This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon21 #BringThePeace series.
Safwat Marzouk is the associate professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He is an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Egypt and is a member of the Wabash Valley Presbytery. He has pastored in Alexandria, Egypt, as well as in Jersey City, New Jersey, while he was finishing his doctorate at Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary. In addition to writing numerous articles and book chapters, he is the author of two books: Egypt as a Monster in the Book of Ezekiel and Intercultural Church: A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration. He also works on how to read the Bible with and through the eyes of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers to proclaim a vision of hospitality, justice and integration that moves
beyond the politics of assimilation and segregation.
For more than 15 months now, the world has been suffering because of COVID-19 and the pandemic it created. Millions around the globe have experienced sickness, death, isolation and economic losses. This pandemic has shown that, while we are all suffering because of the deadly virus, we do not all suffer in the same way. This pandemic affirmed that our world is also experiencing another pandemic, which increases suffering in certain communities.
The pandemic of racism, white supremacy, police brutality and economic injustice has made experiencing of the COVID-19 pandemic even worse for Black and Brown people around the globe. Even as the vaccine is distributed, it is disproportionately distributed to wealthier, and primarily white, countries.
As a people of faith, we must not ignore how these pandemics of COVID-19 and racism counter the vision of God’s justice and peace for all creation, which is witnessed to in the Bible. This biblical witness alerts us to our obliviousness. It calls us to be accountable, to discover hope in the midst of despair, to be vigilant, and to be transformed.
The way we talk about peace in the North American context is reductionist and is, quite often, far from the biblical vision of peace.
Many people assume that peace means the absence of war. While this is an important aspect, as war is violent and destructive, the Hebrew word “shalom” gives us a wider definition. Shalom, which is often translated into English as “peace,” means wholeness and well-being. Shalom has a positive force to it; it is not just the absence of something, but it is also a vision that seeks to create the circumstances for life to flourish and blossom.
Sometimes, Christians think that biblical peace is about finding peace with God. According to this understanding, sin makes us enemies with God, and salvation reconciles us with God or grants us peace with God. While finding peace with God is certainly an important aspect of God’s salvation, the Bible tells us that finding peace with God is always bound to finding peace with our neighbor. Indeed, shalom, wholeness, is holistic. It encompasses all aspects of our being (e.g., spiritual, social, political), which are interconnected and influence one another.
For some, peace is about serenity, an internal feeling of calmness. This is also a reductionist understanding of the biblical perspective on peace. Peace in the Bible entails acts of disruption that seeks to topple oppressive political, economic and social systems that deprive creation of its well-being. Thus, peace and justice are bound to each other in the Bible.
No justice, no peace; know justice, know peace, is precisely the message of Isaiah 59. Justice and righteousness, which for the prophet mean putting things right and being liberated from oppression, are the right conditions for shalom, wholeness, to overcome brokenness and destitution.
As we reflect on God’s shalom and justice in relation to the pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, we need to consider what the Bible offers us that can help us process the impact of this chaos and articulate how we feel.
The Bible offer us two types of prayers that complement one another amid this chaos. These prayers are covenantal — that is, they are grounded in God’s relationship with creation, and they cohere with how different people experience oppression.
On the one hand, the Bible offers lament — prayer that makes space for the oppressed to cry out to God — so that God would uphold the covenant, by delivering those who are suffering from natural disaster or human violence. In this type of prayer, humans realize that justice and peace are part of God’s covenant with the world, and it’s God’s responsibility to interfere, especially when the hope for wholeness is shattered on the rocks of sickness, death and violence.
On the other hand, the Bible offers another type of covenantal prayer: repentance. Repentance calls humans who abuse their power, exploiting their fellow humans and nonhuman creation, to change their ways.
While the language of lament is the language of the oppressed, the language of repentance is the language of those who have abused their power.
In the context of racialized violence, many Christians run too quickly towards reconciliation but do not realize that reconciliation without justice simply reproduces the status quo. Justice is an essential aspect of reconciliation, because it seeks to restore the dignity and the well-being of the oppressed.
Justice also seeks the transformation of the oppressor and the conditions that yield oppression, so that the marginalized can claim their agency and imagine a new reality for themselves and others around them.
This deep relationship between justice, transformation, forgiveness and reconciliation is evident in the story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph, reconciles with and forgives his brothers for the evil they have committed against him. But this reconciliation took place only after it was clear that the brothers had been transformed, through their refusal to reproduce the violence that they had committed against Joseph against their youngest brother Benjamin. Furthermore, Joseph reconciled with them after he gained power.
Thus, as much as the story of Joseph inspires communities that are in conflict to seek reconciliation, this reconciliation does not happen without the transformation of the offenders, and it certainly does not happen to keep the oppressed in their oppression.
The threat of COVID-19 and the evil of racism sometimes exceed our own abilities as humans, and therefore we lament our reality, seeking God’s powerful salvation and intervention. But the Bible also calls us to actively wait for God’s reign. While we are encouraged to realize our limitations, we are also called to join in God’s work.
This is precisely what we learn from the stories recorded in Exodus 1-2. These chapters show how hatred and fear of the other are the main seeds of economic and patriarchal exploitations. But they also provide strategies for resistance. The Israelites’ liberation from forced labor in Egypt would not have taken place without the courageous work of women who came from different socio-economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. While Pharaoh used difference to oppress the Israelites, these women used difference to resist xenophobia and to make life flourish.
It is essential to question how to read the biblical story and enter into the biblical text when dealing with shalom and justice amid pandemic and racism. With whom do we identify? Is a prayer of lament or a prayer of repentance more appropriate for our context and power relations? As readers of the story of Joseph and the story of Exodus, do we identify with the Israelites or with the Egyptians? What difference does this make, as we think about peace and justice?
The ways we enter the biblical stories and appropriate theological traditions and spiritual practices do not only reveal our understanding of who we are in relation to those around us. They also shape the way we respond to crises, and they impact our agency, as we seek to work with God to embody God’s shalom and justice in the world.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.