A Threat to Peace
As Christians concerned about peace and justice, this time of crisis in the Middle East provides us an opportunity to return to our principles, the “springs of living waters” for people of faith:
Here at Sojourners we have written a lot about nonviolence. We take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We believe that violence begets violence, or as Jesus put it, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Personally, I take seriously the words of René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, that we are now “confronted with a perfectly straightforward and even scientifically calculable choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.”
Many Christians look to the Bible to justify divinely sanctioned violence against our enemies. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Christians are not Biblians. We are Christians. As Christians, we should be putting Jesus first. Not Deuteronomy. Not Joshua. Not Judges. Not David. Not Solomon. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not the Bible.
And Jesus calls us to nonviolence. As one of the early Christians stated, the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent love that embraces our enemies, is the way of the cross and the world thinks that way is foolish.
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
The headlines and talk shows are dominated by the response ISIS. To be clear, this group readily uses fanatical and brutal actions to achieve its radically exclusive vision. The images they skillfully project are like violent, X-rated video games made real. No wonder that many react to this horror with chills going down their spines. But there is something that worries me more: the ongoing Ebola crisis.
How did ISIS come about? Sure, there’s huge complexity. Yet, we know that ISIS never would have emerged without, first of all, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing, devastating war that left that nation in physical, political, and psychological shambles. Second, the sectarian, Shia-dominated regime, which emerged as the final U.S. ground troops left, further radicalized Sunni extremists. These factors were the breeding grounds for black-clothed fanatics ready to cut down any who differ with their identity, even if the majority of its victims are Muslims.
ISIS’s greatest recruiting tool is continued and renewed U.S. and Western military intervention in the Middle East. That, of course, is what their brutal actions are attempting to provoke. The moral callousness of this strategy inspires the fear which they desire and welcome.
However, ISIS can and will be contained. The neighboring regimes in the region are all deeply threatened by ISIS. In the end, they will be compelled to combat and resist ISIS the more these fanatics move out of the desert and toward others’ homelands. It will be bloody, but eventually other nation states and threatened sectarian groups, representing for the most part more mainstream and globally dominant expressions of Islam, will contain and defeat ISIS. The necessity and means of outside military assistance from the West and elsewhere is highly debatable, and at the end of the day, I don’t believe this will be the decisive factor.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted Friday to divest church funds from three American companies it cited for profiting from the oppression of Palestinians within Israel’s occupied territories.
The 310-303 vote of the church’s General Assembly in Detroit marks a victory for divestment supporters both within and without the 1.8 million-member PCUSA, now the largest American church to embrace divestment as a strategy to pressure Israel to return its illegally held lands.
The issue has roiled the church for the last decade, and during a more than three-hour debate, many lamented the divisiveness and noted how many around the world — in the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinian territories – would be watching.
Through my work with The Global Immersion Project, I have spent a significant amount of time over the years cultivating relationships among both Israelis and Palestinians as we partner together in cultivating a narrative of reconciliation. As is often the case when we approach a people or place with the hopes of being/bringing the needed change, I have been the one most changed by my friends and colleagues who reside in the Middle East. Behind so many of the subconscious stereotypes and prejudices I had acquired earlier in my life I began to experience the richness of friendship and brotherhood among people I had previously “known” only through the latest sound bite.
Something I have learned in the classroom of real life relationships with Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land is that our theology in the West has direct implications for the everyday lives of those in the Middle East. Often ignoring the remarkable movements of peacemaking, reconciliation, and collaboration that are sprouting like mustard seeds of hope across the Holy Land, we often choose only to amplify of the violence, discord, and disintegration of the region.
Pope Francis dived into the Middle East peace process on Sunday, urging the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to act with courage and end what he called the “spiral of hatred and violence” during a historic prayer meeting at the Vatican.
The Middle East leaders were joined by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, and proceeded to the Vatican gardens for a tightly orchestrated 90-minute ceremony that was notable for the absence of any religious symbols.
Earlier, in St. Peter’s Square, a handful of protesters waved Palestinian flags in a bid to send a stronger political message to what the Vatican previously described as a “pause from politics.”
Pope Francis will be accompanied on his first visit to the Middle East by Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud — two friends from Buenos Aires.
“This dimension of interreligious dialogue has great significance,” the Vatican’s official spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told the media.
