by Gary Burge
Over the last twenty years one of the great privileges of my life has been the many opportunities I have had to meet Arab Christians in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine.
Over the last twenty years one of the great privileges of my life has been the many opportunities I have had to meet Arab Christians in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine. In fact, what I do professionally— teaching New Testament at Wheaton College—has been profoundly shaped by my regular exposure to the world and people of the Middle East. It began with a handful of classes at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut in the 1970s and continues today in many different venues. Many Middle Easterners have opened their world to me and I am thankful. Because of their kindness, I cannot look at the New Testament in the same way, nor can I look at the mission of the church as I used to.
As many of us know, it is possible to fall in love with a culture and have it leave an indelible mark on our lives. Something draws you. Odd things happen to you. You develop a fancy for new musical rhythms and foods. You buy your first Hamza el Din compact disc. You start putting cinnamon and pine nuts in your rice and begin eating pomegranates and humus. You may even begin drinking dangerously strong coffee. Above all, you find your mind preoccupied with the story of a church whose rich history is strikingly unlike yours. These things happened to me.
EXPERIENCING THE RICHNESS OF A CULTURE UNLIKE MY OWN
In Palestine, my own experiences have been the richest, not because the church there offered more than any of the churches in Cairo or Beirut, but because my own career has brought me back to the Holy Land again and again. I led groups of college students, studied archaeological sites and figured out how to sneak up onto Jerusalem’s walls late at night (a required skill for leaders of college students). I worked at archaeological digs and did research on the Palestinian political situation. Sometimes these two worlds merged, like the time I was working at the archaeological site of Sepphoris in Galilee. During one Palestinian “Land Day” celebration, the dig area was overwhelmed by hundreds of soldiers. In the distance we saw a line of marchers coming over the hill from Nazareth. They were Palestinians who had been expelled from their ancient village of Saffuriya in 1948. To remind the world of their dislocation, they now marched each year to the Israeli-occupied town.
Each time I entered this world, I found myself making new friends within the Palestinian church. They have shepherded my experience in ways they will never know. One of these individuals was Audeh Rantisi, a retired Anglican pastor in Ramallah. During the 1989 Intifada, Audeh and his wife Pat invited me to stay at their home so that I could see military occupation first-hand.
Another individual was Suhail Ramadan, a Baptist pastor in Tur’an, a village just north of Nazareth. He helped me understand what it means to be a faithful Christian in a predominantly Muslim context. Another man was Mitri Rahib. Five years ago, he welcomed my forty-five Wheaton College students into his church. His youth group taught my students Arab dances and had them sitting on the darkened rooftops of Bethlehem. It was there that they shared their American Christian identity and compared it with the Arab experience. Each person and experience has left indelible marks on me.
LESSONS FROM CHURCH COMMUNIITES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Four things come to mind when I think about what I’ve learned from these communities in Gaza, Galilee, Beit Jala and Bir Zeit.
1. A church under the cross is a church that suffers. The early church described itself as a “church of apostles and martyrs.” Indeed, even St. Paul wrote that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). This was the experience of the earliest Christians in the Holy Land. Today it seems to be the same for both messianic Jews and Arab Christians. Less than a week after I interviewed the staff of a messianic congregation in West Jerusalem, their synagogue was firebombed by angry Orthodox Jews. These Jewish Christians are experiencing for the first time what the early church experienced: the hostility of a Jewish majority.
A pastor in Galilee described the Palestinian church as a “church under the cross.” Because the church has experienced dislocation and persecution for so many centuries, it has now become a part of its life and identity. William Dalrymple’s book, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East, bears eloquent testimony to the harsh realities of Middle Eastern history and the struggle of Christians there. Only the ruins of their great monasteries and churches evidence the once-flourishing Christian communities of Turkey and Syria. Lebanon’s Christian communities suffered the same violence as did their entire country in a twenty-year civil war. And today in Palestine the increasing struggle for justice and the unending tension of conflict seem to drive more and more Christians out of the country. Father Majdi al-Siryani of Beit Sahour said, “We understand suffering. But don’t feel sorry for us. We are hibernating.”
Since the seventh century and the advent of Islam, this church has understood how to survive when political and religious powers struggle for control. Hibernation can be the appropriate response when the dangers and challenges of life seem overwhelming. I remember spending a day at Mar Saba Monastery east of Jerusalem and thinking about its fortifications. There was a password required to get in the front gate and a bell alerted the community to the arrival of outsiders. There were also strong, high walls. An elderly monk told me the story of the monastery’s history as we sat on a veranda which overlooked a valley filled with hermit caves that have stood empty for a thousand years. When the elderly man told of the attack on the monastery in the nineteenth century, he spoke like it happened yesterday. Strong walls and strong faith have kept this place—and many like it—alive for centuries.
