I am Arab, Palestinian, Christian, evangelical, Lutheran, and male.
Every element of my identity clearly marks and distinguishes me from other groups.
In today’s world, especially in a Palestinian context, we are born with these identities, and in many ways, these identities determine our future. We are given religious identities—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Baha’is—before we understand what these religions mean.
And we have national identities—Arab Palestinians and Israelis— that are often the most decisive.
Even within our national boundaries, we are divided into religious and secular, and right and left political parties. And within our religious identities, we have different denominations.
Dear @realDonaldTrump We have a wall here in Palestine, and we will be more than happy to offer you this wall as a gift. We will include the graffiti with it. Transportation cost not included in the offer. Actually, you guys already paid for this wall. pic.twitter.com/pCFmUvjlLq— Munther Isaac (@MuntherIsaac) January 25, 2019
These identities are woven into the conflict in the Palestinian land and have in many ways shaped it since the beginning. And in some cases, our different identities, when framed as oppositional to another, create even more division and hostility. Through these labels, we construct separation barriers that keep us from considering one another as neighbors.
Within Christian contexts, many equate the Jews of today with the Israel of the Bible and the Palestinians of today with the Canaanites or Philistines. They relate to Jews as children of Abraham and Arabs as descendants of Ishmael.
But imposing identities on people is not the right approach, nor is it helpful in the least bit. We will not solve the conflict by making these equivalencies.
My fate as a Palestinian, or for that matter, the fate of my Jewish neighbor, cannot depend on what the Bible (or Western interpretations of it) said thousands of years ago about the fate of the descendants of Abraham and Ishmael (regardless of the fact that I do not believe that all Jews of today are descendants of Abraham or all Arabs descendants of Ishmael).
We must shape our futures based on our decisions and moral responsibilities.
The discussion needs to take place within the framework of ethics and morality, rather than that of eschatology or prophecy interpretation. Orthodoxy should always lead to orthopraxy (two fancy words that mean right theology and right practice).
For Christians, Jesus made it clear that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and the second, which is equal to it, is “love your neighbor as yourself ”(Mt 22:37, 39).
We need to invest a lot as Christians into unpacking this monumental claim by Jesus, that loving God and loving neighbor are of the same importance, examining ourselves in an honest way: Do we love our neighbors as ourselves?
Have we even identified our neighbors?
Who is my neighbor?
Even though the Palestinian context has its unique features, when it comes to the different identities and how they interact with one another, our experience is not that different from that of other contexts, including Western ones.
In the United States, discussions about racial and ethnic identities continue to be at the forefront of national discussions.
And in Europe and the United States, questions regarding the status and acceptance of refugees and immigrants are still highly contested, and many refugees and immigrants still find themselves to be outsiders.
In places like Sri Lanka and India, tribal and religious alliances cause extreme and violent divides between Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians.
Walls of separation exist everywhere— though they are not necessarily physical. The question “Who is my neighbor?” is a question relevant to all contexts today.
There is no better place to help us explore this question than the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10, a parable that has become one of my favorite passages in Scripture and one that has helped me most as I try to live out my faith in a context of religious and national sectarianism.
WHO IS IN? WHO IS OUT?
The question “Who is my neighbor?” is not an innocent one. It assumes that there are those not considered neighbors. By this question, the teacher of the law was seeking to draw a circle around himself and wanted to ask Jesus, “Where do I draw the circle? Who is inside—so that I can be sure to love them; who is outside—so I can be free of my obligation to love them?” Another way to frame the question would be, “Who is with us and who is against us?”
The man’s question reflects a typical sectarian mindset that divides one’s world into “us” versus “them.” Our world, and the Middle East in particular, typifies this mindset more than ever now. We have tragically mastered this art of dividing people into “us” versus “them.”
This way of thinking begins by drawing lines to divide and distinguish us from one another, based on religion, denomination, ideology, nationality, or race. Then, we separate from those who are different than us and refuse to engage with “the other.” This leads to rejecting them, where we are ready to dehumanize and even demonize the other. And finally, we justify the killing of people.
One of the problems with this way of thinking is that a community identifies itself with negating statements; they describe, in every way possible, what they are not. This repudiation of others gives that community a sense of rightness and superiority. Furthermore, in this way of thinking, there is no stopping or fixing boundaries.
The circle will continue to shrink, allowing fewer and fewer people inside; the lines are constantly being maneuvered and changed based on alliances and self-interest.
To a certain degree, this is the kind of environment I grew up in as a Palestinian evangelical in a small evangelical church in Bethlehem. We did indeed develop a “negative” identity. Even though we liked to emphasize that we were different because we were the “born again” people, in reality our identity was defined in the negative.
I learned to define my community by what we were not: we did not believe in tradition (sola scriptura); we did not believe in the mediation of the saints (the Virgin Mary in particular); we did not believe that good works can save us; we did not believe in the seven sacraments of the church.
These negative statements became our identity. (I remember being a teenager and debating these things with my “non-saved” Christian friends, reminding them they needed to be born again and memorizing 1 Timothy 2:5 [one mediator] and 2 Timothy 3:16 [Scripture is all we need] by heart, to use as ammo when needed.)
Our identity was not contingent on who we were or what we did but rather that we were not the other.
Again, the problem with such an approach (defining yourself as what you are not) is that there is no end to the process. Evangelicals debate anything and everything, with others and among themselves.
Back then, as conservative Presbyterians, we learned about the errors of liberal Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, Arminianism (versus Calvinism), and the Baptists, of course, who did not baptize their children. We even opposed loud music in church.
Division had no end. The circle kept shrinking. And there were times when the lines changed completely and the enemies of yesterday became the friends of today because we were united for a similar goal. (Like evangelicals and Catholics in the United States agreeing on pro-life issues.)
A WALL THAT DIVIDES—WE ARE HERE YOU ARE THERE
Here at home in Palestine, nothing speaks more loudly and presents a starker image of the separation and division mentality than the ugly concrete wall that surrounds Bethlehem and most Palestinian cities. It’s a wall that says, “You stay there; we are here.”
Yet the wall is only a reflection of a deeper and harsher reality. In Palestine today, those who are different than us (racially, religiously, etc.) are not considered our neighbors.
Walls cannot bring peace! Dehumanizing those on the other side of the wall and spreading fear of the other will only increase the hostility that exists among us.
Walls communicate fear and shape perceptions of the “other.” They prevent the ordinary people of both sides from meeting one another, and as such, images are created of the other—often false and negative ones.
Walls convey the message that those behind the wall are to be feared and not to be trusted. They insist that the ordinary people of both sides of the divide cannot coexist. This is a false premise that must be rejected and challenged.
Separation and division will not solve things! First, we will dispute where the separation fences were built (which is one reason why today Palestinians oppose the separation wall, arguing that it should have been built on the 1967 borders).
But that is exactly the point; the side with power determines where borders are built, and this is not a structure that will allow for peace to be achieved. Might is not right!
Second, and more importantly, we will dispute the entire idea of dividing and separating communities that cannot get along. It not only is not true; it is a tactic that will also not work!
To begin fostering peace and equality, we must begin learning to accept one another!
In the long run, the wall will only make things worse. When we do not engage one another, we will never be able to humanize one another.
Adapted from The Other Side of the Wall by Munther Isaac. Copyright (c) 2020 by Munther Isaac. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com