Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Body and the Blood, Part I

Around 1900, Christians made up approximately 20% of the population of the Holy Land. One hundred years later, they comprise approximately 2%.

Back in 2000, Reporter Charles Sennott was in Israel, witnessing the complete collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the renewal of the horrific violence that was ushered in with Ariel Sharon’s visit to the temple mount and the massive Palestinian uprising that followed. In his book, The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land’s Christians at the Turn of the New Millenium, which was published shortly before the events of 9/11, Sennott chronicles the increasing isolation and pressure on the indigenous Christian communities in Israel, Lebanon, and the occupied territories, which has led to mass emigration and the diminishing influence that the Christian community may have been able to contribute in serving as a bridge between the two sides.

As a case in point, he focuses on the Christian principle of forgiveness and how the lack of a Christian voice and influence in the region has contributed to making reconciliation difficult, if not impossible. He tells of a visit to a liberal Jewish religious center in Jersualem by the South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was speaking about what the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been able to achieve in his country. After his talk, Bishop Tutu asked, “Look, we were able to do it. Why can’t it happen here?” Sennott reported that the congregation met the question with an awkward silence. Neither side in the conflict sees the South African or Northern Irish experiences as models that fit their particular situation and the history of the conflict. Sennott writes:

In his own death on the cross, Jesus offered a radical notion of forgiveness that sought to alter the relationship between a tribe and its enemies, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Even as he hung dying, he said, "Forgive them Lord, they know not what they do." At the time of Jesus, the "peace process," to use today's term, was mired in mistrust and cycles of violence, just as it is now. Romans and Jews were wrestling with justice and peace. Jesus's insistence that occupiers, enemies, even his own killers, must be forgiven in order to break that cycle of violence is an idea as radical today as it was back then.

Whereas Islam and Judaism spell out preconditions for forgiveness, Christian teaching views the situation in reverse: forgiveness must come first, and reconciliation will open the way toward resolution of the practical details of getting along. Christian theologians in the Holy Land believe that the peace process will be doomed until each side is willing collectively to recognize the pain endured by the other, and then to forgive the other side for the pain inflicted on it.

Judaism and Islam place forgiveness largely under the governance of God. In contrast, the radical notion in Jesus's ministry was that forgiveness could and should be a way to bring the presence of God into human relations on this earth. This was most clearly expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus stood on a Galilee hillside and taught a large crowd to value human reconciliation over false piety. saying, "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24 ). Of all Jesus's teachings on forgiveness, this one seems the most practical and applicable to this conflict…

The truth is, Christianity has centuries of history in relation to Jews and to Muslims that is anything but forgiving, and they greet Jesus's message of forgiveness with understandable suspicion. To Jews, forgiveness sounds too much like forgetfulness. To Muslims, forgiveness sounds too much like giving up and relinquishing their claims.

It had become clear to me that the Christian notion of forgiveness had little resonance and therefore no practical applicability among the people of this land. To respond to Tutu's question of whether a South African-style reconciliation commission could work, the answer in most Jewish and Muslin corners is a resounding "no." Reconciliation here will be defined by Judaism and Islam, and it must be practical and clearly spelled out within the established political and religious traditions. Western Christianity's notions of forgiveness will have to give way to the more local sense of pragmatic justice. Justice will have to resonate from the people of this land alone; and they will inevitably face the same struggle and obstacles that Jesus did in trying to make their ideal of justice work within the local context and within the messages of their own faith. But still the Christian presence and the teachings of the faith had a role in the Middle East's search for justice and reconciliation.

Six years later, this seems more far away than ever. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, pray for them and for us.

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