Is Witness Enough? A Review of Munib Younan’s Witnessing for Peace: In Jerusalem and the World.

Is Witness Enough?  A Review of Munib Younan’s Witnessing for Peace: In Jerusalem and the World.  Ed. Fred Strickert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)

            Munib Younan is a native of Jerusalem, the Bishop of Palestine and Jordan in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (since 1998), and elected President of Lutheran World Federation (since 2010).  One of the strengths of Witnessing for Peace is its author’s intimate familiarity with the context of Palestinian existence in Jerusalem.  This contextual intimacy is also, perhaps, one of the book’s chief failings.  Bishop Younan stresses “witness” as a theological and political category to promote a just peace in the Middle East and, as the subtitle suggests, in the rest of the world.  But in the context of such dramatic asymmetries of power as exist throughout the world today, on the one hand, and the temptation among even the privileged and powerful to craft what the Bishop accurately recognizes as a “victim mentality”(50), on the other, is “witness” enough? 

            Throughout Witnessing for Peace, Bishop Younan tells stories.  Often, these are moving accounts of violence suffered by Palestinians.  In the Prologue, Younan narrates in 2000 how he wore his pectoral cross when invited by Muslims (as the sole Christian representative) to meet Pope John Paul II at the Haram al-Sharif, the Dome of the Rock.  That meeting goes nicely; the Pope encourages the Bishop as a Lutheran in his work among Muslims.  Then, while walking back to his church, The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer on the Mount of Olives, Younan is accosted by an elderly Muslim man who shouts at him:  “Take off that cross!”  Shortly thereafter a Jewish woman shouts out:  “The cross.  The cross!” apparently also having taken offense.

Younan narrates his response:  “My pectoral cross is part of my own identity.  It defines who I am both as a Christian in general and as a bishop in particular. . . . It sums up my witness. . . .  I do not take it off.”  Later, Rabbi Ron Kronish—a peace advocate in Jerusalem, calls the Bishop with a word of consolation, which Younan records as:  “We, too, have our extremists.  Ignore them.”

But “extremism” is often impossible to ignore.  And besides, the category is a problem.  What is its opposite?  For from one perspective, Bishop Younan’s “witness” of asserting his religious identity (and status) through a piece of jewelry is itself an act of extremism in a volatile context—a contentious symbolic insistence, with a touch of vindication attached.  This is ironic, of course, given that the cross was originally a symbol of death and shame—and became most popular among Christians after the Roman Empire sanctioned public Christian worship.  In the intimacy of a Palestinian context a Christian is indeed a minority, and the wearing of a pectoral cross perhaps a defensible identity marker, but more broadly in the world the public meaning of wearing the cross anywhere and everywhere carries with it a history of imperial transgression that is hardly an innocent individual choice, even (and perhaps especially) if one is a Bishop.

                At the same time, though, is “identity” and “witness” really wrapped up in the clothes that one wears, or the jewelry (or lack thereof) that one displays, or (and this is crucial) the words that one uses?  Surely, one might say, this is to confuse the source of power—which is found in the weapons one has at one’s disposal, the collective force that one can mobilize, and the material resources (institutions, land, capital) that one possesses? 

Here—on the question of power, Bishop Younan’s book—and his oft-stated commitment to “non-violence,” is extraordinarily helpful.  He recognizes that violence is not simple, and while it manifests in acts of material force, its roots lie more deeply.  “There is emotional violence,” Younan writes, “when soldiers daily humiliate grown men and women at checkpoints.”(77)  “There is economic violence,” he continues, “as closures prevent people from going to work and force them to live on an average of two dollars a day in poverty.”(78)  “And there is violence of the word.”  Yes there is, but what the Bishop means by this “violence of the word” is strangely curtailed.  “Every day,” he continues, “the media portray the Palestinian people as a violent people who only want to cause trouble.”(78)  So, finally, “the violence of occupation,” the Bishop claims, “is the root of the problem.  Those who oppose violence must speak for an end to all forms of occupation.”(80)

In general, this is as clear and accurate an analysis of violence as one could ask for.  “We are weakest,” the Bishop asserts, “when we use force.”(82) But as he applies this analysis of violence in his own words and to his own context, which is always the trick, Bishop Younan ironically replicates precisely the kinds of dualistic, us-them, occupier-occupied, linguistic constructions that perpetuate an impasse in efforts to forge a durable peace in Israel-Palestine, and for that matter across the Middle East.  As University of Chicago Robert Pape has convincingly demonstrated, in his careful study of suicide-bombings, “It’s the Occupation, Stupid.”  So why replicate the construction which is itself the cause of offense in a work that wants to be a witness?  Put differently:  might “witness” mean more than simply pointing a finger at a problem, and instead have a necessarily creative element that begins with self-criticism and moves into new ways to imagine the relationships between people?

