Two New Interchurch Guides to the Middle East

Article excerpt

Two New Interchurch Guides to the Middle East

Two new books have been prepared for use in programs on the Middle East by North American Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches and individuals in 1992 and 1993. They result from the fact that, for the first time since 1979/80, the ecumenically endorsed international mission study cycle will focus again on the Middle East. As in past years, Friendship Press processes and distributes the recommended publications and videos.

The basic book for the 12-month period now beginning is entitled Angle of Vision: Christians and the Middle East. Its author is Southern Baptist Professor Charles A. Kimball who, from 1983 to 1990, served as Middle East director of the National Council of Churches (NCC). He opens by reminding readers of the existence of millions of Middle Eastern Christians with an anecdote about an American couple who, upon meeting a Lebanese Christian, asked him, "Under what missionary effort did your family convert?"

"The missionary effort of the Apostle Paul," the Lebanese replied.

In readable style, Kimball then describes the churches of the region and the events that shaped them. These include the contagious courage of the early martyrs, and the fourth century liberation--and politicization--of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine. There followed the historic councils that crystallized theology into creeds; the rise of Islam; and the Crusades that fought in vain against local Christians as well as Muslims and Jews to Europeanize the Bible Lands. The book then describes the modern missionary movements which, in the course of contributing to medical, educational and other aspects of modernization, sometimes undercut the indigenous churches. All of these strands are interwoven into the fabric of contemporary Middle Eastern churches.

Kimball also describes Western "parachurch" groups working independently of any recognized denominational entity and without reference to the interests of the Middle Eastern churches. With notable exceptions, they select and rearrange Bible verses as if they were applicable to current news events, without relevance to the context, conditions, or intentions of the original authors. Dangers of this approach include the dehumanizing of present-day Middle Easterners of all religious persuasions, and the ill-considered and opportunistic support of any action by any Israeli government, or of any Western military incursion, as fitting into "God's plan for the end times."

Kimball sees three other more salutary trends among Western Christians. One is the transformation of foreign-church-directed "missionaries" into "fraternal workers," supported from abroad, but locally directed. Another is "exchange missionaries" from the Middle East serving on the staffs of Western churches and agencies for set periods. The third and most stirring is the development of partnership ministries stimulated by the Middle East Council of Churches, representing Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

Over a quarter of the book is devoted to "Untangling the Political Web." This encompasses four headings: "The Causes of Conflict," "The Lessons of War," "The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict" and "Reasons for Hope." Peace and human rights activists will find this section helpful for enlightening and motivating the public, and will appreciate the terse, remedial analysis of stereotypes fostered by the "media barrage."

The book's title is drawn from page 6 of the unanimous 1980 NCC "Middle East Policy Statement," which reads in part:

"Historically, religious bodies ... have accepted (even asserted) responsibility for initiating and sustaining moral discourse on public issues of justice and political responsibility ... The religious community as such possesses an angle of vision which is different from that of the political party, the university or the research institute.

"Specifically, the Christian community understands itself to be a community of conscience. …