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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

Which Side?

So what would Jesus have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Which side do you think he would take?

Before you think too hard and long, I’d like to offer an answer to throw into the mix. I don’t think Jesus would take a side. Most of us assume we’re supposed to. In our social media charged culture, there is pressure not only to take a side but do it quickly. So we do our homework – you know, a couple of 10 minute videos, maybe a podcast or an article or two. Or maybe we just watch our go-to news program or most-trusted political commentator whose tone of voice and one-sided arguments give the impression that anyone who disagrees is at best a moron or the devil incarnate.

While raking leaves yesterday (we’re at 85 bags and counting) I was listening to a podcast hosted by someone who’s spent decades learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including making several trips to the region. After publishing a recent article, his personal physician wrote a blistering email suggesting the author didn’t know what he was talking about, challenging him to listen to an episode by a well-known podcast host whose name I won’t mention.

But certainly Jesus would be pro-Israel – he was a Jew, after all, right? It’s true that Jesus framed his ministry, including his death and resurrection, in terms of fulfilling God’s covenant with Israel. He said that he came to rescue Israel's lost sheep.

Back then Jewish people were in the same boat as Palestinians are today. They lived in occupied territory. There wasn't a blockade, but high taxes crippled the economy. Ordinary folks were forced to sell their ancestral lands, often living from hand to mouth. So if Jesus was the Messiah, it was pretty much assumed, even by his own disciples, that he would eventually unseat the local Roman officials and expel the Roman military.

Thing is, even though the Roman occupation was pretty much always on everyone’s mind, Jesus never talked about it. Although thousands of Jews were crucified by Rome – including 2000 at one time about 5 miles from Jesus’ hometown – he never talked about them either. That seemed pretty strange.

But then Jesus told people to love their enemies. He said if a soldier forced you to carry his backpack a mile (which was his legal right), you should offer to take it an extra mile. He encouraged people to turn the other cheek and do good to those who hated them.

When religious leaders tried to trap Jesus into taking a controversial stand on paying taxes to Caesar, he asked them to show him a coin and tell him whose image and inscription were on it. When they said, “Caesar’s,” he replied, “Looks to me like these coins belong to Caesar, so you probably should give them back to him. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

Jesus met the needs of people on all sides – whether they were Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, revolutionaries, tax collectors, prostitutes, saints or sinners. If they were blind, deaf, lame or paralyzed, it didn’t matter what side people were on. He didn’t have anyone fill out a form indicating their ethnicity, religion, moral history, synagogue attendance, or favorite band (just making sure you’re paying attention). He broke purity laws by touching lepers and sharing meals with the most notorious sinners and outcasts. He felt compassion for everyone, even those who walked away from him. During his crucifixion Jesus became the target of people’s venom, hatred, ridicule and violence, yet responded, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” He saw himself as dying for them – because he was on their side.

A couple of years ago I wrote a song for each of the Beatitudes. One of the stanzas of “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” includes the lines:

Being on a side, without taking sides.

Staying calm and curious; being peace within the chaos.

It’s okay to be on a side, to feel passionate about an issue, to take a stand. It’s okay to be a Democrat or Republican, a Jew or Palestinian, a Roman Catholic or Pentecostal. A side is sometimes simply where we live (e.g. in Israel or Gaza) or the group we’re born into or whose physical characteristics we share. But once we start taking sides, it’s easy to stop listening and learning, except to have our point of view and agenda reinforced. Once we take a side, people we disagree with start to seem less human and less worthy of our time, interest and love.

Lest all this seem too abstract, let me throw out some names: Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. These are examples for me of leaders who were able to be on a side without taking sides. They seemed to be genuinely committed to people on all sides, believing that everyone should be able to flourish, including people who wanted them dead. (With three out of the four, their opponents succeeded.) It’s this refusal to take sides that compelled Archbishop Tutu to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid ended in South Africa. Here is an example of one woman who refused to take sides:

A South African woman stood in an emotionally charged courtroom, listening to white police officers acknowledge the atrocities they had perpetrated in the name of apartheid.

