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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Prayers for Shalom

For the past three days, the world’s attention has once again zeroed in on one of humanity’s most enduring wounds.

Israelis and Palestinians are in open conflict.

Early on Saturday, without warning, members of Hamas operating out of Gaza launched thousands of rockets into Israel. Ground-based militants breached security checkpoints and poured across the border, slaughtering more than 250 civilians attending a music festival in the desert.

The horror of the unprovoked attack was matched by the horror of Israel’s response. Israeli jets bombarded apartment buildings in Gaza, where two million people live in one of the most densely crowded territories on earth.

“This is our 9/11,” declared an Israeli military leader. Indeed, the weekend’s events represent the closest thing to open warfare in the area in the past 50 years.

The conflict is fueled by ancient grievances. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the pain goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. Two sons of Abraham – Isaac, whose descendants would become the Jews, and Ishmael, whose descendants became the Arabs – have quarreled over the same patch of real estate for thousands of years.

The violence intensified after 1948, when the United Nations opened the door for Jews migrating from around the world to re-establish the nation of Israel on Palestinian soil. Since then, hatred has been matched by hatred, and acts of revenge by yet more vengeance.

No religion or ideology can justify such ongoing conflict.

Perhaps the darkest side of this recurring violence, however, is what it does to our hearts: We ourselves are powerfully tempted to become violent.

Americans are not immune. A few years ago survey respondents were asked what they would do if they had a time machine. Would they be willing to go back in time and kill the infant Adolph Hitler? Forty-two percent said they would not hesitate to ensure that Hitler never left the nursery.

Terror and violence leave people feeling angry and frustrated. “I’m not saying we need to use nuclear arms,” said one man who was interviewed shortly after the 9/11 attacks, “but let’s at least destroy a few countries.”

Jesus was right. Those who respond to violence by using violence will only perpetuate an ever-escalating cycle of violence and retaliation.

So what can we do?

We must pray with all our hearts for the people of Israel and Gaza alike – especially the victims and their families. We must help heal the wounded and weep with those who weep. We must work with all our energy to bring about justice and to prevent further violence.

And then there’s that other thing Jesus said. The hard thing.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Sigmund Freud believed this was primary evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was insane. Only crazy people pray for their enemies, right?

Yet Jesus insisted on making this counter-intuitive proposal the centerpiece of his teaching about responding to evil.

Honestly: How can we ever pray such a prayer? Here are three helps:

Be proactive. Don’t wait for your feelings to come around. Praying for enemies is a choice to do what Jesus says – precisely because he says it is an essential component of becoming “the children of your Father in heaven.”

Be specific. Speak the names of those who have caused the hurt. Not just “those people on the other side of the world who are doing such awful things,” but also the very individuals who have hurt and humiliated you personally, or have generally made your life miserable.

Be bold. St. Francis of Assisi prayed the same prayer for everyone he met: “May God’s peace be upon you.” Wait: Does this mean we’re supposed to pray that those who slaughter innocent people should feel good about things when they go to bed at night?

Not at all. Francis’ prayer, in fact, turns out to be one of the most subversive and effective ways to bless our enemies.

Biblically, God’s peace is shalom – the deep peace that God has always intended for the world and everyone in it. Shalom means that justice will be done, and all that is right will prevail.

To pray that God’s shalom might come upon another human being is to ask that they might catch God’s own vision of a healed and restored planet, and to feel genuine sorrow and repentance for whatever sins or selfishness in their own lives have become obstacles to that vision.

May God’s peace be upon you.

That’s a prayer we can pray concerning everyone we meet today, or happen to see in painful, fleeting video images.

We can pray for both friends and strangers. Allies and enemies.

And we can even pray for ourselves as we seek to be God’s hope for this hurting world.

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