“You shall love the stranger as yourself”
This is proverbially dipping our toes into a maelstrom and one can hardly expect not to be battered in the ensuing lashing winds. But, come, let us speak.
Anti-semitism is real. I have seen its face, its faces. The hate is something that stews in the background of daily existence here, the vitriol constant and unabating. The violence begets more violence, the conspiracy theories more conspiracies, the lust to shed the blood of scapegoats never satisfied. I cannot claim to comprehend it all, but it is very much tangible, its oppressive persistence suffocating.
Yet, somehow, within the world of Christians who “love Israel” and “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”, the spirit of hatred against the Palestinians is no less pervasive or wrong than the spirit of hatred against the Jewish people exists elsewhere. And it is no less evil.
And I have seen its face too, and heard its voice.
“The Palestinians are evil,” one Christian sister said to me, “They are evil, evil, evil. Bad people.”
In short, to her, they were the enemy. They weren’t human, or people made in the image of God. They weren’t brothers, sisters, neighbours. They were, in the Christian imagination, reduced to a status lower than that of human existence, painted with caricatures.
This morning the news of Sheikh Jarrah settlements dotted into my Instagram and Facebook news feeds – people being removed from their property and homes simply for being the “wrong race”. Violence. Injustice. There is no way that you can spin this except a violation of God’s commandment, which states,
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
What it means to be a helpless minority in a state whose ethnic nationhood means that your existence is precarious at best and where the wheels of justice do not turn in your favor (even if somewhere far out there, there are many lending you rhetorical support) is something Christians who’ve lived their lives only in majority-Christian nations do not really understand, even and especially those who have a heightened fear of marginalization and loss of liberty amidst cultural progressivism. It is a feeling of never really belonging, never feeling safe, always being the “other” – the stranger, the hated race, the enemy of the state.
I speak to my Christian friends in the West – please do not hate the Palestinian. Do not see them as your enemies. Do not wish them ill, or think violence upon them is deserved. Do not blaspheme the name of God.
The Israeli state has become an extension of the Western Christian identity, a proxy in the territorial and ideological war for political dominance on the world stage. This is not “love” – this fueling a conflict that causes death upon death, violence upon violence. We must be people for peace, even if we do not know the steps towards peace, even if we cannot even imagine what that peace is, let alone how it can come about.
Seek peace, and pursue it. (Psalm 34:14)
In the midst of a tragic and violent conflict, I notice Christians doing the same “othering” and “dehumanising” that Western Christendom has done for centuries – has done to Jewish people, has done to people like me, and now does to our Palestinian brothers and sisters. Colonization, marginalisation, discrimination, and oppressive violence are real, and all the more (far more) disgusting when done in the “name of God” or somehow erroneously justified using the Bible.
Christendom saw the world through ethnocentric eyes, which means that anyone who is “other” is considered not really human. Christendom said that my people were simpletons who need to be civilized in Western thought and made amicable to Western economic exploitation (Bradley, 2016). Palestinians are yet another group of people that the dubiously “pro-Israel” Christian nationalist crowd sees more as beasts of the earth to be subdued and taken dominion of than as imagio Dei.
It is time we confronted this for the sin that it is.
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)
No follower of Jesus can stand with any agenda, on any side of any conflict, that calls of death, for murder, for bombings, for rockets, for stabbings, for suppression, for marginalisation or for any kind of violence or othering. I do not stand with agendas that calls for some lives to be treasured and other lives to be annihilated – they are ultimately the agenda of the one who comes to steal, to kill and destroy. To divide.
“Violence is not only what we do to the Other. It is prior to that. Violence is the very construction of the Other… History has shown us that in the name of our identities – religious, ethnic, national, racial, gender – we commit and suffer the most horrific atrocities” – Schwartz (1997) (source)
You cannot love God and hate a Palestinian. You cannot love God and hate a Jew.
Christendom and the Violence of “Othering”
I’m not writing any of this about Nation A or Nation B in any ethno-national conflict. Before we can talk about nations, governments, politics, and the world’s rights and wrongs, we must actually know what is right and wrong and practice righteousness as a body. I’m writing this to the Church, we who call ourselves the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, Jesus’s nation, is called to holiness and righteousness as expressed in only one language, the language of Jesus on the cross, laying down His life for humanity’s redemption: the language of agape.
Jesus, who called us to love our enemies and greet those who are “not our brethren” (Matthew 5:47), Jesus who called the Samaritans His neighbor and who told us that the “least of these” were to be the subjects of our expression of love for Him… this is the Jesus who is supposed to reign over the thrones of our hearts.
Massimo Giulani (2001, p.720), in a volume about “The Holocaust in the Age of Genocides” and post-Holocaust theology writes,
“The Cross of Christ does not have a worse enemy than itself if and when it is used ideologically, out of context, as an instrument of oppression and discrimination instead of as an admonition for justice, liberation and love until death”
Oh, how true this is as an admonition to the church today.
