One of the recurring themes of my time in the Holy Land has been ‘the other’: who are they? How do we perceive them? How do we treat them? In the past five weeks, there has been much talk of the other:
Israeli and Arab
Palestinian Christian and Jewish Believer
Religious Jew and Secular Jew
Nazis and Jews
Germans and Poles
to name but a few. Naturally, things are not as straightforward as this for ‘the other’ can be more closely defined. The course I have attended over the past few weeks was for British Clergy and we represented a range of denominations so within ‘Christian’ who is the other? Roman Catholic, Protestant (Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal, URC), Messianic? I have met people from all these since I left Hampshire as well as Orthodox and Armenian Christians. The Jewish community is every bit as fragmented: Ultra Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal, Secular (and others) and I have spent time with all these.
It is very human for us to define ourselves in relation to the other; there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them’ and we need to know the boundaries so we can determine our own identity. We tend to stress the differences to help us see who we are; as Protestants we are particularly prone to this (there is a clue in the name!) but it affects all groups. The challenge is in how we see ‘the other’, in how we behave towards ‘the other’: do we exclude them because they are not like us, or do we embrace them because we have our humanity in common.
In Israel, this question is particularly pressing, especially in times of heightened violence and political conflict such as the past weeks have sadly seen. Quite naturally people are afraid and then the desire to exclude comes to the fore. If only there were no Arabs in Israel, so the theory goes, we would be safe; if only there were no Jews in Palestine, we would be free. Inevitably, how we see the other will be affected by our experience and the views of our tribe: is the young man – or woman – wielding a knife a terrorist or a hero? Is the young man – or woman – in uniform an oppressor or a protector? Currently the talk on both sides is for exclusion, hence the extremely controversial and divisive – in every sense of the word – separation wall which seeks to protect Jews by excluding the Arabs.
I have spent the past ten days on a course at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial and study centre for the Holocaust. We have been considering a range of aspects of the Holocaust and what it means to us to be living post-Shoah today. One of the phrases I found most striking, helpful and challenging is the idea that Jews are the ‘perpetual other’, that this is the reason for centuries of anti-Semitism which in the fatal combination of the ideology and actions of the Nazis led to the gas chambers. Aryan and Jew was not just about ‘us and them’, but about us and the them who were the ‘unacceptable other’, the less than human other. For the Nazis, it was not enough to exclude the other, they needed to be eliminated. [This is why the argument which compares the experience of the Jews under the Nazis with that of the Palestinians is so unhelpful. It may be good rhetoric and be indicative of the pain many Palestinians feel, but it is based on a false parallel. It is true that many Jews would like to see Palestinians excluded from Israel, but exclusion of the Jews was not enough for the Nazis who wanted them wiped from the face of the earth.]
Of course the Nazis were wrong: science has proven that it is a nonsense to talk about the Aryans as a superior race to the Jews. Yes there are different nationalities and ethnicities but there is only one human race. We have been slow to learn this truth but the Bible has always taught us that: all people are created by God and made in the image of God; all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; Jesus came to save the sins of all people. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free. God delights in variety – why else would he have made us all so different? – but what we have in common is far more important that the things we differ about. So what does God do in the face of difference? Does he exclude or does he embrace? Yes, he embraced the descendants of Abraham to be his chosen people but his embrace went further than that to include the sworn enemies of Israel. He also embraced Ruth, a Moabitess to be the Great-Grandmother of King David and sends Jonah to preach to the people of Ninevah so that he can embrace them too. Jesus embraced Jews and tax collectors and lepers and prostitutes and Samaritans and important men like Nicodemus and all who responded to his love. He embraced the whole world – Jew and Gentile – when he opened his arms wide upon the cross.
I wonder who is the ‘them’ to your ‘us’? I wonder how you respond to ‘the other’? I wonder whether you exclude them or embrace them?
Jesus said:“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22.37.39).
Who do you need to embrace today?
I am giving thanks for my time in Jerusalem and for my safe arrival in Tiberias.
I am praying that I would hear what God is saying to me as I reflect on what I have been learning and have wisdom to see what to do with that knowledge.