Peace for the Holy Land

The Promised Land and the Chosen People

The two-State solution

By Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros

From 10 through 24 October 2010 a special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops took place at the Vatican with the title: “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness: Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Participating in this Assembly, gathered around His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, were the Patriarchs and the Bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Middle East, cardinals and archbishops who are heads of the various offices in the Roman Curia, presidents of Catholic episcopal conferences around the world, who are concerned with the issues of the Middle East, representatives from the Orthodox Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and Jewish and Muslim guests.

In its final message the Synod developed the issue of “Communion and Witness” first through history, then in the present time within the Catholic Churches of the Middle East, and with the Orthodox and Protestant Communities in the Middle East. After that, it addressed the issue of the cooperation and dialogue with our fellow-citizens the Jews and the Muslims.

In paragraph 8 of the final message concerning the Jews, after explaining what Christianity and Judaism have in common—the Old Testament, “all that God revealed there, since he called Abraham, our common father in the faith, Father of Jews, of Christians and of Muslims”—the Synod stressed the necessity to continue “the dialogue which is taking place between the Church and the representatives of Judaism.” The statement then goes on:

“We hope that this dialogue can bring us to work together to press those in authority to put an end to the political conflict which results in separating us and disrupting everyday life in our countries. It is time for us to commit ourselves together to a sincere, just and permanent peace. Both Christians and Jews are called to this task by the Word of God. Both are invited to listen to the voice of God “who speaks of peace: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his holy ones” (Ps 85:9)

Then adds: “Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable. On the contrary recourse to religion must lead every person to see the face of God in others and to treat them according to the attributes of God and his commandments, namely, according to God’s bountiful goodness, mercy, justice and love for us.”

The Promised Land

During the press conference which was held at the end of the Synod, I presented this message in my role as president of the commission that drafted the message. I was then asked by a journalist: “What do you mean by this sentence: ‘Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable’?” I answered: “Israel cannot use the Biblical concept of a promised land to justify its occupation of Palestinian territory and the expulsion of Palestinians who have been living there for centuries. We Christians cannot now speak about the Promised Land for the Jewish people. With Christ the Promised Land became the Kingdom of God”: Jesus referred to this land in His Sermon on the Mount and gave it a spiritual interpretation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” (Mt. 5:3.5)

In my answer I was thinking in particular of Jewish settlers who claim their right to build on Palestinian territory by saying it forms part of biblical Israel, the land promised by God to the Jews according to the Old Testament. I also warned against the risk of Israel becoming an exclusively Jewish state, with a consequent threat to the 1.2 million Muslim and Christian Arabs living in Israel. The Synod is acknowledging the separation between religion and politics, in stating that recourse to the Bible cannot be used to justify political events: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt. 22:21)

As a Christian, and especially as a Middle-Eastern Christian—and this is the unanimous opinion of the Middle-Eastern Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants—I see that the concept of the Promised Land cannot be used for the justification of the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of Palestinians. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948—after the resolution of the UN in 1947 regarding the partition of Palestine which was under the British mandate between Arab and Jews—is a political issue not a religious one. It is a fact of history like other facts: Jews who were persecuted in Europe and suffered the horrors of the shoah decided to come to Palestine and build, with the Jews who were there, a country for their own. They could have chosen another place. But they chose Palestine, some of them relying on the theme of the Promised Land, and others only because of the memory of the Jews who lived there 2000 years ago. So they came in great numbers; a war arose between them and the Arabs living there, and they won the war; hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes and flee to the surrounding Arabic countries: Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. If some of the Jews based their return on the Old Testament theme of the Promised Land, this does not mean that God is behind their return and their victory against the Arabs. It is a religious interpretation of an historical event.

We find this same religious interpretation of historical events in the Old Testament: A religious people believing in God wins a war, they interpret their war as God’s war and their victory as God’s victory. The idea of a “Warrior God” which we find in the Old Testament, a God who fights with his chosen people and condemns to death all his enemies cannot be accepted in Christianity. We have to read the Old Testament in the Spirit of Jesus Christ and in the light of His teachings. Jesus did not allow Peter to draw even a sword to fight for Him (Cf. John 18:10-11). According to Jesus’ teachings, God is a God of love, peace, justice and mercy. How can we figure Him at the head of an army fighting with a particular people against other peoples? This idea may have infiltrated Christian thought during the first centuries and the Middle Ages; it can be found today in some extremist Muslims groups, who still say that the land of Palestine is a Muslim land given to Muslims by God who was fighting with them during the Arab conquests, and that they will oppose God’s will if they give up a part of it to the Israelis. But, as Christians, we cannot today accept such an idea. It is against the image of God revealed to us by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

The chosen people

As for the idea of the chosen people, it is clear, according to Christian theology and especially to St. Paul, that after Christ there is no longer one particular chosen people! With Christ and in Him, all men and women of all countries are called to become children of God and unite in one body, the Body of Christ.

