What’s That Flag?

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Photo by K Knight. A lamp post in the north of England.

What have UK Christians got in common with UEFA and the International Olympic Committee? The Palestinian flag is increasingly visible in Britain today: whether on the football pitch, in news coverage of public protests, or simply in the possession of a local neighbour. Why is this? And how might it also affect you?

The complex issues of identity and religion, influence and ignorance are as old as the hills, yet they repeatedly find fresh expression in a new audience and context. Living online has become an international phenomenon by necessity during Covid lockdowns – overcoming some divisions but exacerbating others.

Recent mosque sermons, easily available on social media, have addressed the subject of Palestine, as violent events in Jerusalem escalated across the region. In Islam, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site, believed to be the location of the Muslim Prophet’s Night Journey of Qur’an 17:1. One popular preacher, with hundreds of thousands of viewers, urged all Muslims around the world to support their brothers in defending the mosque from Israeli forces and from “illegal evacuation of the Palestinians”. Citing the 178 injured and 88 hospitalised worshippers when the mosque was stormed on the final Friday prayers of Ramadan 2021, listeners heard of the rubber bullets, tear gas and bomb shells used and were invited to pray that Allah “will teach the enemies of Islam a lesson”.

A contrasting Eid message from Cambridge, which to date has reached an audience of nearly 180,000, also implored a response, but “not [of] vengefulness, not of exclusion against another exclusion.” It highlighted the terrible financial inequalities in the world; teaching, “the Sunnah position is that the poor come first; give, give, give”. Recalling the pleasure of his personal visit to Al-Aqsa, the preacher revelled in “the glory of that place that comes as a crown to the city”; and looked forward to a day when the Holy Land would be free – “Jew, Christian, Muslim, equal – able to live wherever they wish, no discrimination”.

The connection, for our Muslim neighbours, with the people and the place is clear and present. They then have to consider how to respond to the calls to support and give; perhaps by waving a Palestinian flag. At first, this might appear an unfamiliar response to UK Christians, but is it?

I wonder how many people in the UK would be able to locate Israel on a map; yet British society’s awareness is nurtured through annual traditions such as nativity plays, and for Christians, it is the setting of most of the Bible. There are Zionist theological positions which foster Christian support for the current Jewish citizens of Israel; and historic atrocities which inspire Christian sympathy for the Jews. To what extent would your life be perceived by some to be flying an Israeli flag?  Christian support for Palestinians is also evident, for example in the liturgy of Christian Aid’s ‘World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel vigil’ or organisations like Sebeel – Kairos; often these differing Christian perspectives reflect a level of association with evangelicalism.

So ‘What’s that flag’ mean to you? Does the sight of someone with a Palestinian flag attract or alienate you? Is your reaction a gospel bridge or barrier? God directed Samuel to look beyond the outward appearance, to the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Jesus the anointed Messiah is calling people into His spiritual Kingdom; into His family from every tongue, tribe and nation.  Do your actions raise a banner which says to others ‘Thy Kingdom come’?

Good news for “the righteous”?

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We are very used to thinking of Jesus as the friend of sinners. He famously ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and others of bad reputation. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is the righteous-in-the-eyes-of the world man who misses out while the sinner is made right with God. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the irresponsible son who gets the hug and the party; the dutiful, never-a-foot-wrong son finds himself outside and grumbling. And didn’t Jesus say he had come not for the righteous but to call sinners to repentance?

Among our Muslim communities, there are plenty of sinners. I am talking about the people who know they are lost, outside the pale, the backslidden, the hopelessly behind in what they believe God expects of them. Failed Muslims make a significant proportion of our prison population. Others stay out of trouble, but for various reasons are known as “not good Muslims.” In a sense, it should be relatively easy to take the good news to them, though it is not as easy as you might expect. However, I am interested in the other end of the spectrum, those seen as righteous.

