When Will Peace Come to the Middle East?

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When Will Peace Come to the Middle East?

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Believe it or not, the Bible-not the sword of murder and mayhem-is going to have the last word in the Middle East.

Yet today, along with understandable hopes for the current peace process, we are still in the presence of stubborn and difficult antagonisms that baffle and dispirit anyone who hopes for satisfactory solutions.

Thorny Mideast conflicts are an immense drain on both human and natural resources. Israeli's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin died the victim of an internal terrorist act earlier this year, and constant political undercurrent over oil are always percolating.

A shifting world scene

On today's complex international scene, terrorism in cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv constantly impedes the peace process. One or two bombs wipe out thousands of hours of diplomacy. It's difficult to keep your mind on peace when your homeland is under attack by terrorists.

The March 9, 1996, issue of The Economist summed up the harsh reality of the situation: "Israelis, traumatised by the slaughter of some 60 people, believe they have been cheated in their land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. But the alternative is bleak: three years of courageous risk-taking undone; a cruel war of attrition; an end to Israel's hopes of normal relations with the Muslim world. The evil men behind the suicide-bombers can congratulate themselves. Seldom, it seems has terrorism been more effective at achieving its ends."

Bombings truly test a nation's commitment to the peace process. The potential threat of thousands standing ready for suicide bombing missions casts a shadow across all of Israel. The former chief rabbi of London, Lord Jakobovits, has written that "we must pursue the peace efforts as if there was no terrorism, and fight the terrorists as if there were no peace efforts."

But terrorism is not the only threat to peace in the Middle East. Wars fought using traditional methods have abounded in this blood-stained century.

More than a decade ago, Kuwait feared an invasion from Iran. Later the onslaught actually came from Iraq. Today the credibility of the Conservative government in the United Kingdom remains suspect because of to the investigation of British arms sales to Iraq.

Who knows what nation or terrorist group we will hear from next? As veteran British newsman Peregrine Worsthorne commented in the aftermath of the Gulf War: "Saddam Hussein is not unique. There will be other Third World chancers [opportunists] encouraged by the example of how nearly he got away with his bold and ruthless plan."

So the foibles and follies of human nature transcend time, geography and political borders.

Oil and antagonisms

Yet there is every reason for real hope in the long run. In reality, the Middle East has a glorious future that we can understand when we come to hold a sound biblical vision of the area.

Let's begin an assessment of the region's problems by briefly surveying the enormously important background behind present conditions.

Fully 50 percent of the world's known crude-oil reserves exist in the Middle East. According to a map produced by the National Geographic Society, Iraq and Kuwait possess oil reserves of nearly 200 billion barrels between them. Such is the strategic importance of these Mideast countries that compel the attention of the entire world.

So oil is the real king (or all-powerful sheikh) in the Middle East. One of the reasons the Western powers went to war in 1991 in the Gulf War was to prevent a possible Iraqi monopoly from controlling these precious black-liquid reserves. Remember that oil is always the unseen player in the Persian Gulf region.

But far more fundamental than even precious petroleum reserves are the area's age-old antagonisms. In spite of definable diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a separate state for the latter, ancient territorial ambitions continue to assail the region. Iraq and Kuwait have long-standing disputes that have alternately smoldered and cooled according to the prevailing political climate.

So have Iraq and Iran. The two fought an eight-year war, killing millions of people, only to later settle their famous border dispute in a supposedly amicable manner under the pressure of Western presence in the Gulf.

Does war ever make sense in the long run? Does it really solve any of these dilemmas?

Where it all began

Perhaps more than any other place on the globe, the Middle East is an area in which the past meets the future. No other human conflict is so firmly rooted in antiquity. The Bible shows that the Middle East is where humankind consciously began to think about its spiritual purposes in the world.

It is where man first perceived that he is not just a physical creature, but one with abstract, intangible longings and emotional needs. As the early chapters of Genesis make plain, religion (true and false) began in that fabled area of the globe.

The Middle East is the home of three major belief systems that have significantly influenced the way we understand life and death, good and evil, right and wrong. The roots of three world religions-Islam, Judaism and Christianity-reside there.

