by | May 27, 2024

[The Lord said,] “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:7

In these times when it seems easier to divide than to connect, I’ve noticed how even when we speak to each other, even when we think we’re speaking the same language, we might say the same word, but mean very different things. So the confusion that was injected into the human experience after the Tower of Babel has become quite insidious, because we don’t even realize that we are envisioning different concepts when speaking to each other. How can we understand each other when we don’t know all the different experiences, perspectives, and word views we bring to each interaction?

Take, for instance, the brave conversations that have been happening around the United States about race issues. I feel that folks have made significant progress in our efforts to eradicate racism, and one sign of that progress is our ability to talk more openly about race and racism. But the word “racism” or, even more anxiety-producing, “racist” causes a visceral reaction in some folks that often stops the conversation. I confess that in my cynicism, my initial thought was that the reaction was a useful way to defend against a difficult discussion. But the pain is quite evident and sincere for many folks, and my current theory is that we define “racist” differently. It reminds me of how we don’t like to talk about “sin” in church, though especially as Reformed Christians, we are very aware of our sinfulness.

Some of us think of sin as the intentional, malicious act of an individual, or worse, the evil character of that individual. This is why we are so troubled by the idea of innocent babies being born into sin. Church leaders try to address this by defining sin not as an intentional act but just “missing the mark” or being imperfect. More frequently, we just stop talking about sin altogether. Personally, I believe we are born into sin by virtue of being born into a broken world, and so we are infected by the brokenness of the world long before we can defend ourselves against it. Worse, we are told that the broken world is not broken, so our perceptions are distorted from the start.

In a similar way, some people understand racism to be the intentional, malicious actions of individuals who hate other individuals. But others think of racism as a systemic illness, an example of the brokenness of the world which impacts us from birth. For most of us, we do not choose the prejudices we pick up out of the fears of the people or media around us—and we certainly don’t choose whether we are born into privilege or marginalization. But, as with other challenges or privileges that are thrust upon us, we learn to be responsible with the cards we are dealt.

Lately, we have all been shocked by the catastrophic violence that has occurred in Israel and Palestine, especially on and after October 7, 2023. For myself, I have also been mystified by the reactions to the conflicts in the United States, including the conflicts on college campuses. Our Education, Equipping, and Empowerment Committee (EEE) decided to offer the “God’s Word in God’s Land” seminar as a way of addressing what some pastors were seeing in our churches. It was a revelation for me, because I did not realize there were so many people in our Presbyterian churches who follow the theory that the current nation of Israel must be protected at all costs—including at the cost of Palestinian lives—in order to fulfill a prophecy about the return of Christ. In the first hour of the seminar, Dr. Dennis Okholm addressed the difference between the dispensationalism of what is now considered the Evangelical church (that’s another term that has meant different things!), and what he called the “amillenial” belief of Presbyterians (some might talk more about “covenant theology”—or maybe I’m still confused; I always swore I would never use the word “eschatology” in my ministry).

In the planning for the event, the word “Zionism” kept coming up, and at least for me it became a cause for confusion, because that word is used to describe many different things. Interestingly, the word was not used much in the “God’s Word in God’s Land” seminar, but Dr. Tommy Givens instead discussed the ways the name “Israel” references different peoples.

But Zionism seems to raise fear and anxiety for many, and in different ways. I have mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day event, held on Israel’s Memorial Day, when Israelis remember those who gave their lives defending the present state of Israel. After the event, there was a Zoom webinar with two peace activists, one Israeli and one Palestinian: Maoz Inon, whose parents were killed on October 7th, and Musa Juma‘a, a doctor born and raised in Jerusalem who lost an aunt and eight cousins in the current violence in Gaza. A week later, Maoz Inon and another Palestinian peace activist, Aziz Abu Sarah, met with Pope Francis, and the Pope signed a letter they brought from 250 peace organizations calling on the G7 nations “to working together multilaterally – and with other international partners – to . . . build the foundations necessary for a negotiated and lasting Israeli- Palestinian peace.” The embrace they shared offered more hope than any of the words spoken.

As with many major actions for peace, the road is not straight. During the Zoom meeting with Mr. Inon and Mr. Juma‘a, the chat was mostly supportive and positive, but then some disagreement arose about Zionism. It was disturbing to me that even in this hard-fought effort to build peace between Palestinians and Israelis, disagreement rose up. But as I reflect on this, I believe that the way of understanding and peace does not come from a lack of disagreement, but the practice of communicating disagreement as a way of learning and broadening our understanding. As St. Francis of Assisi prayed,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

There are so many points of confusion and disagreement in this broken world. But that means there are that many opportunities for communication and understanding—and perhaps that communication and understanding will lead to mutual compassion, respect, upbuilding, and maybe even peace. St. Francis was also quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Sometimes we can come to an understanding through a mutual hug, or by working together. That is the purpose behind our annual Day of Service, which will be held on June 15th this year. I hope you will join us, and as we work side by side, we come to appreciate each other beyond the words we speak.

Praying for peace,