Monday, February 28, 2011

How ethnocentrism hinders peace (part 2) - defensiveness toward difference


How defense hinders peace

The second stage in Bennett’s model of intercultural sensitivity is defense.  As someone moves from a lack of awareness of difference (the denial stage, see into more contact with cultural difference, the initial experience and reaction is often negative.  Differences, at this stage, are perceived as threatening to one’s sense of reality and to one’s identity, and a common reaction is to try to preserve the absoluteness of one’s worldview, in the fact of the growing awareness of difference.

Defense is characterized by polarization (“us” vs. “them”), and by a positive stereotyping of one’s own culture and identity, and a negative stereotyping of the other. Bennett refers to the negative view of the other as denigration – negative stereotyping based on race, religion, age, gender, or any other assumed indicator of difference. He refers to the positive sense of self as superiority – positive evaluation of one’s own status, with the idea that everything has evolved and will evolve in our direction (the sense of ourselves as “civilized,” etc.).

Note that defense is the predominant orientation of nation-building and nationalism. And that it deepens in times of conflict between peoples, e.g., the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the conflict between Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians in the former Yugoslavia, between Muslims and Christians post-9/11, etc. (I remember my shock, the first time I returned to the U.S. post-9/11, to see Christmas light decorations in the shape and colors of the American flag, and all the “God bless America” bumper stickers everywhere.)

Note also that at the defense stage, the "knowledge" of the other is shallow and superficial. There is an Arab proverb, "he who is ignorant of something, is its enemy." We can most easily negatively stereotype and believe the worst about others, when we do not know them, when we do not have personal relationship with them. Most of the Americans that I know, that are most suspicious of Muslims and of Islam, do not have friendships, or even basic relationships, with Muslims.

Bennett notes a variation on the polarization of the defense stage, which he refers to as reversal – the denigration of one’s own culture, and assumption of the superiority of a different culture. Although this may look more positive toward another culture than defense normally does, it is “only changing the center of ethnocentrism.” Reversal is common for people who go abroad and begin adapting to another culture, like Peace Corps volunteers. It can also occur for anyone who gets involved with another group of people and takes up “their cause.”

It is probably fairly self-evident why and how being at the defense stage, hinders peace. Again, peace requires relationship, building something positive together, coexistence. A sense of one’s own superiority, while denigrating the different other, is a serious roadblock to peace. Whether it is Israeli Jews thinking of Palestinians as “dirty Arabs,” “terrorists,” etc., or Americans wondering “what’s wrong with those Muslims, that they are always so violent,” the negative stereotyping of others – especially in situations of conflict, in which peacemaking is most necessary – makes it hard to move toward peace. And the danger, in conflict situations, is that all parties in the conflict will continue on the “downward” slide of defense, toward villainization and dehumanization of the other. The end of this ugly road is the possibility of doing anything to the other, including ethnic cleansing and extermination, with no twinge of conscience.
We cannot live in a state of feeling threatened by those who are different from us, and find peace. We cannot allow ourselves to dwell in “us” / “them” thinking, where we are always criticizing “those people,” and find peace. We cannot take pride in our own superiority, and denigrate those different others, and find peace. And most obviously, we cannot embrace the demonization and dehumanization of others, and find peace.

If we want peace, we must move beyond the ethnocentric stage of defense.

(Coming next: how minimization hinders peace)

*For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). YarmouthME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). NewtonMA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day - seeing & doing

"Once there is seeing, there must also be doing. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing."
(Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in Johann Christoph Arnold, Seeking Peace)

How ethnocentrism hinders peace (part 1) - denial of difference

One of the most useful intercultural tools that I’ve come across is Milton Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” (DMIS), which considers the process of growth that people experience as they encounter cultural difference.*

In Bennett’s model, people grow from an experience centered in ethnocentrism – seeing and experiencing the world only from the perspective of one’s own people and cultural context – to an experience that he calls “ethnorelativism,” which involves developing the ability to know one’s own culture and worldview as one among many, and the ability to enter into the world of others, adapt, and live effectively in that other cultural context.
As I consider conflict and the challenge of pursuing peace, I find myself reflecting on insights from the DMIS to the process of seeking peace (whether in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Muslim-Christian relations, or any realm).

How Denial hinders peace

The first phase in the DMIS is denial (ignorance, lack of awareness). We begin by not being aware of (cultural) difference, and avoiding it. The world simply is as we see and experience it. We are “the people” (and any others are beyond our clear vision or understanding). If we are aware of others, they are broadly characterized, e.g., we lump all “Asians” or “Africans” or “Europeans” together, with no real knowledge of any specific characteristics.

Denial may be accompanied by isolation, simply being out of contact with different others, or by separation, “intentional erection of physical or social barriers to create distance from cultural difference as a means of maintaining a state of denial” (e.g., racial neighborhoods or ghettos). Denial is often accompanied by extreme nationalism. The “dangerous underside” of denial, Bennett points out, is the implicit relegation of others to subhuman status (e.g., the Nazi treatment of the Jews).

Most of the peace activists I have read, point out that peace is more than the absence of conflict. True peace between peoples involves building something positive, building relationship, developing understanding and coexistence and harmony between peoples. For peace, we need more than different peoples simply staying away from and ignoring each other, and seeking to avoid entering into conflict. We need more than walls keeping us apart.