Middle Eastern Christianity is indeed a church that lives under the cross. It is also a church that has learned how to build its walls and remain alert to outsiders. One example of this is Beit Jala. According to Abuna Maroun Lahham, of Beit Jala’s Latin Seminary, some eighty percent of its residents are Christian. Amidst land politics and nationalism, the Christian community has faced the cannon-fire of Israeli tanks and the missiles of Apache attack helicopters. If they resist the rifle-fire directed toward the Israeli settlement of Gilo, will they be perceived as unfaithful to the resistance? It takes great discernment to be a Christian in Beit Jala today. Abuna Maroun Lahham reminds us that the church has been free only three hundred of the last two thousand years. As Christians, they have learned to absorb suffering. They have had perseverance, courage and faithfulness. It is perhaps this audience that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2:9-11:
I know your affliction and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even unto the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
But the church in Beit Jala does not live in fear. It has offered a continuous witness to its faith even in centuries of greatest danger. Spend a morning with Attalah Hannah, leader of the Arab Orthodox in Palestine, and you will see courageous faith that is willing to confront injustice. Echoing the words of Abuna Majdi, he said, “Don’t think of the church of Jerusalem as if it were in ruins. We are alive! We simply need a little help.”
I have learned to stop complaining. I rarely hear my Arab Christian friends complain about their circumstances, whether they are being attacked by Israeli tanks in Bethlehem or facing hostile Muslim fundamentalists in Southern Egypt. Father Emile (who lives in Bir Zeit) once reminded me that in America a crisis is a fifty cents per gallon increase in gas. This is not so in the Middle East.
2. Strength comes through tradition. A strong church is one that knows its history and draws strength not only from its old stories but from the mandate that this history provides. In I am a Palestinian Christian, Mitri Rahib writes that his life and his ministry, indeed his commitment to working within the Palestinian church, are gestures of faithfulness to a heritage which has strong roots.
Students I bring to Israel and Palestine know little of the history of the Christian church prior to the Reformation. Even if they know something of the earliest ecumenical councils, they do not have a deep appreciation for the value of these centuries. For many, Christian history jumps from St. Paul to St. Augustine to the Crusades to Martin Luther. The leap from St. Paul to Billy Graham is a short one for evangelicals. Many know more about Colorado Springs than they do about Chalcedon.
I never permit my students to enter Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher when many tourists are there. I always insist that they hear a long and passionate explanation of the history of the church and its antiquity. I do the same before we enter Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. I want my students to get a sense of the rich history of Christianity in this land, and to realize that from the second until the seventh century some of the greatest minds in the most formative periods of the church lived between Antioch and Alexandria. Even after the coming of Islam, the church survived disadvantages and massive conversions to the Muslim faith. I want my students to inherit the richness of spiritual expressions, birthed from an utterly different cultural world, and discover in them meanings lost to most Protestants.
I am also reminded of the significance and beauty of old books. At home, I have my grandfather’s confirmation Bible from Germany, and in some inexplicable way, knowing his hands held the same Bible I now hold anchors me in a way I cannot explain. I want my students to hold the ancient traditions—the creeds, the liturgies, the churches—in the same way. Members of these ancient churches hold sacred traditions and histories that have nourished them for centuries. One of my friends in Nazareth, Najeeb Rizik, is a pharmacist and serves as president of the Orthodox church. He worries because his teenage daughters now prefer Nazareth’s Baptist church. There is nothing wrong with this, but he fears the deep roots of his heritage (held by his family for a millennium) are being lost.
I have learned to respect the ancient churches. I am increasingly at odds with evangelicals in my own world who discredit or disrespect Christians whose Antiochene, Coptic or Melkite traditions are different than their own. A bishop from one of these ancient churches would not even be allowed to speak in our campus chapel and this has caused me great sorrow. Their traditions—from their creeds to their hymnody—have given these ancient churches perseverance for over fifteen hundred years.
3. There is power in the priesthood. In 1986 when the young Father Majdi joined the parish in Bir Zeit, he found that his church council was filled with Palestinian intellectuals committed to numerous resistance organizations (such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fateh). Most had been imprisoned and many had been tortured. The identity of the church’s mission had been shaped by the Intifada. Once, when there was an Israeli strike, soldiers entered the parish grounds and arrested Father Majdi. A young Israeli struck him with the butt of his rifle. He had never been hit before and instinctively he took out his passport and slapped the soldier across the face. Two more approaching soldiers simply stared. No one knew what to do. Majdi told them, “Kill me if this is why you are here.” However, because he was a priest, they backed away and left him alone.
