“For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment.
Salaam and grace to you from Jerusalem, the City of Peace
“For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5:13-15
In the midst of the recent turmoil, St. Paul reminds us that God has created us to live in community. These weeks the world has shown how polarized it can be in the controversy over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, in which freedom of speech and religious sensitivity have been cast as mutually exclusive. We condemn the defamation of all religious symbols, prophets and Holy Writings because it only provokes offense and builds walls of hatred between East and West. We also condemn all violent acts that threaten others – including flag burning – as intolerable and unacceptable. We urge all to re-assess our attitudes and actions, and to ask ourselves how we can transform this global volatile hostility into a world-wide willingness to seek common values of mutual respect and care for our neighbor. Are we really losing our civility to such a degree that we are incapable of rational discourse and can only resort to violence and desecration of sacred symbols, prophets, writings and places?
Don’t we – all people of faith – believe that God created us as sisters and brothers in humanity, all equally valued children yet wondrously diverse in culture and traditions? We were created to live in community, in freedom and harmony with one another and for one another. From the first Biblical tragedy when God was outraged at Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, God has taught us that we have responsibilities to and for one another. Cain attempted to shirk his responsibility for his brother in his response to God’s questioning about the missing Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Today, we do the same, and tend to forget that the implied Biblical answer to that question is “yes,” not keepers to control or coerce one another, but keepers of mutual respect and human dignity for one another.
As the late renowned Palestinian American Professor Edward Said wrote:
“No culture or civilization exists by itself; none is made up of things like individuality and enlightenment that are completely exclusive to it; and none exists without the basic human attributes of community, love, value for life and all the others.”
Today, in our increasingly globalized world, we can no longer pretend to live in our isolated egocentric shells. Rapid movements of people, information, technology and trade knit us together so that our behavior can have immediate effects on others. Different cultures and religious traditions are coming into contact with one another faster than we can learn to understand them. We put huge resources into globalization of markets, tourism, information and technology, yet we ignore the importance of learning to live with our new neighbor next door who may have different cultural or religious traditions. What do we gain with all of our technological, economic and cultural interconnectedness and individual freedoms if we lose our communal soul and our shared humanity?
This crisis illustrates how vital it is that we also learn to understand one another. Europe is becoming increasingly secular and less religious. Recent polls show that less than a quarter of Europeans still believe religious values are very important. In the Middle East, religion is still at the heart of identity and values for both secular and religious people. The European world needs to understand and be sensitive to this reality, just as the Muslim world needs to learn how to live in a global, pluralistic world while remaining true to religious values and sensitivities. Globalization should not promote mono-culture but blessed pluralism. If we are to survive and co-exist with one another, we must work out ways to live together.
Arab Palestinian Christians and Muslims have learned many ways to live as neighbors. During the fast of Ramadan, many Christians here will refrain from eating or drinking during the day in public, not because there is a law against it, but out of respect and care for Muslims. Similarly, during our cross processions on the Via Dolorosa, Muslims will show respect and even help us when they can, even though they don’t believe in the theology of the cross. These small acts of respect are the seeds of a strong and resilient relationship of mutual understanding and respect. Arab Palestinian Christians stand over the chasm dividing the Arab Muslim and the Western worlds, dividing Islam and Christianity. Our hands reach out in both directions, and we can help act as a bridge where and when one is needed. Our long history of peaceful co-existence has taught us to how to deal with our neighbors as human beings with dignity and worth.
We Palestinian Christians can serve as a voice of Islam to the West and a voice of the West to the Arab and Muslim world. With Islam growing in Europe and the West, our long, peaceful co-existence can offer a model for co-existence. We continue to believe that only constructive dialogue built on a foundation of mutual respect will build a civil society and equal citizenship.
The recent developments illustrate the fear and anger that arise when we see one another through the eyes of prejudice and stereotypes. In some parts of Europe, growing populations of immigrants are seen as threatening the status quo, and there is growing fear and resentment. In some parts of the Arab and Muslim world, there is anger and humiliation at being stereotyped and labeled as terrorists. Many in the Arab and Muslim world feel that the West uses a double standard of justice and human rights in dealing with them. This all creates fertile ground for political and religious extremists to transform underlying political realities into religious wars that can be catastrophic. We should not allow these extremists to exploit this volatile situation further. We must not allow extremists to kidnap religion or hold justice and human rights hostage.
This situation presents both threat and challenge, danger and opportunity. We must together, in the East and the West, in the North and South, create a mechanism to reject and condemn Islamophobia and other racist behaviors just as we have created a mechanism to reject anti-Semitism. We must create a mechanism to reject and condemn all forms of violence as unacceptable and intolerable.
If we fail to learn to understand one another, we may fulfill the forecasts of those calling this a “clash of civilizations.” We stand at a crucial juncture in the Middle East, Europe and the West, and these times call for thoughtful prayer and action. This is not the time to further inflame an already volatile context by attempting to prove a point that individuals should have unlimited freedom to offend without regard to the common good. Freedom is enfolded in responsibility, and it is time we built a community that is more concerned with the care of its people than with short-term individual victories. People certainly have a right to protest peacefully, yet we should remember the wisdom of the Muslim Caliph Omar Ibn Khatab: “Your freedom ends where the freedom of the other begins.”
Instead of expending our energy increasing the polarization, we should commit to seek together a formula for how to live with one another with mutual respect and understanding. Using violence or defaming others only destroys and breaks down our civilized world.
Martin Luther King said it well:
“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”
These past days we have learned this vividly. What we do in the Middle East affects the West, and what you do in the West affects the Middle East. How much more will it take before we realize we must use our freedoms with greater responsibility for the sake of our neighbors?
People of faith and courage, political, media and communication leaders, it is time we stand up and lead the way back to “the public commons” and civil discourse that values and builds community. We as Christians believe that we are all one, united in the Body of Christ, and that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. As humans, we are also one united global family, and it is time to realize that what hurts one part of that family hurts us all.
From Jerusalem, we challenge Muslim and Christian leaders to gather here in the Middle East, over the chasm of the supposed “clash of civilizations,” to meet and create a code of ethics and conduct by which religions and nations should treat one another and deal with religious differences. From Jerusalem, we pledge to take on this urgent task of making religion a driving force for reconciliation and justice, part of the solution to our world’s problems rather than a source of conflict.
If people of faith and living conscience do not stand up and call our religions and our people back to the common values and commitments of love, justice, peace, mutual respect – even forgiveness – who will?
It is time to lead and heal with faith and courage.