Thus, this stage of denial hinders peace, because when we live in isolation in our own world, thinking that we are the only real people, and that the world is just as we see it to be, we are not living in relationship or harmony with others. If we want peace, we cannot be content with denial of difference (either isolation or separation).
And seen in this light, the actions of the Israeli government since the two intifadas, attempting by all possible means to separate the Palestinian from the Jewish people, with the ultimate step of building a “separation barrier” (or, as Palestinians refer to it, an “apartheid wall”), represent steps away from, not toward, peace. A generation of Palestinian young people is growing up now, whose only contact with Israeli Jews is with soldiers (at checkpoints and in other situations). And the same on the Israeli side (Israelis are prohibited by Israeli law from entering Palestinian controlled “zone A” areas).

We cannot stay apart, and find peace. We cannot live as if others do not exist, and find peace. We cannot feed ourselves the myth that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are “the people” and that all others are just vaguely “out there” in the darkness beyond the borders of our world, and find peace.

If we want peace, we must move beyond the ethnocentric stage of denial.

(Coming next: how defense hinders peace) 

*For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Struggling for peace in interpreting religious texts (the "law of apostasy" in Islam)

There is much public debate and these days about whether Muslims are peaceful people and whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Many Americans, and many Christians, doubt both of these. Among the issues raised by those who believe that Muslims are extreme and Islam an extreme religion (and, many think, incompatible with the values of Western civilization or Christian teaching), are jihad, views of and relations with outsiders (Christians, Jews and others), treatment of women, and issues like the “law of apostasy,” whereby those who convert from Islam are punishable by death.

Abdullah Saeed (the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies and the Director of National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia), has recently published an article on the latter topic, “The Quranic Case Against Killing Apostates” ( (I would highly recommend reading the entire article.)

Saeed discusses the interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith on the question of killing apostates, and finds no support for this practice.

There is, in fact, no single verse of the Quran that specifies any kind of worldly punishment for converting from Islam, let alone death. The opposite is true. Many verses assert that all human beings are free to believe or not to believe in God or in any particular religion. For example, “Let him who wills believe in it [Islam], and let him who wills, reject it.” Or, “Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it for his own good; and if any one wills to go astray, say [O Prophet, to him] ‘I am only a warner.’”

He discusses the classical interpretation, and the fact that many Muslim scholars, teachers and leaders today are arguing for a change in practice and understanding, based on returning again to the texts. And he discusses how this relates to the broader question of whether Islam supports human rights and freedoms (he argues that it does). He argues that, “Today, more and more Muslim thinkers and scholars are adopting the Quranic view of absolute freedom of belief and religion…, “ and sees the debate on apostasy and freedom of belief as “just one dimension of a continuing process of renewal and reform in Islamic thought today. As part of this process Muslims should emphasize the Quran’s values of freedom of belief, compassion for all, and the need not to play God’s role in matters of belief.

For pursuing peace (our topic here), the important point here is that Muslims are debating what the Qur’an and Islam teach about various issues that impact how they relate to others in the world today, and how they view human rights and freedoms. As with any people in any religious tradition, interpretation of the teachings and values of their religion has a huge impact on whether and how they live at peace with others. My hope is that scholars like Saeed will be successful in influencing and guiding the Muslim community worldwide.

Peace Quote of the Day - conflict resolution & spiritual growth

"Conflict provides an avenue for spiritual growth. To resolve conflict, by definition we must become more engaged, not less. Just when we want to 'tell the other person off,' we are forced to be quiet and listen to their complaint. Just when we are most eager to make ourselves understood, we must strive to understand. Just when we seek to air our grievances, we must labor to comprehend another's hurt. Just when we want to point out the fallacies and abusive behavior of someone else, we must ruthlessly evaluate our own offensive attitudes and behaviors."
(Gary Thomas, in Sacred Marriage)

I think that Thomas' view of (some of) what it takes to resolve conflict in marriage (his topic), is at the heart of any peacemaking process (as making peace will always necessitate resolving conflict). And as he sees this process in marriage as an avenue for spiritual growth - which I think he would define as growth as a person of moral character (and spirituality), and in relationship with God - so I think we can also see any conflict resolution in any peacemaking situation (whether Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Christians, or whoever) as an avenue for spiritual growth. (Note that Thomas sees practices of listening to others, striving to understand, laboring to comprehend another's hurt, and evaluating of one's own offensive attitudes and behaviors, as practices of spirituality. Call them something else if you like, but at the very least, they entail personal transformation.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day - overcoming evil

"I have often thought that the most important issue of our time is not racial prejudice or color prejudice or anything else. It is this question of how we overcome evil without becoming another form of evil in the process."
(Laurens van der Post, quoted by Naim Ateek in A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation)

Can People of Faith Rise Above Tribalism? (Reflections on the occasion of the remembrance of 9/11)

In a post on the site “Not the Religious Type,” the author refers to a recent NY Times editorial by Stanley Fish.  In his editorial, Fish points out the double standard used to discuss violent acts by or against members of a religious community, and concludes the following:

“The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.”

What is going on here, I think, is something which we humans easily and naturally slip into, a kind of “tribalism” whereby we assume the best of those who are part of our people, and read their actions in light of our own best values (and with a generous dose of excusing and explaining away bad behavior), but assume the worst of those who are part of a different group, especially during times of conflict and tension between the communities.

(In terms of a model developed by Bennett – his “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” – which explains how people progress in their experience of cultural difference, this would fall into the second phase, “Defense,” in which people have a negative experience of difference, and tend to generalize and polarize and talk in “us”/“them” terms, where the “us” is generalized positively and the “them” is generalized negatively.)

