Meeting in Rimini - August 20th, 2022
A Passion for Mankind
"The conflicts and wars in the Middle East seem unsolvable. The many attempts have perhaps prevented further escalation, but a true peace seems far off.
Amid rebellion and resignation, amid many empty rhetoric and misguided ideologies, how do you live out your commitment to justice and peace?"
Talking about dialogue, justice and peace in the Holy Land is always exhausting. It is a task that we try to evade more and more often, to avoid “empty rhetoric and misguided ideologies”, as you say, which for years has characterized meetings, discussions and assemblies of various kinds, and which today everyone is somewhat tired of. We also avoid it because dialogue and peace seem to be precisely a mirage that is becoming more and more distant. And this leaves feelings of frustration and mistrust, if not “rebellion and resignation”, in people’s souls. For this reason, in recent years, I try as much as possible to avoid talking about it. As pastor of the Church of Jerusalem, I consider it more fruitful to speak to my community about unity, about the capacity to create bonds as something constitutive of the life of faith, both among ourselves in the Church and with everyone else, rather than telling them about things like “justice and peace”, “hope” or “the future”, just to avoid falling into triviality and therefore into insignificance. I am increasingly convinced, moreover, that we cannot speak of hope if we do not have faith, because hope is the child of faith. To talk about hope today, without placing it in a context of faith and trust, is really empty rhetoric, as you say.
But back to the question you asked me: why then did I agree to speak here about "justice and peace”? I did so because you suggested that I approach this topic from a very specific angle, the personal one, that is, asking me how I live my commitment to justice and peace.
This perhaps allows me to address the topic in a more concrete and meaningful way.
Today, it is true that, on a political and institutional level, talking about peace and justice in the Middle East and the Holy Land is a bit like taking the side of those who are tilting at windmills. However, it is nonetheless necessary that the desire for peace and justice finds a place in everyone's heart, especially in those who have responsibilities. It must be clear for each of us, and especially for us believers, that the commitment to peace and justice is not a bonus in the life of faith, an incidental element, which one can do without. On the contrary, faith in God immediately generates a desire for good in every man or, as the theme of this year's meeting puts it, an irresistible "passion" for mankind to have a life worthy of their vocation, as people who were created in the image and likeness of God.
Before I say how I live my commitment in this regard, however, I need to at least briefly outline the context in which I live, so that it will be clearer what that commitment consists of, and whether and how I express it. I do not intend to present here the complex political, religious and social dynamics of the Holy Land. Besides being fairly well known by now, at least in broad strokes, there are countless studies on the subject that anyone can find. Not to mention that it would take me too much time, and that I think it would be uninteresting anyway. It is enough for me to say that on the political and social level, to which the religious level is linked, what is common to all, Israelis and Palestinians alike, is the lack of trust. No one trusts the other anymore, on the political as well as on the social level. Both populations do not even want to hear about the so-called "peace process," after its many failures and betrayals. Politics, on both sides of the wall, is weak: five political elections in two years for Israel, and no political elections since 2005 for Palestine. On both sides, there is a lack of political leadership, an increasing polarization of political positions, a lack of vision, and huge economic and social disparities between Palestinians and Israelis... In Gaza, the situation is even more problematic: two million people locked inside a very small strip of land, in a situation of severe poverty and very high unemployment. There, people are deprived of water and electricity for several hours during the day, under a regime increasingly in trouble and, at the same time, deeply intrusive into the lives of the population and institutions. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the expansion of settlements makes the prospects for a possible – albeit distant – agreement increasingly tenuous. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority's grip on life in the territory is weakening. Deeper and more painful among Palestinians, moreover, is the feeling of abandonment of their cause by the international community: the impression that the occupation of which they are victims no longer interests the world as it once did, and that they are left alone to fight for their rights, for the independence of their country, Palestine, and for a dignified life. The list of crises, in short, is long, but I will stop here. These are just some of the elements that nevertheless characterize the life of my community, in which I have been called to work.
What does it mean, then, in this context, to be committed to peace and justice? How does this commitment build my life and my role as a pastor, called to speak a clear word, a word of truth, certainly, but also, at the same time, a word that gives confidence? A word that opens perspectives, that does not lock me and my community in an attitude of resignation or rebellion, especially in the already mentioned context of distrust and lack of political dynamics that bring about real change?