When speaking of those sinner passages, modern translations often put the word sinner in quotes acknowledging they dubbed sinners by other people rather than by the scripture. Of course, it is quite legitimate to describe them as sinners and to also insist that all the so-called righteous were sinners too. In our zeal to reflect this emphasis of Jesus, we can refuse to recognise “the righteous” as anything but sinners by another name.

The reality is not so simple, neither in the scriptures nor the world today. According to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Whatever he may have been prior to taking the baptism of John, he started following Jesus as a man who was seeking to live a life pleasing to God (John 1:37, 40). Jesus welcomed Nathanael as a true Israelite and a man of integrity (John 1:47). 

Jesus called disreputable tax collectors like Matthew Levi and accepted the hospitality of Zacchaeus, but he also welcomed the respectable and the earnest. These were people who were seeking something more from God, alert to what God might do in their time, not necessarily driven by a sense of personal moral bankruptcy.

The Gospels speak of other people who were seeking to know God better, looking for the Kingdom. Anna and Simeon are two examples. In Acts, Ananias seems to have been a pillar of Jewish respectability (Acts 22:12). Cornelius and Lydia were devout God-fearers (Acts 10:2; 16:14). Within our Muslim communities there are people zealous for God and for right living. Sure, there are some who are consumed with making other people behave, like the stereotypical Pharisees, but there are also many with hungry hearts whose desire is to be acceptable to God. I have met some of them.

Ahmad was a former imam who had switched to part-time college chaplain and part-time bitcoin dealer. “It is harder,” he told me, “to practise Islam in Pakistan than in the UK.” I was puzzled. Surely in Pakistan there was a mosque on every corner, a loud call to prayer five times a day, the sound of the Qur’an piped through radios, and a universal expectation that he keep the fast in Ramadan? Surely no one batted an eyelid if you were diligent in your religious duties? 

“What I mean is,” he continued, “There is so much corruption and dishonesty. It is hard to live an honest life.” For Ahmad, Islam was not about being a Muslim rather than a Christian; it was about living for God.

In New Testament times, Jesus was good news for “sinners” and he was also good news for at least some “righteous”. I think we are pretty good at showing sinners how Jesus is good news; how about showing sincere Muslims that Jesus is good news for them too? Is the only way to first prove them to be sinners?

Imam N sought out a new teacher a couple of years ago. He was not content with the narrow tradition he was in. There had to be more. He found someone online. One day he sent me a link to a TV programme in which his new teacher was being interviewed on a Christian channel where he was explaining why reading the Psalms was so valuable for Muslims. Imam N is on a journey, prompted at least in part by what he has seen in the lives of Christians who befriended him.

Imam A has been an observant Muslim all his life, but from a young age he started seeking. What he was looking for was a spiritual master, someone nearer to God than he himself was, who could direct him and intercede for him. It is not that he saw himself as a hopeless sinner, but rather that he knew that he fell short. I think what he is looking for will be found most fully in Jesus. When Crispus the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth turned to Christ, he was not leaving a life of godlessness (Acts 18:8).

Mr S is a devout man, often moved to tears as he performs the required prayers whether at home or in the mosque. But he is always eager to respond when an invitation is given to a Christian event. He has often come to church on Sunday when an appropriate opportunity has been given him. 

But someone will say, you are not comparing like with like. Jewish people in the first century were steeped in the scriptures and looking for the fulfilment of the promises of God. Yes, they certainly had many advantages. My Muslim friends meditate on the example of Abraham and Moses, but the version they have is from the Qur’an. Some are fascinated by the picture of Jesus painted by the Qur’an. Deeply inadequate and flawed though that image is, for some it has been enough to get them started on a path that leads to the real Jesus.

These people are out there among our neighbours, our work colleagues, our clients and our students. Will we recognise them? Are we equipped to engage with them in ways that are helpful to them? And will they recognise in us the presence of Christ?

