|Spreading the Gospel of Peace
by Chip Zimmer, Director of International MinistriesAt first glance, it might seem that Croatia and Peru have little in common. Croatia is in southeast Europe and its borders include the Adriatic Sea and the Danube River. Peru is in northwest South America and it is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and several adjacent states. Yet, having visited these countries recently, I was struck by something similar to both: each country has struggled with violence.
Croatia’s violence has been more dramatic, the result of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. In Osijek, where I participated in a conference, there are still signs of the fighting. A Croatian friend told me that the Serb advance was halted just a few hundred yards from the seminary where we stayed and that during the war tens of thousands of shells were dropped on the city. Further east and south, in Vukovar, I visited a heavily damaged Catholic church still under reconstruction. A priest showing us around spoke of casualties and loss, adding that he and other Croats had decided that the only way to move forward was to forgive those who had caused them damage. But, as he said this, missing from his voice was the hope and optimism we have in Christ, replaced, so it seemed to me, by a kind of resignation, as though forgiveness was the least desirable option available.
In Peru, the violence I encountered was less obvious, but no less harmful. In a meeting Ken Sande and I attended with church leaders from one of Lima’s poorer sections, the gathered men and women spoke of broken homes and families, abuse, crime, and a sense of hopelessness and despair. One of the workshops Ken was asked to lead was titled “Never Too Late – Confronting Conflicts in the Family.” Added to all this was the political rhetoric on display as Peruvians headed toward national elections on the last day of our visit. The choice between two strikingly different presidential candidates reflected the underlying tensions within Peruvian society: a populist candidate, who appealed strongly to Peru’s poor and rural electorate, and a more centrist candidate, who appealed to salaried and urban voters.
Of course, tensions and violence are present in all societies. What struck me about Croatia and Peru was how those themes dominated. In Croatia, there were physical reminders everywhere. Every person I spoke with had been touched by war. In Peru, it seemed that every conversation noted the growing divisions within society and commented on how these divisions were increasingly marked by violence.
Reflecting on all this recently, I was struck again by the words of James 4:1. “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” James asks. “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (John 16:33). I was also reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Time and circumstance may change. The human heart remains the same.
Or does it? Didn’t Jesus say, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world”? Perhaps the most encouraging parts of my visits were the many conversations I had with Christians whose hearts had been transformed by the gospel and who viewed their lives in the broadest terms, not confining themselves to serving their families, or even their churches, but seeing their roles as serving all of society through whatever doors God opened for them. Often, one of those doors was peacemaking.
This approach is not surprising. Peacemaking appeals to Christians as does little else. I think this is because we intuitively understand that when we act as peacemakers our beliefs and practices are reconciled. At its heart, peacemaking is the gospel in action. It is to ask and answer a few simple questions: “What difference do Jesus’ death and resurrection make in my relationships?” “How do I glorify God in the midst of this struggle?” “How do I serve people who oppose me?” It matters not whether the person asking these questions is Croatian, or Peruvian, or North American. Such tough, disarmingly simple questions lead to profound, often counter-cultural responses, regardless of who does the asking.
The gospel provides an enduring basis for overcoming violence and despair because of its power to transform hearts. And transformed hearts lead to transformed lives, transformed churches, and transformed societies. This, too, is something that Croatia and Peru have in common-the hope that is in Jesus Christ.