Soul searching

Epiphany II (January 18, 2009)
Common Lectionary Readings:
I Sam. 3:1-10; Ps. 139; I Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

January 17, 2009

An open letter to the Christian church

This is the 14th day of my fast for peace. There are signs that a ceasefire is near, but the terms are not likely to satisfy both sides. And a ceasefire is only the first step toward a just and durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The past 21 days of intense violence have only added to a long history of grievances.

The three-week toll is staggering. The war has killed hundreds of children, mothers and fathers. The war has damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and decimated Gaza’s infrastructure. The war has planted millions of seeds of hatred and mistrust.

There has been plenty of finger pointing. Israelis blame Hamas for the fear in southern Israel and the suffering in Gaza. “We had no choice,” Israeli leaders say. Hamas blames Israel for the suffocating economic siege on the Gaza Strip and for its recent military massacre that violated international law. Neither side seems willing or able to take responsibility for their own contributions to this disaster.

Fasting is a time of soul searching. It offers an opportunity to look deep within and to own our part in the world’s suffering and pain. During times of fasting I become acutely aware of the seeds of hatred and violence that have taken root within me.

As we gather this weekend in houses of worship around the world, let it be an opportunity for us to reflect on and repent of the ways we as a Christian community have contributed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — through centuries of anti-Semitism and a more recent embrace of Christian Zionist theology.

In his book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll chronicles the shameful Christian history of mistreating Jews. Across the centuries, Christians perpetrated pogroms against the Jewish community. Prominent church leaders like Martin Luther called for the burning of synagogues and defined Jews as “the born enemy of the German Christian.” Many Christians stood silent during the Holocaust. According to Carroll, “Support of Hitler was not only allowed to Catholics, but was required of them.” Christians have contributed to the insecurity that many Jewish Israelis feel. We must own that.

Many Christians have equally contributed to the plight of the Palestinians by buying into a theology of Christian Zionism. Seeing the return of the Jewish people to historic Palestine as a prerequisite for the return of Christ, some Christians have thrown their uncritical support behind the Israeli government – no matter how abusive its policies have been. We have watched in silence as our Palestinian sisters and brothers – both Christian and Muslim – have suffered under years of occupation and oppression.

Indeed, it is possible that the current crisis in Gaza would not have happened had it not been for these sad mistakes of history. Had the church truly been salt and light, had the church truly treated all peoples as created in God’s image and therefore precious in God’s sight, just perhaps we would not be in this mess today. Let the Christian church be the first to stand up, take responsibility and repent.

The Common Lectionary readings for this Sunday focus on searching. God seeks out the young Samuel to be a new prophetic voice (I Sam. 3:1-10). Jesus seeks followers, who in turn look for more followers (John 1:43-51). Paul searches for how to balance Christian freedoms with Christian responsibilities (I Cor. 6:12-20). And the psalmist begs God to search his heart and root out that which is hurtful (Ps. 139:23-24).

As we gather this week to worship and pray for peace, let it also be a time of soul searching. With the psalmist, let our prayer be: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24).

J. Daryl Byler
Amman, Jordan

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