Feb 25, 2011

Faith Seeks Welcoming Acceptance in the Holy Land

As published in Chanhassen Villager and Chaska Herald Newspapers February 24th 2011

Father Chacour speaks to our team in Haifa, Israel
“I beg of you for your friendship and for your solidarity. Your solidarity, if you accept to share it with me, requires from you reconsideration of your attitudes, your convictions, and of your relations toward the Jew and I his Palestinian brother. For we are blood brothers who share the same Iraqi Forefather. Why should you lose your balance and interpret your standing with my Jewish brother as automatic hatred, the purging rejection of me, his Palestinian brother whom you do not know?

“I am not asking you to take my side against my Jewish brother’s side. What would you have done to your noble self if you become one sided? You reduce all your capacity to become one more enemy in this cruel arena. We do not need any more enemies. We need one more friend.

I truly enjoyed our fellowship with Father Chacour
who has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace
Prize for his message of reconciliation in the Holy Land.
For we Jews and Palestinians don’t need to learn how to live together. We just need to remember how we used to live together for centuries. If you read our history with honesty, you will discover that all across the Middle East and for centuries, we never used tolerance with each other…I tolerate you, stay there until I find a solution to get rid of you. No! We lived in welcoming acceptance of each other…I thank you for being there. You help me to know who I am. Without you I would be lost.”

One of the landmark buildings in Haifa, the Industrial Capital of Israel
These are the piercing but humble words of Father Allias Chacour, Arch Bishop of Galilee, Israel with the Malekite Greek Catholic Church. He speaks not just for himself, but for a whole army of followers of Jesus Christ both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the Westbank. A group of us evangelical ministers, all doctoral students from Bethel University, St. Paul, MN had stopped by his office in Haifa, Israel this past week as part of our doctoral research efforts in Peace Leadership.

Our team listens to a presentation from a Jewish Rabii in Jerusalem.
As a Christian and a biblical scholar, it is common for me to read in the Bible, discuss with others, and sing about different biblical sites, cities, and various characters. From very early on in life, the tales of biblical heroes and legends fuel our imagination. The Holy Land and its’ famous cities, landmarks, and holy places like Jerusalem, Hebron, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jericho, Mount Moriah, Mount Zion, the Sea of Galilee, the Valley of Megiddo, the Garden Tomb, and many others excite our sense of curiosity.

As a kid growing up in a Christian home I could not help but think of many of these places in fantastical terms. Perhaps that the dirt in the city streets or stones/rocks in the land hold some special divine powers or for instance that one is seized by a great sense of holiness as they get close to the spot where Christ was born.

A song I remember us singing in the Kenyan village where I grew up went like this:

Palestinian evangelical believers during a worship service
in Bethlehem, Westbank 
 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, today I see Peter walking the streets of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, today I see John and Paul walking the streets of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, today I see Jesus shining His light in the streets of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, today as I bow in prayer I desire to experience you with the rest of
the disciples of our Lord.
The Western wall or Wailing wall in Old City of Jerusalem
is the holiest site to Jews.  Many come here to pray.

Little do we stop to ponder about the people in contemporary Israel, the Living Stones. When we do, often it is with a usual prophetic interest or the resigned political way of the never ending Palestinian/Israeli conflict. In the later sense, our quickest inclination is to read these biblical stories into the present day conflict and pass judgment without stepping back to interpret the standing of both peoples (and all peoples of the world for that matter) in light of Jesus’ work on the Cross that demolishes barriers. Nor do we look at it through the eyes of our Christian calling. That of a community of love with a mandate to carry out the ministry of reconciliation. The evangelistic responsibility to spread the Good News of salvation to all nations without prejudice.

