Bethlehem Diary 9: Challenged by Courage

Day 7: Courage

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
Frederick Buechner

The conference is drawing to close. As it does I note the courage that I have seen here among Palestinian Christians, Christians of different traditions and people of other faiths and none. The pain caused by the occupation is visible in every presentation and conversation. It cannot be dismissed. It cannot be diminished. The pain too of the Jewish people in the history of the world and the hearts of Jewish people today is tangible and intense. Each human story is pierced with the memory of what has been and with the reality of what is today.

The Christian affirmation of one church, one faith, one baptism, transcends all of this. Bound together with painful memories and conflicting narratives the church is one despite it all. That understanding of the church, that vocation laid upon us to live as one, is a vision to reach for. Today in Israel Palestine Christian people are embodying the vision in how they live their lives. They are constructing contextual theologies to help them embrace the vision and they are making real choices to show that they are committed to the vision.

All of this against the pull of history and experience. That pull is very strong. Palestinians make no bones of the fact that the occupation is still the key aspect of the conflict for them. They have not let go of that. But they attempt to address that from a different place, a place which takes account of the real, human pain of their brothers and sisters in the Jewish community. I have heard too a story that I have not often heard in evangelical circles. It is the story of human beings, all human beings, and their woundedness and oneness. It is a story of the search for healing for every single human being. It is a story of being bonded together as human beings no matter what culture, faith or ethnicity. This is courage. It is courage to know that key political issues remain and to aim at a new, more human place in which the suffering of others, the political concerns of others, the basic human needs of others is addressed in a larger narrative of which one community’s narrative is only a part.

I salute the courage that has been shown this week. I salute the courage of people who risk the all-encompassing narrative of the wider human story. I salute them for choosing something that inspires me to that greater vision of a humanity free from the desperate results of conflict and the excuses it gives us for hurting each other. I salute the church for publicly struggling its way through these issues in the face of a wider Christian community which is often quick to judge and slow to learn.

Some of this is hard to hear. It is hard to go back to ones own community, whether that be loyalist or republican, Irish or British, victim or victimiser, bystander or activist, and say that yes we have our narrative but there is a bigger narrative of which ours is only a part. In NI we see just how difficult that is. Caught in the bonds of conflict we have not been able to embrace the possibility of a bigger narrative. Our pain is great. Our woundedness is deep. But we too are courageous people and we will, with our courage in our hands, find a way to see a larger human story of suffering because we are divided. We will catch a vision for our whole human community. Perhaps we already know that the way we are going is not getting us anywhere. At some point we stop, look around and say that this is not good enough. It is not good enough for our healing and it is not good enough for our children and our children’s children. Our courage is within us. Many take their courage in their hands when they step out into the world every morning with the pain inflicted on them in the past heavy on mind, body and soul. But there is more courage called for if we are to succeed in making a new narrative together, a more spacious and liberating narrative for us all. Dr Haass can’t do it. Professor O’Sullivan can’t do it. Not even our political leaders can do it. At least not without the rest of us.

We were asked this morning what it would be like if Jews were to look at Palestinians and begin to serve the needs of the least of them in real and practical ways.

We were asked this morning what it would be like if Palestinians were to look at Jews and begin to serve the needs of the least of them in real and practical ways.

Conflicts, troubles, disputes, only change when human relationships change.

What would it be like if we were to look at one another, across our barriers and divides in NI, and begin to serve the needs of the least among us, the most needy among us, who are on the other side?

What would it be like if the churches together were to draw on existing contextual theologies and make resolution of our separation a priority? What would it be like for the churches together to speak of dignity and freedom and to serve old enemies before doing anything else in our broken community? What would it be like for our churches to find new courage, not walking away from political concerns but driven by a vision for a society in which human stories make the difference and ground the church in the real world?

“We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.”
― Maya Angelou

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Bethlehem Diary 8: A story from Egypt

Day 5 part 2: Egypt

One of the most moving inputs of the week has been from Bishop Angaeolos of the Coptic Church. He spoke of Christianity’s story in Egypt. Christianity was strong in Egypt for 2000, Egypt provided a place of refuge for the holy family and many Christians have experienced martyrdom there. 90% of the Coptic Church members live in Egypt and they refuse to call the other 10% the diaspora because they will one day come home.