The ability to assume the best of our people and the worst of others is rooted, I think, in lack of self-awareness in the first instance (glossing over how bad “we” are and can be) and ignorance of the others in the second instance. When we don’t know people from the “different” group, it is easy to assume the worst of them.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus would encourage us to be bigger than our tribal allegiances. (As a human being, I would hope that any religious faith would encourage those who follow it, in this same direction.) In illustration of his most important teaching, that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, he told a parable of a despised Samaritan (who his Jewish listeners would have nothing to do with, and through whose territory they would not even pass) helping a wounded Jew who was abandoned by the road side. And Jesus not only passed through Samaria, he stopped and conversed with a Samaritan woman, someone who would have been looked at by Jewish men as a non-person. By his teachings and by his example, Jesus showed us that God’s perspective on humanity is different than the tribalism we so easily embrace.

My question is, can we – not just Christians, but people of any faith – rise above our tribalism (which is worse when wrapped up with religion – which happens with people of all religions) and learn to relate to other human beings who are not members of our “tribe,” as if they were people also created in the image of God? And can we defuse the generalizing and polarizing, and work toward a more accurate understanding of those of other groups, that can only come as we enter into relationship with those others?

The question, it seems, is whether our faith can be a force for peace, or whether it will be a force in the opposite direction.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Seeking peace through reclaiming Compassion

I first noticed the "Charter for Compassion" at the Quaker Meeting House in Ramallah (see

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

I think this is a beautiful document, a necessary and timely project. And I find myself wondering whether conservatives (those who are deeply committed) of the various religions of the world might somehow be against this? Maybe I’m wrong (I hope so). I have the feeling that evangelical Christians, for example, might react against the idea of agreeing and working with those who signed, who represent various Christian and other religious groups (i.e., “how can we work with liberals and people of different religious faiths? What do we have in common?”); and might be suspicious that the language is not their (evangelical) language, and therefore might be a “watering down” or compromising of their convictions.

I find myself wondering, as a follower of Jesus, what he would think of it. Would he embrace these ideas, this document, the principle of joining hands with others (of any religion or none) to work for compassion, for justice, equity and respect? When I put it this way, it seems so obvious. So why would some of us who associate with Jesus by taking the name “Christian,” react negatively to this initiative? 

Why would religious convictions lead some people to initiate and embrace this kind of initiative, and lead others (in the same religions) to be suspicious or reject it?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day - being radically "pro life"

“We are not pro-life simply because we are warding off death. We are pro-life to the extent that we are men and women for others, all others; to the extent that no human flesh is a stranger to us; to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love; to the extent that for us there are no ‘others.’"
 (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel)

Rethinking "pro life"

I was raised in a typical evangelical Christian “pro life” perspective; i.e., “pro life” meant (means) anti-abortion. In recent years, though, I have been challenged to reconsider this view.

One of the themes of the men and women – Jews, Muslims, and Christians –  I have met in Israel and the West Bank is, that a foundation of working for peace is to be radically pro-human, pro-humanity: to see every person as a fellow human being, created in the image of God.

And this leads me to conclude, to be pro-peace is to be pro-life, in a radical, comprehensive sense (seeking shalom, a comprehensive wholeness in all of life). And thus I post the following two quotes for your consideration. Please read them all the way through, and think about the connection between (pro) life and (pro) peace. The first is by Johann Arnold, from Seeking Peace. The second is from Brennan Manning, from his thought provoking work The Ragamuffin Gospel.

“In peacetime, priests and ministers preach on the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not kill…’ In wartime, they bless bombers. Anti-war people are pro-abortion, and militarists are anti-abortion; anti-abortion activists are prodeath penalty, and so on. Everyone wants to get rid of some particular evil, after which they feel the world is going to be a better place. They forget that you can’t be for the bomb and for children at the same time…”
(Johann Christoph Arnold)

“We are not pro-life simply because we are warding off death. We are pro-life to the extent that we are men and women for others, all others; to the extent that no human flesh is a stranger to us; to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love; to the extent that for us there are no ‘others.’

“Today the danger of the pro-life position which I vigorously support is that it can be frighteningly selective. The rights of the unborn and the dignity of the age-worn are pieces of the same pro-life fabric. We weep at the unjustified destruction of the unborn. Did we also weep when the evening news reported from Arkansas that a black family had been shot-gunned out of a white neighborhood?

“One morning I experienced a horrifying hour. I tried to remember how often between 1941 and 1988 1 wept for a German or Japanese, a North Korean or North Vietnamese, a Sandinista or Cuban. I could not remember one. Then I wept, not for them, but for myself.

“When we laud life and blast abortionists, our credibility as Christians is questionable. On one hand we proclaim the love and anguish, the pain and joy that goes into fashioning a single child. We proclaim how precious each life is to God and should be to us. On the other hand, when it is the enemy that shrieks to heaven with his flesh in flames, we do not weep, we are not shamed: we call for more.

“The sensitive Jew remembers the Middle Ages: every ghetto structured by Christians; every forced baptism, every Good Friday program, every portrait of Shylock exacting his pound of flesh, every identifying dress or hat or badge, every death for conscience's sake, every back turned or shoulder shrugged, every sneer or slap or curse.

“With their tragic history as background, it is not surprising that many Jews are unimpressed with our anti-abortion stance and our arguments for the sacredness of human life. For they still hear cries of Christkiller; the survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau still feel lashes on their backs; they still see images of human soap, still taste hunger, still smell gas. The history of Judaism is a story of caring: they are not sure we care for them. 