First of all, it is necessary, for such a commitment, to have a real personal conviction. One cannot separate one’s own words from one’s own beliefs. Witness credibility is the necessary prerequisite for any serious commitment. The work of a church speaking out for peace and justice would make no sense and would not succeed in any way if its pastor did not truly believe it. One must truly be convinced and deeply aware that in this torn context, commitment to peace and justice must be – as I said – the first and immediate expression of one's life of faith. If my primary task as a pastor is to guard God's presence in the true life of my community, it must also be clear to me that defending God's rights also means defending human rights, and vice versa. These two aspects cannot be separated.
Each pastor, moreover, necessarily brings to this personal commitment his personality, his life experience, his sensibility, his history.
It would not make sense for me to talk about justice and peace the way my predecessors, like Patriarch Sabbah for example, did. And this is both because times have changed and because my history and experience are different. My commitment, my words must be, to be credible, consistent with who I am. At the same time, it is also important to be aware that my being here in the Holy Land as a pastor is not the fruit of chance but of Providence, which means that Providence, at this time, needs a commitment to justice and peace linked to my being, my personal experience, something I have the duty to transmit to my community. I am also aware, of course, that communication must be two-way: that my story, personality and experience must be enriched by my community’s listening and participation. They have the right to find in me an attentive heart capable of understanding.
What, then, is my approach, what is close to my heart in this commitment, what disturbs and troubles me?
I believe that one cannot seriously talk about Justice and Peace from a Christian perspective without adding to them the word Forgiveness, which, however, is considered almost taboo in the Holy Land.
I am convinced that we will not be able to overcome the obstacles that stand today in the path of reconciliation, nor build a peaceful future, if we do not have the courage to purify our reading of history from the huge burden of pain and injustice that still heavily conditions the present and many of the choices made today. It is not a matter of forgetting, certainly. However, it will be very difficult to build a peaceful future if one places "being a victim" as the basis of one's personal, social and national identity, rather than basing one's prospects on a common hope. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient to overcome this impasse. There can be no purification of relationships if one does not have the courage to talk about forgiveness, to open up paths of reconciliation, not only at the level of small groups or communities, but in a more general context, both political and religious.
This is not an obvious topic: in the Israeli-Palestinian political context, forgiveness is understood as giving up the defense of one's rights. The various local cultural and religious matrices, moreover, have a huge influence on this issue. Judaism, Islam and Christianity have very different approaches to the experience of forgiveness, which is often understood by all as somewhat synonymous with weakness.
This discourse, however, requires first and foremost my personal willingness to live forgiveness, to be reconciled, to have my community see in me that reconciliation and forgiveness are not words, but a lived life, visible and tangible, and that forgiveness generates Peace. They must see in me a person at peace, capable of making a vital synthesis between faith in God and life.
As for the impact on the real lives of my people, in fact, one question must be kept in mind, a question that is not easy to answer: how can I help them rethink their history and purify their memory, how can I speak of forgiveness to my people as long as their daily life is marked by injustice and pain? Often, people say to me, "For you Italians it is easy to talk about peace, justice and forgiveness, but for us who experience these difficulties every day, how do you think it is possible to talk about forgiveness?". Such a thing is not easy to answer, yet I remain convinced that talking about forgiveness is necessary – while being aware that it is also necessary to listen and to give voice to that very resistance to forgiveness. This reconciliation and synthesis is difficult, always painful, and does not always work. To remain in and to live through this laceration is also part of my service, without the pretension of imposing solutions, but simply "to be" in this expectation that is both trusting and painful, full of hope for a possible change yet exhausting, but also based on faith in the providential God.
And this is where another aspect comes into play, one that is not often talked about, but that is essential in the service I make: loneliness. Committing oneself to peace and justice, along with forgiveness, is not something that elicits immediate sympathy. To be in the midst of situations where full adherence is required on one side or the other, to give voice to the claim for rights and justice for those whose dignity as a person or people is wounded and offended, yet without giving in to the temptation to exclude, reject, or ostracize, necessarily also requires accepting to sometimes be – at best – misunderstood. It is not a given that my words will be understood, that my approach will be accepted. But if they come from a personal, inner, sincere, faith-based conviction, then I must also know how to accept this inevitable, consequent loneliness as a necessary means, to bear fruit in its own time – loneliness that only a serious, solid relationship with Christ can sustain. I don't think it is possible to be truly committed, as a believer, to justice and peace, and simultaneously be acclaimed.
