February 20, 2004

 

To:       CMEP Email Action Network

From:   Corinne Whitlatch

Re:       Pastoral Reflections on the Political Situation

This email alert is also posted on our website at: http://www.cmep.org/Alerts/2004Feb20.htm

 

Below are remarks made by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon.  Wesley reflects about the political situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Wesley will be a plenary speaker at Advocacy Days on Saturday, March 6.

 

For more information about Advocacy Days and online registration see www.advocacydays.org.

 

Remarks at Near East School of Theology -- Beirut, Lebanon
October 9, 2003

By Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America

 

We come as a delegation of Christians from the West to your country and to this region of the world. And immediately, we realize that this is, for each of us, a perilous journey. The long history of Christians coming from the West to this land is filled with anguish.

 

Those centuries before have come with a crusading spirit, causing devastation and ruin. Christians have come from the West like a Trojan Horse, carrying economic and cultural influences in the service of political interests that were entangled, often blindly, in genuine spiritual motivation.

 

Christians from the West have come, and still some continue to come, with an evangelical enthusiasm that is historically ignorant and dismissive of the very churches that carried the gospel forth faithfully since the time of our Lord, and continue to do so this day.

 

And the effect of these Christians who have come from the West has too often resulted in Arab Christians, whose lives and history are rooted here, being regarded as foreigners by their Moslem neighbors. So when we tell you we are a delegation from a church coming from the West, from North America, to your land, we should be honest historically about the past perils of such journeys. And this makes us all the more grateful for the overwhelming graciousness of your hospitality.

 

So we are here--one delegation from a rather small denomination in the United States, yet a church with a long history of biblical witness, mission, and ecumenical commitment. We are here--in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus--to listen and to learn. We are here to be in fellowship and prayer with the churches of these lands. And we are here to share with Christian and Moslems as you engage in a "dialogue of life" and seek to build societies shaped by commitments to the common good.

 

In our listening thus far, already we have heard of a new peril that travels from some Christians in the West to this land--what might be called "evangelical Zionism." This is the belief, held by a group of Christians especially in North America, that the modern state of Israel, including its territorial ambitions, has a direct biblical mandate providing a justification for its political and military actions. A few personalities in North America--such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham, have made statements about such beliefs, and also about the nature of Islam, that have attracted wide attention.

 

You need to hear what we, and millions of other Christians in the United States, think about these perspectives. First, understand, please, that proponents of "evangelical Zionism" are the extremists. And like extremists everywhere, they can attract media attention. My honest view, in listening thus far, is that they attract more attention here in Arab societies than in the United States.

 

I would guess--and this is only a guess--that four out of five Americans would regard the statements of such personalities as ill-informed, ill-advised, and irresponsible. Within American political and religious life, such figures and views are regarded as voices on the fringe, on the "far right." But from what we have heard thus far in our time with you and with the churches in these lands, it would seem that many believe such voices speak for all American Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

The perspectives of "evangelical Zionism" are found within one sector of the churches in North America, those commonly called "evangelical." There are problems with this term, for it is a very good word, key to the meaning of Christian faith--it means one who announces good news. But it has often become misused and attached to other stereotypes.

 

Evangelical churches in the United States are often vibrant and growing. But they include a wide diversity. Only a portion are influenced by those with a right wing political agenda, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The majority, while generally conservative in their views, are more moderate, and reject political extremism. And a smaller but growing number of evangelicals have a more progressive outlook, believing that the Bible calls us clearly to address the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and to seek peace and reconciliation, all as essential to being faithful disciples of Jesus. Recently, a group of prominent evangelicals met in order to address the issues of Christian-Muslim relations, and their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in ways that drew clear differences from the more extreme views of "evangelical Zionism."

 

Another branch of Christianity in North America is represented by the historic Protestant Churches. The Reformed Church in America is within this branch, although we readily will claim the term "evangelical," in the best sense of the word, as well as "ecumenical" when we describe ourselves. The theological teachings and official statements of these denominations never endorse what may be called "evangelical Zionism." Many of these churches have spoken out clearly regarding the biblical priorities of justice, human rights, and the priorities of peace and reconciliation in our nation's policies dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example...

 

Then there are the Orthodox Churches in North America, and of course the Roman Catholic Church. For them, the perspectives of "evangelical Zionism" are completely foreign to their theological and political understandings.

 

America is a widely diverse society religiously, and growing more so every day. And the religious voices that yell the loudest do not represent the most people. So we would like you to hear the voices of all the churches in the United States. Through organizations like Christians for Middle East Peace, we try to speak together, and have an influence on our political process. But it also is clear that we must work harder to enable you to hear us. We must not dismiss the danger of what we have called "evangelical Zionism." This poses a grave threat both to the perception of Christian faith by the peoples of this region, and a threat to the understanding of the biblical message by Christians in North America. Already, our encounters here as a delegation have convinced us of the need to address this threat far more directly at home, and in our own churches.

 

But I trust that our presence here may help you, in some way, to be discerning in how your listen to and hear the voices of the churches in our land.

 

Let me also offer to you, as a Christian brother, some broader pastoral reflections on the political situation revolving around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conflict, after all, is the over-arching reality impacting political life, and shaping the context in which the churches of the Middle East are called to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

When Dr. Riad Jarjour came and spoke to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America in 2002, he concluded his address with these words: "We live in complex and difficult times when, within seconds, the business of any one region becomes the business of the whole world….The wolf packs gather everywhere. We must move as wisely as serpents and as innocently as doves, and the Spirit will give us the gift of utterance when we most need it."