“The pro-life position is a seamless garment of reverence for the unborn and the age-worn, for the enemy, the Jew, and the quality of life of all people. Otherwise it is paste jewelry and sawdust hot dogs.”
(Brennan Manning, emphasis mine)

Takeaways for me, from these authors and my Israel/Palestine “peace heroes,” are that as a “Christian,” I must be open-hearted toward Muslims, Jews, and all others, of any religion or none, treating them with respect, and seeking relationship, working for their rights, etc.  And if I consider myself “pro-life,” I need to rethink the broad implications of that concept, and be ready to follow through on applying it to every area (as these authors advocate).

Values, if they are true, if they are worth holding, if we are to be people worthy of them, must be applied across the board to all people and situations, and not only to our narrowly defined group (or project or cause).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Needing peace in the city of the "friend of God," Abraham

Imagine white supremacists entering an all-black inner city neighborhood somewhere in the U.S., occupying some homes, and beginning to “reclaim” the city for their people. Imagine them raising white supremacist flags, carrying automatic weapons, blocking off streets to be traveled by whites only, and being backed up by soldiers.

Shift your imagination to the West Bank south of Jerusalem, and you have the city in real time, in the “city of Abraham.” Al Khalil – “the friend” (of God, the Qur’anic name for Abraham) – a.k.a. Hebron, is not an easy place. It’s not an easy place to visit, and I’m sure it’s a hundred times harder to live in.

A city of 160,000, the largest in the West Bank
…mostly Muslim…
…the only West Bank city with Israeli settlers, several hundred, among the most ideological and “hard core” of any settlers…
…and about 2000 Israeli soldiers protecting them.

The second holiest city to the Jewish people…
…the city of Abraham
…burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah…

A “holy” city, sacred to both Jews and Arabs…
…and a city of strife…exclusion…bloodshed…violence…
…with a mosque that has been exclusive…and a shared place of worship…a place of slaughter…and finally is divided by a wall separating Muslims and Jews…

Hebron Cave of Machpelah, Tomb of Patriarchs

A parable, perhaps, of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the land…
…both offspring of the venerated father, Abraham…
…“cousins” who have alternated between peaceful coexistence and bloody battle…

I’m reminded of the Midrash that Rabbi Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights told us about, regarding God providing a spring for Hagar and Ishmael, and the angels questioning God’s wisdom, urging him to let them die, but God in his infinite wisdom allowing Hagar and Ishmael to survive, knowing that they would grow up in the land alongside the offspring of Isaac…

And here they are side by side in Hebron, Al Khalil, the city of the friend of God.

Hebron is noteworthy for the strident settlers. For the Ibrahimi mosque with its wall separating Muslims and Jews. For zones H1 and H2, dividing the city into the areas which are under Palestinian control, and those (settled) areas under Israeli occupation. For the main thoroughfare that has been blocked off to Palestinians, only settlers (and the visiting foreigner) allowed to pass. For the shops (1100 and counting?) that have been driven out of business, due to occupation and the curtailing of tourism and other business.

And Al Khalil is noteworthy for Christian Peacemaker Teams (, “a living answer to the question, ‘what would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?’” – volunteers who “train for peace (as for war),” who are “willing to die for peace,” and who devote themselves to “conflict transformation” and reduction of violence. 

It seems like every time I’ve visited CPT in Hebron, we are met and shown around by a small, sweet, “older” (in their 60s or 70s – not that that’s old) woman, who is loving and compassionate and “tough as nails,” who fearlessly inserts herself between Palestinians and soldiers to prevent violence, and who makes me feel like I have a lot to learn about living out my convictions.

In the midst of all of the struggle and violence and injustice of Hebron, it is the volunteers of CPT who give me hope, who are my peace heroes.

Can Jew and Arab, the children of Abraham, believers in the God of Abraham, put the violence and conflict behind them and learn to live again in peace in the city of Abraham? What will it take?

Peace Quote of the Day

“To establish a more fundamental intercultural understanding, the foreign partner must acquire the host culture language.  Having to express oneself in another language means learning to adopt someone else’s reference frame.  It is doubtful whether one can be bicultural without also being bilingual... Without knowing the language one will miss a lot of the subtleties of a culture and be forced to remain a relative outsider.” (Hofstede)

I posted this on my "faith and culture" blog site.  I'm posting it here in response to a comment by AmelMag, "I think this is also a peace quote, in its way. Because, without learning to adopt each other's frames of reference (and languages) how can there be peace?"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

“International law or the ‘law of the jungle’?”

Businessman Sam BahourI recently met Sam Bahour for the first time. He is a Palestinian-American (born in Youngstown, Ohio) businessman, who moved to Ramallah after the Oslo accords, and who through business ventures has worked to help build a Palestinian infrastructure. He is knowledgeable and articulate, and brings a “secular” perspective to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (his label).  (See his blog,

He commented on a wide range of issues (he is knowledgeable and has first-hand experience), but I’d like to highlight one main point that he made when we met with him. He mentioned the fact that often people go away from Israel and the Occupied Territories confused, not knowing what to think about anything, not knowing how to make sense of the many perspectives they are exposed to.