Ted Bearup

Diversity: The Variegated Grace of God

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I have been asked to post this article written for the Nazarene Theological College ‘Link’ magazine:

Recently I heard a canon of Manchester Cathedral comment that his experience of the Church in Manchester was of congregations of multi-racial and multi-cultural membership. Someone observed that this is probably an urban phenomenon, and would not be the case across the whole country.

The comment set off a train of thought in my mind. In 1981, when I arrived in Manchester as pastor of the Carmoor Road Church of the Nazarene, I found a small-but-not-too-small congregation that included people from many parts of the world as well as all over the UK. I discovered this diversity was unusual in the city, finding only one or two churches in our very mixed part of the city that reflected that mixture in any way. Indeed, African Christian students would often come to our church after first visiting churches (consisting of a handful of people) of their own denomination (where their churches numbered hundreds of members), reporting that they had been politely told that they ‘might be more comfortable somewhere else with people of their own kind’. They were often in shock at what they found in their Mother Church.

We wanted to reach out to our community. Given the significant proportion of our community that was West Indian, we wondered if we should focus reaching out to that ‘homogeneous people group’. We decided, however, to affirm our multi-racial and multi-cultural make-up as our strength: we would witness to the variegated image of God by our variety. The church did not grow rapidly, but it grew to accept diversity as normal.

The Manchester church was my introduction to the joy of worshipping and learning with the diversity of God’s people. My whole life of service since has been in multi-cultural settings, teaching in three Nazarene educational institutions all serving diverse nations, and returning to be a part of that Manchester congregation. It has become so much the norm that I feel a sense of shock when I find myself in a single-culture setting—which can happen by travelling only a few miles from my church.
What has happened in nearly 40 years? On one hand, church membership as a whole has continued to decline in Britain at an alarming rate. On the other hand, immigration over the past twenty years—under the generous and highly criticized policies of the government of the day—has brought a significant number of active Christians into the cities. An unexpected result has been the breath of new life these committed believers have brought to the often-dying local churches they have joined. Many have embraced the newcomers, and such churches are growing. It is a matter for thanksgiving and praise to God that diversity has become the norm across Manchester!

This is not a commentary on immigration policy, but an observation from its impact. And there are lessons to be learned from the debate over immigration that grips so much of the West right now. How do we respond to ‘the Other’ on our own territory? The tabloids, as well as prominent politicians, tell us to be afraid, to reject, and expel the Other—the ones not like us, whom we deem a threat to our own existence. What do we do when we discover that so many, even among those deemed ‘illegal’ and arriving via leaky boats, are brothers and sisters in Christ?

I have come to the conviction (that is not too strong a word) that God intends us to be all mixed together. The sin of Babel was the human attempt to be one homogeneous unit—one language, huddling together in one place. The work of the Spirit in Acts 2 brought languages and people together into one new whole. In fact, the whole biblical story of is one of migration—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all migrants who settle in foreign lands; Jesus was a (likely undocumented) migrant to Egypt as a child.

Image result for nebula
The New Testament text that comes to my mind on this point, however, is 1 Peter 4:10, where the church is urged to be ‘good stewards of the manifold grace of God’. That word ‘manifold’ can be translated ‘variegated’, ‘diverse’, ‘pluriform’, or ‘many-coloured’. It is the same word used of Joseph’s famous coat, in Genesis 37. Peter’s focus is on the grace-gifts God gives which we are to give to each other. To me, when I look at the Sunday gathering in my own church (the same I came to those years ago), it describes the image of God, the imago Dei. Our tendency is to read Genesis 1:26 as speaking in the singular, of an individual image: ‘I’ am created in the image of God. But the fact is, the image is ‘male and female’, and can only seen fully in the whole of humankind and our manifold colours. ‘I’ am incomplete on my own, a partial picture of how God created us; ‘we’ fill out the picture, each adding our part. As the Godhead is triune, and diverse, so is His creation.

