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M. Jenkins: The Role of the Religious Leader in Peacemaking

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

What is the role of the faith leader in the path to peace? How can the faith leaders contribute to the process to bring peace and prosperity to all? Can faith leaders be effective in the process? Not only is the role of the religious leader important but religion itself plays a key role in the process toward peace. In Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East significant strides have and continue to be made in interfaith dialogue and action.

In this paper I will discuss the role of religious leaders and religion in relation to peace. I will seek to examine the scriptural issues related with the engagement of many faiths in peacemaking, as well as cultural issues that support and hinder the faith leaders as “peacemakers.” This work will not address the areas of specific conflicts, the pain, or current political dangers to the security of the people stemming from violence (although those issues must be addressed also from a faith perspective). Rather, I will seek to lay the groundwork for what is needed for faith leaders to be effective in positively contributing to the process that will bring healthy relations among the faith communities, as well as spiritually-led partnerships between the faith leaders and the elected national and local civic leaders.

A short review will be given on the work of the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) over the years and the most essential element that I can see that is consistent with the process of when MEPI began and where it is today. Finally, I will attempt to answer the question as to whether the faith leaders from the Middle East and the world can play a central role when it comes to bringing peace.

The Central Role of the Religious Leader in God’s Providence and History

The central premise of this work is that God is our creator and is the author of peace. Therefore, religious leaders are the central representatives of God, and their response to God and love for the people determine in great part whether God can bless the nation or not. For example, Moses was right with the Lord when he fasted and prayed for 40 days, but his anger toward the people (who were not faithful) delayed the salvation of that people and ultimately became the reason Moses himself could not enter into Canaan.

The role of the religious leader has always been pivotal in terms of giving a direction concerning which way the people and the nation should go. The scripture says in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

The UPF founder, the Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon, called on religious leaders to be the conscience of God’s people and the world and to cooperate with national leaders for world peace:

World peace can be fully accomplished only when the wisdom and efforts of the world’s religious leaders, who represent the internal concerns of the mind and conscience, work cooperatively and respectfully with national leaders who have much practical wisdom and worldly experience about the external reality or ‘“body.’” In this light, it is time for us to give serious consideration even to the prospect of restructuring the United Nations. For example, perhaps it is possible to envision the United Nations as a bicameral institution.[1]

There is not only a role of the religious leader but also the role of religion itself in peacebuilding and diplomacy, and both must now become part of any long-term sustainable effort for peace.

In his book Religion, Terror and Error, US Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement, Douglas Johnston states:

Respectful engagement with other cultures and countries only takes one part of the way, since that has more to do with good manners than with religious faith. America’s past inability to understand and deal with religious imperatives has led to uninformed foreign policy decisions in such places as Iran, Lebanon, and, most recently, Iraq. To avoid similar mistakes in the future, we will need to expand our definition of realpolitik to include religion and other cultural factors. Above all, if we are to see the world complete and whole, we will need to make a concerted effort to understand how religion informs the world views and political aspirations of those who do not similarly separate church and state.[2]

He goes on to explain that times have changed and we must move beyond the “rational actor” model of how decisions are made in the policy of nations, which assumes that nations will act rationally based on their own self-interest. However, since religion is now intricately part of the equation of peacebuilding, the action or decisions that a nation takes may be bound by the interests of the prevailing faith community. If the faith component that is intertwined with the decision making is not considered, the policies nations develop toward one another are bound to miss the mark.[3]

Religious Peacebuilding

A relatively new field has developed since 2000 called “Religious Peacebuilding.” In her book, The Complex Reality of Religious Peacebuilding: Conceptual Contributions and Critical Analysis, Katrien Hertog highlights that fact that much has been done to understand that role and the influence of religion regarding extremist acts, but only in the last decade did the role of religion in peacebuilding become pivotal. She also touches upon the “soft aspects” of religious peacebuilding (not to be confused with soft power). The “soft aspects” deal with the reality of the need for healing, bonds of heart and trust to be developed through interfaith dialogue and interfaith education, and actions that promote experiential confirmation.[4]

The “soft aspects” of peacebuilding such as reconciliation, service, and compassion are most effectively addressed by religious leaders and the peacemakers who are people of faith and compassion. When these “soft aspects” are correctly and consistently implemented, then the “hard aspects” of governance, legislation, and the application of law through judicial systems for equality and justice can begin to work in an effective way. Hertog goes on to explain that it is now clearly understood that without strengthening the “soft aspects” of peacebuilding through education that is supported by the religious leaders and faith communities, efforts to implement democracy and self governance fail as the “systems” of governance must stand on the moral principles that treat all fairly and equally.

