Witnessing to Peace | Bethlehem Besieged

Can peace break out in the Holy Land? “The first thing to do is to stop the killing,” as former Senator George Mitchell put it, assessing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the recent ceasefire is welcome news, at least a step in the right direction-even if spoilers in both communities still want to see this moment wrecked by violence or bullying rhetoric. Real peace is more complicated, as Augustine explained: peace is not the absence of hostility, but the presence of justice.

Neither Munib Younan nor Mitri Raheb addresses the details of the current peace prospects in the post-Arafat world. But for anyone who hopes for an end to the region’s tragic violence, Witnessing to Peace and Bethlehem Besieged are not to be missed.

Younan is the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem. His book starts with a bang: the eruption of the Second Intifada in September 2000. As gunfire interrupts the annual board meeting of the Victoria Augusta Hospital atop the Mount of Olives, the bishop looks out to see Israeli soldiers atop the hospital’s perimeter wall. “How dare they turn this place of healing into a place of murder and mayhem? How dare they violate the sanctity and trust of a church-owned hospital?” Younan writes, recounting his immediate response. Yet his flash of anger yields to words associated with the site itself: “You will be my witnesses beginning in Jerusalem...and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:18). In this passage, Younan hears an injunction to be a witness to peace, nonviolence, even love for enemies. In keeping with Luther’s famous insistence that the gospel is for all, he challenges his readers to accept this calling as their obligation, too.

In Palestine today the biblical term for witnessing-“martyr”-is ambivalent. It can mean one who dies needlessly in the conflict (a little child killed by a soldier), or it can describe suicide bombers who target innocent civilians in restaurants and on buses. Younan repudiates suicide bombing, reminding us that suicide bombers often kill Israelis and Palestinians at the same moment: Younan’s cousin George was killed in a bus on his way to work. The bishop grieves the death of all of these victims, Israelis and Palestinians alike. A real martyr is not one who kills himself and others, but is a living witness to justice as the precondition for authentic peace, which Younan does not equate with passivity: “A witness does not shrink from confronting evil directly, and in so doing, one lays oneself open to risk and suffering.”

Younan knows that enacting a just political settlement is the only way to achieve a stable peace-it won’t result from a handshake between leaders or the signing of accords. Reconciliation cannot wait for the ratification of a comprehensive peace treaty. It must be embraced as a long and often painful process. Only then can the “walls of animosity and divisiveness still being erected between our two peoples” be dismantled.

Mitri Raheb is the Lutheran pastor of the Christmas Church in Bethlehem, just five miles away from his bishop, but they are cut off from each other by the controversial barrier that Israel has been constructing since 2002. This complex of razor-wire fences and huge cement walls-three times the height of the Berlin Wall-is more than 500 kilometers long. Last year, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the construction of the wall on occupied territory violates international law. The Israeli Supreme Court also ordered the government to consider the wall’s impact on Palestinians as it zigzags through Palestinian villages and towns.

Raheb is a pastor, not a lawyer. His view of walls is far more radical than court decrees. In a Christmas homily reprinted in his book, he urges his congregation to commit to “breaking down all walls of hatred and hostilities, be they concrete walls or ideological, racial, political, social, and economic ones.” Viewing Paul’s conversion experience as a moment of insight into division in general, Raheb interprets Ephesians 2:14 (“[Christ] is our peace, he who broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh”) to mean that the death of Jesus destroyed the wall of hostility between the divine and the human, and that the physical barrier between Jews and Gentiles in the Jerusalem Temple was not needed to preserve his people’s identity or security. Raheb concludes: “We wish...for the transforming power of the Incarnation to strengthen all of us in our commitment to breaking down walls, making peace, and building bridges.”

Raheb does not suppress or deny the pain of Israeli and Palestinian experience, scarred by the bitter realties of fear, war, and decades of conflict. Instead, he insists that especially in these dark circumstances the church must remain hopeful: “Hope and vision are powerful if they are owned and lived by the oppressed. Hope is rewarding because it offers a real alternative.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians need a different vision of their future in order to rethink the painful histories in which both sides have become trapped. For Raheb, the moment of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is connected to “the art of seeing things from a different angle...and not just from one’s own narrow perspective.” This is an art best attained in the young, and so, reflecting on Abraham’s dream that his children would be as numerous as the stars of the sky, he organizes a “Bright Stars” program for the children of Bethlehem to gather in art, music, sports, communication, and environmental clubs. Bright Stars provides one place for at-risk youth to “learn war no more.”

Focusing on adults, Raheb invites his parishioners to recover pieces of glass from the rubble of their church and homes and weld them into ornaments, transforming their pain into something joyous. Shattered glass takes the form of Bethlehem angels, and now hang on Christmas trees around the world. Raheb urges Palestinians to plant olive trees, without which “there will be nothing tomorrow” and with which “there will be shade for the children to play in...oil to heal the wounds, and...olive branches to wave when peace arrives.”

It is a blessing that these authors are not politicians, but Lutheran clergymen. They speak more truthfully than most politicians can about the Palestinian experience. They speak much more compellingly about the connections between peace, justice, and forgiveness that are essential to the resolution of the longest raging conflict in the modern world.

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 
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Edward McGlynn Gaffney Jr., a frequent contributor, is professor of Law at Valparaiso University.

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