Officer van de Broek acknowledged his responsibility in the death of her son. Along with others, he had shot her 18-year-old son at point-blank range. He and the others partied while they burned his body, turning it over and over on the fire until it was reduced to ashes.

Eight years later, van de Broek and others arrived to seize her husband. A few [hours] later, shortly after midnight, van de Broek came to fetch the woman. He took her to a woodpile where her husband lay bound. She was forced to watch as they poured gasoline over his body and ignited the flames that consumed his body. The last words she heard her husband say were "Forgive them."

Now, van de Broek stood before her awaiting judgment. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked her what she wanted.

"I want three things," she said calmly. "I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband's body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.

"Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.

"Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. I would like someone to lead me to where he is seated, so I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real."

As the elderly woman was led across the courtroom, van de Broek fainted, overwhelmed. Someone began singing "Amazing Grace." Gradually everyone joined in.”

There’s a follower of Jesus for you. That’s what I’m talking about. Being on a side without taking sides. (And I can't imagine.)

Jesus told a story that makes a similar point in response to the question, "Who is our neighbor?":

“There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came upon him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same" (Luke 10:29-37 The Message).

The animosity between Jews and Samaritans was at least as intense back then as between many Jews and Palestinians today. Because the robbers in the story took the clothes of the man they attacked, there was no way for the priest, Levite or Samaritan to know the victim’s religion or nationality. That presented a problem for the priest and Levite. If the victim was a Samaritan or Gentile, or ended up being dead, touching him would make them ritually unclean. (Some even argued that if the victim was a Samaritan or Gentile, a Jew had a responsibility not to help him.)

So the priest and the Levite decided to avoid contamination and continue on their way. Notice how Jesus doesn’t identify the ethnicity of the victim, just of the man who eventually helped him – a Samaritan. The Samaritan didn’t care about the ethnicity, nationality or religion of the person who was wounded. Like Jesus, he just saw someone in need. Apparently, being a neighbor has less to do with where you live than how and whom you’re willing to love.

Personally, I’m not even on a side when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t believe I have enough skin in the game or know enough to qualify for being on a side, even though I suspect I’ve worked harder to be informed than most people. We don’t have to be on a side, you know. It’s also okay to be on both sides, to be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. It’s even okay to be pro-Hamas if what you’re wanting is for them to be set free from their hatred and whatever trauma may have caused it. It’s okay to want everyone to flourish some day.

Being on a side without taking sides, or choosing not to be on a side at all, gives us the freedom to learn what we can from people on different sides, and to identify compassion and kindness as well as injustice and evil anywhere we see it. Our goal should be to better understand rather than to justify; to be fair to both sides without falling into the false equivalency trap. Jesus was honest with everybody. That was his job as a prophet. A good prophet doesn’t take sides, but tries to help everyone break free from the lies that are holding them captive and keeping them from fullness of life. He said he came so that everyone could have life, and have it abundantly.

I hesitate to mention this next story because it raises the whole question of violence in the Bible. I think one of the most troubling passages in the Bible for many people, including me, is Israel’s conquest of Canaan after they were set free from slavery in Egypt. (I recently read Flood and Fury, by Matthew Lynch, which is the best treatment I’ve come across.) Without getting into the weeds, the biblical account of this story is a lot more complicated and nuanced than most people think. One of the Bible’s core beliefs is that sin always leads to violence of one sort or another, which God has to navigate alongside his image-bearing servant rulers. (That’s all of us, by the way.) The story I want to share occurs as Joshua and the people are approaching Jericho:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13-15).

So as commander of the Lord’s armies sent to aid the Israelites, the angel of the Lord says he's on neither side. Apparently, God is on everyone’s side. Israel’s unfolding story, as complicated and messy as it will be at times, is ultimately for the salvation of the entire world. Through his Son, God will eventually subject himself to the violence that's ripping us apart. “It is finished!” Jesus cried, as he breathed his last breath. No more floods, no more conquests, no more intifadas, no more revenge, no more taking sides. That was Jesus' directive until he returns to fully usher in the New Creation, when

he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).

Hard to imagine, I know. His bodily resurrection was his promissory note. Will we have the courage, or ask him for the courage, to follow him and his example until then? Courage to be on a side without taking sides.


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