Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Another "man from Galilee"

"God is Love. God does not kill."

These are the words that Father Elias Chacour writes whenever he signs a book.

I first encountered Abuna Chacour (now Archbishop of the Melkite church in Israel, which is the largest church in the land) in Tunisia, around 1994, when some friends working with Suha Arafat and the PLO leadership in Tunis arranged for him to visit - his first trip to an Arab country, and the first time that Tunisia had been visited by an Israeli citizen.

Abuna Chacour, for those who do not know, is a Palestinian Christian whose family was driven from their home in 1948 (when he was 8 years old), but stayed within what became Israel, and so ended up as Israeli citizens (the so-called "Israeli Arabs"). You can read his stories in Blood Brothers, We Belong to the Land, and Hope Beyond Despair, so I won't relate them all here.

Meeting Abuna Chacour back in Tunisia was one of my first notable memories of having my boundaries of what it means to be "Christian" messed with. I am from a background and community of "evangelical" Christians (that's a story for another time). Father Chacour is Melkite, i.e., eastern (non-Roman) Catholic, and not "evangelical." But in meeting him, I remember being struck (and have been each of the 4 times I have met him) with the fact that he clearly knows Jesus (a central concern of "evangelical" Christians) if anyone does, and that his life clearly displays the presence and the values of Jesus. (Meeting him, then, was a step in my growing from an ethnocentric to what Bennet calls an ethnorelative perspective on what it means to be "Christian" - but again, that's another story, for a different post.)

Father Chacour is one of my heroes. He is a hero to me because he knows and loves and serves and displays Jesus, my number one "hero" and life model. He talks about when his family had to leave their home when he was eight years old, how they spent two weeks camping out in the fields, and how he has wonderful memories as a young boy of "hanging out" in the trees with Jesus (it was interesting to me that he spoke of having a "personal" relationship with Jesus, which is a key evangelical concept). In relating to others, he makes the statement (rooted in his faith) that we don't need tolerance, we need welcoming acceptance (this resonates with Miroslav Volf's emphasis in Exclusion and Embrace). And he says, the closer you draw to Jesus, the more you open your arms wide to welcome and embrace others, like Jesus (with his arms spread wide) on the cross.

He is also a hero because he fights injustice, day by day, in small and big ways. He fights injustice by building when the Israeli government will not give him building permits (his whole ministry through the Mar Elias schools has been one long sequence of acts of what you might call "civil disobedience," in this regard). He fights injustice by speaking the truth to power, in Israel and elsewhere (he once traveled uninvited and unknown to the home of Secretary of State James Baker, to ask for help in facing an unjust action of the Israeli government). He fights injustice by seeing every human being, man or woman, Israeli or Palestinian (or any other nationality), Muslim, Jew or Christian, and including soldiers who are not treating him kindly, as individuals born as babies (nothing more), created in God's image, and worthy of respect and kindness and all other virtues, simply because of that.

Father Chacour still comes across as a simple "man from Galilee," a man with humble village roots. But he speaks with authority, an authority rooted in how he lives his life.

In contrast to people who construct barriers, who build walls around their own community (religious, ethnic, national, racial, or otherwise), and who use aspects of identity to feed an "us" vs. "them" mentality, he takes down (or does not recognize) barriers and boundaries. He is deeply connected to Jesus, and to his own religious community (the Melkites), but he does not oppose or speak badly of other Christian groups, or of Muslims, or of Jews, or of Israelis. He is an example to me of someone who is truly "for" all people, for humanity. He is a great example, in this, of being rooted in one's own community and identity, one's context, and yet not being exclusive or parochial in it.

Two final words from Abuna Chacour, along these lines. Speaking to us as an international group, he emphasized that we, all of us, both in regard to the injustices of the Israeli government against the Palestinian people (both Israeli Arabs, who are treated as second class citizens within Israel, and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories), and in regard to the rest of the world, need the courage to stand against privilige for any group against any other. And he emphasized that he as an Israeli Arab needs for us to be friends with the Jewish people, to be for them. And to be friends with the Palestinians as well. In a sentiment echoed by many of the people we met with, he urged us not to take sides, but to be for all people.

If we could find a way to do that, to be for all people, the world would be a far different and better place.

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