This translates into my everyday life as curiosity. When I meet someone different than me, or different than I have met before, rather than fearing the unknown I am curious to learn how this person expands my understanding and experience of the image of God in the human. In the past few years this curiosity has extended towards Muslims of many sorts. The experience has added more colour and texture to my sense of what God has done, confirmed my expectation that God loves them too, and expanded my wonder at the grace of God in Christ.

The Holiness Movement, of which I am an heir, stressed the meaning of holiness as separation—separation from sin, and, in its sectarian phase, separation from the world. At times it fell into a rather Pharisaic emphasis on keeping pure by avoiding any contact with the impure. A grave danger of the holiness-as-separation view is that it leads easily to other kinds of separateness, including racial and national, until churches become excluding rather than welcoming of strangers. When diversity is deemed a bad thing, as we are seeing in much of our world today, God’s grace becomes diminished to an unattractive narrow, monochrome, homogeneous spirituality of fear and reaction. But, when we catch a glimpse of the riotous diversity of sacred life springing from the creative Word, we can do nothing less than cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy’!

When it gets local…

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We woke to headlines of people dead in a terrorist attack. The sort of headline we read all the time. Where was it this time? Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? We have become accustomed to such news, coming from parts of the world where such bloodshed has become so common we hardly notice any more.

But this was Manchester, with 22 dead and scores injured from a suicide bomb. This was London, seven dead and dozens injured by van and knife attacks. Terror has come close to home, and it comes as a shock.

Just a couple hours before the Manchester attack I attended an exhibition called ‘Jesus Doors Easter Stations’, artwork depicting—on doors—the last days of Jesus’ life. One picture stood out to me from the others—a depiction of the women who stood by the cross. Their grief reminded me of the faces of mothers of bombing victims shown on the news night after night. Their grief came immediately to mind learning the news in Manchester. Once again, mothers grieve.

Mourning women, by Ali Hutchison (http://www.alihutchisonart.co.uk/)

The response to the attack in Manchester has been noted by quiet defiance, and marches for unity. The very next evening tens of thousands of people gathered in Albert Square in front of the Town Hall, for a vigil. We stood with about 100 leaders of all religions before the immense crowd; there was cheering for the first-responders; there was absolute silence in honour of the dead and injured, and great ripples of applause spread across the square in agreement with words of determination and hope; and at the end, there was chanting of ‘Manchester’. Over the next week vigils were held around the city; St Ann’s Square has become the repository of floral tributes and private pilgrimages. This proudly diverse city exhibits a quiet determination to deny terrorism its goal of creating division.

The Manchester response continued over the following week, as public events went ahead—40,000 running in the Manchester Run; 50,000 attending the tribute concert ‘One Love Manchester’. Yes, there was increased police presence; no, there were no troops on the streets.

One common feature of world media reporting has long been the absence of coverage of the reactions of the Muslim communities to such outrages. The question is often asked by commentators with an agenda, ‘Where is the Muslim response?’ The response is usually there, but unreported. In this case, mosques held vigils, inviting non-Muslims to attend; a peace-march of hundreds of Muslims from dozens of mosques walked down the main streets of the city.

Of course, it is also true that the bomber was born in Manchester. The arrests across the city are evidence that there are many who do not share the sense of unity and good will that has been on display these past weeks, are disaffected from British society, and nurture a simmering hatred. And there are many who are ready to blame every Muslim for the actions of the few, and nurture their own hatred.

 

In the midst of this, the unanswered question is, why are young people from our own communities willing and ready to kill young people—teenaged girls, and their brothers and parents—and themselves? And, what can be done to prevent this happening?
The second London terrorist incident in three months has made this question, and the security of the nation, come to the fore in the election campaign. Politicians and political commentators respond with the same sorts of answers we hear each time. We seem no nearer a solution to the problem of terror on our streets.