What is required in the “soft aspects” is interfaith education and “active nonviolence” that was practiced by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition, an understanding of the “culture of peace” is necessary. These aspects are critically needed to understand how we can truly “build” peace on a strong foundation.[5]

In the book, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution, David Little, writing for the Tannenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding states that it was found that the beliefs of the “peacemaker” from the Abrahamic faith tradition is a critical aspect of their motivation to bring peace:

The thought that defines them [Peacemakers] is reinforced by their conviction that every person reflects the divinity of God. This belief derives from a religious doctrine common to the three Abrahamic faiths…. The Peacemakers are propelled by their faith, but their religious beliefs, alone, do not fully explain this elusive quality. It also involves emotional intelligence. By this, we are referring to the Peacemakers’ unusual capacity for deeply understanding others and experiencing, with great compassion, their hopes and their pain.[6]

Scriptural foundations and emotional intelligence allows for a commitment to one’s “faith” and the principles of that faith so as to be consistent in building one of the most critical aspects of peace - trust.

Problems with Scriptural Foundations

In a study by Karen Thistlethwaite, Glen Stassen, and Mohammed Abu-Nimer entitled Abrahamic Alternatives to War: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Just Peacemaking, a long-term effort was made by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars to create a theological and principled framework for peace among the Abrahamic faiths. They discovered that the scriptural foundations of scholars and faith leaders could not be avoided if we are to build a solid, sustainable foundation for peacemaking and peacebuilding.

However, before the positive affirmative principles within the scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths could be established, the “sacred sources of violence” and “mandates to violence” within the scriptures of those three faith traditions had to be examined and dealt with.[7]

Jewish scholars Robert Eisen and Reuven Kimelman cited the fact that there are scriptural foundations within the Jewish faith that cause some to feel and believe that they are destined to war with the Palestinians as descendants of the Amalekites and Canaanites. Eisen and Kimelman state:

Religiously driven proponents of Israel’s military campaign sometimes point to the verse, “The L-rd will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages of Israel’s military campaign sometimes” (Exodus 17:15), interpreting it to mean that there is a state of permanent war mandated by God against those who are defined as the descendants of Amalek, in this case the Palestinians. War against Amalek is further justified morally in some passages of scripture by referring to the acts of violence they have committed (1 Samuel 15:33, 30:1-2).[8]

However, Eisen and Kimelman cite problems if such a literalist view is taken because later in the book of I Samuel, David asks the Lord if he should destroy the Amalekites, indicating that the direction to destroy the Amalekites is not a permanent standing order that can be applied today.

In addition, in examining Leviticus 20:9-10 we find that execution is the prescribed punishment for sin:

For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him. And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

Certainly and thankfully, the Jewish faith moved beyond the literal application of this punishment. Certainly all faiths are working to interpret their Scriptures that call for death so that it can be applied in today’s world.

Islamic scriptures that can appear to justify “mandates to violence” are dealt with by two Muslim scholars, Mohammed Abu Nimer and Jamaal Badawi. In Surah 9:5 (The Repentance) of the Qur’an, it can be seen as a “standing order” to kill infidels wherever they are found. However, these scholars say this statement in the Qur’an is contextual and was applicable to the situation of the time. Others point out that the second half of the verse points to forgiveness. Other problems exist in the interpretation of Jihad and the call for Islam to “prevail” over other religions. Again they interpret this to mean that it is a “struggle” in the spiritual context against evil. The study goes on to highlight a third area that they see as problematic.

The authors next tackle another set of passages declaring that Islam must “prevail” over other religions (9:33, 48:28, and 61:9). These passages are sometimes used to justify conquest, forced conversion, or obliteration of non-Muslim communities. The authors argue that those who depend on such passages to legitimate violence misinterpret what “prevail” means when they define it narrowly in a military or political sense. The original Qur’anic Arabic term, li-yuzhirahu, can be more accurately translated as “prevail” in the military or political sense, “to proclaim it.” This translation implies a less confrontational mandate to exhibit or declare the merits of Islam nonviolently.[9]

The Christian scriptural “mandate to violence” is presented as follows:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Romans 13:4)

Another problematic use of the Christian scripture is the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27 and Matthew 24:15, which are understood by fundamentalist dispensational Zionist Christians to prophesy that Christ will return when the Jewish Temple is rebuilt on the Temple Mount. This has caused the rise of very zealous Christians who preach support for the rebuilding of the Temple, not necessarily in support of the Jewish faith but rather to hasten the fulfillment of prophecy from their own point of view.