For many years, I have been accompanied in this discernment by a Gospel passage: the dramatic choice forced upon the people between Jesus and Barabbas. It is a choice that is placed before each of us, every day. Pilate shows the people two figures of the Messiah: Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas, in Aramaic, means “Son of the father”. It is a title that mimics the figure of Jesus, the real Bar-Abba, the Son of the Father who calls the latter “Abba”. Barabbas was an activist, as we would say today: he fought for the liberation of his people. He had his own followers, he wanted justice, freedom, dignity for his people: his messianism was simple, concrete, attractive and not at all utopian. On the other side, there was Jesus.
As Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, I have found myself, from the very beginning, in a situation that requires a choice, a clear and precise position in the face of the more or less armed conflict that I described at the beginning. How do I reconcile this demand to take sides with who I am and what I just said about forgiveness? More generally, I frequently ask myself the question of how to defend the rights of God and man in this context, that is, how to talk about forgiveness, how to be faithful to Christ who, on the cross, freely forgives, without giving the impression that I am not defending the flock entrusted to me, their rights, their expectations? What does it mean concretely to be on the side of Jesus and not Barabbas? How to preach love to enemies without giving the impression to unwittingly confirm one narrative against the other, Israeli versus Palestinian, or vice versa? How to heal divisions with firm and just choices, without creating more rifts, and always with mercy? How to be a bishop, to demand obedience, but to turn the other cheek to those who do not obey and foment conflict? Every day I too am forced to make a choice: Jesus or Barabbas.
In the Middle East, in Jerusalem as in Aleppo, every Christian, like me, is faced with this dramatic choice: Jesus or Barabbas? To die on the cross or to fight?
How can you speak about deliverance from the bondage of sin, about forgiveness, when your people suffer from the domination of a foreign authority? Is it permissible to measure pain and loss of life by quantity? More concretely, I am often asked, "How can I expect to forgive the Israelis who oppress me, as long as I am under oppression? Wouldn't that mean giving them the upper hand, giving them free rein, without defending my rights? Before talking about forgiveness, is it not necessary that justice be done?" The Israelis, in turn, may reply, "How can I forgive those who kill my people?" These are questions behind which there is real, sincere pain. "How can you speak of a relationship with the 'Father who art in heaven' when your child, your father, your mother are killed, or arrested and humiliated before your eyes? How can you speak of joy in the Spirit to me when I am deprived of my basic rights?" After all, Barabbas is not so bad. In fact, he is reasonable.
Yet choosing Christ is not choosing indifference to the evil in the world. Yes, there is the “Barabbas mentality”, the fundamentalism of those who want to make some kind of new crusades; there is also the indifference of a disembodied Christianity. After all, the Christians chose Christ, who died on the cross, failed and defeated. From a strictly human point of view, there is no doubt that forgiveness resembles defeat. Jesus did not solve any of the social and political problems of his time. Jesus did not liberate mankind from any human oppression. He did not effect liberation, but deliverance. He re-established in its deep root the relationship between God and men and between men and men.
In the face of the evil in the world, in conclusion, then, is my duty as a pastor to say that the Christian's task is simply to suffer, to die on the cross like Jesus, to allow onself to be pierced, to be defeated? That Christians have nothing to say in the face of the tragedy unfolding before them? Certainly not.
In the face of the situation in the Middle East, certainly Christians give of themselves as much as anyone else, because justice, peace, freedom, dignity and equality are attitudes they have experienced personnally, attitudes that belong to them and that they want to become common to all. They cooperate with everyone, without any exclusions, to make this desire come true. Christians desire and fight for justice and dignity because both belong to the harmony that has been restored to us through the sacrifice of Christ. Yet Christians also do not allow themselves to be changed by the evil that is before them, even though they suffer from it like anyone else, because they have already been liberated and redeemed. According to Barabbas' mindset, however, this way of striving for justice and peace is a failure; it will lead nowhere. It is a strategy of wishful thinking with no future. According to this view, Christianity in the Middle East is powerless, finished, crushed.
