by Berry Friesen
Earlier this spring, I heard Elias Chacour speak. He is a Palestinian Christian who has dedicated his life to seeking justice through reconciliation with Jewish neighbors in Israel.
As described in his book, Blood Brothers, Chacour was a boy of eight in 1947 when the United Nations (UN) divided Palestine into two potential states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian.
During the six months that followed the UN decision, Zionist militias carried out a campaign of terror to expel Palestinians and expand the borders of the proposed Jewish state. Around 400,000 Palestinians were forced out. In May, 1948, after Israel declared itself an independent state, neighboring Arab nations promptly declared war on Israel. During the ten-month conflict that followed, ethnic cleansing continued and at least another 350,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. In all, around 400 Palestinian towns and villages were either destroyed or resettled by Jews.
Chacour’s village was one of those destroyed. His family stitched together temporary living arrangements and avoided expulsion from Israel. Today, he lives near his ancestral home as an Israeli citizen.
Chacour speaks passionately about the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. He’s done so since 1965, when he became a Christian (Melkite) priest. Yet throughout his years of activism, he has insisted that Jewish, Muslim, Druze and Christian citizens of Israel are “brothers” and need one another to achieve justice. “We belong to this land together,” he says.
I do not live in a context of conflict as wrenching as Chacour’s, yet I regularly encounter situations where people disagree deeply with one another. Nearly always, the disagreement is framed as a contest that the parties seek to “win.” Each side attempts to prevail by criticizing the other side’s errors, mistaken assumptions and weaknesses. The resulting conflict wounds and destroys.
Conflict avoiders step back from all of this, saying nothing is important enough to risk the rupture of relationships.
Are these the only two choices? If Not Empire, What?—the Bible survey John K. Stoner and I published in 2014—suggests conflict is an inevitable part of biblical faith.
“The value judgments found in the Bible can be off-putting because of their authoritative, “god said” framing. Yet we should not let that prevent us from hearing the underlying claim: there is a way of life within our grasp that leads to social justice, peace and prosperity. ‘For surely I know the plan I have for you, says [YHWH], plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope’ (Jer. 29:11). Except perhaps for the writer of Ecclesiastes, biblical writers never said it is unimportant how we live because it all will turn out the same in the end. Such a thought simply did not fit their worldview.”
Clearly, such an approach leads to conflict, which is why many people in and out of the church try to avoid moral judgments entirely. Yet that was not Jesus’ approach.
“Can we pursue a moral vision of society without triggering endless conflict and likely violence? Jesus believed it was possible; although he was committed to peace, he did not dial back his passion for justice and righteousness. Instead, he renounced violence and put his faith in YHWH and the power of self-giving, suffering love. This was Jesus’ way of saving the world!”
In our book, we describe the way of Jesus as “compassion, forgiveness and resistance to evil.” These are qualities that do not easily fit together; some would even call them contradictory.
Elias Chacour does not view them as contradictory. His compassion includes Palestinians and Jews alike; his forgiveness reaches those who destroyed his family home and those who enslaved and killed Jews in Europe; his resistance to evil includes the second-class citizenship Israel grants Palestinians and the anti-Semitism that persists within Christianity.
Obviously, this understanding of the way of Jesus does not avoid conflict. Instead, it sees conflict as an opportunity for something new and positive to emerge, something not yet fully articulated, something refreshingly honest and respectful in the way it relates to opponents.
As Chacour puts it, “If Jesus did appear [today] he’d say to all of us, ‘I did not invite you to be peace contemplators, but peace actors, activists, builders. Get up. Get your hands dirty’.”
This way of living has given Chacour a difficult, interesting and productive life. It will do the same for us.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. A version of this essay first appeared at his blog, http://www.bible-and-empire.net