BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK (December 22, 2016) – Palestinian Christians who lead peacemaking organizations in this conflicted region of the world say American churches can help heal the divisions in their own country if they remember their role as places of healing while also speaking prophetically.
The U.S. presidential election revealed rifts that were greater than many in this country imagined, and the dialogue in the aftermath has often turned bitter even within church. Many Christians have said they want little or nothing do with anyone who voted for the candidate that opposed theirs.
“The church needs to step back and ask, ‘What is the purpose of the church? What is the community of believers?’” says Sami Awad, leader of Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian nonprofit focused on nonviolent solutions to community problems. “The church is the place where healing takes place, where reconciliation takes place, where a vision for the future takes place. I think the church has to be the place where everybody is invited to the table, everybody shares, everybody is treated with honor and as an equal.”
He adds, “The church is not the place to argue positions, especially political positions.”
Salim Munayer, leader of Musalaha (the Arabic word for “reconciliation”), says churches too often either don’t want to engage in the issues of the day and focus only heaven, or they do focus on current issues but put political ideology ahead of biblical theology.
“I think if churches begin to realize that the church is where love, compassion, and understanding take place, then that will impact the political reality,” he explains. “If the church is the place where divisiveness and fighting happens, then that will manifest itself in political realities.”
Awad says church leaders may have their own strong beliefs but, “The space for conversation has to be created by the pastors. The pastors need to bring their community together. They need to listen. It is about transforming the church to become a center where communities can meet and gather and love each other.”
“Leaders must be desperate for peace,” Munayer states.
Munayer recognizes the division he sees in the American church. “To divide into us and them—it’s a classical thing that we see in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. The conflict around the world today is around group identity. When people feel their identities are threatened, they immediately go into dehumanizing the other. ‘We are good, they are bad. We are ethical, they are not ethical.’”
Those identities have been shaped by history and ongoing narratives, says Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College, which hosts the biennial Christ at the Checkpoint peacemaking conference. It is important that everyone recognize that others view the same history from very different perspectives, he adds. He notes, for example, that each year when Israelis celebrate the formation of their country, Palestinians lament the Catastrophe because the Jewish state was formed on land they previously occupied.
That means people who pursue reconciliation need to engage in deeper listening, leaders say. “It is not enough just to listen to the demands and wants of the other person. We must listen especially to the needs and emotions behind the demand and the want,” Awad says. “You listen to the other but you also listen to yourself—your reactions, your emotions.”
He acknowledges, “It is challenging, very challenging.”
The leaders say it often can be personally challenging to maintain hope, but they rely on Christ’s sacrificial example and call for his followers to be reconcilers.
“One of the sad things is people are giving up and saying that nothing works,” Awad says of the situation in the Middle East. “Violence doesn’t work, non-violence doesn’t work, dialogue doesn’t work. Then people lose their passion.”
He adds that trusting Jesus and looking to the future means making a conscious decision. “The past is what tells us something is impossible. A stabbing or a car bomb or a settler killing a Palestinian all combine to create a narrative that peace is impossible, so how can I make a decision to say I want to make peace? We are willing to engage with settlers, with leaders of Islamic movements—and despite the suffering that we have experienced—ask what kind of future we can create.”
Awad says it is important for people also to see success in order to maintain hope and desire. He is emphatic, “We have seen successes. We have seen people committed to destroying the other now leading dialogues.”
Although they emphasize the role of the church as a place of healing, leaders add that the church also must speak with a prophetic voice against injustices. That means the church should have an appropriate sense of identity.
“In America, if you are a Christian, you have to differentiate your identity as a Christian from your identity as an American,” Munayer said. “It doesn’t mean you stop being American, but you have to differentiate.”
Munayer states that there is no getting around politics. “Everything is political,” he explains, adding that there is a difference between promoting biblical justice and aligning with a political party or focusing primarily on legislation. “It is good to have political discussion, but it must be rooted in Christian conversation.”
He says churches should not fear conflict, explaining, “Conflict is a God-given opportunity for change and expressing God’s love and mercy to others.”