The most volatile region of the world in our time is the Middle East where religious, political, economic, and environmental challenges defy our attempts to understand or resolve. This year’s General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) provided several opportunities for examining this region, the most impassioned being the international dinner sponsored by the Board of Global Ministries and the Council on Christian Unity.
Five hundred people crowded into a banquet hall and after enjoying a typical hotel dinner listened to an address delivered by Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He is the third Palestinian to be consecrated to this office, which took place on January 5, 1998, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.
Younan was educated in Palestine and Finland and has been active in several faith organizations throughout his ministry. He was the first to translate the Augsburg Confession, one of the key documents of the Lutheran Church, into Arabic. He is an active participant is several ecumenical and interfaith dialogues in Jerusalem.
Bishop Younan chose not to entertain his audience with a typical after dinner speech. Instead, he proclaimed a long, tightly written exposition of the issues in that region as they are understood by the Arab Christian community.
He emphasized the fact that his people have been Christians for 2,000 years, and have lived peacefully with their Muslim neighbors for 1,400 years. They reject the paternalism that often characterizes the work of Western Christians who want to help. Instead, he told the audience, the Arab Christians of the Middle East have much to teach the rest of us.
With even great fervor, Younan rejected the anti-Islamic language that so often is sounded by some Christian leaders from North American Churches.
A central theme of this comprehensive address was that the religions around the world must be faithful to the central core that is present in all of these traditions. Although expressed in different language, this unifying theme is that our duty in this world is to love God and love our neighbors. The essential corollary is that all people everywhere, and certainly throughout the Middle East, must reject violence.
Boldly, this Arab Christian leader addressed factors the impinge upon American policies with respect to the Middle East and made it clear that resolving disputes revolving around Jerusalem is crucial for reaching a new level of peace in this part of the world.
Younan spoke with a passion that is rare in public lectures, and I eagerly await the release of his address so that it can be widely disseminated and thoroughly discussed by church people everywhere.
Younan was the speaker or seminar leader at other places in the assembly’s program, but this banquet was his major presentation, and the next morning he returned to Jerusalem.
My one regret is that his address had not been scheduled for one of the all-assembly evening programs. A much larger audience would have experienced his passion and received his analysis of the role of American Christian in religious and political issues related to the Middle East. Substantive evening programs is one of the traditions that deserve to be kept in the design of these gatherings.
One of the topics of conversation in this year’s General Assembly is the future of national and international gatherings like this. During the sixty years that I have attended these gatherings, they have changed in several important ways. Of course, they will continue to evolve and I find it difficult to imagine what the future holds.
But whatever that future may be, churches will always need to demonstrate that they exist in various modes of being—in the interpersonal relations of small groups and local congregations, but also as broad-scale communities bound together by faith, well-reasoned theological conviction, vigorous ethical commitments, and limitless courage in the struggles to transform the life of the world.