Yet the testimony of so many people, especially the little ones, the poor, those who have nothing, tells us that, although much is destroyed, a seed remains. And from there life will be born again.
I can testify to the experience of the Christian community in Gaza.
It is a small community; a few hundred people in an ocean of two million. They have every right to feel crushed and limited in their rights; they experience huge difficulties, and not only economic. But perhaps it is precisely the strong religious character that pervades the Gaza Strip that affects this small community, whose life revolves entirely around the Church. On top of serving the Christian community, three female and one male religious communities are dedicated to the disabled and education, and almost all of their beneficiaries are Muslims. Caritas, which is scattered throughout the Strip, from north to south, provides assistance to those who do not have access to medical care. I have personally met families who have nothing, but really nothing, who live in hovels with barely anything... but where Caritas is present and where its staff, both Christians and Muslims, totally dedicated to their mission, share a common passion: to do something useful for these people, to give them hope with simple but also concrete gestures, such as buying them a refrigerator, a stove, a bathroom, shoes for their children... Trivial things for us, but essential for those who have nothing. But, above all, it was a consolation for me to hear, from these young people of the Strip, that their first concern is to listen and not to let anyone feel lonely.
I have never heard, during my many visits to that community, a single word of resentment toward anyone. On the contrary, several times they expressed their concern not to let feelings of hatred, rebellion and anger dry up their hearts. I often like to quote the testimony of Ghada, a Christian from Gaza, who had the courage to come to Jerusalem and testify before the Church gathered for the Pentecost Vigil. She said she had not renounced her desire for justice for her people and for Gaza, but that she did not want to cultivate hatred toward anyone, and that she asked the Lord for the grace and strength of forgiveness every day. They are a drop in the ocean, it is true, but they are also a church community that is not closed in on itself and that has the courage to bet on the future together. Their courage and hope are based on a faith that is convinced, not artificial, and that gives strength to them and also to us who meet them. They are the little ones who concretely and truly build hope for the future.
It is clear to me that Jesus must not take on the face of Barabbas: in the Church, justice must not become justicialism, transparency must not turn into pillorying, and the justice of the Cross must not be drowned in worldly justice. For both sides of the conflict, I have the duty to bear witness to my community's participation in the tragedies and hopes of these two peoples. They must be able to count on the fact that a Christian is never passive, indifferent, resigned. Our vocation is to prevent conflict from entering people's hearts, from burning their faith and hope, from becoming a way of thinking. Denying each other's existence, or being afraid of each other; knowing the other is there but rejecting them: for Christians it should not be like that. Being in Jerusalem for a Christian also means "being on the cross." Which means not only making the pain of others our own, but learning to forgive, as Jesus forgave the repentant thief on the cross. If we want to be on the cross with Jesus, we are then called, like Ghada of Gaza, to ask for the grace of forgiveness. We are called to desire salvation for all, even for the thieves, even for Barabbas. So, for me, being a Christian in the Holy Land means defending the Christian character of the Holy Land: not only defending people (defensor civitatis) and physical spaces (custody of the Holy Places and status quo), but first and foremost defending this testimony-martyrdom.
In conclusion, I continually ask myself, in this specific context that is mine, and which is perhaps different from others, what position to adopt in the face of these complex situations; how to commit myself to true, lived and experienced peace and justice, and not to "empty rhetoric and ideologies.” I believe it is good to be wary of those who offer certain, clear, easy answers. Easy answers in complex and torn contexts like ours are always fallacious.
I think it is often mostly a matter of being there, inside that wounded world; a matter of accepting sometimes that we have no other solution than to be there, to be close, to be neighbors, without pretending to teach forgiveness, but trying to share it. The only way to teach forgiveness, justice and peace is to experience and witness them. An academic exercise or a political decision may explain or ratify, but never precede the decision to commit oneself to peace, justice and forgiveness, which is the result of an option of the heart.
Because let's face it, after all, "forgiveness" is nothing but a synonym for "love". And only a great love for God and for one's community can give foundation and meaning to our commitment to peace and justice, and to a gesture as truly revolutionary as forgiveness.