For instance, the Bishop provocatively asserts, while reflecting back on his youth, that “the Israeli flag and national anthem did not represent me, a Palestinian Christian.”(36)  Yet, one might ask, why might that flag and anthem not represent him and his people?  The flag is of course as arbitrary as any such piece of cloth—pointing to an imagined community, as Benedict Anderson has put it, made up of remarkable diversity.  Among the peoples who might see themselves represented by the U.S. flag, for instance, would be Navaho, English, Nigerian, Italian, Japanese, and so on—despite, in many of those cases, suffering gross injustices at the hands of the U.S. government.  And Israel already includes similar diversity among its citizens—including Arabs, Sephardim, Russians, Ethiopians, and so forth. 

  Even more, the official translation of Hatikvah, the Jewish national anthem, reads:  “As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart/With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion/Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost/To be a free people in our land/The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”  Why could the Bishop not recognize himself in this song as a Christian?  I write this essay during Advent—when Christians everywhere gather in hope.  And it is only a supercessionist or subsumed understanding of Christian identity, predicated upon an us-them mentality, that prohibits affirming what the song articulates.  After all, remembering that Jesus was a Jew is not only a historical fact.  It is also a present affirmation, at the heart of every Advent:  “O Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive, Israel.”  “The Jewish spirit,” we might say, is or ought to be at the heart of every Christian.

At his best, Bishop Younan recognizes that easy dualisms are obstacles to peace.  “The problem is the demonization of the other,”(150) he writes at one point.  “This is not about Palestinians and Israelis,” he writes at another point.  “It is about human beings who seek life.” (105) (Although, later, Younan asserts that “the real conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is over land,”(123) which one might note is a rather narrow way to define “life.”)  Perhaps most helpfully, “when it comes to death,” Bishop Younan writes, “there is no Jew, no Muslim, no Christian.  We console each other as human beings in suffering.  We are one.”(105) This means, practically, that any “identity” that might produce a just peace for Israel-Palestine must be pluralistic.  “Since biblical times,” the Bishop recalls for readers, “this land always had a pluralistic population of peoples living along, side[sic] the Jewish people.  Why should not this be the case today?”(64) This is an excellent question, and the rest is detail, or history, which amounts to the same thing.

But of course that history includes both the Shoah (Holocaust) and the Nakba (Catastrophe), which is not to equate the two.  Younan rightly sets his own insistence upon “witness” in an even longer context than the twentieth-century, with special emphasis (interestingly) on the four hundred years of Ottoman rule in the region.  I am no expert in Ottoman history, and I doubt (frankly) that recourse to the 1852 Status Quo agreement about Jerusalem, to which Younan appeals (154), is likely to bring peace to the City of Peace.  That said, I have studied Turkey closely, and I think there may well be some potential for Jews, Muslims, and Christians to engage Turkish Muslims’ recent history of negotiating more or less effectively (history will tell!) the robust secularism of Ataturk and the Islamist alternative (since 1979) of their Iranian neighbor—which some Israelis seem bent upon replicating in a Jewish mode.  

But I have little doubt that there is next to no future in competing victim discourses, whether Jewish, Christian, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim—and especially on the part of privileged heirs of empire (notably American Christians of a particular apocalyptic stripe, exceptional only in their insistence upon exceptionalism).  And this is where, again, the Bishop’s embrace of non-violence makes perfect sense:  “My people are those who seek peace.”(105) Such an identity beyond simplistic conventional identifications also suggests new practices, not denying or replacing the practices at the depths of particular traditions, but bridging and developing those practices in new ways. 

