Christian Communities with their Backs to the Wall

We are conscious that the world today is a diverse ecological environment in its cultures, economic structures and capacities, political positions, and the religious complexion of its human population. In considering the region of the so called ‘Middle East’ (West Asia) we focus on a part of our world that has been fought over by empires spreading from the Mediterranean and the heartlands of Europe, Eurasia, Africa and, since the end of WWII, from North America. The resources of the ‘Middle East’, the trade routes through ‘deserts and around seas’, have enabled riches to be made for many including the former colonial empires and has led to vast disparities of wealth in the region – from the grinding poverty of the Gaza strip to the opulent wealth of Abu Dubai serviced by millions of foreign migrant workers.  Indeed, whether it be the silk trade, coffee, or oil; its natural resources, its products, and the rest of the world’s access to them, has helped determine its history. To further consider the Middle East as the place and origin of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is to add a further layer of complexity. The Pew Foundation in its global survey of religions, set out clearly that across the world today one quarter of its population is Muslim and one third is Christian, which means that over half the global population belong to these two traditions. What they think and say about each other has global echoes of great significance and importance.  In the Middle East, the story of an all-powerful God who determines a history for followers and their opponents has been and is a recipe for a power struggle and a struggle for Truth that seems endless. At this point in time a deep Christian theological response is not only required but is a duty for our generation. 

My interest in the region is the existence of a Quaker School and a Quaker Meeting in the once Christian town of Ramallah. Ramallah means literally the ‘hill of God’ on which, it is said, two migrating tribes, one Muslim, the other Christian, who knew each other and respected each other, decided to settle alongside each other and found the villages of ‘El-Bireh’ and ‘Ramallah’. I was the Director of the Friends School for four years from 2000-2004. The school has two sites, the now Upper School in El-Bireh and the now Lower School and Primary in Ramallah. There had been, in the immediate past, a Boys School and a Girls School until the then school governing body and the now Friends United Meeting, who own the schools, decided they both could be run more efficiently as mixed schools. This was considered ‘controversial’ for its time. It was here that I fell in love with Israel/Palestine and with the Palestinian people, whom I worked alongside, experiencing the joys, sadnesses and challenges of living together in that embattled context. The struggle for peace with justice was written into my DNA during the four years and after and remains deeply embedded in me continuing to inform and describe my own spirituality. 

I was baptized as a baby and gave ‘my life’ to Christ at the age of 14 having been brought up by a Methodist Lay Preacher father and a Seventh Day Adventist mother. “Gave my Life to Christ’ is a very emotive and value laden statement but it describes a ‘hoped for’ reality that has shaped my life at every major decision and at the time of most lesser decisions. Without doubt the rough and tumble of life has often found me falling short of any such ideal but mostly I have been able to dust myself off and try again. I mention this to help the reader understand my appreciation and concern for ’ecumenism’ wherever I have lived; especially for the Christian communities of the ‘Middle East’. The Church, wherever it is, does not comprise perfect individuals but ordinary people confronting the extraordinary events of life! This has been the construction site of my theology. 

I am a Quaker which is a particular interpretation of first century Christianity by 17th century English dissenters from the Anglican or Catholic communities of the time. They read into the gospels a particular interpretation of salvation which did not depend upon what any priestly class dictated but upon the direct experience of Christ in each unique life which required each person to discover for themselves, in such direct experience, what was required of them. I deeply appreciate Methodism for its music and song and the ritual of holy communion but my experience of these led, as I saw it, to a rejection of the dominance of form over substance. I found among Friends (Quakers) a liberty to examine Truth, as I could find it, in the lives and experience of Christians anywhere and everywhere. Ecumenism became a love and a passion. I deeply respect the traditions and understanding of Christians who demonstrate integrity in their theology and practice it in their day to day lives, no matter what labels they place upon themselves and decide to wear. It is a rich tapestry of a search for Truth that is spell binding and a wonderful resource for that search for Truth in which we are all engaged.

Turning to the Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust. Repression, discrimination, advantage and disadvantage, the deliberate blurring of truth and falsehood, the disparity and distortion of shared community responsibilities were all ‘part and parcel’ of how I experienced the Second Intifada in Palestine and Israel. I am aware that such moments of trial have been replicated in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere due to the interference of external powers but also the chaos and acute social, cultural, and economic crises which have been driven by internal and competing conflictual forces. Our church communities throughout the Middle East have become victims, have been side-lined and discriminated against by the exercise of power politics in the region. The people of these churches are leaving the region in droves and who can judge them. The entire region will be the poorer for the loss of its Christian communities. At their best, they demonstrate love and compassion acting as a glue binding disparate communities together. At their best, they can be an ‘icon’ demonstrating the power that working together for the common good can witness. To my mind the Christians in the Middle East weave a profound richness to the life of the region. I have experienced them as a symbol of hope and joyous expectation sorely needed when life is at its most difficult. For me, the need to support each other wherever we are led, forging solidarities and practicing accompaniment, is an urgent response to Christ’s words to Peter, at the lake side after his resurrection; ‘Feed my lambs’, ‘Take care of my sheep’, ‘Feed my sheep’… ‘Follow me’. 

Living Stones of the Holy Land Trust is primarily concerned with Christian contextual theology within the Middle East. The Rev. Johanna Katanacho said of his theology, ‘I struggled inside orthodoxy between what is right and what is wrong, but I am no longer interested in this question. My interest is in the question, “How can I be a blessing today?” I want to ask my Muslim and Jewish neighbours a similar question, “How can your religious communities be a blessing to me?” …I don’t try to do apologetics to prove the other wrong, I try to be transformed personally so that everyone who is around me can be transformed by a theology of Love which promotes justice.’ (Cornerstone, Issue 81, 19/20). The exercise of contextual theology for Living Stones is to support an understanding of the history of Christian community in the Middle East; to appreciate the impact of the political, economic, social, and technological context in faith and practice in the present, as well as in the past, so that we can better be a blessing to each other. I continue to ‘drink deeply at the wells’ of rich and complex Eastern Christian traditions which are often the source of our Western Christianity. We seek to support, and learn from, the Christian community in the Middle East especially at this moment of de-stabilization. We understand the significance, and benefit, of a stable presence of Christians in the Middle East to the region and to the global Church. Living Stones seeks to affirm our common values of Love, Compassion, Truth and Justice that are at the very heart of our faith. Living Stones seeks to play its part in providing a platform for this strategically important dialogue and exchange at both an academic level and within a wider constituency enabling our community, in the UK, to act in solidarity.

We see Christians Aware, through its publications, conferences and pilgrimage, as a welcome partner in these objectives.

Colin South