This post is written by Michael Kimpan, our Associate Director at The Marin Foundation. You can read more from Michael at his blog here – and his book, Love Never Fails :: Building Bridges Between the Church and the Gay Community will be available for pre-order soon (2015, IVP).
In recent posts on my personal blog, I’ve explored the ways in which provocative questions surrounding peaceful and productive interfaith dialogue can help lead Christians toward acting like (i.e., following) Jesus in new and exciting ways, rather than perpetuating the disturbing competition with and condemnation of those who follow other faith traditions. Monumental in helping formulate any articulation of the importance of standing in solidarity with the so-called ‘Other’ is the work of Brian McLaren – particularly his book Why Did Jesus, Mosess, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World and the subsequent significant conversations he and I shared in the aftermath of its release.
It seems to me that the trans-cultural and trans-generational principles adopted by The Marin Foundation in our work of building bridges between the LGBT and conservative communities parallel in many ways – and can perhaps even inform our moving forward in – many other conflicts between opposing worldviews. This may be particularly true in those areas in which faith and politics intersect.
One such area – and one with great need of peacemakers and bridge builders – is the Middle East.
And though our organization (unfortunately!) cannot claim to have Pope Francis on our payroll, it seems the pontiff was doing just that in his most recent visit.
TIME news recently reported that in just one fifty-five hour trip to the Holy Land, the Bishop of Rome accomplished quite a bit – Francis visited three different countries, gave fifteen addresses, planted a couple of trees and held a groundbreaking, 45 minute press conference. The pope celebrated three Masses – first in Jordan, then in Bethlehem, and finally in the Cenacle – the place considered to be the location of the Last Supper.
It is admittedly something of a miracle his visit went so well – in a place where religion and politics are an increasingly explosive mix, every move is scrutinized and analyzed – and much like the spaces we inhabit at the intersection of faith and sexuality between conservatives and progressives, each action is bound to offend someone.
One example – even prior to the Pope’s arrival, Israelis were upset that he went to Palestine before visiting Israel. The Vatican reportedly finessed this by noting that ‘[the] pope did not want to enter Israel on the Sabbath, a day of rest for the Jews.’ In this way, he gave the Palestinians what they wanted without overtly offending the Israelis.
The visit was filled with such symbolic gestures of respect for the countries and faiths brought together at intersection of the most fought over real estate on the globe.
But for all the planning that went into such an event, what may have the largest lasting impact on the region – and the world – may have been Pope Francis’s Sunday surprises.
On Sunday, Francis arrived in Bethlehem and made an unexpected stop that surprised nearly everyone (including his security detail) :: en route to Manger Square for an open-air Catholic Mass, he halted the car and caused a flurry of press, security and other interested onlookers as the 77-year-old pontiff walked over to the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. Beneath the graffiti scrawled ‘Bethlehem,’ he reached out, placed his hand on the wall – and prayed.
Pictures of the pope resting his head against the wall provided an iconic image to the watching world.
In one simple gesture, both the Israeli military in the watchtower above and the Palestinian people below were all transfixed upon the Pope. As one TIMES reporter observed, ‘He rendered all sides powerless by drawing them into his service, the most counterintuitive service of prayer.’
Moments later while celebrating mass, Francis made an improv and historic invitation to both Israeli President Shimom Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -
‘In this place where the Prince of Peace was born, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the git of peace. And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer.’
In under an hour, both leaders had accepted his invitation.
In a peace process which has been largely dormant for the past four years, one simple invitation of radical hospitality will accomplish what no other world leader has been able to recently – to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the same room.
Does this mean peace for the Middle East? Not necessarily, as critics and commentators were quick to point out. As Daniel Levy told The New York Times to suggest that the mere sight of Peres, Abbas and the Pope having a conversation together is necessarily going to change the world is most likely naive. But it would undoubtedly foster a different mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians – and facilitate an opportunity for more significant conversations to take place.
To reduce this act to one of mere symbolism fails to understand the role and influence religious peacemakers can have – in just this past century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama have consistently shown that faith and conviction – when purposed toward peace and love – can have a tremendous and positive impact on the posture and policy of world leaders.
Building bridges is not easy anywhere – and most certainly not in the Middle East – but with astute intentionality and purposeful placating, the papacy’s bridges to these communities may in fact provide a mutual path to peace brokered by the respectful inclusion of each of the three Abrahamic faiths. In what ways can those of us invested in conversations surrounding the intersection of faith and sexuality mirror this radical hospitality toward the Other in our lives?
What do you think?