If there were people who knew the full reality of this, they were the historical Anabaptists who provide inspiration for us today as Christians who reject the way of violence and the temptation to make alliances with nation-states for religious protection and power. Their story tells us that “Christianity” in the past had a choice between building a world around the preservation of self and the oppression of others, or selfless, radical obedience leading to loving one’s enemies, even to the death.
I believe that we today should learn from the martyrs like Dirk Willems, who was “othered”, dehumanized, tortured, and powerless, but who chose the ultimate power of saving the life of his captor at the cost of his own. Or, we can take a leaf out of Michael Sattler, who infuriated the religious powers of Christendom by rebuking their violence, saying that “if the Turks should invade the country, no resistance ought to be offered them; and if it were right to wage war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks” (van Braught, 1685).
At the end of the day, Willems and Sattler were not “Anabaptists” or denominationalists, but simply radical Christians doing what any Christian should do and what every Christian should have done – challenge the sin within our own ranks and stand not in the center of power but on the margins, suffering the full brunt of what love suffers in the face of hatred.
Steele (2001), in the same volume of post-Holocaust theology as Guilani (2001), considers Christendom and “othering” from a cultural studies and discourse theory viewpoint. He states,
“Once allied with the power of Imperial Rome, the Christian religion, eventually becoming a cultural institution affecting virtually all other institutions in Western Europe, served to create and reward attitudes and behaviours that led to a long series of violent, repressive, and emiserating responses by Christians and Christianity practised against the Other, those who stand outside the Christian confession, either by geographical accident, race, religious tradition or chosen belief, or some other demarcating factor.” (Steele, 2001, pp.180-181).
Steele argues that the combined religious and political structures of Rome were historical antecedents to the Shoah (Holocaust). With the alliance with the might of the Roman Empire came a shift in the church – from pacifism to enforcing “dominion over all non-Christians” (p.191), aggressive absolutism, theological support for killing, military duty, suppression of other religions and acts of imperialism. God was reconfigured to be in support of war and victory. Christianity began to be embedded with nationalist and racist ideologies and colonisation and slavery were historical expressions of these. The gospel’s intended message of “love and charity” was compromised (p.186).
If we reject marginalization, oppression, violence and exploitation as expressions of Christianity, and view them as perversions of the cross, what then should be our response to injustice such as that we see in Sheikh Jarrah, in the larger regional conflict, and, tragically, in the actions and rhetoric of the church?
Are we grieving with God when families with children are evicted from their homes?
Are we grieving with God when homes with families within, regardless of ethnicity, are fired-upon with weapons of mass destruction?
Finally, how do we call the church to participate in a more redemptive, yet costly, mission in the world such as that of “tikkun olam”, which in Hebrew means the healing of the universe?
“Tikkun Olam conjures up a powerful image of the world torn apart by injustice, hatred and violence being knit back together through the acts of men and women seeking to restore the image of God in the faces of their brothers and sisters, as well as restoring creation to its divinely sanctioned holiness and wholeness” (Everett, 2001, p.66).
Tikkun Olam, parallel with the theology of the Kingdom we profess, is contextualised within the concept of God’s nation being a “light to the world”, a model of God’s redemptive plan, a minority that shines forward a path of restoration.
I don’t fully know what to do with the politics of Jesus in the world today and with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. I don’t think any of us has all the answers, but I do know that we have the tools and the building-blocks and that we must somehow be the vessels of the Prince of Peace.
“Jesus as a pacifist is deeply concerned to never interact with Others in an aggressive fashion, even with his enemies. This has its roots in Romans 12:14-21, “Bless them that persecute you… recompense no man evil for evil… avenge not yourselves … if thine enemy is hungry, feed him… be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is the essence of Christian pacifism, with roots going back as far as the Hebrew Bible.”
Gopin (2016, p.xii) calls Christians to take the road “not to Damascus” (where Paul was setting out to, breathing violence against those whom he viewed as enemies of God” but to “do no harm” and “make space for the other” without which there can be no peacemaking. The essence of Christian peacemaking, he asserts, is “a determination to bring into the harsh realities of a violent world the elements of ideal community, which for them are found in the example of Jesus, namely, a community dedicated to humility, compassion for and service to those who suffer, justice for the persecuted, and the act of standing with the defenseless (wehrlos)” (Gopin, 2000, p.147).
Who are the least, the wehrlos, the disinherited, the powerless, the “others” today? Who, Lord, is my neighbour? Their faces may change, but the face of Jesus within their midst never does.
In conclusion, let us be reminded that “Every feeling of pain before the suffering of Others is a living embrace of the life and person of Jesus” (Gopin, 2000, p.153).
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)