Frankly every one of these faiths has its serious divisions. Fundamentalist revolutionaries lobby for extremist solutions to territorial problems. The modern nation of Israel has periodically claimed the biblical boundaries of Judaea and Samaria. Jihad-or holy war-is the recurring Arab cry the West has become accustomed to hearing. A holy war is not unfamiliar to the mainstream Christian tradition if we remember the Crusades.

Today the Middle East is not the source of spiritual enlightenment God intended it to be in this chaotic and confused world. Instead, the atmosphere there has been marked by armed conflict, hostility and, most of all, misunderstanding-not the things the Creator wanted it to provide. Surely positive direction, opportunity and hope should have emanated from the Middle East.

Certainly serious physical and spiritual problems will be present for the foreseeable future. The potential for breaking the Sixth Commandment, the biblical injunction against murder, remains enormous. Arms proliferation is the dominant tendency in the Middle Eastern sector of the Mediterranean. No one knows when this buildup of weapons will explode into the next war.

Israel to be an example

In the Bible, God told ancient Israel that its peoples were to serve as a good and right example to other nations. They were presented with an unparalleled legal system that, if obeyed, would have provided peace and justice for all its citizens.

God meant for other nations to behold in wonderment the wisdom that would naturally stem from Israel's way of life and voluntarily choose it for themselves.

Notice this biblical passage written by the hand of Moses. "Observe them [statutes and laws] carefully, for thereby you will display your wisdom and understanding to other peoples. When they hear about all these statutes and laws, they will say, 'What a wise and understanding people this great nation is!' What great nation has a god close at hand as the LORD our God is close to us whenever we call to him?" (Deuteronomy 4:6, 7, Revised English Bible).

A desperate need exists for a biblical and spiritual inspiration in the Middle East today. There is also a need to understand the area's history. Since antiquity, it has been a center of the world's attention. All nations are tethered to its geopolitical swings because it encompasses the basic story of humankind. To comprehend the present, we must, as always, examine the past.

We should never forget that the Bible, in its geographic origins, comes from the Middle East. The Garden of Eden lay somewhere near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. God called Abraham in lower Mesopotamia, the land between these two ancient rivers.

Continuing conflict in the cradle of civilization

How ironic in one sense that this cradle of civilization should often be the site of conflict, hatred and hostility. From Eden we have progressed to Babel. Yet it is not so ironic in the light of the account in Genesis. How many realize that the present Middle Eastern antagonisms are rooted in events described in the Bible's first book?

After all, nations are nothing more than families grown great. For instance, much of the Arab world stems from Terah, the father of Abraham.

An ancient passage of biblical wisdom does advise us to "look unto Abraham your father" (Isaiah 51:2). Three major faiths trace their ancestry back to this patriarch. Yet historically the children of Abraham have split into bitterly feuding family factions.

It is a fact that this legacy of broken families has led indirectly to today's problems in the Middle East. Battles between brothers are a recurring theme: Abel was murdered at the hands of Cain; Ishmael was banished in a family dispute; Jacob and Esau struggled for their father's blessings; the 10 brothers sold Joseph into slavery. On it goes, even to the present.

Clearly the Genesis saga is about to spill over into the 21st century. In the Gulf War, an Egyptian woman's three sons were engaged in battle, one in the Egyptian army, one in the Saudi army and another as an Iraqi solder. Her greatest fear was that one son might kill his brother. How little has really changed in the world.

The Bible and cycles of war

No war brings permanent peace. Fighting only helps assure another war, and much suffering en route. Real peace is something that must be built when the battles have stopped and the participants can truly comprehend the futility of their combative conduct.

But the spilled blood begs for vengeance from the bereaved, and on we go again. World War I (supposedly the war to end all wars) begot World War II, which led to the Cold War.

Not surprisingly, the Gulf conflict also grew in the soil of aggression. The eight-year Iran-Iraqi war helped spawn the invasion of Kuwait and the predictable Allied response.

So war stands discredited as a permanent solution to human conflict. As Basil O'Conner once said in his address to the National Conference of Christians and Jews: "The world cannot continue to wage war like physical giants and to seek peace like intellectual pygmies."