Scriptural Mandates for “Just” Peacemaking

Thistlethwaite and Stassen then summarize the scholars’ work to emphasize the positive scriptural foundations for peacemaking. The Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars all maintained that to really counter the scriptural foundations that can be used to justify violence, these scriptures must be examined together with the whole corpus of scriptural text, which automatically gives context.

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scriptures are rich with passages that speak to the unity of all mankind.

Psalm 133 reads:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

The Qur’an also supports the unity of all who are good:

Say, “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah.” (3:64)

Hold fast, all together, to God’s rope, and be not divided among yourselves. Remember with gratitude God’s favor on you, for you were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace you became brethren. You were on the brink of the fiery Pit, and He saved you from it. Thus does God make His signs clear to you, that you may be guided. Let there arise out of you one community, inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: those will be prosperous. Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving clear signs: for them is a dreadful penalty. (3:103-5)

Jesus prayed for the unity of all:

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. (Matthew 17:20-21)

To facilitate the unity of faith based on Scriptures, the unifying texts and the spirit behind the texts that bring us together must be brought forth from the believers themselves within their own faith. Attempts to use Holy Scriptures from a tradition outside of one’s own are not sure footed and can easily miss the spirit and deeper meaning of the text. The leaders within each tradition must lead the way to the unity of faiths through scripture. It must be taught and practiced so that it is seen and understood both by word and deed. Then a transformation of the heart can and will come forth.

The Middle East Peace Initiative

The key point about the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI) is that it not only facilitated and conducted interfaith dialogue but also maintains a program of faith and dialogue in action. As we pursued the MEPI program, we found a variety of different kinds of experiences, still rooted in the fundamental principle that the Abrahamic faiths can and ultimately will come together when we find the common ground in our scriptures and faith traditions. This unity also requires that joint interfaith activity and action with one another be experienced, whether it be a “peace walk” through the Old City of Jerusalem or working with youth and doing programs to serve the communities. Common experience brings a bond of heart with one another. Through this we can become family and then we can come to build trust.

Trust is the most important factor that developed over time with the MEPI programs. Trust is built upon core principles of faith in God and respect for all faith traditions. Faith in principles common to the Jewish, Druze, Muslim, and Christian communities will build trust when it is seen over time as consistently being practiced.

The most important aspect of the fruit of the work was the emergence of Ambassadors for Peace who took responsibility in Jerusalem, especially those from the Jewish community. Because of their courage, MEPI could progress with courageous Muslims, Druze, and Christians from Israel and Palestine. If the Jewish Ambassadors for Peace did not rise up to embrace this work, there would have been severe problems in moving forward and progress may have even been totally stopped. Also key Druze leaders who were trusted in Israel believed in and protected our work. Many times they helped us stay true to our interfaith path of inclusion and respect for all and avoid the temptation to allow the religious peacemaking to become dominated by the political issues of the day. The same courage was demonstrated by the Muslims and Christians who refused to go with prevailing misinformation about the motives of MEPI. Because of their faith and love we are here today.

MEPI began through dialogue and international conferences in 2003. Based on Father Moon’s inspiration, the dialogue went into action with an effort to take down a barrier, and that barrier was the chasm between Judaism and Christianity. He asked clergy of the American Clergy Leadership Conference to address those barriers, particularly between Jews and Christians, by proclaiming the end of the era of the cross and a time of renewal and forgiveness, repentance, and understanding. Archbishop G. Augustus Stallings, Jr., was asked to lead a ceremony for repentance in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003. He repented for the history of Christianity not having protected and loved our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Then a very prominent rabbi from the Tel Aviv area also accepted that idea of repenting for not having loved one another and even not respecting the founders of our different faith traditions. He called upon a Muslim sheikh from Nazareth to come and sign the Jerusalem Declaration. That was a historic coming together on a principle that we are all from Abraham, we are all God’s children. This led to an interfaith ceremony in Independence Park in Jerusalem on December 22, 2003 in which Jesus was welcomed home to Jerusalem and crowned as the King of Peace. The Druze, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders and communities cooperated to make this historic step in interfaith action which was based on ceremonies of deep respect for the faith of each community.

From there we continued to have interfaith journeys and ultimately conferences for Ambassadors for Peace, clergy, and others from throughout the world. A Play Soccer Make Peace tournament was conducted in the Gaza Strip with the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in partnership with MEPI. Interfaith dialogue programs took place among faith leaders in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman, and Beirut. Medical missions were carried out as well as visits to Jewish, Druze, Christian, and Muslim homes.

