief in God’s creation of essentially different people groups, justifying permanent boundaries between them (such as was the case with South African apartheid);
  • a spirit of individualism seen in Christian disunity; and
  • an underlying message of cheap grace which encourages superficial discipleship and reconciliation without repentance.

It is urgent that the Christian community learn to name and unlearn these ideologies.

The Critical Need for a Theological Framework for Peace
While it is a problem when Christians do not see how peace and reconciliation fit into Jesus, it is also a problem when we do not see how the presence of Jesus Christ profoundly reshapes a vision of justice and reconciliation.

Indeed, the fullness of reconciliation is friendship with God in Jesus Christ. The wholeness that God seeks to bring to all areas of brokenness is summed up in the rich scriptural notion of shalom. Shalom as God’s peace envisions the wholeness, well-being and flourishing of all people and all creation in their interrelatedness with God and with each other.

This work of becoming peacemakers between divided people is not secondary or optional, but is central to Christian mission along with planting churches and making disciples.

Shalom embraces mercy, truth, justice and peace through both personal conversion in Christ and social transformation. One crucial implication is that Christians must stand against any destructive or dehumanizing barrier, whether those who suffer are Christian or not.

Reconciliation as an Essential, Long and Costly Journey
This work of becoming peacemakers between divided people is not secondary or optional, but is central to Christian mission along with planting churches and making disciples. This witness begins at home. For the Church to make peace, she herself must embody God’s peace as a living sign of God’s reconciled community.

This vocation of reconciliation is not a one-time event or a linear journey of progress. It is a long and costly journey. In a Christian understanding, no one has the greater burden to take the first step in this journey—whether majority or minority, powerful or powerless, aggressor or afflicted. The initiative for reconciliation begins wherever people find the courage to lose themselves and discover the human face of the “other.” Indeed, reconciliation requires a risky journey in which all groups are transformed and called to costly sacrifices. Reconcilers are often seen as traitors by their own people, and often become a bridge painfully trampled on by both sides.

When Do We See Reconciliation?
Only God knows what true reconciliation looks like. The challenge is to see where we are in the journey and to point out signs of hope. The Church is called to eagerly pursue hope in three dimensions:

1. The Church should be a key indication of hope, a living alternative, infusing and challenging the social sphere with a more radical vision of God’s reconciliation. At the heart of this witness are blended congregations where historically separated peoples share deep, common life and Christian institutions unlearn discrimination and unjust use of resources. It is also critical that Christians cross barriers and pursue a transnational identity which forms them into people whose ultimate loyalty is to Christ alone.

2. The Church should have faithful practices of social engagement, even if they result in no visible change. These are profound indications of hope amidst destructive conflicts. Examples are when Christians forgive persecutors, prophetically challenge unjust situations and offer hospitality across divides.

3. The Church should eagerly work for indications of reconciliation in society. Two examples include (1) enemy leaders entering dialogue, stopping violence, seeking restorative justice and seeing truth around a painful shared history appropriately and communally remembered and (2) communities becoming places of shared, peaceable life.

Placing Reconciliation at the Heart of Christian Mission in the Twenty-first Century
In a world increasingly marked by conflict, there is an urgent need for the Christian community to embrace and embody peace and reconciliation as central to its life and mission.

Toward this end, the final call of the paper is to:

  • call the Church to humble examination,
  • identify and dismantle the escapist ideologies and practices which steer us from reconciliation,
  • cross difficult divisions and barriers to engage those we are separated from,
  • preach and teach costly peacemaking as normative of Christian faith,
  • refuse neutrality or silence in relationship to destructive social conditions and
  • intentionally shape pastors and congregations able to live an alternative life of shalom.

In all this, we joyfully and publicly proclaim God’s victory in Christ and God’s plan for the future of reconciling “all things” in himself.

The Lausanne Occasional Paper “Reconciliation as the Mission of God,” including “Roots & Realities” vignettes and case studies of pain and hope, is available at: www.lausanne.org/documents/2004forum/LOP51_IG22.pdf. A shorter booklet is available in English and French (forthcoming in Arabic and Spanish) at: www.reconciliationnetwork.com/.

Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, USA. He served as convener of the Lausanne 2004 Issue Group on Reconciliation. He is author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel and Grace Matters.