For the past two weeks, more than any time before, we felt the negative impacts of social distancing in Jerusalem over Easter (Western calendar) and Passover. This will continue in the upcoming weeks as many Christians in the Middle East celebrate Easter by the Eastern calendar and Muslims will be entering into a month of fasting for Ramadan. One thing is certain, the coronavirus has a universal impact on us all. But at the same time, we know that many people in the Holy Land, and around the world, will be affected differently due to insufficient medical care, welfare structures and poverty. So while the virus is indeed universal, the impact is particular.
What we have also noticed during these times is that tribal boundaries have been raised up more firmly. Stereotypes and dehumanisations towards people of other ethnic, religious and national people groups are on the rise. We may label other groups that are more infected as unclean, backward and unable to conform to science and health regulations. This attitude can also be manifested on a more international level between states. Claiming that some states or ‘civilisations’ are more primitive than others. This adds to the particular way the virus is impacting some people more than others and reinforcing the imbalance of power between individuals, communities and states.
As I was sharing my thoughts about Jesus’ resurrection with my sons this Easter, we began to discuss together not only the historical and archaeological evidence of the resurrection, but the impact of the resurrection on Jesus’ followers as well. The resurrection gave a new vision, understanding and motivation in their discipleship. At that time, many followers of Jesus were preoccupied with and limited by their tribal, religious and ethnocentric identities. They wanted to confine who could and could not join the community of faith. Moreover, some disciples were trying to make new followers like themselves. In order to become a member one had to change to a certain extent their cultural and ethnic identities.
But with the resurrection, all tribal, religious and ethnocentric boundaries were broken. It completely shattered the existing assumptions on who was part of the community of faith. Instead of forcing cultural assimilation, the resurrection transformed the disciples to view ‘others’ as people who need to be blessed and welcomed to the community of faith as they are. We can often fall into this narrow thinking as well. We may think that people need to be enlightened and become like us in order to be part of our community of faith. Rather than embracing other people and their uniqueness and particularity. All of us can fall into the trap of adopting patronising attitudes towards others and think that we are better.
In Acts chapter 10, when Peter goes to the house of Cornelius we can see these tensions and dynamics. Cornelius in many ways was the ultimate ‘other’ to Peter, he was a non-Jew, the Roman occupier and in a threating location. In this story we have binary identities that are hostile to each other on many levels. Peter even expresses this uncomfortable encounter and its challenges by saying ‘you are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean’ (10:28). What is striking in this verse is that Peter is honest with the cultural and ethnic tensions of his visit. He does not ignore it, but confronts it.
He continues to express his conviction on the matter by claiming God’s love for all people, ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’ (10:34-35). This is the power of the cross and resurrection, God has reconciled not only ourselves to him, but to each other. Peter, like many of us, can be bound and locked to our ethnocentric favouritism, privileges and exclusivity. And in the same way that he needed a major event to transform his thinking and cross the cultural and ethnic divide, meet and welcome the ultimate ‘others’ as family, and thus embracing them as equals, during this Easter period and coronavirus crisis we too can be reminded to do the same. This is the beauty of the resurrection and its reconciling power.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer