The cross has a unique role and function in this land where 2,000 years ago, Jesus was crucified. Followers of Christ in Palestinian areas and Israel are essentially a minority amidst the Jewish and Muslim majorities. As so much of this region is defined by the conflict between groups, believers in Jesus look to Him as a basis for reconciliation. While Muslims and Jews reject the cross, believers who pursue reconciliation are seeking to fulfill Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17:21, so that their testimony of unity will reflect His work of reconciliation.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is multi-faceted and intractable. The reality of the situation is that Israeli and Palestinians live in close proximity, in one land. At the end of the day, there is no choice but to live side-by-side; therefore cooperation, reconciliation and relationships are essential. While peace accords have attempted to work out a solution, the political solutions have failed to mend inter-group relations, or to alter attitudes of hatred and prejudice that continuously undermine political agreements and fuel the cycle of violence. Both sides are emotionally charged by their pain and enmity. While hammering out a way for them to share the land, the political process has not induced the change of heart required to live alongside each other.
This is the context in which Palestinian Arab Christians and Messianic Israeli Jews find themselves. Believers live on both sides of the conflict, and are not immune to its impact. None are untouched by the tide of prejudice and hostility between groups, and the gap between people, including believers, continues to widen. While violent conflict, political ideologies and theological disparities cause divisions, followers of Jesus are compelled to address these issues in the context of the cross.
Christ’s act on the cross, God extending an act of reconciliation towards us, compels us to reconcile with others. The Gospel provides a resource and a framework through which to approach the other and the enemy. On the basis of the cross, leaders and lay persons from the Messianic Israeli and Palestinian Christian communities have been coming together to live out the mandate for reconciliation. Through organizations like Musalaha, a non-profit that facilitates reconciliation programs between Palestinians and Israelis, believers meet in desert encounters and conferences, in order to face the challenge of practicing these Biblical principles in the midst of conflict. (For more information on Musalaha, see www.musalaha.org.) In our experiences at Musalaha encounters, a variety of issues and obstacles to reconciliation continuously emerge, particularly regarding issues such as identity, power imbalance, justice, prejudice, hatred and revenge. This chapter/article discusses these trends, and the manner in which the cross models a response to these challenges.
The Cross as Atonement for Sin
The cross is a central theme in reconciliation. I John 4:7 describes the nature of God as love, a love made apparent through Christ’s act on the cross. He is love not only in his identity but also in his act of sending his son as an atonement for our sin (I John 4:10). This basic principle is important as the foundation of Biblical reconciliation. God loves and embraces a world that rebels against him. All of humanity is sinful and in enmity with God, yet he declares through the cross that he wants a relationship with us that is intimate and eternal. God’s act of embrace towards sinners enables us to have a relationship with him, which in turn provides a mandate for us to embrace others.
This act on the cross not only impacts us personally and individually, but also informs our relationships and attitudes towards others. Each of us belongs to various communities, ethnic, cultural, religious backgrounds and is influenced by the attitudes that our group might hold towards other groups. In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, as their histories intertwine in often painful and complex ways, attitudes of hatred, prejudice, separation are inherent. The cross has bearing on these perceptions and understandings of the other side.
Attitudes towards the other reflect deep-seated dehumanization and demonization. Dehumanization disregards the humanity of the other side. Palestinians and Israelis often see one another as the enemy, and not as a people with lives and families. Each group demonizes the other side, relating to the enemy using religious language, portraying them as the instrument of the devil, as being beyond redemption.
The act of Christ on the cross rejects these attitudes. God’s grace, just as it extends to us in our sinful state, extends to our enemies as well, for we were all once sinners and enemies of God. When he could reject the human race, he looks on us with love and redeems us. His act of atonement and embrace is our model and point of reference in reconciling with each other.
The Cross as Deliverance
Solidarity with human condition of suffering
Christ, through his life, death and resurrection, identifies with those who suffer and are oppressed. Jesus recalled, “He has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor…to heal the brokenhearted. To proclaim liberated to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. To set at liberty those who those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18-19). Christ brings deliverance in several aspects of human life, including the spiritual, social, physical life of the victim.
Jesus’ experience of suffering and his teachings concerning the sufferer compel us to attitudes of compassion, even towards our enemies. His sympathy towards the victim is not only a comfort to those who suffer, but also a demand for the same from us. In a conflict where both sides see themselves as the victims, often groups are unable to see the suffering of the other side. A victimization mentality blinds one group to the suffering of the other. While also being a source of redemption and relief, the cross presents a challenge to look beyond our own situation and to attend to the suffering and pain of others. God is calling us to be like him, to have solidarity in suffering and bring freedom to the oppressed.
Cross as liberation from the roles of victim and oppressor
The trends of victimization and oppression are major factors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Israelis and Palestinian strongly perceive themselves as victims, and therefore have difficulty seeing themselves as a threat to the other. If we are the victims, then we cannot be the victimizers. This monopoly on victimization fails to acknowledge that each side has also played the role of perpetrator. Perceived victimization can become a justification and excuse for violent and sinful acts.
In addition, victimization can also lead to a fatalistic point of view. The parties believe that nothing can be done to change the enemy who is full of hatred and wants only to destroy. This justifies the use of power and pre-emptive violence for perceived self-preservation.
The cross addresses this dynamic by redefining the roles of victim and oppressor. In as much as Christ’s death addresses the victim, it also deals with the oppressor. Just as God showed his love and liberated the oppressed, the oppressor is also set free in the cross.
Both oppressor and oppressed are liberated from the cycles of conflict. We are often caught in arguments and a vicious cycle of competing narratives and of diverging perceptions of truth and justice. This can lead to violence that ends in a cycle of more violence and revenge. After time the cycle becomes messy and people forget origins and main issues of the conflict. The cross can help us to avoid entering into this cycle, because in him on the cross is all truth and justice.
In the cross we see the reality of our own injustice, shortcomings and contribution to the conflict. The cross opens the way to changing perceptions of others that divert us from the cycle of revenge and retaliation. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. He will administer retaliation and justice. It is fundamental to recognize that God, who knows and sees all, takes upon himself role of the judge. If we take on the task of judgment, we are assuming the role and authority of God. By taking upon himself the revenge and punishment of evil, God frees us from focusing our life on hatred and vengeance, from a life that is damaging to ourselves and others. This is an important aspect of breaking the cycle of retaliation, because we are set free from the bondage of thinking about the injustice we incur and also the justice we deserve. In Middle Eastern history, for lack of central authority, families took on the role of administering justice, thus making vengeance a strong element in the culture. The cross brings an alternative message of God as the instrument of justice. Through the cross, we are liberated from the feelings of injustice and victimization mentality, and come to recognize areas where we too deserve God’s wrath and judgment.
In receiving freedom through the cross as either the victim or oppressor, we can be engaged with imitating what God did for us. After we are transformed, we can become a part of transformative relationships. Receiving what Christ did on the cross for each one of us, frees both sides to engage with the other in an act of love and embrace. Through forgiveness and confession, both the oppressor and the oppressed are released, and through this freedom we can be involved in developing relationship and building up community.
The cross changes and transforms identity.
The issues of identity and belonging to a group are major aspects of the conflict. Identity greatly influences how parties relate to one another and behave towards each other. In our context, religion is a major factor in defining our identity, separating between Christian, Jew and Muslim, and plays an important role in the interaction between groups.
The cross not only sets us free from our identities as sinners and from the roles of victim or oppressor, but also brings security to our own identity, a freedom that liberates us to embrace and accept others. The perfect love that casts out fear (I John 4:18) protects us from guilt or fear of sin, also projects us from fear of rejection and brings security. This is significant in a conflict where there are major struggles and insecurities concerning identity and rejection of the other.
Determining identity can also be a political statement and can be seen as affirming or denying one’s existence. The dynamic between weak and powerful plays a role in determining identity. The weak may feel the need to define themselves in a certain way in order to appease the strong for reasons of survival, prosperity and access to power. As a result, they may deny elements of their background identity. This is a common struggle for the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. In the eyes of some, the word Palestinian is a political statement that might be threatening.
In contrast, the cross frees us to be who we are because it affirms God’s love for creation and humanity. We have been created in God’s image and likeness, as Arab, Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian. The Bible assures us of God’s love for all, and says that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). However, these boundaries do not cease to exist and the characteristics of Jew and Greek or man and woman are not removed but rather transformed according to God’s purposes.
We can acquire an understanding of our identity that is complementary and not contradictory to the behavior and identity of others. The cross that give us freedom to be ourselves also gives security and freedom to engage with others; and as we engage with others, just as when we encounter God, the encounter is transformative.
There are those aspects of our identity that require transformation. While parts of our identity are positive expressions of culture, tradition, and rich history, at the same time, our identification with a group can mean adopting certain negative attitudes towards the other. Social identity theory claims that when we categorize ourselves in one group, this often results in specific feelings or discrimination towards those outside the group. Thus, as we identify with a group, we take on certain attitudes that confirm our identity and self-esteem.