The Bishop suggests a few.  “Peace education” is the first, by which Younan means attempts to teach non-violence.  “In traditional Arab society,” Younan claims, “how are problems solved?  Not with a sword, but with negotiation.  This is the concept called al-Sulha, which means ‘reconciliation.’”(83)  I would have liked to hear more, practically, about how al-Sulha might engage Jews, Christians, and Muslims across tables, at summer camps, in service projects, on farms or in social enterprises, or in worship.

Younan also highlights “theological trialogues” as a way toward “peace education,” and he suggests several helpful “principles” for any such meetings--while also offering some cautionary anecdotes (120ff).  He identifies organizations such as “Rabbis for Human Rights,” and “Peace Now” as those with whom he identifies as “peacemakers,” and dismisses as “fanatics” anyone inclined toward “fundamentalism.”  But I wonder.  Until we can recognize how the most strident voices are also the ones most in need of peace we are not likely to recognize the causes of their recourse to conflict.  Thus, it is tragic—as I read it, that Younan appears to guard parochial traditions quite closely, and sets borders around practices (e.g., prayer on the Temple Mount—154).  Until we recognize how sacred spaces, for instance, depend upon narrative constructions that are inherently malleable and liable to abuse, we will not recognize the “gift” of such places—and move beyond simplistic notions of “occupying,” “possessing,” or even “maintaining” them.  What Atalia Omer has called “critical caretaking” suggests first of all modesty about the claims of one’s own tradition, and then a robust caretaking of the claims of the other, in the interest of developing relationships of trust.

And “witness” falls short on both counts.  It is a parochial term that claims special status for Christian suffering, and it is linked (as Younan develops it) not so much to “a total life of commitment to peace and justice,”(xiv) but instead to what he identifies as “moderation.”  “What shall I say as a Palestinian Christian who is a moderate?” Younan asks (93).  I understand what this means in his context.  A “moderate” is not a “fanatic.”  A “moderate” is non-violent.  But as understood initially by Gandhi, and certainly as practiced by King and Mandela and Gbowee and others, non-violence is a method of fighting.  It was anything but moderate.  It was radical—and was perceived as such by both those who engaged in it and those who were challenged and threatened by it.  So—“witness for moderation”? (89) I know, again, what this signifies in Younan’s context.  But if the deeper kinds of violence are, indeed, those expressed in words and practices, then is “moderation” strong enough to counter, say, those motivated to give their lives in “sacrifice,” whether for the Israeli Defense Force or Hamas?  The nobility of “sacrifice,” at least in theology if not in practice, makes the tepid temperature of moderation something suspect rather than sought after.  Who—especially among youth, wants to hang out with “moderates?”

And that takes us to the matter of trust.  Younan writes from a lifetime of experience in the Middle East in the midst of struggle—and I write from a lifetime spent living in the United States and working at more or less cushy academic posts.  What do I have to tell him about what peace is or how it might be found “in Jerusalem and the world?”  Why should he—or anyone in the region, trust me?  Younan rightly writes that “the security of any nation lies . . . in building mutual relationships of trust.  It is a possibility that exists only through justice.”(64) But justice, to be effective, must be blind.    Justice needs an “honest broker.”(83) A “witness” can contribute to justice, but justice finally depends on decisions and arguments and negotiations where trust must somehow be present and articulated honestly and repeatedly even in the midst of doubt and difference and perhaps even despair.  Maybe this is what Bishop Younan means by “witness,” in the end, for throughout his life he certainly has risked plenty on behalf of “his people.”  But what comes through in this book is still an identification that remains too narrow to include in embrace the plurality of parties and people—and the competing interests and existing asymmetries of power, present in contemporary Israel/Palestine, which (of course) reflect and concentrate those present in “the world.” 

I recognize and admire Bishop Younan’s long struggle for a just peace for Palestinians in Israel, and I hope that his role as President of Lutheran World Federation will give him a platform to organize effectively toward this end.  I worry, at the same time, that the most zealous will not likely be persuaded by “witness to moderation.”  History is made of stronger stuff, and so, ultimately, is the peace that passes understanding.  For that reason, even stronger (because marred by human fragility and frailty) must be the laws and policies that we forge together to secure social opportunity and cultural dignity so that people can flourish—which is the best peace we can hope for, this side of heaven.