Reconciliation is not an easy path. Believers in the Messiah find it a challenging process. The mandate for reconciliation is very clear in the Scriptures, yet the challenge lies in how we apply the Biblical teaching in our daily life. Often believers in the Messiah find themselves on two sides of a conflict. How do we reconcile with our fellow brother or sister who belongs to the other side? Moreover, how do we put into practice the Bible’s teachings on ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and especially ‘Love your enemy’?
Musalaha: A Case Study
Musalaha is a ministry that has been promoting and pursuing reconciliation primarily among Palestinian and Israeli believers for over ten years. Although believers in the Messiah share a common faith, there are great cultural, historical and language differences. Violent conflict, political ideologies, and theological disparities cause divisions and create enemies. Both sides are emotionally charged by their pain and enmity; the conflict is a continuous struggle between two people.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (Ps. 133: 1). In the years of the first intifada, Palestinian Christian and Messianic Israeli leaders observed that many meetings between Israelis and Palestinians did not reflect this scripture. Instead, after the initial meeting, the two sides moved to accusations, blame, and many were left hurt and hopeless. The challenge before us was to find a forum where Israelis and Palestinians could meet with each other, develop relationships and a certain level of trust that would help them deal with some of the core issues of the conflict between their peoples. Thus, leaders from both sides founded Musalaha as a vehicle to bring people into the process of Biblical reconciliation.
Musalaha bases its ministry on a Biblical foundation:
1. Christ’s act on the cross reconciles humanity to God. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 4: 18 -19).
2. Jesus’s obedience compels us to obey His commands for unity and to experience the fellowship and community of believers. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier…. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross…” (Eph. 2: 14-16).
3. Our unity in Him is an essential element in our proclamation and the truth that He is the Savior of the world. Jesus prayed that believers’ unity would be a message of His salvation: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21 ).
This Biblical foundation is the impetus and driving force behind reconciliation.
Building relationships in order to face the issues
The reality of our situation in the Middle East is that Israeli and Palestinians are living as if in one house. As they live in such close quarters, intermingling is unavoidable and even necessary, albeit tense. At the end of the day, there is no choice but to live side-by-side; therefore reconciliation and building relationships are essential.
While the Oslo peace accords attempted to work out a solution for co-existence, the political solution failed to mend inter-group relations, or to alter attitudes of hatred and prejudice that undermine political agreements. Thus while hammering out a way for them to share the house, the political process could not induce the change of heart required to live alongside each other.
Believers can play an important part in this conflict, because as a result of their faith in the Messiah, they are ‘one body.’ Because of Christ’s death on the cross, believers are given the tools required for a transformation of hearts, and can answer hatred and bitterness with the message of forgiveness and love. In the current political conflict and division, we can be examples and models that it is possible to live side-by-side, free of the bondage of hatred.
At the same time, believers disagree on many issues, especially political and theological. Our board represents the spectrum of opinions within the body of the Messiah. As we founded Musalaha, we knew that we had to deal with those issues, but also understood that Musalaha had to find a safe forum where people could develop relationships, and then express, exchange, learn, and debate the issues that divide us. Many wanted to deal with the issues right away without understanding the importance of the process: that these issues will be dealt with in proper time and manner, in the context of developed relationships.
As Musalaha continues to insist on developing relationships as a fundamental aspect of the process of reconciliation, some misunderstand and accuse us of ‘cheap reconciliation.’ Some feel that this maintains the status quo for the dominant group and ignores the reality of the situation in favor of unrealistic, idealistic relationships. Others feel that we promote one side or the other. From the Palestinian point of view, the charge was that we promoted a Zionistic agenda. From the Israeli point of view, some argued that we were promoting a Palestinian position. Musalaha maintains that reconciliation must begin with relationships that bring people into a spirit of brotherly love and respect, and from that platform, we can deal with the problems.
The Challenges in Developing Relationships
Division among the body dilutes the act of Christ on the cross. When we cease to be unified, we cease to be salt and light in the world. There are many obstacles that drive a wedge between believers. Our broken relationships reflect the Bible’s teachings that sin manifests itself in our social relations between individuals and ethnic groups. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar” (I Jn 4:20 ). It is important for those who are involved in reconciliation to understand the role of sin in causing division within the body of the Messiah.
