Recently, Messianic Believers and Palestinian Christians were hesitant to be in fellowship with each other. It seems that some were putting a taboo on fellowship between the aforementioned two groups. Two people from Musalaha ministries: Salim Munayer, a Palestinian Evangelical, and Evan Thomas, a Messianic Jew, respond to this challenge in the following letter.
Reconciliation is not just one thing, it is many. However, if reconciliation does not include fellowship with people on the other side, people that we consider our enemy, then it is nothing. Fellowship is the fruit of reconciliation, its essence, and an unmistakable symbol of its power and ability to affect lives.
On the road toward reconciliation, there are many challenges to overcome. Among Israeli-Palestinian believers living in the conflict, these include differences in language, culture, theology, and the physical segregation of our communities. Over the years at Musalaha, we have developed a forum for people from both sides to meet each other, establish relationships, and discuss their differences in the context of friendship. This forum has proven to be beneficial and fruitful, as many participants in Musalaha activities have remained committed to the process of reconciliation and to the friendships they have established. But, in spite of the success we have seen, we are also very aware of the external factors which influence and can prevent this process, such as the political situation, wars, and violence. As the conflict and discussions about the conflict intensify, dividing lines are made clearer, and fellowship becomes taboo.
People on both sides bear the burden of pressure to prove their loyalty to their own ethnic or national group. Recently, the theological and political debate has been heating up, and a new dynamic has developed within the body of the Messiah: inner-group pressure to avoid meeting with people from the other side. This pressure has been felt by both Israeli and Palestinian believers, telling them to avoid fellowship with each other, to refrain from the exchange of ideas, and to restrict their meetings to only those who agree with their specific political or theological opinions. In the words of Miroslav Volf, “there is far too much dishonesty in the single-minded search for truth, too much injustice in the uncompromising struggle for justice.” This pressure seems to be on the rise in recent weeks and months, and can take the form of personal discussions, or emails and letters. Either way the pressure is the same: we are not to meet with the other side, we are to stay within the bounds of our own group.
In this atmosphere of internal group pressure, two biblical examples come to mind. The first is found in the book of Acts, when Peter is staying in Jaffa, and receives a vision from God. He sees a sheet filled with unclean animals descend from the sky, and is told to kill and eat them. After Peter objects, claiming that he has never eaten anything unclean, the voice of God speaks clearly, telling him that what God has cleansed must not be called unclean. After this Peter is summoned to meet with Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea. When Peter meets with Cornelius, he explained, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts 10:29) When Peter returns to Jerusalem, the brethren had already heard of his meeting with Cornelius, and of his preaching to the non-Jews. Therefore, when they met with him, they challenged him, saying “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:3) This was unheard of and was considered sinful. Peter was forced to explain himself, and told them of his vision from God.
This story has received much theological treatment, most of it focusing on the issue of purity, and the dynamic of clean vs. unclean. Commentators usually point to the fact that Cornelius was uncircumcised and not Jewish, in order to explain why the brethren in Jerusalem had such a strongly negative reaction to Peter’s meeting with him. While this was certainly part of the reason for their reaction, it fails to recognize another fact: the fact that Cornelius was the enemy. As a Roman centurion, Cornelius was the enemy in that he represented an oppressive military occupation that was resented and feared among Peter’s people. Cornelius embodied the military might of Rome as much as its pagan gods, therefore Peter’s meeting with him was not only a spiritual, but a political betrayal of his people. Furthermore, to go to the house of Cornelius in Caesarea (named after Caesar, ruler of Rome), the seat of Roman military and political power, and share a meal with the enemy was, in the eyes of the brethren from Jerusalem, the height of treason.
The second story is found in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, when Peter and Paul came to Antioch. In order to understand this story, it is important to remember that the early followers of Jesus were deeply involved in a debate over a very controversial issue: what was to be done with the new, non-Jewish believers in the Messiah? Paul’s ideas on this issue were not accepted by everyone in the church. Rifts were developing and the situation was tense, not unlike the situation we face today.
In this story, Paul explains how he had to rebuke Peter for hypocrisy. For while Peter had no problem sitting and eating with the non-Jews, and having fellowship with his new brothers and sisters as long as the brethren from Jerusalem did not know about it, as soon as they arrived, he “withdrew and separated himself,” from their company. (Galatians 2:11-13) Why was Paul critical of Peter? Because he gave in to the inner group pressure he felt to exclude those who are different, the outsider, the other. Also, as a leader, Peter’s actions had an influence on others as well, since people were watching him to see which side he would take in the debate. As a result of Peter’s weakness, “the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:14) The fact that Peter, of all people, should be guilty of this hypocrisy, when he was the one who had personally seen God’s vision, should tell us something about the difficulty of standing up for one’s convictions, and about the strength of inner group pressure.
The problem with the brethren from Jerusalem was not their zealous adherence to the arduous standards of the Law, nor was it the fact that they disagreed with Peter and Paul theologically. The problem was that they allowed their disagreement to interfere with their fellowship. It is no sin to disagree on theological or political grounds. These disagreements will occur no matter how we may strive towards uniformity of belief. In fact, they represent the plurality of humankind’s understanding of God’s incomprehensible nature, each perspective adding richness and texture to the collective vision. However, as soon as we permit these differences and disagreements to stand in the way of fellowship, we are in opposition to God’s will and His commandment, to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If there was ever any ambiguity concerning who our neighbor is, Jesus made it clear in His parable of the Good Samaritan. It is the outsider, the other, the enemy.
It is no surprise that both of these stories revolve around the issue of eating with people considered as outsiders. In the days of Peter and Paul, fellowship was symbolized by eating together, the act of sharing a meal with others. This is why Jesus chose a meal to remind us of the sacrifice He made on the cross. “Take, eat” He said, for “this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” This is why He chose a meal to unify us all as one body, saying “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” Fellowship is a sacred act, and if we neglect it there will be consequences. “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you.” (I Corinthians 11: 29-30)
When we allow something to stand in the way of our fellowship, we become susceptible to the sickness of hate and anger, which is contagious and easily spread. The only way to check the spread of this disease is to return to fellowship through God’s love. To return to reconciliation. It is not an easy path to follow. It is far easier to surround ourselves with those who agree with us, those who will not challenge us. But this is not what God has called us to. Take the example of Peter. He slid back into his comfort zone so quickly, and had to learn the same lesson a second time. This is because reconciliation is a process, a slow process, but one that is our sacred duty as believers of the Messiah. We are commanded to break the taboo of meeting with, and of loving the other through fellowship.
Salim J. Munayer
Musalaha Chairman of the Board
Edited by Joshua Korn
Musalaha Publications Manager