He asked, is the situation in Palestine complicated or simple? He suggested that there is a simple lens through which to view the situation, the choice between international law and the “law of the jungle.” If you look at the situation through this lens, and consider the 4th Geneva Convention, you have to see the situation as a military occupation, and then evaluate the occupation by the standards of the Geneva Conventions. If you do, you will see that the Israeli government is violating international at several points, e.g., building settlements in occupied territory, moving inhabitants, etc. (note: there are Israeli Human Rights groups that make this same point, have this same perspective).  If you do not accept the framework of International Law, you are left with the “law of the jungle”; and that will go badly for everyone involved, both Palestinians and Israelis.

When asked about a solution to the conflict, he said that first of all, Palestinians need a legally applied occupation, i.e., that Israel would be held to the standards of international law, in their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Then, he recommended the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which has been endorsed by all Arab states and Islamic states, but which Israel to this point has refused to consider (see,,, and other sites).

The question he left us with, as Americans (though our group had several non-Americans as well) was how do we have a Bill of Rights that we respect for ourselves but not for others?

And the question I found myself asking, being on this trip with a group of Christian leaders, is do we as Christian leaders recognize and support international law and human rights, or do we let other factors (American politics, theological perspectives on Biblical prophecy and theology) take priority?

Can one be a “peacemaker,” without standing for law and rights for all people?

peace quote of the day [response to injustice]

"Injustice done to you is not determinate of who you are." - Philip Endean

Is this true, or wishful thinking?  And in either case, what are the implications?  Plato declared that it was better to suffer injustice than commit it, because, while one distorted your soul, the other did not.  But while I agree with that, I wonder if we should hope, to some extent, that injustice done to us does determine who we are -- in so much are we are formed into individuals, and communities, committed to fight against it in all its manifestations.

Hoping to remain unchanged in the face of suffering seems to be a docetic denial of our embodied humanity, for we are not transcendent spirits, untouched by the world around us.  But we always have choices, and, where injustice is concerned, there seem to be two distinct responses: commit oneself to protecting one's own against such suffering, at all costs, or commit oneself to finding a new way to live -- one which does not require the oppression and suppression of Otherness.

This struggle is evident within feminism, where the divide runs deep between those who desire to gain power for women within the currently existing economy of presence and lack (an "us" vs. "them" which privileges the hitherto marginalized) and those who want to overthrow the whole phallocentric economy of power altogether.

And, of course, it is evident within the Israeli response to Palestinians in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Can we choose a new way forward?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Iron Jawed Angels" and seeking shalom

I watched "Iron Jawed Angels" last night, the film about Alice Paul and the Women's Suffrage movement.

It is a poignant film, oddly relevant to the world I normally live in, the world of the Palestinian struggle for freedom from Israeli occupation, and the ambivalence of Arab and Muslim countries to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and talk about exporting freedom and democracy to the rest of the world.

To me, there were several powerful themes in this story:

How those in power resist change to the status quo, even if such change seems obviously in line with their values.

 How bringing about change takes massive and sustained effort and sacrifice on the part of those seeking it. It would have been much more “comfortable” for the suffragettes to simply accept and work within the status quo. To be willing to push the confrontation to the point of arrest and being sent to the work house, and pursuing a hunger strike, took incredible courage and commitment.

That those seeking to change injustice must act now and not wait. President Wilson kept telling the women to “be patient…”  We see the hypocrisy of those in power knowing that something is right, but maintaining somehow that “this is not yet the time” (made me think of the slave owner founders, who could see that one day slavery would be done away with, but “not yet”). There comes a time when you can’t “be patient,” if you believe in human dignity and rights.

White House protestThat significant change requires a disruption of the social order. It takes making people uncomfortable.

How easy it is for those in power to be duplicitous – the women were quoting President Wilson’s own words, which he was trumpeting to Americans and to the world, but refusing to apply to half of his own population.

How easy it is for the majority (in this case men, and many women), who have their rights or at least basic comforts, to sit back and do nothing on behalf of those who do not have those same rights.

How a government can participate in the hypocrisy of proclaiming values abroad (democracy, freedom, etc.) while denying them to people at home.

Hilary Swank as Alice PaulHow easy it is to abuse power – arresting the women for no good reason, finding them guilty under sham pretenses, sending them to the work house for 60 days (for “blocking traffic”!), mistreating them in the workhouse, psychiatric exam for undertaking a hunger strike (and the President’s men wanting to have Alice proclaimed crazy because of that), forced feeding, etc. And this was against law abiding, upstanding citizens, whose fault was that those in power hated what they were doing to try to bring about change.

So what does working for social change, for freedom and equality and basic rights, have to do with “peace”? I can imagine some (at least those in support of the status quo) arguing that this kind of movement disturbs the peace, works away from peace. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is a comprehensive word meaning completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord. I would argue, then, that although it might temporarily disturb the “peace” to work for rights and justice, the work (especially if done nonviolently, which the women’s suffrage movement was) is toward a greater peace; because as long as members of society, members of humanity, are deprived of basic rights and dignity, there is no true shalom, not for them, and not for the rest of us.

"Faith is nothing if it's just a label"

Jean Zaru is an amazing woman (see her book, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Christian Woman Speaks). She is a woman living and leading in a man’s environment (as head of the Friends’ Meeting, she is the only woman who is a leader of a church, in all of Palestine; and she is a co-VP of Sabeel, with Father Elias Chacour). She is Palestinian, living under but resisting and working against Israeli occupation ("what do you do with problems and inequalities? do you sit and do nothing? faith is nothing if it's just a label - it should lead to resistance - to resist is to be human"). She is a Christian who engages in interfaith relationship, in a predominantly Muslim setting (and acts on the convictions that “All humanity are my brothers and sisters, created in God’s image” and that “The indwelling presence of God is in all people, not just Christians”). And she is a Quaker, one of the smallest groups of Christians in Palestine.