The social aspect of sin takes the form of misperceptions and prejudice that can lead to rage, hate and violence. Each of us perceives reality through the lenses of our culture, personality, and sinfulness. Perceptions of the other are formed in childhood, in schools and playgrounds, and are affected by culture, language, and history. These perceptions among groups are trends that are often found at the roots of intergroup conflict and broken relationships. We have observed the following trends (some of which were previously included in Musalaha’s May 2001 article, “Who Hates More? Who is More Evil?”):
– Division between us and them. Individuals tend to evaluate one’s own group with sensitivity and favor. We are able to understand our own group, recognize its good qualities, and become attached to it. We overlook our own shortcomings because it is important to distinguish between us (who are right and good and merciful) and them (who are evil and wrong); and thus we can blame them.
– Dehumanization. Dehumanization limits how we see each other. Palestinians often see any Israeli as the enemy, who wants to steal their land and get rid of them. Israelis often see any Arab as the enemy, a terrorist desiring to push them to the sea.
– Failure to see plurality within other side. It is more difficult to understand ‘them.’ Instead of recognizing their qualities, we generalize and stereotype the other, saying things like, ‘They all hate and want to kill us,’ or ‘They are the animals, they are the evil ones.’ We are unable to see them as individuals with unique feelings and thoughts as God created them.
– Suspicion. When the other does not behave or speak according to our mental picture of them, we think that they have ulterior motives. ‘They’ cannot really be a decent person, they must have some other agenda. We develop a ‘conspiracy complex,’ anticipating that ‘they’ are conspiring to harm us.
– Self-fulfilling prophecy. Often, the image that is projected on others and the behavior towards them provokes them to behave accordingly, confirming stereotypes. In our situation, we hear from each side that the other only understands power. Thus, they have continued to speak to one another in the language of power and violence.
– Moral Superiority. Thus, we decide that we are more peace loving, trustworthy, and honest. Our values become a moral authority, and we view with contempt those who have different values. Often we will not mix with those who do not share our moral standards, as they might change or corrupt us. The feeling of moral superiority allows for separation and protection; and can justify hatred or legitimize mistreatment of them.
– Perceived victimization. Both Israelis and Palestinian strongly perceive themselves as victims, and therefore are unable to see themselves as a threat to the other. If we are the victims, then we cannot be the victimizers. The victims’ mentality causes them to be blind to others’ pain, aspirations and needs, and therefore justify their attitude towards the other. This perception of themselves as the threatened and injured party, also allows for fear and hostility towards the other. Therefore violent action is justified, and some politicians use these fears to promote their political agenda.
– Demonization. As each side believes that God is on his side, it follows that the devil must be on the other side. Both sides use religious language, showing the enemy as the instrument of the devil, who is beyond redemption, and therefore violence is justified.
These trends are obstacles in the process of reconciliation. If they are ignored, there is no process; instead it becomes a confirmation of misperceptions and attitudes. Holding on to these opinions allows us to neglect the fact that each person is created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of the Messiah. What can be done to restore in our perceptions the truth that the enemy also is created in God’s image? Relationships must be built in order to counter these tendencies and to make progress in reconciliation.
Desert Encounter. Musalaha developed a strategy for dealing with these obstacles and entering into a process of reconciliation. First, they must meet one another. In an area with such complex realities, it is difficult to find common ground that is an appropriate forum for teaching and advancing in reconciliation. There are very few locations that are neutral and easily accessible. In order to solve this problem, Musalaha developed the Desert Encounter, where different groups of Palestinian and Israeli youth, young adults, and leaders travel together on a desert journey.
We have found the desert to be a uniquely neutral atmosphere, where everyone is in the same position, working together to negotiate the hardships of the desert sun or a stubborn camel. There, the environment strips participants of their comfort zones and forces them to relate on a different level. The challenges of survival and cooperation provide an excellent occasion for open communication. In the desert, they share devotions, life stories, narratives, fears, struggles and hopes; and in doing so they reach a certain level of intimacy. While to some it sounds merely fun and exotic, in actuality the experience does initiate changed perceptions and new relationships.
