Where can hope be found in the suffering and affliction of the Middle East?

Added about 7 years ago by Rosemary Radford Ruether

How can hope be found in the midst of such suffering and affliction? Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether delves into Mary C. Grey’s latest book for some answers.

The Spirit of Peace: Pentecost and Affliction in the Middle East is the third in a trilogy of volumes by Mary C. Grey, focusing on peace and justice in relation to Middle Eastern Christians, especially Palestinians. The first volume (SPCK, 2010) focused on Advent; the second (SPCK, 2012) on Easter, and this third volume (Sacristy Press, 2015) lifts up the theme of Pentecost, with an emphasis on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. The Holy Spirit calls us to engage in the struggle for justice and peace.

Mary Grey opens the volume by asking, “Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?” Just three years ago there was the dawn of a vision of peace and justice in the Middle East. Just a few years later that vision seems to have vanished and instead there has been a renewal of new threats of violence between Middle Eastern People, especially against Middle Eastern Christians 

The first chapter asks the question, “How does one do theology in the midst of suffering and affliction?” Such affliction creates experiences of forsakenness by God. How can one talk about God in the context of experiences of being forsaken by God? This is particularly the situation of the Palestinian people whose affliction bears the added contradiction of being inflicted on them by the Jewish people, who themselves were the victims of affliction by Christians over two millennia.

Chapters Two, Three and Four go into detail on the afflictions of particular peoples and areas of the Middle East and especially for Christians in these areas. Chapter Two lifts up the experience of the city of Gaza, an ancient city in the south of Israel, which has been a part of Christian history for two millennia. In the twentieth century, Gaza became a city heavily inhabited by Palestinian refugees driven out of Israel in the 1948 war. Today Gaza has been made into a city surrounded by an Israeli blockade crowded by residents with little chance of gaining education and work in the surrounding areas. Periodically Israel attacks Gaza and inflicts new levels of suffering and affliction. Although most Gazans are Muslims, a few thousand Christians live there as well. The Gazan story is central to the story of Palestinian suffering and affliction.

The second area of suffering in the Middle East addressed by Mary Grey is Syria. It too has a long Christian history going back two millennia. It was in the city of Antioch in Syria that Christians were first called Christians, according to the Book of Acts 11:26. Today Syria is constantly in the news as an area suffering from civil war, in which millions of people have been displaced and killed. It has become a central regions for unjust suffering. In vast refugee camps these displaced people have little opportunity for work or education. Their children look forward to a cruel future without these skills. How can we speak of Pentecost, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in this midst of this affliction?

The third area discussed by Grey is Egypt. Here is one of the most ancient centers of Middle Eastern culture, going back many millennia. The great river Nile flowing down its center has long served for the source of life for the Egyptian people. Egyptian Christians are about 12 per cent of the Egyptian people, forming the Coptic community which has been a part of this land from the beginning of the Church. St Mark, the disciple of Jesus, was proclaimed as a founder of the Coptic church in AD 49. Yet today the Coptic people are a suffering church. The promise of peace with justice with the outpouring of the Spirit holds out little hope for this ancient Christian church.

In the fifth chapter Gray raises the question, “how do we break the impasse that binds these Middle East Christian people into suffering and affliction?” How do Western people clarify the injustice of the Palestinian experience of loss of land in Israel, without confusing the critique of their suffering with the historic anti-semitism that western people have inflicted on the Jews? To speak truthfully about these two histories challenges western culture to sort out its own contradictions toward our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters.

Grey then turns to a second impasse that needs to be sorted out. How have middle eastern women, particularly Palestinian women, played unique roles in testifying against injustice, while also cultivating the unique beauty of their skills and gifts? Jewish women too have been key in leadership for justice and reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, led by the movement of the “women in Black.” Women’s role in justice and the cultivation of the beauties of culture need also to be valued as part of the gifts of the Spirit.

Finally Grey turns to the question of how the Holy Spirit is leading us to a new future, for all these people, Jews and Palestinians. The ancient port towns of Israel remind us of ancient stories of these regions that point of new futures. God’s outpouring Spirit must be seen as the power of resistance to evil. This calls us into active solidarity of Christians around the world with the suffering and afflicted Christians of the Middle East. Pentecost lifts up the renewed hope of the outpouring of God’s spirit that ever promises new energy for justice and peace.

Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether is an eminent feminist scholar and Catholic theologian.

Professor Mary C. Grey’s book, The Spirit of Peace: Pentecost and Affliction in the Middle East, is available from Sacristy Press in paperback and e-book formats.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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