August 17, 2013

O Brother, Where Art Thou: Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Provokes Questions in Pittsburgh

Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib A. Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), addressed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) 2013 Churchwide Assembly yesterday, August 15, 2013.  The Palestinian Younan’s comments to the assembly in Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center prompted many questions, often unintentionally, about Christianity and its various members in the Middle East and beyond.

Outgoing ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson introduced Younan to the second part of Plenary Session Seven (video here, beginning at the 1:56 mark).  Hanson called Younan a “relentless worker for peace with justice in the Middle East” and a “tireless worker for deeper relationships across religious divides.”  Younan returned the affection, calling Hanson a “strong, prophetic voice for justice, disturbing many people who hate justice.”

Early in his address Younan celebrated Christianity’s worldwide spread, saying that the “center of gravity for global Christianity is now in the Global South, not in the Global North.”  This spread allowed for mutual learning among churches amidst the world’s various cultures.  “In this spirit” Younan referenced the LWF’s “communion reflection on marriage, family, and human sexuality.”  As the ELCA itself has experienced following its 2009 affirmations of homosexual relationships for both clergy and laity, Younan noted the “many differences within the one communion” over these issues.  Yet the LWF remained sufficiently “mature and healthy to discuss these and other controversial issues” while members “continue to learn, to remain united in Christ.”  “We need to sustain our common belonging in Christ and appreciate each other’s contribution,” Younan emphasized.

Much of Younan’s comments concerned “increasing violence globally,” including in Syria, Tunisia, and the Congo.  Younan described a “crisis of freedom of religion in our fragmented world” amidst “growing xenophobia and religiously informed extremism.”  “No religion has a monopoly on extremism,” Younan nonetheless qualified.

Thus Christians should “renew their resolve in confronting extremism throughout the world.”  Pursuing an “evangelical call to work for moderation throughout our world,” Christians needed to be a “source of reconciliation and to build bridges between religions, races, and cultures.”  “Religion,” Younan concluded, “must be an instrument for peace and justice.”

“The Middle East is boiling,” Younan specified in turning to his home.  Syria and Egypt “demand our attention and concern,” Younan stated, and discussed ELCJHL aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan.   Many churches in the region “are disappointed with the West” as they face an “existential crisis” largely unaided.  Jordan’s King Abdullah II received Younan’s praise for supporting a regional conference to promote Christian presence in the Middle East.  Christians could thereby “remain instruments of peace and brokers of justice” as well as “apostles of love” in the region along with “moderate Muslims.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict appeared to Younan as the “core of the problem of the Middle East.”  Younan’s “strong hope” was that current diplomatic initiatives would “result in a just solution” for the conflict, “including a shared Jerusalem” for three religions and two states.  Younan’s “just solution” encompassed an end to Israeli occupation and settlement building in Palestinian territories as well as a right of return for Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes.

The relationship between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land appeared to Younan as a “symbiotic relationship” such that “security for the state of Israel depends on justice for the Palestinians.”  Younan called upon Arabs and Jews to “see the image of God” in each other.  Only “when we recognize our common humanity” would the “Holy Land become a promised land of milk and honey” for both peoples.

Younan expressed the hope of seeing in his lifetime “peace based on justice” for his native region.  Younan wanted “no more weapons” coming into the region from Russia, the United States, or any other country.  The only ones “who are profiting from the conflict are the merchants of weapons.”  “We are tired of wars, we are tired of hatred,” Younan pleaded, and called for “no more bloodshed, only dignity for every person.”

Questions arise for Christians both in developed countries like the United States as well as in the Middle East from Younan’s comments.  Younan’s reference to debates over human sexuality often demarcated along Global North-South lines calls into question the selfishness of sexual revisionism by denominations like the ELCA.  Association of Christians in Muslim-majority countries with Western sexual individualism can only weaken Christian witness in theological competition with Islam.  Mere Christian coexistence with sometimes lethally cultural conservative Muslims could be in danger as well.

Younan’s discussion of Christian suffering under Middle Eastern violence, meanwhile, seems to obscure as much as it enlightens.  While Younan accurately describes his home region as “boiling,” he never seems to mention who is cooking the pot.  Although Younan is technically correct to note radicalism in all religions, the most dominant “religiously informed extremism” in the Middle East and world beyond today is militant Islam.  Such militancy from both Shiites and Sunnis in Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the North African countries of the “Arab Spring” has long since refuted the always dubious claim that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the region’s “core” problem.

Even with respect to Israel, a Jewish state threatened along with Middle East Christians by Muslim militancy, Younan’s prescriptions for peace are dubious.  Whatever concessions Israel has offered with respect to dividing Jerusalem, Israel has consistently rejected an unlimited right of Palestinian refugees to return to any ancestral home within the former Palestine Mandate territory, including Israel.  Such a right, defined to include millions of descendants who have never known Palestine as home, appeared to Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, as a “euphemism for the destruction of the state of Israel” at Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) July 23, 2013, Night to Honor Israel.  Palestinian Arabs, Prosor noted, are no longer demanding in the Holy Land “two states for two peoples,” Arab and Jew, but rather an Arab state in Palestinian territories and the demographic dissolution of a Jewish state with Arab immigrants.

Objective observers might indulge Younan a certain forbearance towards his Muslim neighbors paired with a certain internalization of their anti-Israel biases.  If for no other reason, Younan must respect a Middle East power relationship between a Christian minority and a Muslim majority.  Yet Lutherans like Hanson, for whose engagement along with the ELCA in the Arab-Israel conflict Younan was “grateful,” should utilize their security to be more circumspect.   As criticized in the past, the ELCA has often been just as anti-Israel as pro-homosexual.  Issues involving Israeli security with weapons that do not simply enrich “merchants of death,” favorite Leftist bogeymen, however, demand impartial scrutiny.  Christians around the world should in fact learn from each other about issues such as sex and violence, but not necessarily the way Younan intended.

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