The uprising in Egypt began not as an Islamic Christian dispute but out of a concern for the economic and social disaster that Egyptians were experiencing. However, there were some incidents between Islamists and Christians. In 2013 attacks were carried out on Christian church and institutions but there was no retaliation because Egyptian Christians have ‘love your enemy’ firmly embedded into their tradition and lifestyle. They took strength from their knowledge of Christian teaching and heritage and their understanding of sacrifice.

The Bishop acknowledged the experiences of injustice and pain felt by so many and the impacts on ordinary human lives.

The response for him, in his own words:

Persecution has led me to be a greater activist for human rights and civil liberties.

It struck me how the language of human rights has been missing from the discussions. Perhaps this is because of the general difficulties church members have with the language which implies an individualism, for some in the NI context at least, which is unhelpful and seems to give people an opportunity to be ‘at’ one another. This debased view of human rights and what it means is both sad and unhelpful. Perhaps it is because the language of human rights feels too political to evangelicals and they prefer what seems to be them to be more acceptable, softer, Biblical language.

Over the week I have been reminded that all theology is politics. Whether we acknowledge it or not and whether or not we try to take up a stance that we call biblical and inclusive we fool ourselves when we do not accept the political nature of our theologies. That is true not least in the theological discussion that has been sometimes above the radar and sometimes below it all week – the challenge to the United States but also the other Western Christians to see what the real lives of Palestinians are like and to understand how their theologies, our theologies, support government policies that do nothing to alleviate the experience of Palestinians and the human rights abuses they face.

Is there anything that will lead us to be greater activists for human rights and civil liberties which belong to the whole human family?

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Bethlehem Diary 7: Hearing some hard questions

Day 5 part 1: Hard questions

Oded Shoshani, a messianic Jew, asked some hard questions of the audience today.

What if Palestinians had accepted 1948?
What if the Arab nations had not declared war and ethnic cleansing on Jewish people?
What if Palestinian suicide bombers were not sent out to kill 1200 people and injure thousands between 2000-2005?

He acknowledged the very real Palestinian suffering but the questions were well put.

The 1948 Arab Israeli war resulted in an agreement about partition based on the proposals of UN Resolution 181. Approximately 700 000 Palestinians and 10 000 Jews were displaced by these arrangements. Israeli casualties numbered about 6000, 2000 of them civilians. Palestinian casualty numbers are disputed but could be as high as 3000 with a further 4000 from other Arab nations.

In the 1967 Arab Israeli war Israel defeated Syria, Egypt and Jordan to occupy the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The 2000-2005 suicide bombings were carried out by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fathah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel argues that the wall was built to secure against suicide bombings but Palestinians would dispute this arguing that, while there are still some incursions, the bombings would largely have ceased. They also argue that if the wall were to separate Jew from Palestinian then it would not separate Palestinians from other Palestinians as it now does.

The history is complex and without more research it is difficult to judge the truth of any of these claims. What cannot be disputed is that there is suffering today and that Palestinians and Jews have both been aggressors in the past. It is a credit to all the speakers at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference that time and again they have said they do not support violence from any quarter. It also cannot be disputed that Palestinians who live outside the line are dependent on Israelis for permits to travel, including to access their own land, and this creates a dependency on Israel.

The longer history of the Jewish people tells of their suffering and fear, not least in the Shoah but on many other occasions throughout history.

Hard questions are being asked all around. Theological questions. Questions about history and questions about politics. But most basic of all is the question about humanity and what it means to be human in such a situation. I have wondered if there is a hierarchy of needs which have to be identified and responded to. The larger political questions can immobilise action at the individual human-need level so that people’s lives remain impaired and restricted. These larger questions have to be addressed but there is a hard question about the every day realities that people live with – inadequate drinking water, sanitation, education, freedom of movement, health care, and accommodation. If these issues are not faced then the broader political crisis will only deepen as people become more angry, frustrated and dehumanized. The international community of the church must surely have something to say about these human questions and, like others whom I have listened to this week, call for non-violence responses, international interventions and a new narrative of humanity between broken and wounded people. Calling for these things is not enough though. Actions in the right places whether that be among the powerful decision-makers or the people on the ground also have to be taken.

