Few Western observers saw Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who passed away last weekend, as a visionary champion of peace. It's not likely many would cast him in the same light, for example, as his one-time ally Anwar Sadat, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his peacemaking efforts between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s.
But Assad's absence from the Middle East peace process is now stirring serious concerns. One analyst wrote in Sunday's Los Angeles Times: "With negotiations already frozen, Assad's death will spawn a nerve-racking era of uncertainty, unknowns and potential chaos. As with the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon last month, the death of Assad has abruptly altered all of the familiar calculations.
"At the very least, and for the foreseeable future, the peace process is likely to stand at a hard stalemate...." At the very least, such analysis should impel us to reconsider what the real basis of peace is in the Middle East, or elsewhere, for that matter. And to ask if it really is dependent on certain persons and prone to being thwarted if those persons are no longer present.
The book of Isaiah is unequivocal in placing peace not on the shoulders of humans but on God's. It states: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end" (9:6, 7). What if every time we thought of the Middle East, we also thought of this biblical truth? And took seriously the affirmation that the government is on God's shoulders? Could we glimpse a government that, along with God-bestowed peace, is never dropped into confusion, never torn down, never brought to an end? Surely to acknowledge this regularly would be a powerful, systematic prayer for peace. And the effect of prayer is to establish on earth the heavenly fact that peace is not dependent on persons, although it is experienced and expressed by them.
Just think. Even though most of us have no direct personal engagement in the peace process, we do have this biblical outline - an invitation, really - to follow so that we can make a real difference. Peace is a spiritual quality, deriving from the God who is infinite Spirit. Peace, rather than being just the absence of war, is the active harmony that proceeds from God and is expressed in individuals and society. Spirit is ever present. What God shoulders is ever sure. God, through His Word, His message of uninvadable peace and harmony for all humanity, tells us peace doesn't ever have to collapse. There is never a day, never a set of circumstances, that could torpedo the underpinnings of spiritual peace. Not when we see those underpinnings as God's own shoulder, that is, His own government and law.
One beautiful thing about this divine law is that most of the key religions in the region already have an overlapping appreciation of it and adherence to it. Religious beliefs don't have to be seen as divisive here. They can point all parties to a shared understanding of the Almighty and of His law. Consider the Ten Commandments. Christian, Muslim, and Jew can all find something to love and be comfortable with in these commands. And with them, God sets out the basis for His government - never superseded by human government - which has peace-preserving power.
In a passage that considers some of the implications of just the First Commandment alone - "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" - the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote, "One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself;' annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry, - whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 340). It's inspiring to recall that the peace-enforcing activity of God's law is for all people, and can be experienced by all. But it never rests on the shoulders of one or even many. And what God shoulders never fails or falls.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society