Secretary of State John Kerry brought his argument for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace to the annual AIPAC conference this week, and whatever else we might know, we know this: Many evangelical Christians didn’t like it.
Or at least that’s what we’re told by some Christian leaders and their political allies. Supporting Israel’s government by opposing compromise with the Palestinians is a permanent plank in American evangelical political thought. “God told Abraham that he would bless those who bless him and the nation of Israel,” the thinking goes, “and curse those that curse Israel.”
But could it be that the truth is more complicated?
What if the loudest evangelical voices don’t represent the complexity of our community? I raise these questions as an evangelical who is fully committed to supporting the struggle for security, dignity, and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians. And I’m not alone.
For centuries, followers of Jesus have wondered how they should relate to states and governments. Recent documents from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations bring such concerns to the fore, highlighting the cruel collateral damage of many of President Barack Obama’s personally ordered drone strikes — strikes that according to the president, are legal and in accord with international law, use technology that is precise and limit unnecessary casualties, eliminate people that are real threats, and prevent greater violence.
Rather than considering the humanity of our (perceived) enemies and seeking reconciliation and restorative justice, we default to catching and killing. In doing so, we give the widest berth possible to Jesus's teachings and examples of self-sacrificial enemy love. In both Matthew 5 and Luke 6, Jesus tells us that to love our enemies is to be children of God, for radical love and kindness are his nature and his perfection. Loving enemies is essential to anyone who would claim God as his or her Father. Jesus said, "Love." Not, "Love unless you happen to be the ones in charge and in possession of firepower. In that case, kill the bastards."
We are charged with loving our world indiscriminately, self-sacrificially, and with great humility, and that should always inform our relationship with the state and government.
A huge statue of the Virgin Mary towers over churches, monasteries and mosques in the Syrian city of Maaloula, where a dialect of the Aramaic language of Jesus is still spoken.
The town has managed to stay out of the Syrian conflict between Sunni Muslim rebels and the regime of dictator Bashar Assad, as have most of Syria’s 2 million Christians.
But worsening violence has forced the community into a corner: Continuous clashes between the rebels and the regime in this isolated town of 2,000 people as well as other Christian towns over the past two weeks have many Christians worried that they will no longer be allowed to stay neutral.
I have read countless articles from political, religious, and ethical perspectives on why or why not the U.S. should militarily intervene against the Syrian regime. Most do a decent job evaluating the situation, but I have yet to read one that really puts the human element on the table as a deciding factor.
A few months ago I was going to bed in my hotel room in Tel Aviv when I saw the breaking news alert that there was rocket exchange between Hamas and Israel in and around Gaza. While I have been to many places in "conflict," there is something much different about being somewhere that is only miles away from live fire.
I started playing out the situation in my head: "What if this expands into a major conflict? Can I catch a flight back home to be with my family before it gets worse? I'm only 30-40 miles away from the active conflict, am I already in range sitting in this hotel room?"
Anxiety. Fear. Uncertainty.
Now let me be clear, that experience of anxiety and fear is NOTHING compared to what most Israeli's, Palestinians, Egyptians, or Syrian's have felt in recent years (and MANY other populations). But — even if only in some small way — I could immediately feel the weight of pending war. It is palpable. It is crippling. And if I had my family with me, it would have potentially been unbearable.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, there must be “international consequences.” The president is right. But what should those consequences be?
The issue here, again, is one that we have not decided how to deal with: terrorism. The definition of terrorism is deliberate and brutal attacks upon innocent people — whether by individuals, groups, or heads of state. By that definition, Assad is a terrorist. And terrorists who possess weapons of mass destruction and demonstrate their willingness to use them are most dangerous ones. But how should we respond?
I am in in the U.K., where political leaders last night backed off the decision to make immediate “military strikes” while the U.S. and other nations are considering them. The feeling here is that international and legal legitimacy need to be established first, that the U.N. inspectors should finish their examinations in Syria before any actions are taken, and that all other means of response should be fully explored first. These are good decisions.
Why is there such public “war fatigue” in the U.K. and the U.S. in light of Iraq and Afghanistan — and why is that creating reluctance to more military action? Because wars and military solutions have FAILED in response to terrorism — failed to achieve what they were purported to do.