The Temple Mount.  I am standing in the area where it is
believed the Holy of Holies was located in 1st
century Herod's Temple
Worse still, few of us realize that there are many Christians in the Holy Land. We are shocked to hear that there are entire communities of Arab or Palestinian Christians in the West Bank or in Israel. We gloss over such passages like Acts 2:9-11 that mention how the first believers came from many nationalities including Arabs. And that these very men and women lived and died for the Christian faith while working for the gospel of Jesus Christ to get us, peoples of other lands, included in the Kingdom of God. Today, many of them are still doing the same.

Father Chacour is one such man who embodies his most famous Compatriot from Galilee. He gathers to his self-identity all the possible and impossible contradictions of the Middle East. He is a proud Palestinian Arab Israeli Christian, an identity he is quick to point out to us that Westerners may not easily grasp because in our minds…goodness! A Palestinian is automatically a Muslim! To most of us, and falsely so, Muslims are normally blood-thirsty, inclined to violence and to trouble making.

The Ethiopian section at the church of the
Holy Suplicher in Old Jerusalem
 With a refreshing tone, Father Chacour pointed out to us during our meeting the reality of our humble origins of innocence. He, like all of us, was not born a Christian. Rather, he was born a baby. He was born bearing the image of God. A Palestinian Arab Israeli in his birth Certificate…yes! But most importantly he is an image-bearer of God whether we like it or not.

That in itself is sacred and hallowed territory that we cannot violet through political posturing, prophetic speculation, or our sinful tendency to ethnocentrism and exclusion. Like all peoples around the world, Jew, African, European, American, Chinese he was born a baby with that first cry of innocence. Christ found him in Galilee and called him to come follow Him in the way of reconciliation.
The Garden of Gethsemane and what happened there
doted with these ancient Olive Trees that go back to the
time of Jesus made the most impression
on my Holy Land experience
As we dug deeper into the complexity of Chacour’s affiliations, first of which is with Christ, we began to discover the deeper hope for a better existence for Jews and Palestinians. A hope that is not build on tolerance but rather on mutual welcoming acceptance between people because of their different backgrounds. It is a hope exemplified by another Man that walked in Galilee in the first century and infused and endorsed into the life of the Church by the Ruach (Spirit) of God at Pentecost.

In Chacours’ words: “What we have seen with our man from Galilee is that we have seen Him killed, we buried Him, and amazingly enough He got up and He left us with a very unique legacy. He left us an empty tomb and a risen Man. Here in our Galilee is the only place on earth where in a tomb it is officially written, “He is Not Here. He is Risen!”

This spot inside the Church of All Nations in
Gethsemen is believed to he the exact spot where
Christ agonized in prayer that night of the crucifixion
With these words, he bed us farewell… "Don’t stay at the empty tomb for long! Go back to your country and tell others the Good News. In America you have done something remarkable. You have elevated your former slave to be your President and you even had a cowboy before then. If you have been able to do that, can’t you do something that is less than that? From Pentecost the church has been made of diversity of mentalities but unity of vision. Would you pray for us who follow Christ here in the Holy Land? If you have Jewish neighbors, friends or relatives back in America, please continue providing friendship more than ever before. If they are in need, give them help. Give to Israel the whole treasury of the United States if possible. I will be grateful to you. But do not lose your balance and hate us Palestinians. For we are the Jews of the Jews! We have paid with our lives, with our independence, and with our everything, to quiet down the guilty conscience of the Western World toward our blood brothers. So by any chance if you decide to take our side as Palestinians, God bless your heart! For once you are on the right side, right? But seriously, if being on our side, you become one sided for us against our Jewish brothers, I am sorry but we do not need your friendship!”

As this scriptural reference at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem
declares, death is not the end of the journey for those
who hope in God. Christ rose from the dead and so
shall all who believe in Him. 
As I left Israel, indeed I felt I had stepped on hallowed ground and that my yearning for that perfect dominion of God had almost been realized. But contrary to my childhood fantasies, it wasn’t because of the dead stones. It was because of the Living Stones, Jewish and Arab, I encountered throughout my travel. I felt inspired more than ever before to pray for the peace of Jerusalem…Shalom!

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