There is, of course, a counter set of hard questions. What if Jews had decided they didn’t need the land to themselves but could share it with Palestinians? What if the international community had considered sticking with dialogue rather than opting for partition? What if Christians across the world had been more aware of human circumstance rather than esoteric theological debate? Would facing these hard questions have made a difference?

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Bethlehem 6: Bridging narratives

Day 4: Pain and separation

The brokenness of division is evident all around us in Bethlehem. It is visible too in the stories we hear, whether they be theological, historical or present. Daniel Juster spoke of the narratives we create out of our pain and how these narratives ultimately become self-justifying. He spoke of Jewish and Palestinian history, of Shoah and Nakba, and asked how these painful histories can be reconciled.

How do we come through all of this painful separation in a redemptive way? In a way that makes things better and heals?

As the church we are broken too. I have come to understand that there is politics at play in the theologies being engaged here in Bethlehem. A suffering people cry out to powerful America to examine the relationship with Israel Palestine and the theologies that underpin political opinion in the USA. It is a call for justice in the here and now. It is call to move hearts away from things too spiritual, to focussed on the end time when God will make everything right, and focus on things that are raw and real.

There is a need for another narrative to become part of the discussion, a bridging narrative. This other narrative cannot take away from existing painful, authentic narratives. But without another narrative then there will be no healing, at least not across the board. The pain of one cannot triumph over the pain of another nor justify inflicting that pain if the human community is to unite in a vision for the achievement of human potential.

The International community has come in for some criticism. Not unexpected. But I wonder about the International Church community. It is easy for us to be critical of others when, in fact, we ourselves fail to be the international force for justice and human freedom that we could be. We could be part of mining and articulating another narrative – if we were to fixate less on our differences and divisions. Our differences are, of course, important. But are they more important than the life of a child in danger or a person imprisoned unjustly or a people living in indignity?

Painful narratives expose in us a hopelessness and fear that what happened to us will happen again and that we will never receive what we need for our healing. The result is a sense of scarcity and anxiety. I am grateful to Ruth Padilla for the reminder of the power of narratives of scarcity and anxiety. These narratives suggest to us that there will not be enough justice for us all. There will not be enough healing for us all. We become anxious to hold on to what we have and get more for ourselves while ignoring or overlooking the narrative of pain from the other side.

How is it possible to move from the narrative of scarcity and anxiety when we are in pain, pain that stretches back into history and makes us all the more fearful?

For the church, it is possible from within the new identity that we share as the one people of God. But we hinder ourselves every time we resist this oneness. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland I reflect, all over again, on our losses in withdrawing from so many inter-church bodies and relationships and the lack of knowledge across the denomination about the relationships we do have.

For the human community, it is only possible when there is recognition of each other’s pain. It is possible when the common will for healing and for ‘never again this pain’ takes over from a narrative that suggests the other must fix my pain and pay for it in the process. The language of human rights is helpful for the human community. Article 1 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out what human dignity is all about:

Definition: Human Dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.

Legal Explanations: The dignity of the human person is not only a fundamental right in itself but constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined this principle in its preamble: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Is there any better place to begin than with human dignity?

The challenge, of course, is in those times when we believe ‘they’ have abdicated on their own dignity by their behaviour. In that we face the challenge of re-dignifying ‘them’ by our behaviour as we hope they would re-dignify us, our community, our people, our nation, when we fall into the grip of inhuman behaviour.

The strange truth is that when we allow our painful and separating narratives to meet in the place where another narrative creates room, we find that there is more than enough justice to go around and that our anxiety is lifted. That is because we find ourselves part of the whole human family and the resources of that family are far deeper, broader and more inclusive than we can imagine.

You don’t think your way into a new kind of living.
You live your way into a new kind of thinking.
Henri J.M. Nouwen

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Bethlehem Diary 5: Uncovering false narratives in an interconnected world

Day 3 part 3: False narratives

One of the interfaces addressed at the conference is that between Christians and Muslims. The reflections have been thoughtful and mature. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction to to Islam we have been challenged to face up to the false narratives that persist both within and outside the Christian community. For example, the false narrative that all Islamic States are the same. They are not. There has been persecution of Christians in Islamic States yes, in others it has moved between tolerance and intolerance, and in others Christians, along with others, have been protected.

