Preaching Justice and Peace in the Context of the Middle East
‘Remember the Church in Syria…for I need your united prayers and love in God so that the Church in Syria may draw refreshment from the dew of your Church.’ (Saint Ignatius of Antioch, ‘Letter to the Magnesians,’ 107 AD)
‘The wise men would certainly have had a long journey, probably from what is modern Iran. Going in a straight line, that would be about 970 miles--quite a distance! Today, their route would probably be via war torn areas of Iraq and Syria and when they got to Jerusalem, they would have found a 25-foot wall preventing them getting through to Bethlehem without going through a check point.’ (Epiphany homily, 2019)
A Long Journey
Creative preaching points to God’s future against the background of events in a constantly changing present. At the time of writing this article, my Epiphany homily (above) had been preached, and preparation for preaching on the Baptism of Lord coincided with the air strike ordered by US President Donald Trump, marking a major escalation between Washington and Tehran, and a significant threat to world peace. Preaching against the background of the ongoing drama of such events in the Middle East presents challenges as well as opportunities for the preacher. Karl Barth is alleged to have said that the sermon should be prepared with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today the newspaper is supplemented by multiple media and electronic information and the biblical message is proclaimed against the babel of conflicting interpretations; no more so than with recent events in Middle East. This region deserves attention not only for its many biblical associations or for its strategic importance for world peace, but also for the urgent issue of the threat to the survival of the oldest communities of Christians in the world; the ‘living stones’ of the lands of the Bible. In addition, since theology needs to be in constant dialogue with the struggles of the poor for fundamental rights, recent events have raised profound issues of political morality that affect the whole human family. For all these reasons, preachers in the West do well to learn and reflect deeply about the problems of the area and should preach accordingly.
From Spring to Winter
December of 2010 saw the beginning of events described collectively as ‘the Arab Spring’, beginning in Tunisia and Egypt and soon spreading throughout the region. With the exception of Tunisia, the outcome of these different struggles has not been a happy one. Every case is different, but the same spirit; the same hunger for justice and democracy characterised all of them. The good news was spoken for the poor; the prisoners begun to break out of their prisons; the blind had the shades fall from their eyes and the oppressed heard the infectious word of freedom)—and this word was apparently being fulfilled even as we listened (Luke 4:14-19). Ten years later, and largely unreported in Britain, after much disappointment, misery and repression, the protesters are back on the streets in Tehran, Beirut, Baghdad and elsewhere. The preacher who ignores this word is surely deaf to the echoes of the manifesto in Isaiah 61 preached again by the carpenter in the synagogue in Nazareth.
From Tunisia ‘the Arab Spring’ example of popular revolt inspired similar protests in Egypt. The combination of unemployment, corruption, human rights abuses and the absence of genuine democracy were not peculiar to Tunisia and Egypt, but was endemic throughout the Arab world and, helped on by social media such as Facebook and Twitter, the flames of popular uprisings soon spread to affect every country in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf States, and beyond. However, whereas the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were toppled, the rulers of other Arab states offered more determinedly repressive measures.
Meanwhile in the Yemen, where events in Egypt prompted demonstrations and violence, violent revolt by the Houthi community was met with violent repression by the government with massive support by Saudi Arabia aided by Britain and the United States, leading to the current massive humanitarian disaster with the loss of more than a quarter of a million lives, to date. Other revolts and demonstrations took place in every Arab country as well as among Palestinians in the West bank against the Palestinian Authority, in Gaza against Hamas and against the economic siege by Israel.
Protests in Syria were met with ruthless repression and then to a full-blown civil war. Now virtually victorious in Syria’s civil war, Bashir Al Assad, helped by Iranian and Russian military support, has been allowed to get away with cold blooded murder and torture on the grand scale, and opposition forces have included Al Qaeda and other Salafist elements that are no less homicidal and anti-democratic than the regime. Deaths have numbered around half a million, with six million internally displaced, and around five million leaving the country. Among these, many Syrian Christians joined the exodus of the, once thriving, Christian communities of Iraq, like them, fleeing the persecution and murders perpetrated by the extremist Islamic forces in 2014 and 2015.
Meanwhile, in the ‘Holy Land,’ President Obama’s pleas to halt the continued building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a solution based on a return to Israel’s 1976 borders has been replaced by President Trump’s 2018 recognition of the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and the administration’s abandonment of the position that Israeli settlements were inconsistent with international law.
The ongoing sufferings of the Palestinian people, the fate of refugees, the regular bloodletting in Gaza and the haemorrhaging of the Christian population excite some international concern but the apocalyptic fantasies of many fundamentalist Christians combine with a sense of guilt for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism to silence advocacy for human rights in the very cradle of Christianity.
Opportunities and Challenges for the Preacher
The Gospel of Christ offers a sure basis for our understanding of these and other contemporary problems but in disputed areas of politics, diplomacy or global economics the preacher has no more competence that anyone in the congregation. The preacher has a commission to preach the word of Scripture and faith of the Church which has given him, or her, the authority to preach but must eschew false apocalypticist understandings of the prophetic role. Biblical prophecy is not predicative of present events in the Middle East or elsewhere. That approach so easily leads to the lunacy of placing the fulfilment of prophetic forecasting ahead of biblical values of peace and justice. Prophecy is less about predicting the future than about understanding the present in the lights of God’s future. For the Christian preacher this provides the challenge of allowing these values to interrogate the complexities of the present. Those who hear the questions—ordinary citizens together with those who have greater competence in political analysis—can wrestle to find the answers. This approach follows the pattern of Jesus in the Gospels, often leaving the concrete application of his preaching of the Kingdom to be worked out by his hearers.
With some issues, however, clearly there is no doubt about the line that preachers should take. The call to end arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and executions and demands for a free press, universal suffrage, religious freedom, and expression of opinion, trade union rights, and rights for women all find support in scriptural principles developed in the social teaching of the Catholic Church and other denominations. It is legitimate also to draw attention to the double standards of our western Governments when they denounce abuses of human rights selectively and, tacitly or even directly, support oppression when exercised by oil rich allies and condemn it when it is carried out by those deemed inimical to their interests. Such hypocrisy directly mirrors the behaviour denounced in The Epistle of James (2:1-14) and merits the full fury of the prophetic voice.
On some other issues however, the task will not be to offer pat answers to complex problems but to invite congregations to relate scriptural values to the media information they have received. In the words of a prophetic biblical scholar who engaged powerfully with Middle Eastern issues, ‘Jesus did not leave a carefully worked out strategy whereby his disciples would transform the world …. It is up to the ingenuity of his disciples, using their human skills, infused by Christian love, to carry the message forward, so that it becomes the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and the leaven that transforms the world in all its parts.’
The values preached by the carpenter in Nazareth can help the preacher to interpret the present so as to transform it. They can also assist the preacher in interpreting and bringing to life the values themselves. Good news for the poor, the setting free of prisoners, opening the eyes of the blind, and the granting of liberty to captives are all phrases that can be brought to life for the congregation when the preacher creatively engages their imagination with facts about oppression of the poor, lack of media freedom, the plight of political prisoners, and the oppression of the downtrodden. The beginnings of a reversal of these evils—however uncertain and delayed its final fulfilment—brings alive the kairos moment announced by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:21).
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