Journey from the MidWest to the MidEast ...

The Indianapolis-based International Interfaith Initiative (III), in collaboration with the Village Experience, led a trip of a diverse group (including representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical, and Hindu religious communities) to the Middle East from December 27, 2009 to January 9, 2010. It was a follow-up to the very successful III Mideast trip of 2008. Read about the adventure on this blog. Look for partnership opportunities for your group at ... and be part of the next trip from Indy to the MidEast.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The experience of the inter-faith trip to Jordan and Israel both strengthened my faith and left me with questions. . Before I get to that, however, let me say how much joy this trip brought me. The joy includes: 10 other good, moral, humorous people with differing outlooks and backgrounds; conversation, music, tasty food, beautiful land (especially Wadi Rum, the hills around Jerusalem and Nazareth and an evening ride on the Sea of Galilee), celebrations with food and drink, and visiting memorial places of important events in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
I also had the joy of meeting many “strangers” , meeting those who are different only to find that deeper than the differences is a common humanity. I also experienced hope in these “strangers” living in the midst of tension, difficulty and poverty.
I feel a deeper emotional connection to Christ which had to do not only with walking the same land but with meeting those who practice his teaching even when they may be non-believers. Father Haddad, a Melkite priest, works as a clear believer in Jesus Christ for dialog and cooperation with Muslims. Akmed, on the other hand, clearly helps people to practice non-violence in the refugee camp in Bethlehem but has no active faith practice. If you took away Fr. Haddad’s cassock and references to Jesus, it would be hard to tell the difference between the two from a moral and behavioural standpoint. Someone once said, : just because someone is secular doesn’t mean that he is godless.”
I found myself more touched by the living faith of others than in the “holy places.” ( This is not to say that the places were not touching.) My own faith was strengthened by people like Father Haddad, the Iraqi Refugee meeting in Amman, the people of the Holy Land Trust, an organization dedicated to a non-violent approach to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis; an Arabic Christian funeral procession and burial, Mass in the Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem, the bells on the feast of Orthodox Christmas, the continual Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers, and a simple meal blessing for Shabbat prayed by the Jewish member of our group.
I find that my faith in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is strengthened. The prophetic voice of Isaiah rings true for Jerusalem in his time and in ours. The book of Psalms has an emotional reality for me that it did not have before. The Gospels have a grounding they did not have before. But I have also come to better realize just how radical the teaching of Jesus was for his own time and even more so for our time.
(NOTE: A two week experience in Jordan and Israel makes me an expert on very little if anything.)
The Mideast conflict is about much more than religion. It is about land, homeland, national identity, security. But what is the role of religion in the conflict? For starters, it certainly is about the history of three faiths All three religions have a claim to their origin and early development in this land called holy. Each regards Jerusalem as a most holy place. Jerusalem is sometimes called the ”center ” of the world, a place of God’s special and powerful presence. Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish presence are very visible. It would be hard to imagine anyone not thinking of Jerusalem as a religious place. And yet, on our trip religion took a very distant third place to the politics and the culture of the region. Religion is part of the conflict but at what level? Is it merely background? Are people embarrassed by religion and its checkered history of crusades,colonialism and western ways?
I wonder about the failure of religion to significantly contribute to peace and a morality that clearly treats all other human beings as human beings. The three religions seem to fail with a record of violence and prejudice. Yehuda Amichai, an Israel poet, writes: Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers/he’s forgotten something/but doesn’t remember what it’s holiness/sometimes turns to love. In the case of Christian history the forgotten something would seem to be the Sermon on the Mount. The last political tool in the Mideast to be used is that Sermon.
I believe religion can play a positive role. Consider the following words of Martin Luther King: True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force –tension, confusion, or war; it is the presence of some positive force – justice, good will and brotherhood. All three religions have a clear summons to those positive forces in their own Scriptures. A quote from the Koran serves as an illustration: Have you seen the one who denies religion? It is he who pushes away the orphan, And who does not urge the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who worship, Who are absent-minded in their prayer; Those who make a show of themselves, And refuse neighborly assistance. (Sura 107) Christians and Jews can find the very same sentiment in book of Isaiah.
But challenges remain for the three religions because religious people are often perceived and as breeders of hate and intolerance. The historical case for that perception can be easily made. Unfortunately, the perception is also based on encounters with extremists in all three religions while ignoring the basic goodness and kindness of millions of people over the centuries and into our own time.
One of the most haunting moments of this trip was the visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. As I wandered through horror after horrer, I I wondered how a Jew could still believe in God. A Paulist priest responded, “ How can Christians believe in Christ when the Holocaust was mostly perpetrated by baptized Christians?”
One of the more profound ironies that I found on this trip is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem to get along better in the north part of Israel. But the north seems to be more secular. The cities of Haifa and Akko seem good examples. In Akko, the public display of religion in shops and on the streets, disappeared altogether. It would seem that secularism has a gift to offer the world that the religions are still struggling to develop.

