Anglican Archbishop tells Middle East to Pursue Dialogue and Learn the Lessons of the TRC
Parties to the Middle East conflict should learn the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, instead of 'futile' argument about whether parallels outweigh the differences with apartheid, said Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, yesterday (1 July), at the UN African Meeting on the Question of Palestine in Rabat, Morocco. One of the most important lessons was that true dialogue must provide adequate opportunity for every voice to be respectfully heard. He called for the perspective of Palestinian Christians not to be overlooked.
Addressing the religious and cultural significance of Jerusalem, Dr Makgoba called on faith communities outside the region to focus on how best to help direct parties to the conflict find a just, sustainable, lasting peace, and to draw on the resources of religion, including generic religoius values. He argued for far greater sensitivity in use of language, especially around the name Jerusalem, since religious, historic, political and other connotations, many symbolic, were often interwoven in confusing and misleading ways.
Note for editors: The two-day meeting has been organised by the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People - see http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/gapal1168.doc.htm and http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/gapal1169.doc.htm for further details.
The full text of the Archbishop's address follows below.
The Religious and Cultural Significance of Jerusalem
Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honour and privilege to participate in this meeting. It is also a great challenge. First, because this is a vast and complex subject to address in only 15 minutes; and second, because very little has been left unsaid.
In reflecting on the status of Jerusalem from the perspective of its religious and cultural significance, my key question is this: how can people of faith, predominantly from outside the region, best help the direct parties to the conflict find a just, sustainable, lasting, peace?
My experience as a South African tells me genuine dialogue is the only way forward – a way that truly can bridge brutal and violent divisions over many decades. Only dialogue can take us beyond the physical separation barrier, to mention one very obvious symbol on the Israeli side; or beyond the disparate, and even contradictory, voices, stances, actions, on the Palestinian side.
To talk about Jerusalem, we must first ask ourselves, ‘What do I mean by “Jerusalem”?’. We all have many different Jerusalems. There are:
- Christian, Jewish and Muslim Jerusalems;
- past, present and future Jerusalems;
- spiritual Jerusalems, geographical Jerusalems and political Jerusalems;
- the Jerusalems experienced by those who live there;
- the Jerusalems of spectators from outside;
- and the Jerusalems of ideologies, international posturing and power games.
We use one word for them all.
The incongruity of this hit me when I was privileged to visit the sprawling modern city two years ago. My brief visit taught me how little I know what I am doing when I use the word ‘Jerusalem’.
The huge range of meanings, some allegorical or symbolic, often become confused and misleading. Faith communities need to take particular care – for we appropriate, and interpret into our own situations, texts written by people separated by centuries, even millennia. These were written in very different cultures, addressing very different circumstances to those we face today. None of our Scriptures are what we might call balanced forensic history, telling the whole story with the sort of accuracy we might expect from a UN Commission today.
While some of our holy writings do include historic narratives written from very particular perspectives, others are far more symbolic. For example, the last book of the Bible describes God’s promise of heaven, our eternal destiny, as ‘the new Jerusalem’. This is clearly not to be confused with a specific physical place. Yet, believing they somehow convey eternal truths, we appropriate all these powerful images, and the subsequent centuries of tradition, through the inevitably distorting lenses of our own particular perspectives of context and experience.
I challenge us to be far more aware of these different associations – alongside all those of more recent history and politics – in our own usages. In our own speaking, are we conscious of how many meanings we weave together – and of how they can become unhelpfully tangled and confused? Do we recognise the filters we employ in our listening? And as others speak, do we acknowledge that if the name Jerusalem stirs up such complex associations for us, then it is legitimate that it is similarly, if differently, evocative, for others?
Effective dialogue requires much more mindful, and careful, use of language. We must be much more deliberate and honest, in unmasking the implicit meanings and connotations that contribute to this one name, Jerusalem, bearing such vast and complex significance. Only then will we be able to speak clearly, and know ourselves heard, and understand the different levels on which we are communicating.
For such associations powerfully touch not only our heads, but our hearts, our souls – the deepest fibres of our being. We cannot discuss Jerusalem together if we attempt – or pretend – to do so only with our intellects. We can only deal constructively if we are also prepared to bare our hearts and souls to one another, and share in profound honesty, acknowledging all the different resonances within us. This requires a degree of mutual vulnerability that is very challenging, when we recall what blood has been spilled around the question of Jerusalem.