In my blog written last August I suggested that the answers will have to come from the communities. And that the faith communities will need to take the lead. The community in which I live has a nearly equal Christian and Muslim population. We live on the same streets, and get along with each other; but church communities tend to keep to themselves, and mosque communities tend to keep to themselves. However, over the past couple of years they have been reaching out to each other, finding ways of meeting each other to get to know each other. In this current crisis moment, the relationships of these years has meant we are able to work together to stand against the forces of division.

Even so, we have hard questions to work through together. This is a crisis of Islam, in its struggle to come to terms with pluralism and tolerance in a world that cannot be returned to the 7th Century. This is a challenge to Christianity, to face the racism, prejudice, and privilege with which we have kept Muslims at arms’ length in our society; and to grasp the extent to which so much of the conflict in the Middle East is the fruit of colonialism.

Community, by Ali Hutchison

The challenge for our communities is to nurture our young people to meet people of other faiths and races, to see the best in each other, and to find common ground in building a caring and secure society.

 

It is a sad commentary on human nature that we seem only to take notice of dangers when they become local. The grief we share over the innocent loss of young lives in Manchester and London should make us more compassionate for those in war zones for whom this is almost a daily occurrence. From this moment on, when we waken to news from Kabul, or Baghdad, Mosul or Peshawar, let us also weep; and let us also stand determined to work against hatred and division.

Hot Topics ticket info

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“Hot Topics” ticketed events will start at 18:30 and finish at around 20:30 unless otherwise advertised.

There will be tea, coffee and water available.

These events will normally take place on the first floor of the Emmanuel Centre at Nazarene Theological College. The room will be signed from the entrance. For directions and more information about the college, please see the NTC (event venue) page.

This event will be ticketed due to likely high demand, and so all participants will need to purchase a ticket (suggested donation of £10). As these discussions are not generally designed for children to take part, no concessions will be offered.

If you feel the event is worth more than this, you are invited to give more if you can afford to, and to complete our Gift Aid form. This allows us to reclaim the UK Income Tax or Capital Gains Tax on your donation back from the government, making it worth more at no extra cost to you!

NB: If you have previously completed a Gift Aid Form for MCSCI you do not need to give us a new one. Limited exceptions apply – please ask for details if you are concerned.

Documents

[embeddoc url=”https://www.mcsci.org.uk/mcsci/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/NTC-Site-Plan.pdf”]

Acts of Terror, Crimes of Hate

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Almost every day breaks to news of another act of violence under the headline of ‘terrorism’. The murder of a French priest in the midst of celebrating Mass raises the level of anxiety in Europe to another level. In the UK the police have sent an email to churches with advice on security during services.

These incidents are not directly related to the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK, but are part of a flurry of events that are changing the UK, and Europe, in ways we cannot yet grasp.

The divisive Referendum campaign ended with a narrow margin of the population voting in favour of leaving the EU. However narrow the vote, the decision has been made and the will of the majority is ‘Brexit’.

Hot on the heals of this event, the long-awaited Chilcot Report was presented, with its damning critique of the way the nation was led into the Iraq War, and the ongoing violence which has seen over 250,00 deaths, civilians and military, on all sides. Virtually at the very time the report was being read, Daesh suicide bombers unleashed death in Istanbul and Baghdad, with indiscriminate slaughter of whole families whose only crime was enjoying their preparations to celebrate Eid. Similar carnage was visited on Nice during French national celebrations. The list of terrorist targets now extends to Germany, too.

Closer to home, the fruit of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the referendum campaign is a 40% increase in hate-crimes in the UK. Racists have been emboldened to confront people on public transport, on the streets, and with graffiti on the walls of their homes and work-places, telling them to ‘go back where they came from’—even second and third generation citizens.

Political leaders at all levels are clearly at a loss as to how to address these crises, and seem to have lost credibility with their own constituencies.

 

Thus, we face a two-sided crisis: on the one hand there is fear created by acts of extreme violence that are intended to create just such an atmosphere of fear (the reason we call it ‘terrorism’); on the other hand there are the low-level acts of violence in verbal abuse and vandalism directed towards immigrant and non-white communities.

