Who do you/we say Jesus is today in the Middle East and Europe

Who do you/we say Jesus is today in the Middle East and Europe

Peter Makari, Executive for Middle East and Europe

During the promotion of his film, “The Passion of Christ,” Mel Gibson said that it is not his job to respond to the question of why Jesus was crucified. Rather, in making his controversial and famously popular film, Gibson’s passion seems to have been to answer the question of “how.” Financial issues aside–and wouldn’t it be nice if Global Ministries were to receive just one weekend’s box office profits?–it is our passion to answer the question of “why.” The question of “why” is inextricably linked to the question that Jesus asked his disciples, our theme adapted for this meeting: “Who do we say that Jesus is today ?” The “who” and the “why” go hand in hand as we consider Christ’s suffering and resurrection, and the mission of the church.

The first question Jesus asked in the story was “Who do the people say that I am?” In the society of the contemporary Middle East and Europe we would be required to step back and answer this question from different perspectives. The prevailing religious culture in the Middle East is Islamic, except in Israel, where it is Jewish. Who does Islam say that Jesus is? In Islam, Jesus–or `Isa–was a righteous prophet, and with Moses and Muhammad, one of the three most important prophets. In the Qur’an, Jesus bears the title “al-Masih,” which you will recognize as part of Olivia’s name, and which means “the Christ.” In the Qur’an, Jesus is the son of Miriam, or Mary, sent with the Gospel to spread God’s word. For Muslims, Jesus taught no false worship, but was not divine. Jews, too, don’t believe that Jesus was God, or consider him the Messiah. There is some debate among Jews about who Jesus was, but he certainly was not divine. Much discussion about Jewish perspectives on Jesus has taken place as result of “The Passion,” including on various websites on Judaism. One such website states, “You’re looking for Jesus in all the wrong places.” It goes on to say that “Jews don’t believe in Jesus” but includes a few paragraphs on why they don’t, added because of the discussion resulting from the movie.

Among a number of Middle Easteners, Christianity is associated with the West. This is somewhat ironic because contemporary Europe has been described as living in a post-Christian era in which secularism and humanism have become the prevailing world views, gradually replacing Christianity. Our partners in Europe describe diminishing membership of their churches, and nominal Christian identification by the general populous.

Nonetheless, as colonialism remains part of the living memory of many Middle Easterners, post-colonial nationalisms and the assertion of religious identity emerged–in large part–as alternatives to Western “Christian” domination. Thus, when the United States launches a war against Iraq, sanctions Iran, Syria, and Libya, and supports Israel militarily, financially, and even theologically through the public policy implications of Christian Zionism, people in the Middle East see neo-colonialism being played out through cultural globalization and renewed Crusades–and the latter is not my word, or theirs, but one uttered by our current president. So, the West is associated with Christendom, even if Christianity’s centers have shifted to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The West is associated with the politics of Christianity even if Christ challenged the powers and principalities and favored the oppressed.

Some Arab governments such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have permitted the screening of the film, “The Passion.” Others, such as Kuwait, have debated this issue intensely. Sunnis and some Shi`a have condemned the film for its depiction of a major prophet, Jesus, whom Muslims believe God saved from crucifixion. Other Shi`a in Kuwait have advocated for it to be shown. In Shi`ite narrative, martyrdom and waiting for the return of the religious leader are central, so there is an affinity with the story of Christ.

If we attempt to answer Jesus’ second question, “Who do you say that I am?” we would be incomplete if we limit our response to our North American perspective. Rather, we ought answer the question as part of the Church universal, and while we should not presume to speak for others, we have the responsibility to listen to our sisters and brothers, people of deep faith and commitment to God’s mission that surely informs our own perspectives on this side of the oceans. Unfortunately, what we see on TV from the Middle East has been death and violence. In Israel and Palestine, there have been three assassinations recently. On March 22, the Israeli forces shot three missiles, killing Ahmad Yasin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. Hamas is an Arabic word that means “zeal” and an acronym for the “Islamic Resistance Movement.” Just three days earlier on March 19, a Palestinian group killed George Khoury, a Palestinian Christian who was just jogging in Jerusalem. The former was an intended act to destroy leadership of the most well-known Islamic movement among Palestinians. Israel has pledged that it will not be the last such act. The latter was unintended–a mistake made by another Palestinian resistance group for which an apology was issued. The third assassination took place yesterday when President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon together killed the hopes of Palestinians by endorsing the permanence of some major settlements and essentially negating the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. The first two acts prompted Mona Sabella to reflect. Mona is the daughter of Bernard Sabella, the director of Common Global Ministries’ partner, the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees. Her words are so poignant that I want to excerpt them at length:
“I am a seventeen year old girl, with few words but so many different feelings, feelings I don’t understand, feelings of anger and of sadness. There is one thing I hate most about life and that is death, though I know it’s a fact I have to live with and indeed I do live with but still I hate it. I have learned, as I’m sure everybody else has, that death is a destiny that will eventually hit us all, and I have also learned that no man or woman on earth have the right to take a person’s life, for it’s God’s job…. The only question remains is why do people do it, enjoy doing it, and think it’s a good thing to do it? Kill the enemy, the enemy will kill you, your children will kill their children and their children’s children will kill your children’s children and so on….