 

It is our prayer that the Spirit my give you freshly that gift of utterance, for it is clear that words can seem cheap, shallow, and almost futile. We face together, it seems to me, a situation today of utter political hopelessness. It grows by the headlines of each day, even in the days since our delegation has arrived in your lands. Any hope of a political process is being demolished by a culture of death. This, it seems, is what now reigns--only the dark forces that dehumanize life, that are captivated by vengeance, that consistently violate any national or humanitarian boundaries of restraint--including, in these past 48 hours the violation of international borders.

 

Political discourse and options are now held hostage, it seems to me, by the extremists in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities. As Riad Jarjour said a few months ago, "the mating of Zionist extremism with Islamist fanaticism (is) yielding its offspring of violent and interactive bigotry that reaches out to touch not just the Middle East but the whole world--we have a tale of disaster. There is no nobility here, no ethical sense, no benefit for anyone. There is only ugliness shame for humanity, and an insidious and very dangerous political infection that is quickly becoming an epidemic."

 

Now please be clear. I do not believe that somehow historical blame for the present situation is equally shared in some "balanced" perspective. Not at all. My understanding of history and culpability is quite different; there is not a "balanced" view, but rather a tragic saga of the dispossession of a Palestinian homeland--a saga that continues today with each new illegal or "legal" settlement building.

 

But I do believe that the present reality has now become engulfed by a culture of death that destroys not only innocent Palestinian and Israeli lives, but demolishes any possibility of hope for a political solution.

 

So in such a situation of political hopelessness and escalating violence, what is the place of the church, and of the religious community? Where does it find its voice? What can it utter? Where can it turn?

 

These are, of course, the existential questions that you live with, and carry into your prayers, every day. They are born out of a reality that those of us, visiting you here, have barely ever known.

 

But from our shared experience of Christian faith, as we who visit you have lived that out in the midst of our own political and social life, we may offer some reflections and, most of all, prayers.

 

For the religious community, and certainly for Christian, hope always has its roots beyond political and social realities. Our hopes are rooted in a conviction of faith that believes in the intentions of God for the world, in spite of the evidence that we see. And we act on the basis of that faith, and then expect that the evidence will change.

 

That was always the story of the prophets. They saw clearly the political, economic, and social realities that so angered God. But they could also see through them, see beyond them, with a hope rooted in God's power to make things new.

 

Jesus proclaimed that as the Kingdom of God, calling us to live in God's presence, empowered by God's Spirit, and acting according to what God willed for the world. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done..."

 

And throughout history many have demonstrated what it means to live according to this hope, and then, in some cases, to watch the evidence change.

 

Desmond Tutu speaks of the time when he called Christians to a public protest of apartheid policies. Several thousand gathered only to be told that it was illegal for them to have a public meeting. So Bishop Tutu gathered the group together in a large cathedral. The security police also entered. The congregation began to worship God, ignoring the presence of the police. When it came time to preach, Bishop Tutu chose to address not the congregation, but the police: "We welcome you," he said, "to join the winning side."

 

I think also of other political leaders, like Nelson Mandela. The moral credibility of his leadership was nurtured for some 25 years in a prison; there, he both kept faith in a different future, and lived a model of reconciliation in the prison, with his guards, that had become his home.

 

We think of the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who understood that the most powerful force against the might of the British Empire was the shared will of a people to live according to a moral standard that refused cooperation with evil.

 

Or in the American context we can think of Martin Luther King, who challenged and changed the most pernicious evils of legalized racial discrimination through empowering people to stand in solidarity with a moral determination to resist what was evil through tough and suffering love.

 

You can imagine many other historical examples. And immediately I would recognize that there are vast differences in the contexts and historical circumstances of these situations, and that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

 

But some things remain the same. Extremists reinforce each other and close off political possibilities. But their views and convictions do not reflect the hopes and aspirations of their peoples. And in the midst of seeming political hopelessness, a gaping moral vacuum is created.

 

So from outside the narrow, entrenched political powers, voices and prophets who live by faith in another, deeper reality, the reality of what God intends for this world--these voices begin to find utterance from the Spirit. They speak to the hopes of people. They explore new pathways. They inspire vision. They suffer. And they wait in hope, believing that the evidence will change. And then, it begins to. In ways that can never be fully predicted or controlled, new seeds of possibilities emerge. They inspire. They grow. They are not quenched by persecution. They change the way the world is seen. And eventually, new and unforeseen political possibilities are born.

 

We pray with you for that day.

 

And in the mean time, we remember Paul's word to the Corinthians: "In the one Spirit we were baptized into one body...we were all made to drink of one Spirit...(and) if one member suffers, we all suffer with it."

 

Forgive us for not sharing in your suffering. And receive from us words of the common hope we hold in our God who so loved the world, that he sent, into this land, his Son.

 

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Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a Washington-based program of the Alliance of Baptists, American Friends Service Committee, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Church World Service, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Franciscan Mission Service, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Maryknoll Missioners, Mennonite Central Committee, National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church (GBCS & GBGM) .  For further information, see www.cmep.org