She is living in a context in which women are known in relation – “mother of … (oldest son),” “wife of…,” and now for her, “widow of…”; a context in which women are told not to question, and not to confront men. Her vision is for women and men to be “equal partners” in the work, and for young women to be empowered to know their value and equality in the society.

From her perspective, women need to be “liberated from the inside”; in her experience, “no one call tell me I’m not equal – I feel empowered.” Her life demonstrates that she has experienced this liberation and empowerment, and is working on the basis of an inwardly experienced “equality,” regardless of whether others (e.g., the men around her) acknowledge it.

Her family context seems to have given root to her ability to think and act “outside the box” as she has followed her convictions over the years. In a land in which people hold very tightly to their family religious heritage, and may “disown” those who change religious affiliations (even from one Christian group to another), her family is startling different (does one call this “open-minded”? or are there other dynamics at work?).  Her family background is Orthodox, but things began to change with her parents’ generation.  Her parents became Quaker, she has an Uncle who is Baptist, two Uncles who are Anglican, and two Aunts who became Catholic Nuns). As she puts it, her family is (has become) “very ecumenical.” Her father and her husband both “empowered” her, encouraging her to follow her passions, and to believe that she could do anything. When her husband was dying, he called the family together and encouraged them to support Jean in continuing to follow her convictions.

She is often the only woman present in Muslim-Christian or Christian-Jewish dialogue. She has repeatedly been asked by men over the years, “why do you bother with all these issues? Go home and take care of your children.” But she carries on, energized by her confidence in her identity and calling.

One thing which struck me, as she shared with us, is that she challenges the status quo – be it the pressures against women in leadership in public life, or the injustices of the Israeli occupation – but that she also works within the cultural context that she finds herself in. She shared various ways in which, as a woman, she has to act, to comport herself, so as to have a place at the table, an ability to speak and act and influence others.

Jean Zaru is a person who works for peace on many fronts at once: as a woman, she works to change the prevailing culture surrounding the freedom of women to participate fully in various aspects of life outside the home; as a Christian, she is active in interfaith relationships with Muslims; and as a Palestinian, she relentlessly challenges the Israeli occupation of her people.

“Religion,” Jean said, “can be a problem or a potential for transformation,” and "faith is nothing if it's just a label" (and does not lead to action). It is clear that in her case, faith is a powerful force for personal and social change, and for transformational relationship with others.

(Image: the peace and reconciliation quilt at the Friends Meeting House, Ramallah)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day

"When one has smashed everything around oneself, one has also smashed oneself" (Marie d'Agoult)

Water along the Way

Sabeel is an Arabic word meaning “way” or “source of water.” The two are connected, because they come from an ancient tradition in the Middle East of establishing drinking places along the paths people traveled (anyone who has traveled in the Middle East, understands the importance of water here).

It is also the name chosen by Rev. Naim Ateek for the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem (
Dr. Naim Ateek

Sabeel carries out various activities, in the areas of humanitarian work, seeking justice for the Palestinians, and interfaith dialogue with Muslims.

The heart of their work, the passion of Rev. Ateek, is for Palestinian Christians to do theology, to interpret the Bible, in their context – to learn what God has to say to them, through the Bible, in and for their situation under Israeli occupation. He comments that “Jesus lived under occupation” (and thus, the New Testament is very relevant for Palestinians today), and “we read the Bible through Palestinian eyes.”

A common theme of Sabeel is justice. One of their volunteers quoted a verse from the prophet Michah (6:8),

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

He made the statement that “reconciliation is not possible without peace, and peace is not possible without justice.” When questioned about justice might mean for Palestinians in their context he replied, an application of international law. (This, as mentioned previously, coincides with the fact, pointed out by Rabbi Ascherman, that in Hebrew, “justice” and “law” are synonyms.)

On an interesting side note, at one point in the conversation Rev. Ateek made the statement that “our God is an inclusive God, not an exclusive God.” I understood him to be emphasizing the fact that God’s arms are wide open to humanity, and that Jesus came for all people, not just for Christians. When asked if he thought that Muslims and Christians worship (or are talking about) the same God, his response was that there is only one God, but the way we understand and relate to God is different.

I bring this up because one issue in seeking peace between people of different religious communities (e.g., Christians and Muslims and Jews) is how people of faith deal with questions of truth claims, rightly knowing God, etc. Rev. Ateek seemed to be saying that for him, he has found the way, life, the truth, in Jesus; but that he can’t say that Muslims or Jews (or anyone else) are unacceptable to God. In his view, and practice, we must be true to our faith, to what we understand, and we must also embrace others of different faiths, leaving judgment to God.

I think the members of our group were challenged by Rev. Ateek, in several respects. His language is not typical of western “evangelical” Christian ways of talking. Some of his concepts and perhaps his approaches, do not feel comfortable to us. But that, I think, is good, and is the point of our meeting with him and others. We are outsiders to the conflict, to the context. We need to meet and listen to and learn from the insiders to the situation, those for whom this is their life and struggle, day in and day out, year after year. And perhaps our understanding, not just of peace and peacemaking, but also of faith and of God, will be challenged and expanded in the process.

For further insight into the work and thinking of Rev. Ateek I would recommend his books, Justice and Only Justice, and A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation.

