Israel-Palestine conflict and my personal challenge

This one is hard. Not because I have nothing to say or because it is too complicated. No, it is because I am a Western Christian and also student of theology/religion. And there is no other international geopolitical issue which can divide Christians as sharply as the Israel-Palestine past, present and future. No matter how gentle or blunt, informed or ignorant, rational or naive, well intentioned or foolish I try to express myself.

This is such a controversial conversation about a long standing conflict, historical justice, human rights and relationships, identity, understanding of the Scriptures and the importance of the land and so on. It is also very emotional because it touches people’s religious feelings in three major world faiths and makes an honest and open dialogue hard to achieve. But dialogue we must. Especially those of us who don’t live in Israel-Palestine but still have some impact through our personal connections, churches, religious organizations and also our governments which represent us as citizens. For example, if Latvia had decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem to follow the USA example (which it hasn’t) , I would form an opinion as a Latvian.

Few days ago in downtown Rīga I was approached by a reporter and her camera person. I had to think fast about the question, “What is your opinion about Crimea?” What is she trying to ask between the lines? I assumed she was asking me about the latest news and how I felt about the newly built bridge between Russia and Crimea which is supposed to cement the Russian claim on this peninsula. How do I feel about it? Quite simple! That Russia is in the wrong and that Crimea was illegally annexed and there is historic injustice happening right before my eyes. And that most people around the world don’t really care because “out of sight, out of mind”. Plus, how are we going to make Russia give it back to Ukraine?

It made me think if I would ever be asked by reporters in Latvia what I think about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is never “out of sight, out of mind”. That small corner of the world regularly makes  the world headlines, mostly with stories of division, violence and suffering. And that is one of the big problems –  the stories we hear are often superficial and tailored to ‘our’ ears. Or it’s very one-sided depending on our preferred news source and our own political and religious views.

Here I come to the Christian part. I cannot count how many times I have heard other Western Christians say, “I had no idea there are Palestinian Christians. I assumed that all Palestinians are Muslim”. It is amazing how for some of us things change when we start thinking about Palestinians not only as fellow human beings but also as brothers and sisters in Christ. And how ‘inconvenient’ it becomes. When we find out that there are actually churches in Gaza and that when people suffer hardships in this overcrowded and besieged strip of land, everyone is suffering together – Muslims, Christians, others…

Before someone jumps in, “here we go… talk about objectivity… she is so one-sided”, I strive to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. I don’t know many things, I am no expert and I have never been to Israel or Palestinian territories in West Bank and Gaza, but I have met and learned from many people in that land. I have met musicians from both backgrounds who formed a band called “My Favorite Enemy”and wrote songs in Arabic, Hebrew and English, expressing common pain, fears and hopes. Here is a link to one of their songs called Stones written from a perspective of a stone being thrown…

I have met, listened and read theologians from both backgrounds. One of the books on my shelf is “Through My Enemy’s Eyes: Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine” written by Salim J. Munayer ( a Palestinian Christian and faculty member at Bethlehem Bible College) and Lisa Loden (an Israeli Messianic Jew and faculty member of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary). I have met them in person and listened to their amazing, challenging and deeply moving journey as friends.

The point I want to make is that if we really care, we need to seek out these local voices. People who actually live there and deal with this conflict on day to day basis as they have a much closer view on what is helpful or unhelpful to the peace process and reconciliation efforts. On things that our governments do or don’t do. On views that our churches support or don’t support. On what is loving and what is not. On what is just and what is not.

Here is another book I recommend. “Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire” by Brother Andrew, the passionate old Dutch minister.  Who was very popular in the West when he wrote “God’s Smuggler” about taking Bibles behind the Iron Curtain and sharing his faith with the communists. But not so many Western Christians were interested when he started ministering in the Middle East, even meeting with leaders of PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and other such groups. Brother Andrew is very open about his own preconceived ideas and Western Christian approach as an outsider trying to fix the problems in the Middle East. But nobody can criticize him for living out his passion for the good news of God’s love.

It has to be good. It has to be news. And it has to be love for all people. Brother Andrew often asks what kind of people does the Book produce? Speaking of the Bible.

Finally… some Christians (or non-Christians) may say that we should not get political. Only focus on the spiritual. When it is us, Westerners, speaking while enjoying the freedoms and peace which did not come without political will, I find it ironic. When Latvian Christians supported the independence of Latvia from Russian and German empires and later from the USSR, was it political or spiritual? Was Martin Luther King and non-violent civil rights movement in the USA political or spiritual? I could give many more examples like South Africa, Northern Ireland, anti-slavery, anti-human trafficking but then I would be getting really really political 🙂

We may have many strong opinions on who is to blame for failing peace efforts in Israel – Palestine and we may have strong beliefs about the eschatological future of this region, but we should never forget that this is not some theory for the people there. If I had been born in Gaza instead of Rīga, I would want the world to think of me as someone who matters. I certainly would not want to live in Gaza, a virtual prison controlled by air, land and sea. If I was a member of Gaza Baptist Church, I would want the brothers and sisters around the world to think of me and pray for our little, struggling fellowship who are caught in the crossfire.

We have to make much more room in our hearts… this is what the Book says and does.

Martin Luther, Krišjānis Barons and my claim to fame

My parents could not pick the day I was born but my mom was always very proud of the date – October 31. She used to tell me that I was born on the same day as Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923), one of the most influential people in forming Latvian national identity and shaping cultural history. He is considered the “father of Latvian folksongs” to honour his work in collecting, researching and preserving this cultural heritage. A wise looking man with long white beard and glasses… I used to look at his image and wonder what kind of wisdom he would impart if we had met.  I felt that my mom’s pride about the special date was supposed to inspire and encourage me to learn, to explore, to gain knowledge and then pass it on.

The example was set… Be intelligent and visionary!

I was born when the USSR still existed and my family were not particularly religious (except my grandmother). Scientific atheism was the official “faith” and certainly there were no celebrations for significant religious events. Like Reformation Day which also happens to be on October 31. I had never heard of it even though the skyline of any Latvian city is dominated by churches, especially Lutheran ones. Even many non-church people like to think of themselves as “Protestants”.

Today, Oct. 31, 2017 was the 500th anniversary of Reformation movement. I learned about the Reformation and 95 Thesis and Martin Luther much later and there is still so much I wish I knew. It does not matter if Luther actually nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg or mailed them, the fact is that these thoughts, questions, critical analysis, challenge to the institutions and powers-to-be spread like a wildfire and continue to impact all of us today. Especially in Europe. I have a feeling that, just like me, many of us still have no clue what actually happened and why is it such a big deal?!

Certainly Luther’s challenge to the highest civil and religious authorities of his day continues to inspire those who struggle against corrupt power systems and those who claim to hold “the keys to eternity”: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

 

The example was set… Be courageous and always seek and speak the truth!

It really is a big deal if we get it. Today we had another discussion in our university where my professor shared his passion and also deep frustration that Reformation is still undervalued and underestimated. Certainly Martin Luther was no Jesus when it comes to changing hearts and minds and some of his views, especially in later life, are very controversial. Many of his views I do not share. But history is made by imperfect people since perfect people simply do not exist.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, and vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness.”

The example is set… Be just, compassionate and above all loving person!

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