Another important question raised by this trip is religious identity. All three religions seem to be fighting for a stronger identity which has been riddled by their own history, competition for salvation and the rise of secularism and materialism. The struggle for strong identity has also resulted in the rise of fundamentalism and radicalism. All three religions seem to be fearful of being overwhelmed by the other two. All three religions fear the power of our secular culture, particularly in the West. All three religions seem to fear the insights of psychology and historical research. And there are good reasons for these fears .
In Israel, which one would assume to be one of the more religious places in the world, only 20% Jews practice their faith. Statistics in our own country report something similar despite all our protestations that we are a Christian country. Faith in the Holy and the Divine often seem to slip totally into the realm of the private. Even this inter-faith trip seemed more secular than religious. Religion will continue to struggle with the issue of idenity. Over-simplified answers, authoritative pronouncements and rigid definitions will accomplish little.
We still struggle with the question, “What does it mean to be Christian in the world we live in?” While the fundamentals remain the same, the world is vastly different than it was in the time of Jesus. On the trip I kept trying to touch the Jesus of his time. My answer to that quest is that it is almost impossible. I am not able to think or feel as a first century Palestinian Jew did. Connection to the land is vastly different for an urban American than a rural person from the country. I have privilege and security that would never be dreamed of in the time of Jesus. Our consciousness has changed (for better and worse). We have powerful destructive capabilities and positive opportunities that have altered how we think. Our everyday sense of the “true” is more relative or riddled with doubts. Our identities tend to be more individualistic. We slip in our of religious beliefs rather easily. In the time of Jesus and still in parts of the world, to change faith is to leave the “tribe”, and without the tribe the person has no security or identity.
Who is the God we believe in when we know we must mix and work and be hospitable to those who have a different view? Who is the God who “permits(?) “ a holocaust or the genocides that have happened since. What does worship mean in a secular and diverse culture? How is prayer integrated into a secular life style ( I know that the way I put that is contradictory but frankly our prayer and lifestyles are often not integrated.)? What does salvation mean and how is it mediated? How do we remain faithful to our own truth while acknowledging the truth of others? All three religions in their theology and in their behaviours must wrestle with these questions within their own traditions and with each other.
What of the Christian and Catholic role in the Mideast Conflict? In one way, Christianity is a minor player because it is largely an Arab and Israeli conflict. The United States and other Western countries have security issues as well in this region which also makes them players. But I would suggest that they often think that Israelis and Palestinians think just like people in the West. Transplanting Western values without recognition and understanding of values that may be very different is a huge mistake.
The best thing that the Christian and Catholic Church in the Middle East can do is to promote cooperative humanitarian and educational efforts and to gently insist on the God given value of human dignity. The Church promotes both Israel’s right to exist and the right of the Palestinians to homeland. . In addition the Catholic Church needs to continue to maintain Christian holy sites not just for tourism but as places of quiet prayer and meditation and then also be a public advocate for the rights of Christians. At one time, Christinas represented 20% of israel’s population. It in is now less than 2% . More and More Christians feel excluded. And before it does anything else, the Catholic Church needs to continue to promote a better relationship with the Greek Orthodox.
Borrowing from a speech by Cardinal John Foley Christianity also has the following to offer the Mideast A theology of reconciliation and forgiveness; a belief in the separation of church and state; freedom of conscience; a commitment to education; a Christianity not tied to one particular culture; commitment to a struggle for social justice.
Much more could be said. My questions have not been about doubt in my own faith. I affirm my faith in Jesus Christ and in the tradition of the Catholic Church. But a Church and a Catholic people that do not grapple with these questions will cease to be an effective voice in a complicated world. The great gift of trip like this one is that the traveller cannot help but notice how complex the world is and that sound bites, twittering, blogging, sounding off, finger pointing, and human prejudice do not and will never bring peace.
I conclude with the words of Archbishop Fouard Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem ( note that he is also a Palestinian ) When will we realize that a land deserves the adjective “holy” only when the man who lives there becomes holy? This land will deserve to be called “holy” when she breathes freedom, justice, love, reconciliation, peace and security.”
Fr. Jeff Godecker

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