[This is a condensed version of a talk I gave on Thursday, November 30th regarding my recent trip to Israel.]
Having recently returned from a weeklong visit to Israel with a group of rabbis and evangelical ministers, I am filled with both hope and fear regarding not only the Middle East, but also the future of our own nation and the planet as a whole. Let me share one example of each.
The hope: My Orthodox rabbinic colleague (we have been asked not to use the names of our fellow travelers) introduced me to a friend of his, Jacob, who ran a kosher pizzeria in Meah Sha’arim, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood just outside the walls of the Old City. An elderly Hasid in his seventies, Jacob was one of the founders of Zaka, the Orthodox Jewish volunteer organization that collects human remains, from body parts to spatters of blood in the wake of terrorist bombings in Israel in order to bury victims with as much dignity as possible.
Jacob told us of a lecture he gave to on liberal and largely anti-Israel college campus in the United States. He related the story of Zaka and took questions. One Palestinian woman demanded to know what Jacob did with the body parts of the suicide bomber. “All humans are created in the image and likeness of God,” Jacob said. “We gather the bomber’s body up with the same respect and compassion we offer his victims.”
The woman was moved. “Keep up the good work,” she said. A local imam then rose to offer Jacob financial assistance and support from his Muslim community.
The fear: Even as many evangelical Christians are making room for the Jews in their theology of salvation, arguing that God’s covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people is eternal and distinct from the covenant He offers the gentile world through the birth, death, and resurrection of His Son, they are hardening their hearts against Islam, insisting that Allah is a false god and Islam an intrinsically evil and violent faith. Islam is clearly the enemy of God and those who love Him. This can only lead to more violence and destruction.
A Tennessean article published on the fourth day of our trip fed on this notion opening with the Arabic proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The writer’s message was clear: Jews and Christians have a common bond because they share a common enemy. Friendship contingent upon shared fear, anger, and violence is not the foundation upon which to pin much hope. While it may be expedient to make the enemy of my enemy my friend, when that enemy is defeated, my so-called friend will quickly become my newfound enemy.
Not surprisingly, Nashville’s Muslim community found nothing to praise in our journey. I don’t blame them. Being labeled as the enemy in a community where you are a small minority must be frightening. As much as some of us may fear Muslims, Muslims have a right to fear us as well. America has a very checkered past when it comes to those it fears, and to read that Nashville’s Jews and Christians are linking arms against Islam, can only be cause for anxiety and anger.
Yet the notion of a shared enemy had nothing to do with our visit to Israel. We went to learn from one another, to try and tap into each other’s love of the Land, and to build a friendship based on that shared love and not on a shared enemy. But love and forgiveness sell fewer papers than hate and fear, so the real meaning and message of our mission was lost.
Hope is fueled by compassion rooted in the recognition that human life, regardless of the labels one chooses or has foisted upon one, is sacred. Fear is fueled by ignorance rooted in the false notion that God’s love and saving grace is contingent upon having the right enemy. The fear lies with those who live by abstractions: theologies, creeds, dogmas that are human artifacts often designed to exploit human weakness. The hope lies with those who live by the simple fact that we are all God’s children, created in the image and likeness of the One who is all.
So, if hope rather than fear is to win out; if the prospect of a century-long conflict with Islam is to be avoided, what can we do? I could offer a list of obvious suggestions: dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims; joint programming around our respective cultures focusing on art, music, and food; and much of this may already be happening in Nashville. But instead of this, let me focus on one somewhat radical suggestion.
I would like to see local Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy and lay leaders come together to study their respective scriptures in order to identify and reject those passages that advocate and condone violence. The Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and the Qur’an all suffer from passages that have God calling for violence and even genocide. These passages cannot come from a God of justice and compassion, and need to be rejected as false teaching. We must break free from the notion that scripture is infallible, and recognize that alongside timeless truth there sits much time-bound bias masquerading as truth. Unless and until we free ourselves from the delusion that God condones and even commands the murder of human beings, religion will always be a catalyst for evil even as it claims to be the ultimate repository of the good.