When Will the Middle East Find Peace?

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When Will the Middle East Find Peace?

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The area remains plagued by stubborn antagonisms that baffle and dispirit virtually anyone who hopes for satisfactory solutions to age-old problems.

Events over recent months dramatize the problem. Just when it seemed that Israelis and Palestinians might reach an agreement that would let the two sides live in peace, talks broke down over issues of control over Jerusalem (see “Jerusalem: Focus of Biblical Prophecy,” page 8). Violence and bloodshed leaped into the headlines. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured by bullets, stones and Molotov cocktails.

In one of many tragic incidents, several Israeli schoolchildren were mutilated and two of their teachers killed when their armored school bus was shattered by a remote-controlled roadside bomb. Some Palestinian young people have also been killed in the most heartbreaking of circumstances, bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in bloody crossfires.

In one of many tragic incidents, several Israeli schoolchildren were mutilated and two of their teachers killed when their armored school bus was shattered by a remote-controlled roadside bomb. Some Palestinian young people have also been killed in the most heartbreaking of circumstances, bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in bloody crossfires.

Ancient antagonisms are so great that political leaders are sometimes straitjacketed by their constituents. After Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered groundbreaking concessions on control over the West Bank and Jerusalem, many Israelis thought he had gone too far. After losing so much support, Barak called for early elections, hoping to salvage a way to remain in power. Prospects weren’t promising, however, since polls immediately showed he would lose to virtually any other potential candidate.

Meanwhile, rumors circulated that Palestine National Authority leader Yasir Arafat feared assassination by Palestinian hard-liners if he accepted anything less than complete Muslim control over disputed areas of Jerusalem. Prospects for peace remain dim in an area in which disputes have long been settled by sword, bullet and bomb.

Terrorism and other violence are not the only threat to peace in the Middle East. Wars fought with traditional methods have abounded in the blood-stained 20th century. Battles in the streets between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian activists are only the latest in a long line of conflicts. The foibles and follies of human nature transcend time, geography and political borders.

Oil and age-old antagonisms

Why is peace so elusive in this troubled region? Let’s begin an assessment of the region’s problems by surveying the background behind the present situation.

Oil is the fuel of choice of the civilized world. Fifty percent of known crude-oil reserves lie buried beneath the sands of the Middle East. Iraq and Kuwait possess oil reserves of nearly 200 billion barrels between them. Such is the strategic importance of those Mideast countries that compel the attention of the world.

Oil is the real king (or all-powerful sheikh) in the Middle East. One of the reasons the Western powers fought in the 1991 Gulf War was to prevent an Iraqi monopoly from controlling precious black-liquid reserves. Oil is invariably the unseen player in the Persian Gulf region.

But far more fundamental than precious petroleum reserves are the area’s age-old antagonisms. Ancient territorial ambitions continue to assail the region. Iraq and Kuwait have long-standing disputes that have alternately smoldered and cooled along with the prevailing political climate.

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

The mere existence of Israel remains an issue in many quarters. Although the threat has receded somewhat in more recent times, over the years Arab leaders and groups have repeatedly called for forcible elimination of the tiny nation. Even in recent months some Islamic leaders called for the armed “liberation” of Jerusalem from Israeli control. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has fought five wars-in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982.

Does war ever make sense in the long run? Does it permanently solve these dilemmas?

Where it all began

Perhaps more than any other spot on the globe, in the Middle East the past meets the future. No other human conflict is so firmly rooted in antiquity.

The Bible shows that the Middle East is where mankind consciously began to make its spiritual way in the world. It is where man was first given the understanding that he is not just a physical creature but one with abstract and intangible longings, emotions and needs. As the early chapters of Genesis show, religion-true and false-began in that fabled area.

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.

Yet those three faiths have their profound disagreements and divisions. Fundamentalist revolutionaries lobby for extremist solutions to territorial problems. Modern Israel has periodically claimed the biblical boundaries of Judea and Samaria. Jihad-holy war-is a recurring Arab cry. Indeed a holy war is not out of character for the Christian tradition, either, when we remember the Crusades, in which untold thousands of Muslims and Jews, as well as some Christians, were slaughtered. For many, their last sight of their mortal life was of the sword and cross-emblazoned shield of their executioner.

In today’s chaotic and confused world, the Middle East is not the source of spiritual enlightenment God intended it to be. 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.

Serious physical and spiritual problems will last into the foreseeable future. With unbridled killing permeating the Mideast landscape, breaking the Sixth Commandment remains all too common. Arms proliferation is the dominant tendency in the region. No one knows when the buildup of weapons will explode into the next war.

Israel to be an example

As recorded in the Bible, God told ancient Israel that its people were to serve as a good example to other nations. He presented them with an unparalleled system of laws that, if adhered to, would have provided peace and justice for all its citizens.

God meant for other nations to see for themselves the blessings and wisdom that would naturally stem from Israel’s way of life and voluntarily choose it for themselves.

Notice Moses’ words concerning the laws God gave to Israel: “I have taught you statutes and laws, as the LORD my God commanded me; see that you keep them … Observe them 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? What great nation is there whose statutes and laws are so just, as is all this code of laws which I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Deuteronomy 4:5-8 [5] Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. [6] Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. [7] For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call on him for? [8] And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
American King James Version×
, Revised English Bible).

