A transcript of the speech given on Friday, the 10th of October 2008, at the Advocates International and Christian Legal Society Conference in Washington, DC for 1000 lawyers and judges from 106 countries around the world
Thriving Through Diversity - In the Land Where Jesus Thrived on the Way to the Cross
By Botrus Mansour
I had the privilege of studying in Oxford, England. However, it was not in that famous university, but in a small primary church school called St. Philips & St. James School. One of my memories is the love I had for a Christian song we sang in chapel. It is the well-known “Red and Yellow, Black and White…All are Precious in His Sight”.
This song reflects the universal diverse aspect of God’s love in Christianity. “For God so loved the world…that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16) I probably had this affection to the aforementioned song because of my dark skin among the white, pale British children. According to this song, I was included. This was my initial idea about diversity and still is. Homogenous is boring. Heterogenic is complex, rich and interesting.
I will talk about diversity in the context of an Arab Christian Evangelical citizen in the small, but amazingly interesting state of Israel. I am sure our case in Israel will give insights for your own experiences in each one’s countries.
It is the first time in history that Christians are under Jewish rule. Furthermore, Christians in Israel are also a minority among the Arab Muslim majority.
Despite the fact that it has only around 7.5 million citizens and lays on only 21,000 square kilometers, the human diversity in Israel is amazing. It is roughly divided into 80% Jews and 20% Arabs. In religious division, Jews include Ultra Orthodox Non-Zionist , Ultra Orthodox Anti-Zionist, Religious Zionist, Traditional, Secular and Messianic Jews to name a few. This is only on the spectrum of Jewish faith variations .There are other variations, like country of origin. As a state that is 60 years old and founded by Jewish immigrants, every Jew can trace his parents or grandparents' country of origin to somewhere else in the world: the US, Argentina, Britain, France, Germany, Morocco, Iraq, Tunis, Iran, Russia, and Ethiopia are some of the main countries. It is very much like our hosting country (USA). On the other hand, the 20% Israeli citizens who are native Arab Palestinians consist of 3 main groups: Muslims (16%), Christians (2%), and Druze - a Muslim sect that is visible in Syria and Lebanon (2%).
We, as Arab Christians, are therefore a minority within a minority: an Arab minority within a Jewish state, and a Christian minority within an Arab Muslim majority. As an Evangelical myself, I am also a minority among the Christians who tend, like everywhere, to keep the denominational boundaries where each one guards his own kingdom. To make things even more complicated, Israel is in a long bitter conflict with the people that the 20% are a part of (the Palestinians).
It’s easy to advocate and promote diversity when you are a dominant majority yourself. It is the graciousness of the strong and capable that makes a person willing to tolerate minority groups. On the other hand, tiny minorities swing between closing up in a ghetto mentality culturally and religiously, or on the other hand to compromise their distinctions and melt into the dominant majority.
We observe Arab Christians in my community who take one or the other of these extreme stands: either towards the Israeli Jewish establishment or towards the Arab Muslim majority.
I am sure we all have witnessed this tension in the context of believers in churches when some believers are closed off in church life - not mingling with the world and thus see everything from a narrow minded perspective. Or on the other hand, the others who have been so involved in the worldly culture that they lose their distinctive as believers.
Diversity as such, is a threat to one’s identity. If my community is homogeneous then my identity is sorted out and I face no challenges in that level. Everything is in the right mold, in the right frame work. There is one truth and no challenge from the different side to what is acceptable, common and conventional.
In Israel, this cultural and religious diversity takes a real physical and geographical dimension. The different traditions of faith are rooted in different locations around the country and act as a reminder of the diversity. In a radius of just half a mile in Jerusalem, for example, one can touch base with the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial place and ascension to heaven; on the other hand, it is the the holiest place for the Jews - the ruins of the temple (God’s dwelling with his people and place of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac). And as if this is not enough, it is also Islam’s 3rd most holy site - the Dome of the Rock where they believe their prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven for a night on a horse.
As we have seen, Israel involves diversity between the 3 monotheistic faiths. However, the oldest of the three, the Jewish faith, does not recognize any authenticity in the other two. Christianity, however, recognizes the Jewish faith as reflected in the Old Testament (but not the Jewish traditions added later on) and of course considers itself, truthfully I should add, as the full completion of it. Christianity however does not acknowledge the message of Islam as heavenly. Islam, on the other hand, does recognize the older two religions. Jesus and the prophets are acknowledged, but Muhammad is the messenger from Allah who brought the full revelation.
Both Islam and Judaism call for and practice exclusiveness. The distinction of Jew and Gentile is clear in Judaism and has implications in relationships, customs, mingling etc. As to Islam, referral to Jews and Christians is made in a opening prayer called “Alfatiha”. Jews are referred to as “Those that God’s wrath lays upon”, while Christians are referred to as “the lost”.
Despite that, the Christians in Israel are thriving in some ways. They are the most educated segment in the whole of Israeli society. A tangible example for me is the 90% of students of the school that I lead who continue their studies for higher education. Our school has achieved the highest number of prizes (9) among schools worldwide in the international contest “The First step to the Nobel Prize in Physics”. Furthermore Christians have the lowest percentage of convicts.
Faithful to their calling, Followers of Christ in Israel serve in key positions in the country. Despite our small numbers, we have influence that exceeds it. This is not done without difficulties: Israel treats us as Arabs and therefore as second class citizens and underprivileged. On the other hand, we face the difficulty of living among what is becoming a more and more religious and fundamentalist Muslim environment. This leads to a saddening immigration of Christians to a more comfortable life in the west. This means less “Living Stones” in the land of the dead stones that act as monuments and reminders from our Lord’s life on this planet.
I will state what I see as 4 factors for our continued thriving:
1. Eyes on the Lord. He that is with us is stronger than he who is against us. If God is with us who can be against us? He is the Truth, the Way, the Life, the Door, the Living Water, the Vine, the Alpha and Omega, the Light, the Good Shepherd. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is the Upholder of all things by the word of His power. Psalm 1 promises that whatever a person that is planted by the rivers of the water does (another way to express our clinging to the Lord), he shall prosper or thrive. Let’s get the power from Him.
2. Educating our people so that they know their faith. This is why I moved into the educational arena. When a person knows his faith and the others’ faith - then he knows his identity and he can thrive in diversity.
3. Support from the worldwide church. We are not the total of individual persons. 1+1+1 does not make 3, but 30. We multiply when we cooperate and use the resources that God has bestowed upon each of us for the benefit of the whole body.
4. A basic understanding should be agreed upon in every society. It is the right of religious freedom. It is the right to worship freely and talk about my faith to others freely. God created man in His own image. It is the image of a free willed person. He/she can choose. Freedom of religion derives from that.
I do not have a magical method to make that happen. I only believe that it is the role of Christian lawyers to be the pioneers in educating others, in proposing laws in that regard, in setting precedents and in continual dialogue with other segments of society on it. Easily said, I know. Nevertheless we have no choice but to put all efforts into doing that. As lawyers, we are in the world but we are not from the world. As professionals who have the keys of the worldly system (law), we are the most equipped to promote a consensus around the basic right that will enable all to worship freely.
May God give us all the privilege of thriving in the diversity of our nations through eyes on the Lord, education, supporting each other and striving for religious freedom – all for the glory of His precious name