“Look around the room at the people here with us.” A collection of Palestinian Christian, Messianic Jewish and international Christian youth leaders sat around the conference room.
“Make a list of the differences you observe.” The directions stung. After being together in a conference for 3 days, we had just begun to scratch each others’ surfaces.
“Now make a list of the differences that are not evident, but that you assume to exist.” This was dangerous territory. Having participated in numerous reconciliation projects with Musalaha, I recalled the excitement that I would feel watching Palestinian and Israeli young people communicate and find something in common. “They are human, I am human. They like music, I like music. We share the same Messiah.” Motivated by a common faith and the commandments to ‘love one another,’ believers reach for materials with which to build bridges. Sometimes it is easy; other times we strain to cross an insurmountable gap.
Common expressions of unity in worship, prayer, and activity, do much to reach across the ethnic divides and enmity. Sitting at the conference and being confronted with our differences, seemed to create an awkward tension in our attempts at unity. However, if believers are to follow Biblical teaching to be reconciled with our brothers and to love our enemies, recognition and exploration of our differences is necessary. While Israeli and Palestinian believers may pray together and enjoy a plate of humus, these encounters are stunted when participants fail to glimpse behind the shared fellowship into unshared backgrounds and opinions.
A recent conversation with two friends demonstrates how part of the reconciliation process involves dealing with differences between our own group and the other. Last week, I sat in a café with Tanya*, a Messianic Jew, and Suha*, a Palestinian Christian, who had became good friends on a desert trip with Musalaha. After a lengthy discussion about the conflict, the question arose, “Do I have to ignore my political opinions or set them aside in order to have reconciliation?” A torrent of issues was unleashed: Do we have to change who we are in order to be in relationship? Does it mean we have to find the lowest common denominator between our opinions and discard the rest in order to be reconciled? If so, are we betraying our people? The three of us arrived at the heart of this discussion with this question: “what does reconciliation look like?”
Creating Order: Bringing our Differences to the Table
In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf’s definitive work on reconciliation, he indicates that in the act of creation, God began the work of separation: water from land, light from dark (p. 65). At the same time, a framework of relationships was constructed. Both separation and embrace were necessary. Separation was needed to bring order to chaos, to bring form to the void; relationships were designed in recognition of the dependencies we have on each other and on creation. On an individual level, separation must occur, first as individuals (I am distinct from you), and then as groups bonded into families by birth and into communities on a number of levels. The creation of communities demands the separation between them and us. We who live in a certain place, who share a common history, who speak a language, who believe a certain way, belong together. They who do not, are outside the group .
Encounters with the other side present a challenge to these boundaries of our identity. If we wish to relate to a person outside of the group, we must negotiate the family and social pressures, ethnic loyalties, and cultural norms that we each bring to the table .
My friends Suha and Tanya have shared meals, traditions and holidays with each others families. In doing so, they have introduced each other to different worlds .
Creating Enemies: Differences that Destroy
On the other hand, we can also use these differences as excuses for negative stereotypes and fodder for hatred. I recently saw a bumper sticker that implied, “It’s them or us.” People are more and more beginning to see the political conflict as an existential one. The mere presence of one people is perceived as a threat to the existence of the other. These perceptions have come to generate and license stomach-churning hatred and cruelty. Everyday grafitti reveals deep-seated bitterness: Arabic or Hebrew blacked out of road signs, “Death to Jews” or “Death to Arabs” painted on walls. The slogans of hate practically mirror each other .
This is the climate that surrounds believers on both sides of the divide. There is the tendency within each of us to draw deep lines of separation that can cause pain to the other. I recently heard in a conversation, “There are no innocent people over there, they did something to deserve this.” Feelings of fear and vulnerability to real and perceived threats, cause us to demonize and dehumanize the other. As David Augsburger of Fuller Seminary describes it, “In the creation of enemies, we begin by the assembling of rationales for our position vis-à-vis the other. These rationales, constructed from the metaphors that we use, the pictures of the enemy that we choose, the arguments that we create, become the premises for pursuing retributive justice. The heinous crime done against us becomes the basis for returning anger to anger, then hate for hate” (“Fear, Hate, 9/11” Theology, News and Notes p. 15). This is true not only in the conflict in our region, but is also emerging on a global scale .
