Nearly everyone wants peace, particularly people with a religious disposition. Even groups like Islamic State and the Taliban have a goal of peace, but of course that is an imposed “peace”—like Hitler’s—where there is no diversity of faith, ethnicity, or worldview to disrupt their brave old world.
Religions, particularly the Christian faith that animated so much of US history, typically tell their adherents to pray for peace. A consortium of faith groups, under the umbrella “Evangelicals for Peace” has launched a thoughtful new year prayer initiative that anyone can participate in.
But first, in the West, religious citizens have typically been more prudential than religious elites about so called “peacemaking” initiatives. Average citizens seem to have a moral reality that accords with the Christian just war tradition, which emphasizes the rule of law and ethical restraint when, as Augustine argued, responsible leaders appropriately punish wrongdoers, right past wrongs, and prevent further wrongdoing. In contrast, some religious elites, particularly those who take for granted their safety in Western seminaries and pulpits, take a moral equivalency approach to conflict: war is always the ultimate evil, and all parties to the conflict are sinful.
Reinhold Niebuhr dismantled that equivalency argument during World War II, arguing that although the British Empire was imperfect, the Nazis were debased at an entirely different level. More recently, Jean Bethke Elshtain made a similar argument distinguishing the tactics of al Qaeda on 9/11 from the restraint shown by Western forces in Bosnia, Kuwait, Kosovo, and later in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In short, we live in an imperfect world where wars happen, real live people are harmed, and leaders must make tough choices. People of faith in particular cannot just be against war. Nor can they leave the responsibility to a handful of clerics, whether or not they have real expertise in conflict zones.
So with crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, what can be done? Some people serve directly to help those in need, working in refugee camps or supporting organizations that provide succor. As Scott Appleby and various studies by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center have shown, it is often faith groups that are the first on the ground providing humanitarian assistance, and they are often the last to leave, long after the UN and other donors have gone home.
Average citizens and their houses of worship can give to these organizations. In some case, religious people can provide hospitality, such as by welcoming refugees into their communities and homes. Indeed, it seems that one place where American liberals and conservatives could agree is that even if the federal government does not take on a costly Syrian refugee burden, we could have a policy that allows citizens and churches to do so at their own expense using a smart, rigorous expedited policy. Canada has such a program.
In addition to charity and hospitality, Christians can pray. Evangelicals in particular believe that prayer is powerful because we live in a world of real good and evil, but very little concerted, collective prayer is offered in Christian churches targeting the maladies of violence around the world. Perhaps this is not laziness, but rather a bit of immaturity about how to thoughtfully pray for peace and security in conflict zones.
To this end, Evangelicals for Peace has provided a smart five-day prayer guide for the start of 2016. It provides a short backgrounder on Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, and Somalia. It provides links to external resources like the Fragile States Index and the International Crisis Group so that individuals can learn more.
Also provided are suggested themes for prayer. For instance, in the case of Syria:
Pray for God to protect innocent civilians from senseless violence; pray for God to bless diplomats, security personnel, and other leaders to find effective and just international action to resolve the war; pray that the global Church would understand clearly how to respond to the naked, hungry and poor within Syria and the countries to which they have fled; and ask God to end this merciless and lethal war.
As one year ends and another begins, what better way to start the day than to pray pragmatically for protection for innocents, end to the carnage, wisdom for security personnel and leaders, and with humility ask for direction about the action that observers may take? Indeed, what is striking about these prayers is that, unlike many vapid prayers for world peace that fantasize about harmony and nirvana, these prayers focus on the tough decisions and the security of diplomats, soldiers, and statesman as well as the terrible plight of civilians caught in the crossfire.
Perhaps this should not just be a five-day intiative: peace and security prayers can be a part of our New Year’s resolutions list for 2016.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. He serves on the advisory council of Evangelicals for Peace.