Follow-up Projects. Following the desert encounter, participants return to their communities and at times undergo negative pressure. Their experience and change cause peers to question their loyalty to their own group. Thus we designed follow-up projects so that participants have a means to keep in contact with one another. The goals of the follow-up projects are twofold: to continue the process begun in the desert and to expand the process into communities. In many cases the follow-up projects provide a means to take relationships to a deeper level and to deal with difficult issues. As part of the follow-up, participants select a social service project through which they can serve both Palestinian and Israeli communities, building on their experience in the desert.
Women’s Activities. Israeli and Palestinian women must deal with the effects of living in a highly tense and uncertain atmosphere. Musalaha recognizes that women have a unique impact on society as thus provides conferences that will enable building relationships between these two groups of women. Considering the very special needs, concerns and contributions of this unique group of women, we wish to provide a platform for addressing some of the intrinsic subjects concerning daily life and family issues.
Theological Seminars. Over time, leaders and lay persons have understood that a vast array of theological interpretations exists. While leaders are often divided on issues such as the land, prophecy, end-time theology, justice, and peace, they have recognized that they have unclear or incomplete understandings of one another's positions. On many issues, they thought that they agreed or disagreed when the opposite was true. Therefore, Musalaha attempts to provide an edifying environment for discussing these issues and for listening to one another’s positions. Through the years, Musalaha has conducted seminars on peace, theology of the land, prophecy, end-time theology, and other topics. Most of the seminars have arrived at the conclusion that, in order to progress in the issue, participants must agree on a common hermeneutic. (For more exploration of this topic, please see Lisa Loden’s chapter in The Bible and the Land: An Encounter.)
Musalaha also conducts trips to places of pain or trauma that our people have inflicted upon each other. The experience is an important step in understanding the history of our peoples. These trips are quite intimate and intense, requiring a sensitive approach. Participants become vulnerable to one another, share their narratives, express sorrow and confess sin. In recognizing and learning one another's histories, participants can enter into a process similar to what John Dawson outlines as a Biblical model for reconciliation:
Biblical Model for Reconciliation
· Confession: Stating the truth; acknowledging the unjust or hurtful actions of myself or my people-group toward other people or categories of people.
· Repentance: Turning from unloving to loving actions.
· Reconciliation: Expressing and receiving forgiveness and pursuing intimate fellowship with previous enemies
· Restitution: Attempting to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed and seeking justice wherever we have the power to act or to influence those in authority to act.
( Dawson , 1998)
In our experience, this model needs to take place in the context of a relationship. As relationships are built, people are able to proceed through these steps.
In addition, the model provides an answer to those who question the connection between reconciliation and justice. While some believe that reconciliation takes place at the cost of justice, it is evident from the model that pursuing justice and restoration is a natural part of the reconciliation process.
Stages in reconciliation
As Musalaha’s activities proceed, we have observed several stages in the process of reconciliation among believers. The process is continuous, people advancing in the stages and at times returning to previous ones. Some enter the process and do not persist; others leave and then re-enter. These trends are similar to phenomena noted by other organizations (such as Givat Haviva) working in conflict resolution between Palestinians and Israelis. (The following is adapted from Musalaha’s article “Stages in Reconciliation” in March 2001.)
First Stage: In the first stage, people from both sides are often willing to meet after some hesitation. In the initial meeting (Desert Encounter or conference), people are curious, interested, have fun, and often are enthusiastic to participate in an activity together. There is a sense of idealism and euphoria, expressions of ‘We are no different,’ and ‘We are all one body.” Participants also express reservations. Givat Haviva, while conducting a joint course with Palestinian and Israeli university students, noted that in the beginning stages participants questioned the validity of the encounter. “What can really be achieved by this meeting?” While Israelis found value in building personal relationships, Palestinian participants questioned the impact of personal relationships on political conflicts (Friedman, 2000). In spite of this, at Musalaha we find that most are encouraged by the fellowship and desire to continue in the process.
Second Stage: Moving to the next stage entails a revelation of their feelings on issues, the background and context of their perspectives, and become more open about grievances. The fact that Palestinians and Israelis feel differently about issues now comes up to the surface. Several Israeli leaders expressed to us that many Israeli Jews feel overwhelmed at the Palestinians’ stories, political and theological opinions, and at how strongly they express their grievances. He explained that suddenly, the power dynamic has changed and they are put on the ‘weak side.’