For example, the dynamic of polarization that already existed in the minds of some Muslims, came to the forefront in the U.S. following the events of September 11. Al Qaeda dealt with their differences and separation from the U.S. (and what it represents to them) by turning passenger jets into missiles. This ‘encounter’ caused death and destruction .
Yet in American post-Twin Towers consciousness a polarization with similar sentiments has emerged. Politicians and spiritual leaders nurture the creation of enemies in the battle between the axis of evil and the agents of good. Recently a prominent evangelist “With a voice like a conquering general, walked to the edge of the stage and proclaimed to thousands of worshippers, ‘The Muslim population is going down!’” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram 7/3/02). Dehumanizing sentiments such as these, carried out to fruition, envisage the removal of an entire religious group .
Obviously, a clear line and necessary separation does exist between Christians and Muslims in theology and religious practice. There can be no reconciliation between Christian and Muslim on the basis of Jesus as our Messiah, for we do not share this doctrine. However, as believers we are compelled to relate to the ‘enemy’ based on the grace of our Savior (Matt.5).
The Cross and our Differences
The cross provides a mandate for dealing with difference. The sin that separates sinners from God is reconciled by Jesus’ death and resurrection (II Cor. 5). Christ redrew the boundaries, changed identities, reconciling us to God, in full knowledge of our sinfulness. This grace extends farther than the boundaries of the body of believers, but also to those who deny him. He died for those who we declare His enemies. Martin Niemoeller said, “I have learned that God is not the enemy of my enemies. God is not even the enemy of God’s own enemies” (Fear p. 18.)
Miroslav Volf emphasizes that “…at the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the ‘sons and daughters of hell.’ (Romans 3:23-24). Reflection on social issues rooted in the cross of Christ will have to explore what this interdependence of the ‘universality of sin’ and the ‘primacy of grace’ may mean when taken out of the realm of ‘salvation’ into the realm where we – many of us “children of hell’ – fight and wage wars against each other” (Volf 85.)
As believers living in a land where our nations are waging war against each other, we are bound to a further exploration of how the message of the cross speaks to our relationships with believers and non-believers from the other side .
Later in the evening of the youth leaders’ conference, a young Palestinian, Samer, took the feet of his Jewish brother, Yoni, in his hands and washed them. Samer spoke of how he had spent years feeling excluded by his Israeli believer friends. He imagined that the Israelis had felt the same way among gatherings of Arab believers. The walls of separation in his life were tangible and had caused some bitterness. In the past year he had overcome these feelings and asked if he could express this by washing feet .
By taking dirty feet in his hands, Samer – like Jesus – humbled himself, leaving behind prescribed roles and boundaries. I imagine that the disciples might have wept as Yoni did when their feet, calloused and worn, yet sensitive and personal, became the objects of tender attention. This was a moment of intense vulnerability. This was an exchange of grace .
Let us return to the question: what does reconciliation look like? We face this question continuously, whether we live in conflict zones or quiet suburbs. As long as we live, there will never be an end to our differences. Ultimate resolution is God’s business. For us reconciliation cannot be an end but is a journey, a part of every encounter from the dining room table to the conference hall to the battlefield .
Brittany Browning has been on staff as Musalaha’s administrator for 4½ years. She first moved to the Middle East at age 4, with her family who are missionaries in the Church of the Nazarene. Since then, they have lived in Jordan, Nazareth, Beit Jala, and now Jerusalem. After finishing university in the U.S. and teaching in Russia, Brittany returned to Jerusalem to work at Musalaha, managing the office and coordinating projects .