We at MCSCI wish to make explicit our rejection of the rhetoric of division that is fuelling abuse and hatred across the country, and call on political leaders of all parties to take seriously their responsibility for the whole of their communities when speaking publicly.

At the same time we would encourage leaders of faith communities—church and mosque and synagogue—to reach out to the others in their communities to give common voice against fear and against violence. We would specifically encourage Christian community leaders to make the effort to affirm to other faith groups their value to the community, and the readiness to stand with them against hate crime directed against them.

In the light of the inability of political leaders to find a way forward in these fraught times, it seems the answers to the great issues of our day must come from within the very communities that are most affected by these events, if they are to be found at all. Religion is blamed for much of the ills; whether this is an accurate portrayal or not, it is therefore people of faith who must lead the way out of the cycle of violence and hatred.

The way to lead is to reach out, and not to give in to fear.

Summary of 2016 Conference

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Dr Dwight Swanson

At the end of the 2016 MCSCI Conference, “Evangelical Responses to Islamic Revival”, there was a review of all the main content that had been presented during the 3-day event. Anchored by Dr Dwight Swanson, Co-Director of MCSCI, this aimed to give a brief summary of everything that had gone before.

This 20-minute recording may be a good starting point for you if you are new to the field, want to know which speeches might interest you further and the ethos of the whole event.

Listen to the summary

This is a recording of the speech, which has been edited for clarity and to remove some questions (which could not be heard over the microphone).

The Walls that Divide

Tall concrete barrier topped by razor wire, set on the kerb of a street.
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I have been living in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem (or, Quds). The first day I was here the landlords invited me for coffee. They built their house here over 30 years ago, with room enough for a growing family. About ten years ago a mosque was built only 50 yards away. Speakers on the minaret broadcast prayers to the neighbourhood, and on Fridays that includes the sermon as well. I asked my landlord what the sermon was about. He grimaced, indicating he doesn’t listen. We have coffee just about every week; every week he comments on the loudness of the prayers. Eventually he told me that the sermons often have anti-Christian and anti-Jewish content. The Christians in the community feel the volume is so loud purposely to annoy them.

I have been trying to understand what it is like to be a member of a minority faith in relation to the majority faith. Here Christians are a double minority—both among Jews and among Muslims. While Muslims are the majority in the Palestinian context (with 1% of these being Christian), they in turn are the minority in the Israeli context (about 30%, and a Christian population of 1.5%). By comparison, the Muslim population of the UK is reported to be about 4%. What one feels keenly as a small minority is the barriers that communities raise between each other.

I began my reflections on Israel/Palestine in this Blog by speaking of the mental maps that people bring with them to Israel/Palestine, and how those maps affect what they see. In this, my last blog from Jerusalem, I consider the walls that are built by the various communities.

Tall concrete barrier topped by razor wire, set on the kerb of a street.

The ‘separation wall’

The most obvious wall here, impossible to ignore, is the barrier built by the Israelis between Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the Second Intifada. The very terminology used for this wall is an example of how everything is contended: for Israelis, it is a ‘separation’ wall, using the same term used for the central median on dual carriageways, or ‘security’ wall; for Palestinians it is the ‘apartheid’ wall. At checkpoints large signs in red lettering warn Israeli citizens that it is against the law to go beyond the wall/fence. Palestinians seeking to enter Israel face mountains of bureaucracy to gain entry papers, then stringent searches at the checkpoints. This physical barrier separates the communities, and prevents people from mixing or meeting one another in every day settings.