A Palestinian Christian Cry For Reconciliation by Naim Stifan Ateek         Justice, And Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology Of Liberation by Naim Stifan Ateek

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day

“Only when you have made peace within yourself will you be able to make peace in the world” (Rabbi Simcha Bunim)

“In His Image” – motivated to work for human rights

Question: why would a group of Israeli Jews devote their lives to monitoring human rights abuses by the Israeli government / IDF against Palestinians? Why would they do this, when their work is unpopular with the Israeli government and people, when they are sometimes attacked as being “anti-Israel” (traitors to the national cause), to the extent that the Israeli government has now launched an “investigation” of them and other such groups (a thinly veiled harassment, an attempt to get them to “back off”)?

Answer: it must be what they profess, that they believe in human dignity, that God created all people in His image, and that it is their responsibility as Jewish Israelis to be a voice of conscience to their society. And because they believe in Israel, and want it to be the kind of state that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and of the teachings of Judaism, would call them to as a nation.

The people who work at B’tselem ( are another group of my “peace heroes.” B’tselem means “in his image,” from the Genesis account of the creation of mankind.

They see themselves holding up a mirror to Israeli society, for the sake of improving the society. They believe strongly that settlements and other actions depriving Palestinians of their human rights are not in Israel’s best interests.

And so, in spite of their unpopularity, in spite of government harassment, and in spite of the fact that “people don’t want to hear about it,” they carry on, day after day, in their work for humanity and for peace.

Would that the faith of more people in the world, would lead them (lead us) to work so diligently for the rights of others.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Peace Quotes from Rabbi Ascherman

* "Through you all peoples on the earth shall be blessed" (God to Abraham, Genesis 12:3)

* "If what is a blessing for us is a disaster for others, that’s a problem - what is a blessing for us should be a blessing for others"

THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. (Israeli Declaration of Independence)

* "In a democratic society, some are guilty, but all are responsible" (Rabbi Heschel)

* "One who saves a single life – it is as if he has saved an entire world" (Jewish saying)

* "Never write anyone off. Never discount the possibility of the truth in our hearts speaking to others."

* "If you really want to break down stereotypes, there’s nothing like getting beaten up together"

* "This work is not fun!"

"What is a blessing for us, should be a blessing for others"

“If what is a blessing for us is a disaster for others, that’s a problem.” 

So began Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (, with specific reference to the 2008 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Israeli statehood, which Palestinians commonly refer to as “the Catastrophe” (see

Rabbi Ascherman quoted the words from God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” and commented that “what is a blessing for us should be a blessing for others.”

As their website says,
Rabbis for Human Rights gives voice to a Jewish and Zionist tradition of concern for Human Rights. RHR sounds the shofar of alarm on issues of human rights in Israel and in territories for which Israel has taken responsibility.”

As with other posts, I will not go into all the details of what RHR are doing, but focus on a few ways in which our meeting with Rabbi Ascherman impacted me personally, in thinking about what it means to work for peace.

He quoted Ben-Gurion’s vision for the nation of Israel at it’s founding, reflected in the Israeli Declaration of Independence (, e.g., in the paragraph:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

His (their) approach is not to chronicle or dwell on the failings of the the Israeli people and government, but rather to ask them, what did we dream we were doing, in founding this state? Where have we succeeded, and where have we not yet succeeded? I.e., their work is to call people to strive for a vision of themselves as a nation, what they could be, what they want to be.

Part of their mandate in RHR is to try to roll back human rights abuses, in part by promoting a different way of understanding Judaism than what is becoming widespread in Israel, and what is being promoted by the ultraorthodox community (in which, he said, “people are being socialized into a narrow understanding of Judaism”). RHR are asking questions like, what did the prophets have to say about freedom, justice and peace? What does Jewish tradition say about property rights of non Jews in the state of Israel? What do Jewish texts have to say about human rights?

A central question being debated now, he said, is whether Jewish teachings about how to treat human beings refer to all people, or just Jews (“our own community”)? Are all people created in God’s image, or just Jews? (Note the fact that B’tselem, the name of “The Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, means “in his image,” from the Genesis account of the creation of mankind).

One of the inspirations of RHR is Rabbi Heschel, who is quoted as saying, “In a democratic society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Thus, they act. (I should note that Rabbi Ascherman clearly stated (and I’ve heard RHR spokespersons say this before to American groups) that Israel is more democratic in some ways than the U.S., and that Americans, with all the unsolved problems of our society, have no business “throwing stones” at Israel.)

Rabbi Ascherman made the interesting point that in Hebrew, “justice” and “law” are synonymous, which forms an interesting connection to a point that one of the Palestinian Christians we met with said, when asked what he thought would be a “just” solution to the conflict. His answer was to have international law applied.

Other points the Rabbi emphasized:
  • He quoted as motivation for their work the Jewish saying, “one who saves a single life – it is as if he has saved an entire world”
  • Never write anyone off. Never discount the possibility of the truth in our hearts speaking to others.
  • There is a Midrash about God providing the spring for Hagar and Ishmael, after they had been driven away. The angels said, “no – what are you doing? Let them die, it would be better…” but God said no, and let them live, even though He knew what problems would come between the descendants of Isaac and those of Ishmael. In other words, it is not a solution for Israel to try to get rid of the Palestinian people – they need to learn to live with them.
  • It all comes down to hope, and people on both sides have lost hope. The majority want to compromise, but a larger majority don’t believe the other side wants peace.
  • You can be victims and victimizers at the same time. Neither recognizes themselves as victimizer.
  • “This work is not fun!” (dealing with the deepest darkest corners of life)
  • “If you really want to break down stereotypes, there’s nothing like getting beaten up together.”
  • There has been enough destruction. We want to contribute to co-creation (including coexistence).