Yet this should, paradoxically, give us courage. For engaging in mutual vulnerability can help overcome our tendency to objectify others, by putting us in touch with what we share as human beings. This is the key to genuine dialogue – where everyone is granted the dignity to tell their stories, in their own terms, and be heard respectfully, and begin to trust one another.
Only dialogue can build trust. And without trust, we cannot go forward – we cannot make the essential move from ‘conversation’ to ‘implementation’. Implementation, speedy implementation, is the vital goal: such as safeguarding the Palestinian suburb of Silwan in East Jerusalem from the ‘King’s Garden’ archaeological park project – a necessary trust-building step on the path to a long term just and peaceful solution.
Our faiths offer further valuable resources, in insisting that we deal with the whole human person: heart, soul, mind, and body; and that we speak with honesty, patience, forbearance, generosity. Bearing such generic religious values in mind also helps identify what hinders true dialogue.
In addition, faith can enrich secular political language. So, for example, human rights talk is transformed when we regard every person as of eternal significance and value, since each one bears the mark of our divine creator. Holy justice promises the possibility of win-win solutions, and frees us from zero-sum thinking.
Faith helps us dare to live as those who believe that blessings come when we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and practice radical forgiveness. My predecessor but one as Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, helped us harness this power of God for good, when he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was perhaps inevitable that I should speak about our TRC today. But let us not be naïve in relation to the situation in the Holy Land. There are parallels with apartheid, but there are also differences, and it is futile to argue which dominate. Let me rather share lessons that we learnt.
One of the most important was that true dialogue ensures that voices which are weakest, most marginal, or excluded altogether, are given space and safety to be heard. People of faith know this, because in God’s eyes everyone matters.
Therefore let me turn to the perspective of the Palestinian Christians, whose voice often goes unheard. I do not presume to speak for them. When the Anglican Communion deplores violence and calls for an end to blockades and occupation, the freezing of settlements, the demolition of the wall, and so forth – we do so working closely with Anglicans in the Holy Land.
Let me commend two particular resources, for better understanding the significance of Jerusalem from the perspective of the Palestinian Christians. First, the works of Palestinian Christian theologians, such as Naim Ateek, especially on Biblical interpretation. And second, the Palestinian Kairos document, published by leaders of the main historic churches, East and West, last December (and available online).
In some respects, this echoes the original ‘Kairos Document’, written by black South African theologians in 1985. Kairos is one of the Biblical words for time – a decisive moment, where action needs to be taken. Our Kairos document was a Christian, biblical and theological commentary on the apartheid crisis of that time. Through it we explored how faith, culture and politics were interwoven. While they could not be wholly separated, we and our cause were nonetheless hugely helped by seeing clearly how each impinged upon the others in how we understood our situation.
The Palestinian Kairos document is similarly ‘a document of faith and work’ which describes current realities, and how their beliefs are both challenged by, and shape their assessment of, the situation today and their hopes for tomorrow. They beautifully sum up the religious, cultural, and political significance of Jerusalem in the following passage [quote]:
'Jerusalem is the foundation of our vision and our entire life. She is the city to which God gave a particular importance in the history of humanity. She is the city towards which all people are in movement – and where they will meet in friendship and love in the presence of the One Unique God, according to the vision of the prophet Isaiah … "In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established … and all the nations shall stream to it … They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Is. 2: 2-5).
'Today, the city is inhabited by two peoples of three religions; and it is on this prophetic vision and on the international resolutions concerning the totality of Jerusalem that any political solution must be based. This is the first issue that should be negotiated because the recognition of Jerusalem's sanctity and its message will be a source of inspiration towards finding a solution to the entire problem, which is largely a problem of mutual trust and ability to set in place a new land in this land of God.' [end of quote]
Wise words indeed. So let all of us who are people of faith – especially those of us from the faith communities of this holy city – join in praying for and working to effect the peace, God’s just and lasting peace, of Jerusalem, of all our Jerusalems.
UN African Meeting on the Question of Palestine: Address given in the Plenary Session on the Status of Jerusalem