But there are other walls, or barriers, that are not as visible or easily detectable, and which are just as impermeable. There are the barriers of race, tribe, language. But overall is the barrier of religion and sect. These barriers appear on both sides of the wall. Jews, Muslims, and Christians create barriers between each other—and amongst themselves. This is not a phenomenon unique to this land, of course—but it is, perhaps, keenly visible in ways not always observable in the West to the majority populations —and the examples here are illustrative of the sharp divisions that shape the conflict in Syria and Iraq today. The ‘sound’ barrier in my neighbourhood separates my Christian landlord from his Muslim neighbours.
In a conversation with a Palestinian Christian teacher I was told that schools are still using textbooks introduced when Hamas was in the Palestinian Authority government, and that these included anti-Christian material.

Church building, with banner in front reading 'And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers'

Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel. The population is 65% Muslim, 35% Christian. I am told there are good relations between the two groups. On my recent visit my host received many warm greetings from Muslims as we walked along the street. He told me, though, that they simply do not talk about religion. That is how they get along. The sign posted in front of the Church of the Annunciation, however, seems a rather blatant antagonism: ‘And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers’ (Qur’an 3:85; see photo).
Traveling through Jordan and Lebanon I have found similar barriers of religion. My hosts regularly identified the village or the neighbourhood we came through as ‘Christian’ or ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shia’, or ‘Druze’. As conflicts continue, there seems to be an increasing clarity of demarcation between these identifiers. The religious identification inhibits social mixing—not simply in every day discourse, but in the choices of where to live and go to school.
This discussion focuses on religion as a major barrier placed between communities. This is a reflection of the extent to which religion has become the focal point of identity in today’s world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not primarily religious, but political and even nationalist. The same may be seen in other conflicts. But since 9/11 everything is viewed through the lens of religion. This is the world in which we now live, and while the solutions to conflict must address the political, nationalist—and economic—sources, they cannot ignore the role of religion.

It is easy to spot the barriers of others and to overlook those we ourselves erect—it is easier to see the speck of dust in the other’s eye than the plank in our own. It seems particularly difficult for a majority group to empathise with minority groups—rather than to be irritated with them for not being ‘like us’; for not assimilating to the majority. In our conflicted world, the great barrier between communities is fear. We see the Other, the one not like us, the immigrant and refugee, the person of a different colour or nationality or faith, as a threat to our routine lives and to our security. This fearful Other tends, in the West, to be Muslim. Out of fear we erect further barriers—silence, hostility, discrimination, ignorance.

Barriers prevent understanding, enhance suspicion, and perpetuate themselves when we hide behind them. If there is to be any hope of an end to the bloody conflicts of our time, it has to begin with the breaking down of the walls we place between ourselves, and with the necessary effort of trying to understand each other. When we do this, we are likely to discover our common humanity, our hopes and desires for a peaceful and secure life in which our families may thrive. From such ‘common ground’ we can then work at understanding how to live with our differences.
The great challenge of our time is to learn how to live together with our differences. MCSCI exists to advance this purpose.

More food for thought:

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/declining-palestinian-christian-population-fears-its-churches-are-turning-into-museums-1.317689
http://www.acommonword.com/finding-common-ground-between-muslims-and-christians/

Return to Damascus Gate

Satirical cartoon with figure on wall by banner declaring 'United Jerusalem' as various skirmishes take place below
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A small crowd gathered inside a taped-off section of walkway, in front of a gate in the city wall

Recent scenes at the Damascus Gate.
Photo: Haaretz.com

In my last post I introduced Jerusalem via the Damascus Gate of the Old City—the neighbourhood of my church. That week there had been two incidents at the Gate—a 16 year-old boy attacked police with a knife, and three West Bank men were shot dead when found with guns and bombs. The Damascus Gate continues to weigh heavily on my mind, as it has remained regularly in the news. In the past week there have been four more incidents. In two cases the attackers were shot dead; in the others a young woman and a young man were arrested.

In two weeks, six attacks, six dead, at the end of the very street where my church is located.

These, however, were only part of the almost daily incidents taking place in the West Bank. I call them incidents because they are hard to label. Some may involve armed men with clear intent to kill many people. Others seem opportunistic and random, such as driving cars into pedestrians. So many, however, are young people with common kitchen knives lashing out at highly armed police and soldiers.

