Peace-building from a biblical perspective

By Jeremy Ive 18 Jun 2003

The international situation of the early twenty-first century has been beset by numerous interstate and intra-state conflicts since the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, conflicts and tensions previously submerged or frozen by the superpower rivalry of that era have now come to the surface, particularly, in the consciousness of the West, following the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001.

The ensuing international interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought many tensions to the fore, not least as the ethical and legal basis for intervention – especially in Iraq – has been fiercely debated. Much less attention, however, seems to have been paid to the question of how exactly the sort of society hoped for could emerge and then be nurtured and supported.

Unless the underlying relational issues can be addressed and dealt with, any intervention is likely simply to foster instability and continuing conflict. It is also likely to store up hatreds and resentments both within the conflict situation and against the intervening parties.

Relationships are the key

The darkness of the human heart can easily make it a distorting lens whereby even the best-intentioned acts come to be regarded with deep suspicion, and generosity and honesty misconstrued as perfidy. Unhealed wounds can distort relationships, often in ways that may not be fully appreciated by the parties themselves or by others who become involved.

Good human relations are, thus, not an optional extra. The restoration of right relationships is the only basis on which peace can be established. Peace in turn is the basis from which all other objectives can be achieved. In order to restore relationships, there needs to be a process of forgiveness, a relational process which involves a transaction between two or more parties (be they individuals, communities or national groups). Conflicts are destructive and divisive. They also distort community structures and inhibit the freedom essential for the healthy growth of all institutions – church, state, family and the range of voluntary associations and enterprises which collectively make up what is called ‘civil society’.

Christians are called to seek peace with one another (Romans 12:18), and by implication between their respective communities. This command to create a world filled with a holistic sense of peace, shalom, does not mean turning a blind eye to injustice, be it personal or structural. Indeed, another imperative, that of mishpat (justice) requires all people, as bearers of God’s image, to work for the restoration of the shattered and distorted social order in which we live. The achievement of justice is a necessary prerequisite for the establishment of peace, but the justice to be worked for cannot simply be identified with the demands of any one class or party grouping – it must be truly impartial, without bias to the rich or the poor (see Deuteronomy 1:17).

The peacemaker and the prophet

There is, however, a practical tension between the ‘peacemaking’ and ‘prophetic’ roles. The peacemaker’s objective is to facilitate harmony between conflicting parties, while the prophet directly confronts injustice and those responsible for it. If we focus exclusively on the peacemaking role there is the danger that we might underplay injustice and inequality in our attempt to encourage discussion and conciliation. In the prophetic role, we run the risk of alienating one or other of the parties, or both, that we are trying to bring together.

The tension can only be sustained creatively by keeping in view the wider perspective. If we approach Scripture to see what it says about a whole range of relationships we will find that it provides us with a critique of present injustices and also gives us an outline of what a transformed social order should look like. This vision can then be applied to a conflict situation in an informed and carefully-considered way.

As Christian peacemakers we are thus called to seek reconciliation in very real situations of conflict, without softening our opposition to the injustices which exist. And although we are motivated by our Christian faith and the biblical vision for society, this does not mean that we cannot work with those from different faiths or none at all. As all humanity is created in the image of God we can expect to share common points of ethical concern with those from different faith-communities.

Moreover as we, like Jesus, respond to the Father’s call, and as we shape our action and our understanding of society by the attitude and example of the Son, our relationships with others are transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit. This example not only provides us with our motivation as peacemakers but gives us the basis for constructive action in the world created, redeemed and being moved to its final glory by the triune God.

Finding common ground

The aim of peace-building is to sow seeds for a peace which includes all people and communities within a just and workable framework for the future – unique to each conflict situation – by finding common ground and then setting clearly defined and realistic goals. These goals need to be determined after a careful consideration of all the relevant aspects of the situation being addressed. Sadly, Christians have too often been compromised, for example in situations such as South Africa where an unjust order had been legitimised using ‘Christian’ arguments. In this case appeal was made to broader Christian principles, which all could embrace and which pointed the way to a constructive change.

In Rwanda, where the churches had been compromised even more deeply through the involvement of church leaders in the genocide, the common Christian commitment of Tutsi and Hutu provided a way for real dialogue and understanding to be re-established. In situations where there is not a Christian majority, such as Sudan, the commitment to common theistic beliefs as members of the Abrahamic faiths has made common ground possible for what we trust will be a sound and secure settlement. The good progress of the Alexandria Group (initiated by the former Archbishop of Canterbury with other religious leaders) in the context of Israel-Palestine indicates that such an approach may well be possible in that situation as well.

As peacemakers we need to gain the trust of all the principal actors and be guided by an agenda that takes its bearings from the basic principles of biblical justice itself. The peacemakers must listen attentively to all disputants, showing concern for each of them, even to those with whom they disagree. And while they cannot remain morally neutral, indeed they must not, they must be careful not to allow themselves to be co-opted into the political strategy of any of the parties.


The perspective of peace-building – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine or elsewhere – is one of well-informed hope. Without the possibility of seeing beyond the immediate struggle for power and position, and beyond the self-perpetuating cycle of injury and revenge, the process of healing and restoration cannot take place. The substance of what is being worked towards needs also to be based on values beyond the calculus of immediate self-interest. The irony, indeed the divine irony in this, is that having abandoned the struggle for ascendancy at the cost of others, the true basis for prosperity in concrete terms is laid. The peace that is given us through the rule of Christ is, thus, the true foundation for the future.

The Revd. Dr Jeremy Ive is a parish clergyman in Kent. He has been involved as director and later advisor in peace-building initiatives undertaken by Relationships Foundation International (formerly the Newick Park Initiative), in South Africa, Rwanda and Sudan.

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