The Al-Azhar Bill of Fundamental Freedoms, for example, upholds Freedom of Religious Belief. The world may not have noticed the significance of this document drawn up by a coalition of Sunni leaders and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood but the Egyptian press did. We are the best guarantors of one another’s freedoms in a world of diversity and difference. Thanks to Joseph Cumming* for bringing this to our attention.

The general challenge to misinformation reveals something to us about our own human story. The painful stories of our lives are such that, at times, we tell ourselves something about others in order to keep ourselves together. In the longer term this becomes a false narrative which dehumanises others and restricts their freedom. Cherishing freedom ourselves, we inflict limits on others and rather than being guarantors of one another’s human dignity we become anti-human.

Colin Chapman* presented what he called a realistic, as opposed to a pessimistic, view of relationships between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. He emphasised the need to ask the right questions, to drill down into who others are and where they are coming from. With a simplicity that concealed the complexity of the issues Chapman skilfully challenged us to think about dialogue with Muslims and about the role of Christianity in the politics of the Middle East. He challenges those of us from Western Europe and North America to look homeward and examine foreign policy there and to look to the United Nations too. Our Christian responses in the place where we are and in light of the world in which we live influence relationships in the Middle East.

What happens in the East is not separate from what happens in the West. We are all interconnected.

These two themes, addressing false narratives and the interconnectedness of the world, challenge me. How aware am I of the interconnectedness of the world or of events in other places? Foreign policy matters, how our government or the Irish government plan to engage with the world matters. It is the task of the church to challenge and expose false narratives whether they be at home or abroad and not because we want to win something but because we believe that we belong together, all of humanity, all of God’s creation. The false narrative for the church is that in doing this we will be the better for it. We may not be. That is simply the truth. We have to do what is right in a world which is often willing to sacrifice the human dignity of others in the hope of dignifying themselves. From the perspective of the church, we are dignified by the grace of God and not by anything we do for ourselves. But it remains our calling to speak to and uphold the human dignity of all others. That too is an act of grace.

Joseph Cumming is Pastor of the International Church at Yale University, He works with Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders and scholars around the world to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among the Abrahamic faith communities.
Colin Chapman has lived in the Middle East for 18 years, ministering and teaching, including teaching Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon.

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Bethlehem Diary 4: East Jerusalem in the divided City

Day 3 part 2: Seeing the Palestinian story

I grew up with PLO painted on the bridge below my house along with IRA and IRSP. I associated it with terrorism and I had forgotten about it until yesterday. We were on a bus on our way to East Jerusalem. Our journey had been delayed by a riot in the street, a response to killings on the Gaza Strip. I had sat in the bus watching children break breeze blocks for ammunition and it was familiar, too familiar. Palestinians are not using violence as they did in the past but their painful history and present reality remains a challenge to us all.

Our guide was Israeli and had angles into the Palestinian story that were both refreshing and enlightening. I had heard stories about inadequate water supplies, land grabbing and the dividing wall in Jerusalem. It is one thing to hear stories, it is another to see the reality. Palestinian areas in Jerusalem are not zoned for redevelopment so when houses become overcrowded, and we’re talking 40 people in a 3 bedroomed house, there is no chance of a place to go. If an extension is added it will have to be demolished because there is no permission for it. Palestinians can’t leave the area for more than three years or they lose their standing and can’t return. That impacts on education, already impacted by the inadequate number of school places. Because of the development issues there is inadequate provision of water supply and sewage arrangements. Bins are not emptied often enough and the area is full of rubbish. As we drove from the Israeli part into the Palestinian part the footpaths disappeared. The walls, constructed as part of an international agreement, were built in such a way as to creep into Palestinian land. Some of them cut through communities, some cut off homes from the land around them, some mean it is almost impossible to cross the city to work and so unemployment levels are high. Citizenship is at issue for some Palestinians too so they have no passport for travel. I could go on but suffice to say there is something not right with all of this.

This experience is, for me, read back against one of the questions that has been raised a number of times at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference – can Christianity survive in Palestine? There is a concern for the future of the Palestinian church. I do not live here and do not understand all the ins and outs of this question. It seems to me, though, that the survival of the church is a matter for God. What is a matter for us is whether or not we are living faithfully and well as the people of God, with justice and peace and mercy and forgiveness in our hearts. It seems to me that these are the important things with which Christian people should concern themselves, not survival.

