I was recently part of an unprecedented coalition of U.S. religious leaders who wrote to President Obama on the occasion of his visit to predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East. We urged strong diplomatic efforts by our government toward peace in the Middle East.
Our letter made several key statements:
- It supported the right of existence of both Israel and a Palestinian state.
- It condemned the actions of both Israeli and Palestinian political parties that block the way to peace and create suffering and death on both sides.
- It lifted up our concern for the ever-shrinking Christian presence in the Holy Land.
- It pledged our support for the work of peace in the Middle East.
The president’s trip and speeches in the region were reminiscent of the bold action of President Nixon in opening the doors of diplomacy with China. In an atmosphere of hostility and threat, Nixon took the historic action of traveling to China to meet with Mao Tse-tung and other party leaders who were seen as implacable foes of the United States. That trip was the beginning of a changed relationship that has seen hostility replaced by growing commercial ties and increasing democratic forces within China.
President Obama’s trip holds such historic promise. It was important for him to make the initiative on behalf of our country, being mindful of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 5:23-24: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Also, his warning in Matthew 5:25: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.”
In each of these texts, Jesus urges active initiatives in redressing grievances. And clearly, the Muslim world has felt aggrieved by the West and by the United States in particular. It speaks to the enduring quality of magnanimity in the American character that in spite of Sept. 11, we would be the ones to reach out. This is a sign of strength, not of weakness.
This visit coincides with our efforts as American Baptists to improve relationships between Muslims and Baptist Christians. The “ministry of reconciliation” requires bold and unexpected initiatives of grace to subvert enmity and hostility. It is in the most challenging circumstances that the principles of our faith must hold true if they are to be true in any circumstance. The love of neighbor that Jesus teaches us is not a passive tolerance of the other that does no harm, but an active stance for the other that seeks their well-being.
Peacemaking is a holy endeavor that often runs counter to the culturally accepted script instilled within each of us that accepts retribution and dominance as the norm for life. In the Middle East, it is important for people of faith to demonstrate that the secular criticism of all faiths as the cause of conflicts is false.
Faith offers a richer imagination of life than any secular vision can proffer. The prophet Isaiah described it this way: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent — its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (Isaiah 65:25).
Edwin Dahlberg and Martin Luther King Jr. are but two American Baptists who urged us toward this richer imagination. To claim the vision of that richer imagination, it is critical that we name actions, such as the rocket attacks on Israeli citizens and the degradation of Gaza, as contrary to that vision and then work for them to be halted. Forgiveness names the wrong that has been done, even as it boldly offers a way beyond the wrong to reconciliation. As Bishop Desmond Tutu has stated so eloquently, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
My office and International Ministries are committed to an active role in peacemaking in the Middle East and reconciliation between the parties. We believe that the initiative by the general secretary’s office in Baptist-Muslim dialogue is an important component as well as International Ministries’ initiative in creating greater understanding of the situation of Palestinian Christians.
Other initiatives will be forthcoming. Regardless of our partisan political allegiances, every Christian can only pray that President Obama’s trip sows seeds that will bear fruit of a hundred-fold for peace.
A. Roy Medley is general secretary for American Baptist Churches USA.