Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Sharing at Q. TEA Peace Talks

Last Saturday I took part in an interfaith event organized by Q Commons Singapore. My fellow presenters were Md Imran Md Taib (Muslim interfaith activist), Isa Kamari (acclaimed Malay poet), Chew Lin Kay (humanist interfaith activist), Jason Leow (Zen practitioner), and Aaron Lee (prize-winning poet and Christian activist).

I presented on a theology of peace which revolved these three points:
  1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
  2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
  3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
The presentation might not be clear. So, here is the tidy version.

1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
The world is filled with competition for sovereignty. Everyone wants to be sovereign. We see this competition in four domains:
  • First, the international domain. Major superpowers contesting over global hegemony. Previously, between the western and eastern blocs. Now it is between USA and China. The recent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is but one example.
  • Second, the national domain. Different political, ethnic, and religious factions contesting over governance within the country. (Certain national contest extends over into the international domain, such as the call to establish Islamic caliphate across the globe by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
  • Third, the communal (and domestic) domain. We see competition within a community that is based on differences such as gender and individual interest. Dispute within church, sibling rivalry, and marriage commotion are examples.
  • Fourth, the personal domain. This is the competition experienced by individuals within. We find in ourselves conflict between our ideal self and our base self. To use psychoanalysis term, it is the competition between our id and superego. Very much like what Paul wrote in Romans 7:15: "…what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
When mismanaged, the competition in each domain can lead to violence and chaos. The international conflict leads to war, national to riot and coup, communal to separation or felony, and personal to mental breakdown and suicide. The competition in these four areas are perennial. Thus, the need to pursue peace.

2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
What can Jesus teach us about peace in a world where the competition of sovereignty is perennial at these four areas?

Jesus introduced the idea of the kingdom of God that is already here and now but not yet completely manifested. In Christian theology, this is known as the "already but not yet" kingdom. The idea of kingdom is also an idea of sovereignty that also promises peace into the world.

But what kind of "peace" that Jesus promised? The idea of peace is commonly understood as the peace of empire. In Jesus' time, it was known as Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. When Japan was conquering Asia during the Second World War, they promised to bring "great peace". 

The peace of empire is a combination of military and political power. They are intrusive in nature. The peace of Rome brought heavy taxation and political subjection. The so-called "great peace" of Japan brought massacres and sub-standard living. Therefore the peace of empire provokes hostility and insurgency. People rebelled against such peace.

Jesus promises peace, but what differentiates his version of peace from that of the powers in the world? There is degree of ambiguity on this. For even in Jesus’ time, not everyone understood peace the same way as Jesus did. He knew that his peace would come across as division to some (John 16:33 contra Luke 12:51-53).

Nonetheless, I think here are some characteristics of the peace promised by Jesus:
  • Jesus' peace is not the peace of empire. It is not military or political. Although it has a skewed view on military force and has something to say on the political, it is not a peace to be established by weapons and parliament.
  • Jesus’ peace is not primarily concern over the competition of sovereignty in the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal). Jesus’ peace addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God. He is concerned over the conflict between the empire of humanity and the kingdom of God. Violence, greed, oppression, and transgressions of all kinds and forms are manifestation of humanity's challenging God's sovereignty. Sometimes these competitions are carried out in the name of religion. At other times, in the name of humanistic ideals.
  • Jesus saw humanity's rebellion as futile and will be ended by God. This is so by the principle of justice. If humans are not made to rebel against God, then it is only right that God corrects this error by unmaking them, that is to destroy them. The only way to escape this without deviating from the cause of justice and still preserves humanity is through the sacrifice of a scapegoat that can represent humanity.
  • Jesus saw himself as that scapegoat. He willingly set down his life as the sacrifice on behalf of the human race to fulfill the required divine justice while preserving humanity. Through his sacrifice, the ultimate destruction of humanity is averted. This is the peace that Jesus brought. His is not the peace of empire spread by weapons and sustained by force, but the peace through the cross that addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God.
What then does this peace have to say to the competition in four domains today?

3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
First, Jesus' peace is not established by military or political powers, therefore Christians should not think that we are doing God a favor by using empire's apparatus to establish God's kingdom. If Jesus’ peace is coercive, his servants would have fought to prevent his arrest (John 18:36).

When Jesus was about to depart, he said: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

So, let us freely, without trouble and fear, continue to make peace, build peace, and sustain peace in this chaotic world. But with the way of the cross, not the means of the empire.

Second, Jesus' own example as peacemaker between humanity and God is a model for peace-making. Our pursuit for peace must prioritize justice and the preservation of humanity.

By framing conflicts in term of the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal) is not complete without also seeing them as subsets of the war humanity waged against God. Without the latter, justice is factional and open for re-definition by the competing parties. And preservation of humanity then becomes preservation of human beings who are on our side.

Between justice and preservation of humanity, we cannot choose one over the other. And when we had to, self-sacrifice is an option. Striving for justice and humanity's peace (instead of factional justice and self-preservation) is imitating Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught the importance of peace-building in relation to religious identity: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Interestingly it is not the other way around. Jesus didn’t say, blessed are the children of God (that is those who see themselves as religious) for they will be peacemakers. Jesus didn’t start with who we think we are, and then we have to go and make peace. He started with those who are already making peace, and declared that they will be called children of God.

Therefore let us not get caught up with solidifying our exclusive socio-religious identity that we forget that those who will be called children of God will not be those who are busy identifying themselves as such but those who are actually pursuing peace.

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