Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God. — Matthew 5:9
A Contested Election
On New Year’s Day in 2008, my wife and I arrived in Nairobi and witnessed up close the horrific aftermath of a disputed election result between the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and his opponent, Raila Odinga. Within minutes of the announcement of Kibaki’s victory, violent protests broke out in the street, alleging Kibaki had “stolen” the election.
Police moved to quash the unrest, but the violence quickly escalated along tribal lines. As many as 1,400 people died in less than two months, and an additional 600,000 people were displaced from their homes, as Kenya slipped dangerously close to outright civil war. The church in Kenya remained silent.
Determined not to see a repetition of such violence again, local World Relief staff and other community leaders from around Kenya committed to work on peace and reconciliation in the run-up to the next election in 2011.
Together with my wife, Michele, who grew up in Kenya, I joined them as we worked with pastors in the Kibera slums of Nairobi and in the White Mountains, north of the city where some of the most horrific violence had taken place. Our purpose was clear: To call them to the central truth that all people are made in the image of God and that as believers, our identity in Christ comes first, before either national identity and tribal identity.
Evil Has Left The Room
Our time with these pastors was a powerful lesson for me of the importance and power of both personal and community reconciliation. We were there to catalyze healing across tribal boundaries, but we quickly found ourselves drawn into the circle of repentance and forgiveness ourselves, rather than simply facilitating the healing of wounds.
In the White Mountains, as pastors and local leaders explored the enmity and distrust between them, the legacy of Kenya’s colonial history and the missteps of the colonial transition were too obvious to ignore. As one leader after another repented for the actions of his tribe and asked for and received forgiveness, my wife and I were drawn into the circle to ask for and receive forgiveness for what we, both Brits, had done to this beautiful country and its people.
As we knelt in prayer listening to one another’s confessions and the granting of forgiveness, the total stillness of the place was suddenly broken by a gale force gust of wind crashing doors and windows open. After a few seconds, everything was still again. Then one pastor spoke, “Evil has left this room.”
Repentance and Returning
Many of us in the U.S. today struggle with why we should repent for what was done generations before we were born; many of us struggle with repenting for injustice that we are not directly and personally inflicting upon another person or group of people, despite the fact that this was modeled for us in the Bible by both Nehemiah and Daniel.
Perhaps our attitude is one of denial – a wishful blindness to the realities of another person’s life; perhaps it is a lack of curiosity – the implicit assumption that there really is equal opportunity for all, and if somebody is struggling, it’s because of some flaw in their character.
Perhaps it is a sense that “this is not mine to fix.” Perhaps it’s because we are just too consumed with the concerns of our own lives in a world that seems increasingly chaotic, or that we have never really understood or experienced the divine flow of love that calls us to love one another as God has loved us.
For healing and progress, we must first submit to repentance and forgiveness through honest self-evaluation. The Hebrew word that we associate with repentance — “teshuvah” — is more accurately translated as “returning.” We are called to return to our true selves as God made us and see in others the same image of God that is reflected in our own being. But repentance is incomplete without a commitment to repair.
Repentance is a movement of the heart and is an essential part of healing, but it must be accompanied by changes to systems that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, too often exclude those on the margins of our society.
Sadly, too many of us have failed people of color, women, the unborn, children and others, both in our communities and corporately as a nation. We have not protected immigrants, refugees or the poor. We have not treated with dignity those who hold different opinions. We have not always used our faith as an example, a light shining in the darkness.
Commitment to Love
Today, our society is more divided than ever before as we enter this election week nervous about what might happen, but beneath our concerns I am sure most of us hold on to the belief that the kind of violence we saw in Kenya could never happen here. Most Kenyans thought the same.
Sadly, we live in a time when the moral foundations of our society are seen as under assault – whichever side of the political divide you fall on. In the heated rhetoric of the day, the conditions for an escalation in violence lie just beneath the surface.
Whatever our political and doctrinal preferences, we are called to be people of peace, and to love one another. As Jesus taught in Matthew 22, the greatest commandment is to “love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … and to love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It is not too late for church leaders to remind their congregations that we are all made in the image of God. And that ultimately, we will come before the throne of the Lamb together in peace, as described in Revelation 7:9. A great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, worshiping in adoration to our God.
Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.