Yet there could be real hope on our common ground. True understanding of the roots of a problem is a step towards a solution. God has not left humankind without solutions. Long-neglected spiritual tools are still extant that men and women ignore at their peril.

The Bible actually joins Christians, Muslims and Jews in a spiritual inheritance. Although that commonality is neither complete nor perfectly expressed, they are all "the people of the book."

Spiritual principles in common

Therefore, Bible principles could act as a valuable bridge of understanding between the three great Mediterranean religions. Consider just three major spiritual precepts. We are instructed to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), love our neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) and treat others as we would have them treat us. These three spiritual principles are enjoined in the sacred scriptures of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

But in the Middle East today the highest ideals of three faiths are largely washed aside in secular struggles for power, land and oil. Idealism has been lost in the compromises wrought by human greed and expediency. The same old desires for expansion and revenge soon submerge the lofty heights of a potentially devout life. However, if we are ever to work out our differences, we must first implement the basic principles on which these three major religions agree.

The chief rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth succinctly illustrated what is desperately needed in an article in The London Times. "The message is clear," he wrote. "You cannot have peace without communicating, without dialogue between faiths, between nations and races. The modern dialogues were spawned by the great religions, and religion must once again become the principal communicator to bridge divisions."

Hope in a fresh biblical perspective

After some 45 years of the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union have now experienced several years of at least trying to understand one another. Perhaps they had more in common than they previously thought. So building bridges in and between major regions is essential to true peace and real progress. Today the Mediterranean region has the potential to serve as a positive example.

The apostle Paul crisscrossed this ancient area several times, spreading a new way of life that embraces the basic tenets of two major religions. He, however, saw the two as one. Problems can sometimes be faced in the context of commonality. What do we share and how do we make the most of our common ground?

Humanly speaking, the only other option is catastrophe. Armageddon would soon be at our door. Weapons are deadlier by the day. The ancient words of Moses still ring in our ears: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses against, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). This should be an anthem for humanity.

An even broader perspective than different people's common religious ground compels our consideration. We are all of the same species. We were made "of one blood," as Paul reminded the men of Athens (Acts 17:26). The breathtaking view of our planet from space reminds us that we are a global village. Clumsy human border disputes must seem bizarre from God's vantage point.

Somehow we have to turn both our genetic and geographic intimacy to our advantage. Selflessness-the key to everything from the welfare of the planet to solving the bloodstained conflicts of the Middle East-is an art that must be learned.

As many concerned observers agree, certain essential priorities must be put before selfish interests. We desperately need a new vision, a new way of thinking, a new world order truly based on biblical principles.

The Messiah arrives

Whatever happens in the meantime, our only permanent hope lies in the pages of the Bible. According to its own words, what began in the Middle East will also end there. Scripture prophesies a great end-time conflict involving Arabs, Jews and Europeans (see Daniel 11 and 12). This final conflagration will finish only with the return of the King of all kings, Jesus Christ, to earth (Revelation 19:11-21).

Then the Holy Scriptures assure us that human values will change overnight for the better. God's great law of love will be practiced in Jerusalem, and nations will flow to this new world capital (Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-4). Jerusalem, the city of peace, will finally live up to its name.

Oil and land will cease to be the primary focus of interest. One geographic fact will dominate the globe: The spiritual headquarters of the future Ruler of this earth will be in the Middle East. From there the reigning Christ will look after the best interests of all countries, peoples and races. National representatives will then flow to Jerusalem, not to wage jihad, but to learn the way to peace.

At that time, men and women in the Middle East will surrender their lives to their Creator. The word Muslim actually means one who surrenders himself to God. Arabs and Israelis alike will yield their lives to a righteous God, giving up their narrow biases, prejudices and selfish interests.

Then all Mediterranean nations will eventually become one with each other, one with the world and, most importantly, one with God. The Middle East will once again be the land of promise, a place that will spread peace and true spirituality to this entire globe.

But such a radical transformation will take a new spirit and new heart (Jeremiah 31:31). It will require a fresh burst of spiritual energy directly from God.

This is what Jesus Christ brought us at His first coming. What began at Bethlehem and Nazareth will gradually spread to the entire world when Christ returns to this earth a second time as the true Messiah.