IN THIS season of Advent, Christians around the world are called to watch and wait for a presence that is as close to the divine as possible, though the world is full of challenge and change.
It is understandable, then, that in the past week there has been strong reaction in the UK and elsewhere to developments in the status of Jerusalem and the delicate situation in Israel-Palestine. We long for the coming of true peace, but, too often, the reality of the world falls far short.
Out of recognition of the long-established status quo in Jerusalem, and prayers for the Palestinian communities, both Christian and Muslim, who look to Jerusalem as a spiritual home, some faith leaders have spoken out against President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
For many others, the President’s statement was not so controversial, and was welcomed as an affirmation of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and an endorsement of the lasting right of the Jewish people to live in the land of Israel.
UNDERSTANDABLY, whoever we are and whatever faith we practise, we have strong views on issues relating to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. But it is essential, for the sake of our own ecumenical, interfaith, and community relations, that we do not allow conflict in the Middle East to create further conflict here in the UK.
It is important to listen and learn from each other, accept that diversity of opinion is a fact of creation, and seek the common ground on which lasting change has to originate.
Particularly in the season of Advent, and as we celebrate Christmas, Churches have a duty to avoid conflict and, instead, allow people on the ground to pursue peace with one another. This is not just an ideal model, but a realistic solution to the challenge of addressing the complexity and apparent intractability of the conflict.
Statements and gestures from afar, however well-intentioned, do not always offer practical opportunity for change. Instead, we should try to learn more about the long-held, understandable viewpoints of others, and seek to establish an arena where these views can be heard without condemnation. Once we create a space for true dialogue, then strong conviction can reveal common humanity, and relationships can be formed which have compromise as their mutual concern.
An awareness of a multiplicity of views is at the heart of our work at the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) in facilitating education and dialogue on issues relating to Israel-Palestine.
CCJ’s annual leadership study-tour of Israel-Palestine is not about pushing a particular agenda, taking one side, or making gestures and statements that cause controversy. We take Christian and Jewish religious and community leaders to meet individuals and organisations on the ground to hear a range of perspectives on the situation in Israel-Palestine.
On our recent tour, we visited the Hand in Hand School, in Jerusalem. Here, Jewish and Arab children are taught alongside one another by Jewish and Arab teachers in Hebrew and in Arabic. On walls outside classrooms, the children’s art — decked in the colours of blue and white and red and green, and illustrated with stars of David, crosses, and crescents — displayed collaborative work on three faiths and two nations.
Children can often demonstrate what their elders — and, too often, their leaders —fail to practise: a radical acceptance of difference, and a desire to live with it so that good can prevail.
TWO days after President Trump’s announcement, I fulfilled a long-held invitation to speak at a Jewish school on the subject “Why do Christians care about Israel-Palestine?” I tried to put across to the students why Christians feel so strongly about what happens in Israel-Palestine, and for the people of that land. I tried to root what I said in scripture. I pointed to the biblical texts that are cited by Christian Zionists, and to the biblical texts that inspire Christians in defence of the Palestinian cause.
And, when it came to questions, as these highly intelligent young people pressed me on how this decades-long conflict could finally be ended, I reflected that here, perhaps, we have something of an answer.
If people of faith can use their texts — which have inspired and guided the faithful through millennia — to reach such different and often conflicting political viewpoints, then, perhaps, people of faith might also be able to remember the texts that bind us all together as the people of God.
Then may people of all faiths listen and learn from one another, talk as brothers and sisters, and finally act for a just and lasting settlement so that all may live in peace.
Rob Thompson is a Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews. www.ccj.org.uk.