Being the chosen people was not a privilege, it was a mission: Israel was chosen by God in the Old Testament to live in holiness, to proclaim His name among the nations, and to prepare the coming of the Messiah. St Paul does not deny the role of the Jewish people in the history of salvation. He writes to the Romans: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised. Amen.” (Rom. 9:1-5)

But in his letter to the Ephesians, he declares that Jesus has united all the peoples in one people and one body:

“Therefore, remember that at one time you, Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcison’ by those called ‘the circumcision’, which is done in the flesh by human hands, remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commands and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph 2:11-18)

In his letter to the Galatians also, Paul affirms this unity of all peoples in Christ: “So through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:26-29)

And St Peter, in his first letter, applies the concept of chosen people to all who became Christians, Jews and non-Jews: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own, so that you may announce the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were ‘no people’, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

So in the New Testament the concept of “chosen people” has been extended to all those who believe in Jesus and become through him God’s people. So we ask with St. Paul: “Has God rejected his people?” and we answer also with St. Paul: “Of course not!… God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (Rom. 11:1-2) This we can call the inclusive theology of St. Paul: the Jews are included in this people of God. They still remain the people God has chosen, but they are no more the only chosen people. This is clear when St. Paul says: “you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.”

Sometimes in our limited human thought we think when a favor was given to a special group then extended to other groups, it ceases to be a favor; in the same manner some think that when the grace of “chosen people” and “God’s people” was given to the Jews, and then extended to all peoples, it ceases to be a grace to the Jews. But the grace still remains a grace, even if it is extended to all peoples. In this sense we can understand Jesus’ saying: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17) The Old Covenant with the Jewish people, according to which they are God’s chosen people, is not abolished, but it is fulfilled with the entrance of all peoples in this chosen people.

In its Message the Synod says to the Jews: “The same Scriptures unite us. The Old Testament, the Word of God is for both you and us. We believe all that God revealed there, since He called Abraham, our common father in the faith, father of Jews, of Christians and of Muslims. We believe in the promises of God and his covenant given to Abraham and to you. We believe that the Word of God is eternal.” (paragraph 8)

So there is nothing offending to the Jews to say that they are no more the only “chosen people” of God and that “God’s mercy” has been extended to all peoples. They must be proud, as was St. Paul, to be the people that God has chosen to be the first people God has chosen to be holy and to proclaim his name among all the nations of the earth. But at the same time they must also be humble, as St. Paul also was, to see that to be God’s chosen people is a grace, and finally they must glorify God, as it pleased to St. Paul and St. Peter to do, that this grace has been extended to all peoples.

The two-State solution

After this theological issue we come now to the political issue, and these two levels must be clearly distinguished. Now in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, besides the moderates among both the Palestinians and the Jews, we are in presence of two opposed religious extremist ideologies: from one part extremist Jews who say that Palestine is the Promised Land given to them by God, and that they cannot give up any part of it to the Arabs; and from the other part extremist Muslims who say that Palestine is a Muslim land given to them by God during the Arabic conquests, and that they cannot give up a part of it to the Israelis. With these two opposed religious ideologies it is impossible to find a compromise in order to reach a lasting peace.

The message of the Synod for the Middle East takes a moderate position and clearly advocates, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the two-State-solution:

“The citizens of the countries of the Middle East call upon the international community, particularly the United Nations, conscientiously to work to find a peaceful, just and definitive solution in the region, through the application of the Security Council’s resolution and taking the necessary legal steps to put an end to the occupation of the different Arabic countries. The Palestinian people will thus have an independent and sovereign homeland where they can live with dignity and security. The State of Israel will be able to enjoy peace and security within their international recognized borders. The Holy City of Jerusalem will be able to acquire its proper status, which respects its particular character, its holiness and the religious patrimony of the three religions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. We hope that the two-State-solution might become a reality and not remain a dream only.” (Paragraph 11)

Then the message explicitly condemns all kinds of violence and religious extremism: “We condemn violence and terrorism from wherever it may proceed as well as all religious extremism. We condemn all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianism and Islamophobia and we call upon the religions to assume their responsibility to promote dialogue between cultures and civilizations in our region and in the entire world.”

By dialogue only – a dialogue which requires compromises from both sides, not by war, and especially not by a war based on religious assumptions – can the Holy Land reach a just and lasting peace.

+ Archbishop Cyril S. Bustros

Eparch of Newton