There is the tendency to distinguish between “us” and “them,” and 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).
At the same time, we can fail to see plurality within other side. 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. While we understand and perhaps accept the variety of feeling and opinion within our own group, we do not recognize the debates and disagreements within the other group. Rather, we see them as one group united together against us.
Palestinians feel that all Israelis are the same and cannot be trusted. Israelis feel that all Palestinians are the same and cannot be trusted. Suspicion and mistrust run high. It is easy to develop a ‘conspiracy complex,’ anticipating that ‘they’ are conspiring to harm us.
The cross challenges these attitudes and provides a firm alternative to the division between us and them. It offers a new way of viewing identity. First we see our own identity transformed as we are atoned and redeemed, and now are given new eyes to understand the other, who is offered the same grace and same transformed identity.
Ephesians 2 is a key passage relating identity, inter-group attitudes and ethnic conflict. As stated in verses 14-16, the cross created one new man from the two. He is not demanding that Israelis and Palestinians give up their identity. As a matter of fact, the two groups are needed to make a third identity, a new man, the new community of the people of God. So often in group relationships, there is a denial and rejection of the other’s identity. One group puts demands on the other to submit or to conform their identity to the wishes of the other. Aspects of culture, heritage and history are suppressed because they are uncomfortable or different. Here in Ephesians, Paul is saying bring your identity with you to the cross because it is transformed in Jesus to create a new community of the people of God, where each person contributes from the richness of their identity. As a result, both groups will experience peace because both are reconciled to God in one body through the cross.
Cross transforms our attitude toward the other
In this act of reconciliation, Christ put to death our hostility and enmity, and he does so by bringing people together. Interdependency exists in our reconciliation to God. We are dependent on each other to end the hostility that is between our groups and within ourselves. There is a solidarity in sinfulness and a solidarity in redemption. Our identities are transformed in relationship and not in separation. When coming to the foot of the cross, we require each other in order to deal with the hostility within our own hearts and to establish peace.
Ephesians 2 confronts the hostility that exists in inter-group relationships. While it addresses enmity on the individual or personal level, this passage also deals with enmity between groups; in our case, the hatred that exists between two nations in a violent struggle over land. In verse 11, Paul talks about relationships between Jews and non-Jews in the early church. In the days before the early church, Jews did not look on non-Jews favorably, calling them names and viewing them as outsiders; them and us. Between the communities there was alienation, rejection, lack of belonging. Paul declaration that what brought the two people together was not a change that happened among them, but first the act of Jesus on the cross. By the sacrificial act of Christ, those “who once were far offhave been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). People who did not experience God’s actions and blessing in history are now brought inside.
The cross creates a new community
Peace comes not as a new ideology or politics, but is the result of the identity and action of Jesus. One aspect of peace in Ephesians 2 is the peace that humanity has with God as a result of his forgiveness. Another aspect of peace is the end of separation or strife between groups. This peace comes as a result of people uniting through the spirit of God that cleanses us from sin, and brings us both to the Father. Peace in humanity is integrally related to humanity’s peace with God.
For us as Israeli and Palestinian believers this means an end to our hostility toward each other. We are no longer strangers, and cannot desire to destroy the other group. Now we are equals, on the same level and part of the same family, all together under the judgment and grace of God. This unity diffuses the tension by adding a new aspect to our identity as Palestinians or Israelis. Our new identity as the people of God brings us together as a community that embraces rather than rejects one another. We are fellow citizens (v. 19).
Our unity has the purpose of building a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. We are all given different roles, in order to meet that purpose. In essence the cross, by removing the dividing wall of hostility, enables groups to move forward toward cooperation.
Our transformed identity, our belonging to a new kingdom, is liberating. Our identity is secure because we are the beloved and forgiven of God. We can be engaged, because of the freedom and security received in the cross, in self-giving, that is an imitation of Christ. It removes us from the cycle of revenge because we now view the oppressed and oppressors from a new perspective. There will always be different views, historical narratives will clash, and theological understandings will not concur. What will change are the ways in which understanding the other and our attitudes towards them. No longer will we maintain the selfish, victimized identity, but we are liberated and secure to interact with the other. Without this interaction, there will not be transformation or an end to the hostility within each of us. Relationships with the crucified Lord and with each other are the foundations for ending hatred and bringing healing and unity.
In our Middle Eastern context, as Paul said, we continue to “preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” (I Cor 1:23). Although the majority groups of Muslims and Jews both reject the cross, through our ability to reconcile believers we continue to demonstrate his act of embrace by coming together and embracing one another in reconciliation.
By Salim J. Munayer, PhD