When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister had something against you . . ., first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

-- Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

Read Matthew 5:23-24. Call to mind a person or persons from whom you have been separated due to conflict or anger.

Read these verses again, imagining that Jesus is speaking them directly to you. How would you respond?

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The Reverend Sandra K. Olewine is a missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church assigned to Catholic Relief Services in Jerusalem. As the UM liaison, her responsibilities include documentation, interpretation, and writing on Middle East issues. She received a Master of Divinity from the School of Theology, Claremont, and is completing work on her Ph.D. in theology and personality, also at Claremont.

Tell us about the work you do in the Middle East.

I have been assigned as the United Methodist liaison to Jerusalem for the General Board of Global Ministries since 1996. Primarily my job assignment is justice education, contextual education. One of the main components of that has been to try to get tourists who come to the land that we call holy to not treat it like a museum or just as the place that Jesus walked, in the past tense, but to recognize that Jesus might still walk here today and that one can encounter the living Christ here in the people and the places and in the pain and struggle. It is important for us as Christians in the world to engage the contemporary context, to become more informed and have a more nearly complete picture of the reality in this place. That has been a main portion of my work. That work is done in cooperation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and with Catholic Relief Services.

I am also currently assigned to the International Center, which is an outreach ministry of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and is where I spend most of my time. The International Center has a variety of programs in art and music and dance and cultural history. One of the pieces I am working on is the international intercultural exchange program, developing programs for seminarians to come from around the world to do joint studies together as well as with local Palestinians. We are also developing a similar program for clergy and lay people and trying also to create some sabbatical space, where people can do a sabbatical study in Bethlehem and in the Holy Land. This program would include some work in the arts and theology as a part of their time of service and renewal. I also help with the pastoral work at the Evangelical Lutheran Church, when the pastor requests.

Here in the United States we are quite a bit removed from the reality you are living in. Please give us some idea what conditions are like.

The entire city of Bethlehem, including Bayt Sahur and Bayt Jala, as well as a number of other Palestinian cities, is currently under complete curfew, which means that no one is allowed out on the street. The curfew in different parts of the city is lifted for two or three hours about every four days for people to shop at nearby stores, if they have money still to get food. I could probably try to go home, but our offices at the Lutheran Church are completely inaccessible right now because they are in the section of Bethlehem in the Old City and have themselves been heavily damaged. The situation is very desperate at this point. A large number of Israelis have died over the last three weeks in a variety of suicide attacks, creating a great deal of pain and fear within the Israeli society. This is also true in the Palestinian society, since over the last seven weeks, with the exception of one week, Israeli tanks, helicopters, and F-16 jets have been heavily engaged across all of the Palestinian cities and territories. Beside the large amount of damage to the infrastructure -- with trees and water lines and houses and shops being damaged or destroyed -- we also have the psychological trauma of almost two million people basically being locked in their houses for three weeks, not being able to sleep because of the ongoing presence of the tanks rolling around and causing noise. So there is a very tense and very dangerous situation currently.

Many Christians are torn between a desire to support Israel and a feeling that Israel is not dealing justly with the Palestinians. How can we sort out those conflicting feelings?

The theology of land is a very complicated piece in this context. Any equating of the biblical Israel to the current nation-state of Israel is very dangerous. You've raised a point that is very critical. For those who accept a strictly literal interpretation with regard to Old Testament promises of land to the Jewish people -- I always try to remind them that if you work primarily out of that, then you need to go past Joshua and not just look at the story of the conquest of the land, but also to refer to books such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The prophets have something to say about how one lives in the land. It's not a gift that is given to do with as we wish. The prophets understood the covenant as a promise of stewardship, and in that context of stewardship of the land they condemned the misuse of the land. One can find in the prophets issues of justice, issues of mercy, issues of how one treats "aliens" in the land. Those scriptures have an essential critique of the use of land and the way in which the current state of Israel is dealing with the Palestinian inhabitants.

Another issue, and something that many of the rabbis who work in areas of human rights in Israel lift up, is that land can become an idol. Eric Ashman in particular, who is currently the head of Rabbis for Human Rights, states that if land becomes an idol that we worship more than human life and human compassion, then we violate the covenant and we stand at risk of losing the blessing.

One has to look at the broader context here and see that, until pretty late in the century, religious Judaism did not regard the formation of the state of Israel as something that was biblical. In fact, for a long time in orthodoxy it was considered, and there is still a group today that believes, that Jews have a right to come to the land of Israel, but the state of Israel is something only the Messiah can create. So even within Judaism there is a split, although since the 1967 war that split has been narrowed. In the 1967 war, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip; but of course, for Judaism, the West Bank is biblical Judea and Samaria, so that's partly why there is such a struggle. The vast majority of what is the current state of Israel was not biblical Israel.