Those laws, if studied and applied, would lead to greater peace in the Middle East. The region desperately needs such genuine biblical and spiritual solutions.

Conflict in the cradle of civilization

Meanwhile we need to understand the area’s history. Since antiquity the Middle East has been a center of the world’s attention. All nations are tethered to its geopolitical swings because it encompasses the fundamental story of man. To comprehend the present we must, as always, examine the past.

We should not forget that the Bible, in its geographic origins, springs from the Middle East. The Garden of Eden lay somewhere near the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Genesis 2:10-14 Genesis 2:10-14 [10] And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it was parted, and became into four heads. [11] The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; [12] And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. [13] And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasses the whole land of Ethiopia. [14] And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goes toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
American King James Version×
, New International Version). God called Abraham in lower Mesopotamia, the land between these two ancient watercourses.

How ironic that the cradle of civilization should often be the site of hatred, hostility and conflict. Yet it is not so ironic in the light of the history recorded in Genesis. How many realize that today’s 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 advises us to “look unto Abraham your father” (Isaiah 51:2 Isaiah 51:2Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah that bore you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.
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). Three major faiths trace their ancestry back to this patriarch. Yet historically the offspring of Abraham have split into bitterly feuding family factions.

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

The saga that began in Genesis is spilling over into the 21st century. In the 1991 Gulf War an Egyptian woman’s three sons were engaged in battle-one in the Egyptian army, one in the Saudi forces and another as an Iraqi solder. Her greatest fear was that one son might kill his brother. How little has changed in the world.

The Bible and cycles of war

No war brings permanent peace. Fighting typically 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 pause to comprehend the futility of their combative conduct.

But 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 continuing aggression. The eight-year Iran-Iraqi war helped spawn the invasion of Kuwait and the predictable Allied response.

War stands discredited as a permanent solution to conflict. As Basil O’Conner 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 based 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 available that men and women ignore at their peril.

Christians, Muslims and Jews share in some elements of their spiritual inheritance. Although that commonality is neither complete nor perfectly expressed, all three religions agree on some of the principles and truths of the Bible and highly esteem such figures as Abraham and Moses.

Spiritual principles in common

Bible principles could act as a bridge of understanding between the three great Mediterranean religions. Consider just three major spiritual precepts: We are instructed to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5 Deuteronomy 6:5And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
American King James Version×
), love our neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 Leviticus 19:18You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
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) and treat others as we would have them treat us. These three spiritual principles are enjoined in scriptures held sacred by Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

But in the Middle East the highest ideals of three faiths are largely awash in secular struggles for power, land and oil. Idealism is lost in the compromises wrought by greed and expediency. The same old desires for expansion and revenge submerge the lofty heights of a potentially devout life. However, if we are ever to work out our differences, we must 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 Times (London). “The message is clear,” he wrote. “You cannot have peace without communicating, without dialogue between faiths, between nations and races … Religion must once again become the principal communicator to bridge divisions.”

Hope in a fresh biblical perspective

The Middle East has the potential to serve as a positive example. The apostle Paul crisscrossed this area several times, spreading a way of life that embraces the tenets of two major religions, though he saw the two as one. Problems can sometimes emerge 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 ring in our ears: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you, 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 Deuteronomy 30:19I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live:
American King James Version×
). 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 Acts 17:26And has made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
American King James Version×
). The breathtaking view of our planet from space reminds us that we have a common home. Clumsy border disputes must seem bizarre from God’s vantage point.

Somehow we have to turn 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 based on biblical principles.

Promise of peace to be fulfilled

Whatever happens in the meantime, our only permanent hope lies in the pages of the Bible. According to its 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). The final conflagration will finish only with the return of the King of all kings, Jesus Christ, to earth (Revelation 19:11-21 Revelation 19:11-21 [11] And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he does judge and make war. [12] His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. [13] And he was clothed with a clothing dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. [14] And the armies which were in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. [15] And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treads the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. [16] And he has on his clothing and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. [17] And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the middle of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together to the supper of the great God; [18] That you may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great. [19] And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. [20] And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. [21] And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat on the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.
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).

Then, the Holy Scriptures assure us, human values will change for the better. God’s great law of love will be practiced in Jerusalem, and nations will flow to the new world capital to learn to live by it (Isaiah 2:1-4 Isaiah 2:1-4 [1] The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. [2] And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. [3] And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. [4] And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
American King James Version×
; Micah 4:1-4 Micah 4:1-4 [1] But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. [2] And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. [3] And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [4] But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken it.
American King James Version×
). Jerusalem, the city of peace, will finally live up to its grand name as the city of peace.

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

At that time men, women, boys and girls in the Middle East will surrender their lives to their Creator. Muslim 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.

These former enemies, and many others, eventually will become one with each other and, most important, with God. The Middle East will again be the land of promise, a place that will spread peace and spirituality to the entire globe. But such a radical transformation will take a new spirit and new heart (Jeremiah 31:31 Jeremiah 31:31Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
American King James Version×
). It will require a fresh burst of spiritual energy directly from God.

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

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