Givat Haviva notes that Israelis are surprised by the shift in power balance. Outside the encounter, in the real world, they have majority and power. In a smaller environment where they are no longer the majority, the dynamics are different. “The Jews have difficulty with the gap that has been revealed to them, between their self-concept… and their image as it is reflected in the way Arabs perceive them” (Ibid.).
For Palestinians, the equal footing that they experience in an encounter with Israelis is lost when they return and re-enter the political realities of their situation. This raises the question of what is gained from the meeting if there is no change on the ground.
Third stage: The third stage usually finds the Israeli participants in a process of withdrawal, backing off from meetings because they see it as hopeless, or the issues have become too overwhelming and painful. As a result, Israelis state their own accusations and grievances against the Palestinians. They also share their strongly held theological and political positions. Each side reacts by saying that the other’s withdrawal from the process was obvious and inevitable, that they will never understand and never accept one another. Each side accuses the other that they are blind to reality and to the truth of the Bible.
Rather than reaching a greater understanding of one another, this stage often confirms each sides’ positions. They find explanations and reasons for the way things are, and if they do not move beyond this stage, then they reach an impasse. In this stage, they feel that they will never agree and the process will lead nowhere. The parties separate into their corners; “the process has been wrung dry” (Ibid.).
Fourth Stage. Those who remain in the process realize that they are bound to live alongside one another. At this point, people understand that both sides have genuine charges and grievances against each other. They also recognize the shortcomings of their own people, and that their side has also contributed to the breakdown of relationships and the violence of the conflict. They realize that they must find a way to correct and restore the relationship between the two peoples and are willing to take serious steps in order to do so. Those steps include learning one another’s history and life experiences, listening, and accepting differing perspectives and perceptions. They can also learn from each other about God and about Biblical truths. Making progress in reconciliation requires courage and risk; it means becoming vulnerable to ‘the enemy,’ being honest and open, yet sensitive and willing to listen.
As participants go through the process of reconciliation, the issue of personal and ethnic identity plays a major role. Identity is a sensitive issue that warrants much more attention than we can give it in this article. However, it is our observation that people who move through the stages of reconciliation have developed a more secure identity, becoming more sure of who they are in their ethnicity and in the Lord. At the same time, they are more open and willing to embrace others, and to work to restore relationships, to deal with the issues, and to correct the damage that has been done.
A significant number of Palestinians and Israelis who have been involved in Musalaha’s activities over the past ten years have expressed that the experience has greatly impacted their lives and led to a change of heart. As a result of the process, participants have interacted and built trust with the ‘enemy.’ Many have experienced spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of the meaning of being “one body” and being a testimony to the unbelieving community.
The process that we described has had both success and painful setbacks. As we advance in learning to fulfill the Lord’s commandments, we are aware of the pain that both communities inflict upon each other, and we feel the pain from both sides. Many times we see how close we are, and at the same time, how far away; it is both frustrating and challenging.
There is still much to learn about the Biblical teaching and social dimension of reconciliation. We want to understand the dynamics between our political/theological positions and reconciliation.
The political events have much bearing on our efforts, especially as there is so much hurt, fear, and mistrust among our people. There is great pressure to conform to ethnic loyalties. The natural tendency is to avoid meeting so that no one will be hurt and no suspicions will be raised. We need to study how the reconciliation process can be further developed and applied in this difficult, volatile context. As a small minority in our respective communities, we can have an impact on larger society. We need to explore how we can affect change among our communities.
The road is long and the gap is widening. The Palestinian village of Bet Jala and the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo lie in close proximity, yet are separated by a deep valley. In the same way, a profound rift divides our peoples. There is a serious demand for the body of the Messiah to be a bridge between the two communities. In times like these, this is no small challenge. As Jesus tells us, “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other” (Mark 9: 49-50).
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D. Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and University of Wales. With thanks to Brittany Browning for her input.
This article (an edited version) is printed in Mishkan, December 2001.
Dawson, J. 1998. What Christians Should Know About…Reconciliation. UK: Sovereign World.Friedman, A. Halabi, R. Sonnenschein, N. (2000) “University Courses on the Jewish-ArabConflict.” In Halabi, R. (Ed.) Identities in Dialogue. Israel: Hakibbutz Hameuchad.Munayer, S. 2001 “Who Hate More? Who is More Evil?” Israel: Musalaha.
Munayer, S. 2001 “Stages in Reconciliation.” Israel: Musalaha.