I close with one of the Rabbi’s stories. In 2004, Rabbi Ascherman was called out to a confrontation between Israeli border police and Palestinian youth, in which a twelve year old Palestinian boy was tied to a jeep as a human shield (there are various accounts of this incident, e.g., or Rabbi Ascherman tried to intervene, was head-butted by on the of the police, and also tied to a jeep. After the incident ended, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem ( interviewed the Palestinian boy, to get his account of the story. After detailing what had happened to him, and his fear of the soldiers, he concluded his account by saying, “and then a tall Jewish man wearing a kippa came and rescued me.” Making a difference, even for one Palestinian young person, is what keeps RHR going.

Peace Quote of the Day

"We have not sufficiently plumbed the wretchedness of man in general, nor our own in particular, when we are still surprised at the weakness and corruption of man" (Blaise Pascal)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day

"It does not help anyone [for you outsiders] to be pro Palestinian or pro Israeli. If you can’t be part of the solution, just leave us alone!" (Robi Damelin, Parents Circle)

Working for peace after they kill your son

One of my peace heroes is Robi Damelin of the Parents Circle ( I first heard her speak in June 2010, and then again a couple of weeks ago. You can find her story in the excellent film “Encounter Point” ( I will briefly highlight her story and some of her key points, as I understand them and as they speak to me.

Robi is from South Africa, and from the beginning of her time in Israel she and her family were peace activists. It came time for her sons to serve in the army, which was a conflict for them as a family. On the one hand, they did not want to be part of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. On the other hand, they want to build a better Israel, and thought, “we can be different – we can be soldiers who treat the Palestinian people with compassion and respect, as human beings.” And so they served.

And one day, her son David was assassinated by a Palestinian sniper at a checkpoint. And she suffered the awful grief and dying that belongs to a parent who loses a child.

She talks about being faced with a choice, a decision – “Do you seek revenge, or do you try to stop other families from experiencing the pain? What path will you go down, and what will happen to you, based on what you choose?” She got involved in the Parents Circle, and began taking steps to try to stop the violence, to stop other families from experiencing the pain she now must live with.

Robi talks of her struggle to come to grips with how to relate to the man who killed her son. How it took her months to be able to speak his name. How she decided to write him a letter in prison (which he responded to viciously, in a total rejection of her overture to relationship). How recently she has written him a second letter.

She talks about how she used to speak of “forgiveness,” but that she now feels that she doesn’t really know what the word means. “How can I forgive this?” (She mentions having recently heard a definition of “forgiveness” as “giving up your just right to revenge.”) She prefers to talk about “understanding” (the other person, what they did, why, what his pain is, etc.). One of our group offered a definition of forgiveness which included God, and she asked, “but what about nonreligious people? Do you have to be a spiritual person to want to forgive?”

She talks about trying to help Israel become “a democracy that can be an example to the rest of the world.” There are terrible problems in Israel like domestic violence and road rage, because “you can’t occupy another people without it changing your moral fiber and character.”

One of the major issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that both sides have a victim mentality.  For Robi, the act of writing the first letter to the killer of her son, was “giving up being a victim,” and that was important for her because “being a victim destroys your life.”

In the midst of the conflict, one of the things they (the Parents Circle) try to do is to bring people together, to build relationships (my understanding is that they were the only group involving both Palestinians and Israelis that kept meeting the whole time of the second Intifada). A key problem, she says, is that “we do not know each other.” People need to meet, and listen to each other’s narratives, learn each other’s history (and each other’s version of their shared history); need to move from sympathy (where they share the same pain) to empathy, truly entering the world of the other, understanding them. We need to reclaim an understanding of each other’s humanity – we so often lose our humanity through fear.

Some other statements she made, in sharing her story with us:
  • “The worst enemy of the Palestinians is the fear of the Jews” (i.e., the fear that Jewish people have, of the Palestinians, for their safety, etc.)
  • “Checkpoints create more hatred than safety”
  • “It does not help anyone [for you outsiders] to be pro Palestinian or pro Israeli. If you can’t be part of the solution, just leave us alone! Don’t create new problems and divisions” (e.g., creating a pro Palestinian or pro Israeli group or movement in the U.S.)
  • “It’s not a religious conflict, and sometimes religion gets in the way of solving conflict”
  • In talking about interreligious dialogue and relations, learning to stand together and work together, she made a comment, “It doesn’t matter what you believe in – it matters who you are.”

One of the things I find myself looking for, whenever I visit Israel or the Occupied Territories, is any source of hope. Robi is from South Africa, and was involved in anti-Apartheid activities when she was younger. Having been out of South Africa for some time, and recently returned, she sees what has happened in South Africa as a “miracle.” And the last words I remember this self-professed “not very spiritual” woman speaking are, “we need a miracle.” If it could happen in South Africa, why not in Palestine?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Peace Quote of the Day

"So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God." (Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 5:23-24)

Given Jesus' other teachings, e.g., the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it's fairly likely that by "someone" he meant, "anyone," of your own people or another people. And this seems a particularly good word for religious people, who often find ways to be religious, but have broken relationships with others (or perhaps, even worse, to use religion to hurt people).