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Egypt's Lessons of Peace

By the Rev. Howard Bess
February 19, 2011

Editor’s Note: While the final chapters of Egypt’s uprising are still to be written, the images of young protesters using non-violence to topple a dictatorial regime have inspired many around the world.

In this guest essay, the Rev. Howard Bess finds lessons for Christians to take to heart from the events in one of the world’s cradles of civilization:

The uprising in Egypt has to be added to the truly world-changing events that I have witnessed in my life. The others I would call “the big three”: World War II, the American civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. 

There have certainly been other important events, but each of the three that I have named were world changers that have left an indelible stamp on my mind, heart and soul.

And now Egypt. What I observed was the peaceful overthrow of an unjust government of a significant and important nation. Military might was defeated without the use of military might. 

How the next chapters of the story will be written, I do not know. However, I have witnessed something extraordinary, the successful overturning of an unjust regime by peaceful means. It gives me hope.

World War II was my first workshop in understanding conflict. Identifying the enemies was easy. Germany and Japan were evil empires that had to be destroyed. At the time, it seemed to me that this was the ultimate just war. 

The lives taken from our enemies were not mourned, and the lost lives of Americans and U.S. allies were justified by the belief that victory would lead to a more just world. World War II appeared to fit every criteria for just war theorists.

After the war, the United States under the Marshall Plan even rebuilt the defeated enemy countries, making them friends and partners. This effort reinforced my belief that war can produce a just outcome and contribute to a better world. 

However, if this were true, why do we keep finding more wars to fight?  I began to think that something was wrong with just war theory. It did not produce the outcomes that were promised. Where was the flaw? I began backing away from just war theories.
I now see all wars as a departure from the teachings of Rabbi Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

The emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. was another milestone in the evolution of my thinking. Out of personal experience and education, King was fully aware of the injustices that had become an accepted part of American life. 

I am certain that the rage that burned within him was far greater than I can imagine. But Brother Martin was much more committed to following Jesus from Nazareth than was Howard Bess.

Dr. King did not allow his rage to possess him. He confronted the enemies of his own day with peaceful protest. In doing so, he and his fellow protesters changed America forever.
Next came Vietnam, which was war’s lie laid bare. It was America’s disgrace, staining three American presidents and placing a permanent cloud over the perceptions of America’s motives in the world. 

Though widely disdained at the time, the Americans who protested the war were the nation’s heroes. Yet, no good can be identified from the Vietnam War, whose memorial in the nation’s capital is a simple listing of the thousands of Americans killed.

It was then that I abandoned the just war theories as embraced by most Christians since St. Augustine.

Today, I am a faithful reader of “Baptist Peacemaker,” the journal of the Baptist Peace Fellowship. Every time I read this quarterly journal, I am challenged to be a peace activist. Over and over again I am confronted with a key issue: Am I a peaceful person? Everything begins with that question. 

It is now my view that war and violence can never be the basis of our quest for peace.

St. Francis prayed “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” When this becomes our most fervent prayer, we are well on our way to becoming peaceful persons.

Still, we still must set some guidelines that take us down the path of peace. First is the question of motive. The peacemaker cannot be motivated by his/her own desires. The desire for justice for others is the key motivation. 

In the Christian tradition, justice is understood as whatever it takes to make a person whole. When God questioned Cain about the death of Abel, Cain responded with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Justice is set in motion when we answer with a resounding “Yes.”

The second guideline is reconciliation as our intended outcome. War has not produced acceptable outcomes. Paul was on target when he instructed us that our God-given ministry is that of reconciliation. 

Peace has not been achieved when hostilities cease. Peace is achieved when former enemies walk down life’s path arm in arm and caring for one another. Peacemakers know they are getting it right when the outcome is reconciliation.

The third guideline is necessarily stated in negative terms. We have to stop trying to identify who is responsible when things go wrong. American society is obsessed with casting blame, inflicting punishment, collecting reparations.
Peacemakers are of a different mind set. Peacemakers have no interest in punishment or in collecting fines.

The fourth guideline is restoration. Underlying the entire Bible message is the conviction that there is such a thing as “the way things ought to be.” 

The Bible says God gave us a good beginning in a good world, but we human beings have not cared for one another or for our world. Rather we have been abusers and have done a lot of damage. A peacemaker is committed to restoring what’s been damaged.
The young protesters in Egypt have made a great beginning in setting their political system right. They have engaged in non-violent protest in the tradition of Jesus and of Martin Luther King Jr.  

“Out of Egypt” is another Bible tradition. Is it too much to hope that we can have a better world because of what comes out of Egypt?                         

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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