The believing community in the Holy Land today is far from resembling the reconciled body which we are called to be in the Kingdom of God. The current reality is in fact closer to a mixture of tribalism and nationalism, combined with conflicting and sometimes seemingly irreconcilable theological and historical differences.
On both sides of the conflict, believers have attached various pre-conditions on coming together to reconcile. Some believe that the process of reconciliation can only begin once Jewish restoration to the land of Israel is declared as objective truth by all involved. In this context, reconciliation has come to mean that my true interpretation of Scripture must over-ride your false interpretation of Scripture, before we can enter into a process of reconciliation. This is an inherently violent view employing holy war-type theological hegemony, and alien to the life of service and humility which should be adopted by the believer, and which recognizes with grace and charity that my enemy is also a child of God. Others argue that a pre-condition for reconciliation is that the dictates of justice are met, including the end of the Israeli occupation of the territories. They believe that to meet before this is to co-operate with the ‘normalisation process’ which accepts the status quo and legitimises the confiscation of land, the settlements and the multi-layered legal system which keeps the Palestinians as second class citizens.
There are problems with both of these approaches and we would do well to heed Miroslav Volf’s warning when he writes that “there is far too much dishonesty in the single minded search for truth, too much injustice in the uncompromising struggle for justice.”* Both approaches fail to recognise the importance of engaging critically with the ‘enemy’ in a process by which iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17), allowing us to learn and challenge each other. These two approaches also fail to recognise the fact that Jesus calls us together in order to settle debates in the body. This should serve to guard us against fostering ghetto mentalities whereby one either preaches exclusively to those who agree with you, or refuses to encounter those who disagree. At Musalaha we believe that both truth and justice are unavailable to us outside of the process of reconciliation. If this was not the case, if we only came together once we believe the same thing, or after all the injustices had been righted, not only would we never come together as a body of believers, but there simply would be nothing to reconcile. We believe that we need to come together because we disagree and because there are wrongs which are yet to be righted; in just the same way that Jesus came to reconcile us to God while we were still dead in sin (Col 2:13).
At our last summer camp in the Palestinian Territories, parents of several of the children objected to Musalaha’s overseeing the project, believing that Musalaha promoted a particular Zionist agenda. On the Messianic side, recruiting for other camps has recently proved equally difficult because participants have been worried that their involvement will compromise their own identity and theological beliefs. Musalaha however creates a forum which does not champion any particular theology or political agenda, but which allows believers, regardless of background, ethnicity and theology pertaining to the Holy Land and concepts of justice, to come together to express and voice their concerns and opinions in a safe and secure environment. As such, these divisive issues are not neutralised or considered unimportant, but rather they are articulated in a loving and understanding environment which allows participants to enter into a process of reconciliation with each other.
The violence which colours the world-view of all who live in the Middle East means that it is imperative that rifts and disagreements within the believing community are identified and a theology of reconciliation is developed which carries with it the Messianic redemptive hope for transformed lives and a transformed world. Anything which stays at the periphery of the Gospel message and neglects the centrality of the cross will fail to unite the faith community.
This process of reconciliation is not a vacuous attempt at making everyone friends. At Musalaha we have worked for twenty years developing a comprehensive methodology of reconciliation, drawing from the disciplines of conflict transformation, social psychology and sociology and grounding these disciplines in biblical principles of love and hope as demonstrated by Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross. It does not mean that these divisive issues are forgotten or side-stepped in favour of the bigger picture of reconciliation, but recognises that only as these conflicting theologies are articulated honestly, can genuine reconciliation take place. What will emerge from this process is unlikely to be a homogenous theology or belief about the current conflict, but rather a commitment to serve one another and love our brothers and sisters as ourselves. Our actions should then be defined and motivated by this renewed commitment to our believing brothers and sisters who we are called to love, not because of who they are but by the logic of what Jesus has done for us and them.
Over the past few years, both Israelis and Palestinians have become more polarised and extreme in their views. This has in turn led to an increase in tension and pressure on the conflict and believers from both communities can be drawn into this by holding onto the absolutes of justice and truth causing them to break fellowship with their fellow believers. Just this week Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, a prominent Rabbi from the settlement of Yitzhar, was arrested for allegedly inciting violence against non-Jews. He writes, “Anywhere where the presence of a gentile poses a threat to Israel, it is permissible to kill him, even if it is a righteous gentile who is not responsible for the threatening situation.”* The increasingly exclusivist attitude to the land is now being manifest in progressively more violent and raciest forms which contradict fundamental biblical tenants of love and charity. Even more worryingly, within the believing community, an interpretation of the Bible which understands this land has been given exclusively to the Jews and that requires the Palestinian people to assist in the restoration of Jews to the land, can come very close to advocating a similar form of thinking. Palestinians who assert their Palestinian nationalism are labeled as enemies of the Jewish People and of God, regardless of the way in which their nationalism is expressed, and this then serves to legitimise the use of military power against civilians.
Needless to say, this labelling is unhelpful and unnecessary within what is supposed to be a unified body, but it is also incredibly dangerous logic to justify the means by the end. This can lead to action being divorced from the moral and ethical requirements set by Jesus’ example in the Gospels. It can also lead believers to remove themselves from those who disagree with their biblical interpretation and excuse them from thinking about the impact of their theology on others.
As we attempt to interpret the Bible, we need to take care to give an account of human weakness and sin, acknowledging that we do not know everything or have all the answers. It is imperative that we recognise that we currently see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12) and as we come together and articulate our differences, we will bring fresh thinking and renewal into the community. This critical renewal has an incredibly important role to play in maintaining the humility and integrity of the body, without which we can all too easily find ourselves equating our enemy with God’s enemy and our truth with God’s truth. We must assert that the Bible is the Word of God, while at the same time recognising that we are always interpreting the Bible from a certain social and historical context and that we all come to the Scriptures with personal and political agendas. This will save us from excessive arrogance and will help us to foster a more generous attitude towards those who disagree with us.
Reconciliation is at the heart of God’s plans for humanity and it was for this reason he sent his Son to earth to die so that all things can be reconciled to him. All our theology must be shaped by this redemptive history of God with humanity. Understood in its original Hebraic context, salvation is a radically social event in which not just God’s people, but the whole of creation are called to participate in the Kingdom of God. We should take care therefore not to place ‘Christian’ lenses on the passion which transforms Jesus’ actions into an event purely for the individual without any wider social implication. Reconciliation should not be driven by our theologies therefore, but by the radically inclusive nature of salvation by which we are reconciled to God and to each other.
Written by Charlotte Williams, reflecting on the last year as a research assistant for Musalaha.
* Volf, M: (1996), ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p. 29* http://www.ynet.co.il/english/articles/0,7340,L-3925115,00.html