This episode was a turning point for Majdi in his ministry. Through it he learned that as a priest, as a visible spiritual leader in the community, he had the power to challenge “the oppressor” in a way no one else could. He now serves a parish in Beit Sahour and more than once has intervened at the Bethlehem checkpoint to stop abuse by using his “clerical collar” as leverage against evil.
I recently interviewed a number of Catholic and Orthodox priests in Palestine. In each case I heard the same story. Although they know they walk a fine line, these are devout men who interpret their ministry as a calling to actively resist evil. “The altar was not made for politics,” Majdi says, but it seems that the cassock and the cross can become an amazing uniform because clergy still have a protected voice in the country. In 1974 Father Maroun of Beit Jala was riding a bus near Tripoli, Lebanon. He had just been ordained. A Muslim militia stopped the bus and pulled out thirteen Christians they planned to shoot in revenge for another atrocity the day before. Maroun immediately gave the group absolution as they lined up. Through his intercessions, the men lowered their automatic rifles and released everyone. Maroun has never been the same.
This community has led me to rethink the “care of souls.” What is the meaning of ministry when evil runs amuck, when the wolf is at the door of your flock? I am an ordained minister and attend a conservative church. My evangelical heritage has consistently disengaged me from social or political involvement—just as many Palestinian evangelicals struggle with disengagement today. But priests like those in the Middle East hear a different call.
4. Compassion and care giving are part of the priesthood. Christian leadership also means living with the struggles of your people and defending them, no matter where it leads.
Rev. Mitri Rahib of Bethlehem continues to be a model and inspiration for me. In his book, he tells the story of the Daher family, whose vineyard about seven miles south of Bethlehem had been under threat of confiscation by the Israelis because it was “uncultivated.” The Daher family had purchased the land one hundred years ago when they migrated from Lebanon and invested their savings. It had been a famously rich vineyard, but for many years the Israelis had restricted water distribution in Bethlehem (Israeli settlers there have an allotment nine times that of Arabs) and the Daher vineyard was in trouble. The real reason for the confiscation was that the Daher vineyard occupied a hilltop surrounded by three Israeli settlements. It was a thorn in the side of large Jewish organizations (the Amana Movement of Gush Emunim and the Ha’oved HaLeumi Party) that wanted to consolidate Jewish control over this area.
When the Daher family came to Mitri with the military confiscation order, Mitri was barely surprised. It was a perfect repeat of the biblical story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21. Corrupt Israeli leaders twisted justice in order to steal land. But Mitri’s church decided to fight back and committees were set up to prevent the loss of land. One was headed by an attorney who worked on an appeal. Another obtained tractors to immediately re-plow the land. A third quickly obtained plants to renew the fields. They collected seventeen hundred young cabbage plants, two hundred olive trees and more than one thousand almond and plum trees. A fourth committee worked on media relations which resulted in Christians, Muslims, Americans and Europeans planting trees in the Daher family vineyard.
Is this the role of a pastor? Is this Christian ministry—to mobilize a congregation in order to save the homes of its members? Today the Daher family farm still stands, but it experiences regular threats. It has now been adopted by international legal communities based in Geneva, Switzerland, which are viewing this as a test-case of Israeli justice. Physical threats and acts of violence have come against the Dahers, but they have stood firm. Settlers tried to bulldoze a road through the middle of these vineyards, claiming the need for safe transit, but this ploy failed as well. In 1999 I had the privilege of standing with the young men in this family on the highest point of their land. The cave where their grandfather lived while tilling the land for the first time stood behind us. But looming to the west was an incredible sight. A pristine and modern settlement—a new suburb for Jerusalem with every sign of rapid growth—hovered on the edge of the Daher’s land. One son pointed to the edge of his land in a nearby valley. There were bulldozers scraping away at the perimeter of the farm, defiantly eroding the boundary this family defends. These are the incredible “cutting edge” issues of Mitri’s pastorate.
REFLECTIONS ON TRUE, GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY
The needs of our people may indeed include social issues and justice concerns. As a church, we need to take a stand for these issues. I want to be a different sort of Christian, one for whom kingdom work goes beyond business as usual. I want to be a different sort of Christian who believes that promoting the kingdom of God means advancing its truth and values into the world. And if I must be an outrageous advocate, if I have to be as brassy as Abuna Majdi or as loud as Atalla Hanna, it’s okay. Pope Paul VI gave World Vision Jerusalem its motto: “If you want peace, work for justice.” I’d like that to be my motto too.
Dalrymple, William. 1998. From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East. New York: Owl Books.
Rahib, Mitri. 1995. I am a Palestinian Christian. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.
Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Gary is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Aberdeen University and has written extensively on the gospels and the intersection of theology and politics in the Middle East.
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