What can people of faith do to support a just peace in Israel and the occupied territories?

To find a way to negotiate in such a bitterly contested conflict, as people of faith, I think we have to use our sense of common humanity and seek to recognize the common elements of human suffering that exist in both communities. The only real tool we have is the negotiated international law, which is recognized internationally. That's the closest we can get to impartiality. Many in the Jewish Israeli community recognize that the best thing that can be done is to consider creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and that Jerusalem be shared as a capital. That way both Israelis and Palestinians can have access to the holy sights, of course; but there will also be a shared sovereignty of the city. There must be some sort of a just solution found for the overwhelming numbers of Palestinian refugees. There has to be some way of to deal with this, the largest refugee population in the world, that is fair and equitable to them. Finally, we have to find a way to negotiate the issues of sharing resources, particularly water, which is the one that is most critical.

I think it's important that we not be afraid of engaging our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as our Muslim brothers and sisters, in conversations about this place. I know it's very hard, given the historic reality of the horrors of Jewish suffering, not just in the twentieth century but throughout many centuries. The whole issue of engaging in discussion about Israeli state policy is very hard for many Christians because they don't want to be misunderstood and don't want to be seen as anti-Semitic. But it's vital for us to begin to engage stories, not only that we listen to what our Jewish bothers and sisters feel and think about the situation but also to be able to share with them what our Palestinian brothers and sisters are experiencing, what they are feeling and thinking as Muslims and Christians who live in both in Israeli and Palestinian societies, their sense of what leads to a just solution. For a long time this has been an area that we have been unwilling or afraid to engage in, because we didn't want to hurt people, didn't want to ask sensitive questions. But I think as Christian-Jewish dialogue matures this is a topic that we cannot ignore. For the health of our relationship we need to discuss it, so we can be clear that, when people say things against Israeli policy that are anti-Semitic, we criticize it and say it's not acceptable. There has to be a differentiation so that we can mutually work at trying to stop anti-Semitism and also trying to stop human rights violations by a nation state, to hold it accountable to the same rules that we hold all nations to. That's another important piece to include.

There is a growing recognition, even among Israelis, that the source of all the violence we are seeing currently is really the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Jewish-only settlements that have been established there. The only way to move out of the cycles of violence is to end the occupation.

How do you, in the current situation, see God at work?

Sometimes we just have to say, "Lord, where are you?" If you look at the overarching context, it can be easy to lose sight of any holiness, of the presence of God, of the presence of anything that has a divine spark in it. And yet, it's in the hearts of the people who are living through so much suffering that I find it most tangible that God has not given up on us and we have not given up on God. An example is the agencies that now are working, particularly the international and local church communities who are working at supplying food, water, medicine, and the basic resources of sustenance to the millions of Palestinians who don't have anything and whose livelihood has been taken away, who have had no access to food and water.

Within the Israeli society, I see a sign of God's presence in the reaction of some of the reserve soldiers. There have been a number of Israeli reservists who have been happy to serve their duty in the Israelis Army, which they are required to do every year. But they are now no longer willing to serve inside the occupied territories. They see the occupation as the root of all of the violence, whether it's Israeli or Palestinian initiated, and they feel that if they are to continue serving as an occupation force that they not only do not bring security to their people, but they also increase the insecurity and increase the risk to Israelis. That is a very tangible sign of people who are wrestling with really trying to get to the root cause of violence.

On the Palestinian side, I see people who in spite of having no jobs, no schools, whose church buildings are attacked, who have lost their homes, but are still able to say that what we want is peaceful reality for our children and for Israeli children. These people still believe that Palestinians and Israelis could still live side-by-side in security with each other and are willing to still work for that, even in the midst of literally everything about them being in shambles. There is a very powerful story about a man and his family in Bayt Sahur, the traditional site where the shepherds received the first message of the good news of the birth of Christ. This man's name happens to be Joseph and he happens to be a carpenter. His house was one of the first to be completely destroyed by the constant shelling of tanks. He was at a camp on the eastern edge of the Bayt Sahur and I had a group visiting there. It's been about a year, and the house was just in shambles at that point. He said, "We look at those soldiers there and we were neighbors, so I have to ask: Why did they have to do this to my house? They know me. They know my children. But they are still my neighbors, and I still want to live with them as neighbors and to live in peace with their children. I don't want my children to learn to hate." It was very powerful that, in the middle of the rubble, he could still talk about those who had destroyed his home as his neighbors and not his enemies. It is those kinds of stories and encounters, whether with Israelis or Palestinians, that we see God's presence breaking through in spite of all the human ways with which we try to close God out.


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