3 November 2011
Sunrise illuminates the Dome of the Rock and Arab graves in Jerusalem. (Photo: Paul Souders)
Last week in Washington, CNEWA'S Vice President for the Middle East and Europe, Father Guido Gockel, addressed the Middle Atlantic Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Below is the text of his address.
With all that is going on in the various countries of the Middle East, I will not speak about the turmoil, the Arab Spring and the political situation Egypt, Syria or the Holy Land. I want to be quite frank. I have no hope for peace there. All the efforts of the political powers in all these years have led to a worsening of the situation.
Does this mean that I am without hope?
Not at all! I am full of hope because I have a different way of looking at the Holy Land, namely the biblical way, and this way is full of hope.
Let me start with a joke: I wanted to check out how well people understood the Bible, so when I arrived at this meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre I asked one man “who destroyed the walls of Jericho?” He responded, rather upset, “I didn’t do it!” So I went to someone who looked a little more important and said, “I asked that man ‘who destroyed the walls of Jericho,’ to which he replied, ‘not me!’ ”
So this second man said, “if he said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it!”
Somewhat frustrated, I went to the man in charge and related to him what had happened and he interrupted me and said “Stop talking, I will pay for it!”
When we look at the Holy Land from a political point of view, I don’t know what is happening. Recently a senator friend told me that the longer she is in politics, the less sure she is about what is true. What is true in the Holy Land? During the Palestinian Intifada, journalists sat comfortably in the American Colony Hotel reading the local papers from which they constitute their articles. Politicians are using the media for their own purposes.
However, from a biblical view I can see what’s going on. It is the battle between God and Satan, between good and evil.
I remember one weekend I came to my house in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina. A young man was accosted by an Israeli special unit. He was stripped and, although there was no evidence of anything, one of the officers killed the young man with a gunshot to the head. The next day, the papers reported that another suicide bomber had been stopped. On the following Sunday, I heard a gunshot at the checkpoint that was about 100 yards from my home. An 11-year-old schoolboy had been shot. He was lying on the ground still alive when they flipped him over with a robot to check for explosives, but found none. Five hours or so later, when the boy finally died, the ambulence that had been in attendence all the while was allowed to take him away. The next day, the news reported that another suicide bomber had been stopped. It turned out the boy was deaf and mute and thus had not heard the soldier who asked him to stop.
At that point I was filled with anger. I began to read the prophet Daniel and asked myself, “who can I call to stop this nonsense, this tit-for-tat?,” only to realize that there is no one who can halt it. At that point I understood the words of St. Paul: “It is not flesh and blood that we fight, but the principalities and powers of darkness in the heavenly places.”
The battle is much bigger than the Israelis, Palestinians and the world powers. And Satan wants the Christians out of the region. In the midst of the conflict we often hear the speculations about Muslims and Israelis collaborating in order to get the Christians out. When Palestinian terrorists fire on an Israeli settlement, and the Israelis fire their rockets back, Christian homes have often been destroyed — not because they want the Christians out, but Christians always happen to be in the wrong place.
No one, for instance, can accuse the United States of being anti-Christian. But why were its atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only Catholic communities in Japan? The Christians just happened to be in the wrong spot.
In the battle between God and Satan, God made a covenant of peace with Abraham and his descendants. Scripture talks about a covenant of salt (Numbers 18:19). This is a custom in the Arab culture and Arabs still refer to people eating salt together as a sign of friendship. When two friends fight, people will say, “Didn’t they eat salt together?” God established this relationship with Abraham and his offspring.
First, there is Ishmael. You recall that Abraham and Sarah were already old and, as was the custom among the people, when the wife was infertile she would offer her maid to the husband so he could have offspring. It was thus that Ishmael was born through whom the Muslims trace their origin. Of him Scripture says, he will be “a wild horse of a man, his hands against every man and every man against him.” (Genesis 16:12) Isn’t that what we are experiencing? But God loves him and blesses him and his descendants, promising them to become a multitude of nations. Therefore, if we fight Muslims we fight God who has promised to bless them (I am not talking about terrorists, who blaspheme by invoking the name of God).
Secondly, there is Isaac, the son of the promise. It is with him that God establishes an everlasting covenant, meaning it is through his descendants that the Prince of Peace will come into the world. The descendants of Isaac are also not without problems. God said of them as He speaks to Jacob, “you have striven with God and men, and have prevailed.”
The way Israel is dealing with the Palestinians is appalling. And remember, there is a difference between the Jewish people who live in faith and those extremist nationalists, who are but a political power and many of whom are agnostics or atheists.
It is of the Jewish people that Jesus is born as a son of Abraham. He is the Prince of Peace. What is peace? Paul in his epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians tells us that peace is our reconciliation with God, and therefore with one another. As those who believe in Jesus, we Christians hold the key to peace, namely the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins is the heart of our faith; without it, there would be no Christianity. Although Jews and Muslims talk about forgiveness, it is not central to their faiths. In fact, for them their greatest virtue is “honor”; that is, honor of the nation, the race, the tribe, the family. When you do something to my family, woe to me if I don’t take revenge. I have to show that I honor my race, tribe or family. The Christian witness through forgiveness of even our enemies is crucial for peace.
Peace will come, “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit,” says the prophet Zecheraiah.
One of my frustrations is the constant talk about the numbers of Christians in the Holy Land. As Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai told journalists recently, whether we are a large number or a small number, all that matters is that the church is there.
David’s greatest sin was not his affair with Bathsheba, but that he took a census of his people. By this act he showed that his trust was not in God, but in manpower. It was very displeasing to God. In Scripture, we see that God fights the battle. He fought the pharaoh as the people were led through the Dead Sea. He conquered Jericho as the people processed around the city seven times. He fought the battles around Jerusalem when the warring armies slaughtered one another.
The battle of Midian is a beautiful example of how God fights. He tells Gideon that the army was too large, and ordered him to send those who were afraid home. But still there are too many, so God has Gideon make a selection by ordering people to drink water from the river. Only those who were scooping up the water with their hands while keeping their eyes on the surroundings were chosen: a mere 300 people were told to surround the camp holding jars with candles in them. Thus, the battle was won through people who were vigilant and filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Why then do we count the number of Christians remaining in the Middle East? Isn’t it ironic that Caesar Augustus conducted a census when the Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was born? Let, therefore, those who are fearful in the Holy Land go, and let God select “a remnant.” Scripture talks about a remnant from which Jesus was born. It will be a remnant from which peace will come.
I told you at the beginning of this talk about that horrible weekend when I sought refuge in Scripture and began to read the prophet Daniel. It was thus that I began to understand what God says to Belshazzar, “you have been weighed in a balance and found wanting” and that very night Belshazzar died and his kingdom was given to another. And a peace came upon me that has not left me. A peace that has made me take distance from the situation, as if indifferent but not so. I realized then that peace will come from above, just like it had come to me.
God asks of us is to pray for this peace to come, and to strengthen the remnant in Jerusalem so that they may be aflamed with the fire of the Holy Spirit, and to watch and pray. For peace will come to Jerusalem and thus spread throughout the world.
Tags: Holy Land Christianity War Father Guido Gockel