“My father’s friend wrote about George Khoury and how his mother, instead of getting a kiss from her son on Mother’s Day, kissed her son goodbye. He was killed in an ugly and disgusting way. I saw his picture in the newspaper and saw how handsome and nice he looked…. I didn’t know him and I was touched. What would you think his family felt?…
“Yesterday Al-Sheikh Yassin was killed and again instead of dying peacefully in his bed, he was hit by a missile right into his head. Writing that sentence makes me want to cry. I know so little about life yet I know one thing for sure: killing, murdering, and blood shedding have no excuse. Nothing will change no matter how much I write. I am a seventeen year old girl who is angry….

“The worst thing about it is that we can control it. Years have gone and years have come and nothing has changed: they shoot, we shoot, they kill, we kill. If it only made things better then I would know why they keep on doing it!… Nobody can convince me that God gave permission to kill not even the worst person alive. Silly questions, messed up feelings–all I can get out of my mouth. Nothing else. Nothing.”

When I first read Mona’s reflection, I just stopped. Jesus talked about truth from the lips of children. While Mona is not a child–defined either by age or experience–she is still young. Yet she goes a long way to help us answer our question this evening. “Who do we say that Jesus is today?” Mona is right. God did not give permission to kill, even the worst person alive. Jesus came to give life, abundant life. Mona’s own Christian faith, informed by her Palestinian context, leads her to this point of confusion and her “messed up feelings.” She knows that God loves us and wants bounteous life for us, but she sees death all around her. She knows from her faith and experience that we humans have the opportunity to control violence, but that our imperfect ways often prevent the manifestation of peace.

Whom do we say Jesus is? If we respond as Peter did by saying “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” then we are bound to go beyond the questions of how Jesus was crucified–how people are suffering throughout the world–and respond to the question of why Jesus was crucified–why people are suffering. In one of his reflections on Lent, Martin Marty disputed the claim that the Jews killed Jesus. He countered by saying that we crucify Jesus in the many acts that we commit which negatively affect people throughout the world. As disciples, we are called to seek justice and call the powers that be to question.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace. That is why the Common Global Ministries Board passed a resolution affirming the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. This program witnesses to peace and justice through solidarity and partnership to support Palestinians and Israelis who are working for peace through nonviolent actions and advocacy to end the occupation. Through the U.S.-based coalition Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means, coordinated by our own Derek Duncan and supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and the Week of Compassion, the goal is to help build a just and secure peace for Israel and Palestine.

Jesus calls us to seek reconciliation and peace. That is why the thematic emphasis for the special relationship of kirchengemeinschaft, or “full communion” that we have with the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany–where the Smiths serve as missionaries–is the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence. In just a few days, the Southern Conference hosts its partner from the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland in a special colloquy on the Decade.

Jesus spoke out against the powers and principalities. That is why we are in continuing conversation, particularly with the United Reformed Church in Great Britain and the Waldensian Church of Italy in response to the international situation, a conversation bolstered by the resolution this board adopted at your last meeting in Cleveland in November. The United Reformed Church’s moderator will make a visit to the U.S. later this year, with U.S.-U.K. relations, and the voice of our countries’ churches as a high priority.

Jesus gave voice to the marginalized and those whose utterances could not find hearing. That is why some ecumenical colleagues and I met with representatives from the five Evangelical (Presbyterian) congregations of Iraq last December. We have a mission history in Iraq, and a contemporary concern for the situation. With the temptation of money and resources from mission bodies whose ideas and convictions conflict with the Iraqi Christians’ own ministries, we have been desirous to express our presence and solidarity with our reformed sisters and brothers, and to listen to them. These Christians were clear in their message to us: they hope the U.S. occupation comes to a prompt end.

Jesus was a refugee without documents, early in his earthy life. That is why Tim Rose is serving with the Reformed Church of France in a refugee and migrants program. Paris may not fit the image of a difficult place for a missionary assignment, but it is a difficult place for migrants who have fled their own countries and seek a better life–and are stuck without legal status, language, or means to support their families.

Jesus spoke to people of faith. That is why we are working with our ecumenical partners in the U.S. and through the Middle East Council of Churches and the Arab Working Group for Christian Muslim Dialogue on an interfaith initiative designed to personalize the reality of the Middle East and of interfaith relations there for congregations and groups in the United States.

Jesus overturned the tables of the merchants living off of the poor’s limited resources. That is why we participate in the debate on the effects of globalization. Derek has represented Common Global Ministries and the Church World Service members at two conferences this year to approach the issue from a theological perspective and think about the churches’ response.

Jesus planted the seeds of hope and faith in rich soil, not on rocks or in sand, so that the seeds would grow and mature, despite the surrounding elements. That is why we contribute to the Olive Tree Campaign, a joint effort of the YWCA and the YMCA in Palestine to replant trees–and livelihoods–that have been uprooted because of Israeli policies. The campaign’s purpose is to “keep hope alive.”

The olive tree. What a symbol. Since the dove returned to Noah a week after the forty-days of rain and brought back a freshly plucked olive leaf, the gnarly twisting olive tree has symbolized hope, peace, and God’s love. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed among olive trees. The olive tree is the source of livelihood for many Palestinians in the olives they harvest and the olive oil they produce. But fields are razed, and livelihoods are lost. In their place, separation barriers go up. Yet we continue to seek points of contact and attempt to break down human barriers. Hope, peace, and justice, are, in our world, elusively difficult to accomplish. They require deep commitment, they require the willingness to experience frustration, and they require the courage not to see immediate results–much like faith. Sometimes, the hope of the resurrection is seemingly far removed from the despair of Good Friday. Yet we persevere, because we are called to, because we dare call ourselves followers of Christ, and we say that Christ is our savior because he challenged the gnarly world and its systems.