The ministry of foreign affairs describes all of these as terrorist attacks, incited by radical Islamist groups. The army Chief of Staff, on the other hand, commented on the fact that half of what is now nearly 200 such attacks in the past five months have been by young people under the age of twenty. Teenagers. Security forces have had no advance intelligence about any of the attacks, few of them had links to terrorist groups or strong ideological motives.

Since September Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and 4 others. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed — 111 during attacks; 50 in clashes with Israeli forces (figures change daily).

The Damascus Gate seems to have become a focal point for young Palestinians. What is the reason for this wave of hopeless attacks by youngsters?

Where might we begin to try to answer? Do we start with the present as it is, or view it all in the context of its history? Recourse to history is fraught with difficulties. How far back do we go? The 1967 war in which Israel first occupied the West Bank of Jordan and Gaza? The creation of the state of Israel by UN vote in1947? The Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637 CE? The Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom of 135 BCE? I have seen all of these appealed to as explanation or rationale for actions of the present. The past is a tangible component of the present in the Middle East. An inescapable aspect of the conflicts which rage across the region is the clash of competing narratives about the past—the competing maps.

But, for today, it is not the history I wish to note, but the present reality coming out of that history. That reality has two sides of consequence: one, the existence of the state of Israel, and, two, the ambiguous status of Palestine after nearly 50 years of Israeli administration as an occupying power. The first is, and must be, unequivocal; the second is, and must be, resolved.

The Israelis live with the constant fear of terrorism; Hamas presents a realistic threat of violence at any moment, and the recent attackers from the West Bank have been able to enter Israel and settlements ‘below the radar’.

The Palestinians, in turn, live under military occupation and governance, increasing building of permanent settlements in their territory, and regular destruction of their own houses with little warning (113 houses just last week).

Hope of a solution is exasperated by a total lack of contact between the two communities, apart from the efforts of a few groups seeking reconciliation, and the absence of sufficient political will on either side.

Satirical cartoon with figure on wall by banner declaring 'United Jerusalem' as various skirmishes take place below

Yossi Verter cartoon. From Haaretz.com article

One thing that is inescapable to notice here is the security measures. There is the constant presence of police on the streets and street corners of the cities; outside of the cities there are army vehicles everywhere. There is the ‘security wall’, and control points; there is the continual military patrol of the borders, of the occupied territories, of the sea and the air; there is a huge network of prisons. The cost is enormous, and strains the national budget even with the vast subsidies from the US.

It has to be clear, terror is not acceptable, nor in any way to be condoned. But if the only response to the security dangers is more security, tighter controls, screwing down the lid on Palestinian society, it can be no surprise if, as with any pressure cooker when the lid is kept on too long, there is an explosion.

The question raised in my mind by the phenomenon of teenagers throwing themselves at police at the Damascus Gate is whether it can be labelled as terrorism in comparison to pipe bombs and missiles. These are children, no more than infants during the last Intifada.

Fifty years of occupation has been corrosive to Israel’s democratic ideals, and has undermined all Palestinian institutions of society and development. Both communities suffer in a death grip with little hope of resolution.

It would seem that desperation lies at the heart of the issue.

I know that virtually everything I have written here will likely be contested by someone. But the reality that sparked this post is the particularity of six people lying dead at Damascus Gate in the past two weeks, in my neighbourhood. Six grieving families, Muslim and Jew. And local teenagers are in prison for assaults that will pursue them and their families for the rest of their lives. And no resolution is in sight.

This is but a small example of the cycle of violence and response, violence and response, taking place in much more deadly fashion just across the border in Syria and across the Middle East. In each case we in the West are participants. Bombs and missiles rain from the skies from Western air forces to add to those on the ground.

And while armed men vie for power, another generation of children is born into the normalcy of bloodshed.

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