In Jerusalem rabbis came together with Christian scholars and religious leaders, which led to Christians, Muslims, Jewish, and Druze leaders entering into dialogue. Imam Dawud Assad did so much to open the doors to the top Muslim leadership, as did the Orthodox rabbis and Muslim leaders who risked all to move forward with us. Youth did programs of interfaith service and action. Visits to special interfaith schools were conducted, which opened the hearts of all. Seeing the families of the community from all faith backgrounds learning and living together changes hearts and perspectives. We visited the Mar Elias School founded by Father Elias Chacour in which Arab Christians and Muslims join with Jewish children in harmony – all are Israelis.

On that basis, the movement of MEPI and Father Moon’s vision began to take hold. There was not only a clear building of trust in the Holy Land but also a transformation of so many of our Ambassadors for Peace and their own work in various nations. Trust was built as people saw real action, with a continual commitment to respect Islam, respect Judaism, and respect Christianity. MEPI’s role has been to be a bridge-builder, but ultimately we cannot avoid the current issues of the day, so there were journeys into every community.


The answer to the question in the title of this paper, “Is it really possible that the faith leaders of the Middle East and the world can play a central role for peace in the Middle East?” is yes, contingent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions.

  • There must arise from each faith community and its leadership those who can identify the sacred texts from their traditions and bring them into practice through faith and conviction.
  • These leaders must have an “emotional intelligence” and compassion for all peoples under Divine inspiration – not only from their scriptures but from their hearts beyond the scriptures. They must be people who genuinely seek to love all humanity as God does.
  • These leaders must be true to their scriptural teachings, especially in the area of faithfulness and fidelity in marriage and truthfulness in all dealings with all humanity.
  • There must be an effort to bring unity of thought towards reconciliation within each faith, while interfaith dialogue and action foster unity between faith traditions.
  • There must be a profound knowledge based on the experience of reconciliation, through means of love and service that truly address problems that would have led to violence without such intervention.
  • There must be cooperation with the elected civil leaders so that the soft aspects of listening, healing, compassion, and dissolving hatred and distrust can be a guiding light to the implementation of just laws and governance. Religious diplomacy should be developed based on this cooperation and then adopted and practiced by each nation.

Faith leaders who are guided by the love of God are crucial in leading the path to peace. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that he grew to understand non-violence through Gandhi, who was influenced by Tolstoy. He also says he was greatly influenced by Jesus and his teaching that we must love our enemy.

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not phyla, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape, which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.[10]

Father Moon has consistently shared that the greatest power of all to bring God’s family together is the power of love:

Perfect love is so powerful that it can melt the heart of the enemy. No matter how intensely two enemies have hated each other, love is so powerful that love can heal even that rift.[11]

In a later address he defined loving your enemy more precisely by saying that to really love your enemy with God’s love means going on to love the children of our enemy.[12] In Las Vegas on November 26, 2011, Father Moon shared that although he was in a communist prison for two years and eight months, he helped bring Joseph Stalin’s daughter to America. None of us knew this. Two days after he mentioned this, she passed away at age 85.

Behind the efforts of interfaith we must love one another and even extend that love to one another’s children and families. God will move on such a foundation, as is now happening in the Middle East.

Michael Jenkins serves as the Chairman of the American Clergy Leadership Conference. He has played a leading role in many interfaith initiatives in the United States and in this region with the Middle East Peace Initiative.

[1] Sun Myung Moon, “Renewing the United Nations and Building a Culture of Peace,” A Report from Assembly 2000, New York: Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, 2000, pp. 68, 71.

[2] Douglas Johnston, Religion, Terror and Error: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Engagement, Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Press, Kindle Edition, 2011, p. 206.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Katrien Hertog, The Complex Reality of Religious Peacebuilding: Conceptual Contributions and Critical Analysis, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2010, p. 18.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Little, Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 7.

[7] Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Glen Harold Stassen, Abrahamic Alternatives to War Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Just Peacemaking, Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2008, p. 2. <>.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1990, p. 190.

[11] Sun Myung Moon, “Happy Unification Church Members,” Sermon on May 22, 1977, New York, New York: HSA-UWC Publications, 1977, p. 10.

[12] Sun Myung Moon, “Call for Religious Unity,” Sermon given to ACLC leaders after the two-generational blessing of clergy couples, July 3, 2002.