That does not mean that the Palestinian experience should be discounted, Quite the contrary. When we see injustice, dehumanising activity, inadequate provision for basic human needs and human rights impinged on or denied then we, as the church, have a responsibility to act without delay. The action is not because we fear for our future but because it is the right thing to do. Action is about justice flowing down like rivers from the mountains, about putting relationships right and upholding the dignity of the whole human family. There will always be politics involved. We just have to face that because doing the right thing is more important than causing political ripples.

I look forward to the visit to Hebron.

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Bethlehem Diary 3: The problem of clashing narratives

Day 3 part 1: Narrative theme

The themes emerging about Israeli Palestinian conflict resonate with those of our Troubles in NI. ‘Narrative’ is one of those themes. Not everyone in NI likes the idea of ‘narrative’. For me it means the story we tell ourselves, sometimes about ourselves and sometimes about others, and that story helps to make us who we are. Salim Munayer provided some thinking about the function of narratives. They provide personal and collective identity, they give legitimacy to a community’s self-understanding and behaviour and they are selective about truth, choosing aspects of history that support identity.

When narratives clash, with a consequent clash of identities, each is adopting narrative to support their own truth and portray it as the truth. This a zero sum game. Narratives are thus employed to motivate and recruit, sustaining separated communities and resisting new information.

Munayer suggested four responses to move to a deeper and more shared truth:

Listen to each other’s narratives.
Recognise each other’s narratives.
Identify the weaknesses in our own narrative.
Critically assess our own narrative.

What I liked about this is that it focusses on ourselves. In the end of the day we may hope that others will change but the only person we have any real influence over is ourselves.

I was reminded of Vamik Volkan’s thinking about chosen glories and chosen traumas. Volkan argues that communities choose stories, some of glory and some of trauma, to sustain them over and against others. The difficulty is that these glories and traumas collide, each excluding the other. But traumas in particular have another quality to them. Munayer spoke of how our wounds become part of our identity and we embrace victimisation as a means of constructing and sustaining ourselves. While it is the case that wounds are inflicted by different events, the chosen traumas that are remembered and taken into ourselves, it is also true that the results of those traumas, the wounding, is no different for one side or the other. The glorious and traumatic events we choose to remember influence how we deal, or don’t deal, with our neighbours. The shared experience of woundedness provides a different opportunity for how we deal with and understand each other.

All of this presents us with a problem. If we are speak our narrative to those whom we want to hear it and if we listen to the narrative of others then a process of deconstruction begins. We leave our identity open to that of the other and it can feel very uncertain. It can feel like the familiar is slipping away and we wonder how we will survive it because we have become so tied up with the identity we have owned for so long. We wonder who we are and we wonder how we can survive it.

When it comes to who we are I have found it helpful to hold on to the belief that we are always more than we ever think we are at any one time. The New Testament writer speaks about putting off the old and putting on the new. There is always a new us up ahead. That new ‘me’ is more than I can yet describe but if I am willing to subject myself to the journey of deconstructing and reconstructing identity in light of new understanding and information then there is something new at the end of it. More than I can imagine.

When it comes to how we survive this process the best that I can say is that we can’t do this alone, In the process of resolving conflict and difference each party to the conflict needs the other to make the same journey. We need to draw on the shared woundedness and allow it to become part of us for the sake of the other. We are travelling people, people under reconstruction. We need each other – friends need each other, enemies need each other, divided communities need each other. Without each other the process of reconstruction becomes well nigh impossible.

So there is new light for me on the gospel teaching about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us. This is not just a command to be fulfilled nor only a lifestyle to aspire to. This is about the necessity for survival as people who share the world. We have a choice to either carve the world up so that we don’t encounter each other or to live in the enrichment of meeting and getting to know one another, together living through the deconstruction and the reconstruction so that something new and not yet seen comes to pass. And isn’ that what faith is all about – believing in things not yet seen?

* Salim Munayer is a member of faculty at Bethlehem Bible College, founder of Musalaha Reconciliation Ministries for Israel and Palestine and writer on subjects such as Palestinian identity and Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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