Research Associate, Ashley Hibbard, offers reflections after reading Munther Isaac’s ‘The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope‘. This is a script written for our Lent Book Club session in 2023, which can be viewed here alongside the author explaining more about the book.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
I’m 38 years old, and hold a PhD in Theology. I have taught internationally and in cross-cultural contexts. I count as friends people from a diversity of places and Christian traditions. And still, it was less than six months ago that I first heard the term “The Nakba.” And I heard the term while participating in a meeting about running a conference with Palestinians. I nodded as if I understood, because the word was spoken so gravely that I was ashamed to reveal my ignorance, and like any good scholar Googled it later.
You sometimes hear people say, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s a bit of a tautology, I suppose, but one that I rather appreciate. It’s a reminder of the significance of our blindspots. If my vision is obstructed, I know that I’m missing something. But if something is in my blindspot, I don’t even know that I could be missing something. As I Googled “Nakba,” I realized that there was something I hadn’t known that I didn’t know.
One of the people in that meeting was Munther Isaac. Reference had been made to a book that he had written, The Other Side of the Wall, and upon realizing that I had some catching up to do, I quite immediately Googled, bought, and soon devoured it.
On a theological level, it wasn’t really new to me. One aspect of the evangelical tradition in which I was raised was a rejection of the Jews or ethnic Israel as the people of God in the new covenant era. We very openly (and, indeed, unaware of the baggage that this term has) adhered to replacement theology: we were taught that the new people of God is a people formed of every tribe and language and people and nation, and may of course include ethnic Israel, but not with any special status for them. We were not dispensational in the classic sense, and so did not believe that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 had any connection to biblical prophecies, covenants, or promises.
And yet isn’t it fascinating how little theological positions count for when they exist only in the abstract—if one has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no awareness of a world crisis that so many streams of the church have at best hushed, and at worst denied? While Munther’s book was nothing new to me theologically, it was a heartbreaking and convicting narrative of what it means to be part of a people group who is treated as a political pawn by powerful countries, and as a theological inconvenience by many rich and powerful denominations.
One of the things that is so striking about the book is Munther’s spirit of love. Rarely have I seen a work in which anger and love coexist in such a remarkable tension. He expresses anger at injustice and the settler-colonial project that has oppressed him and his people. But he also expresses a commitment to love them, because he is a disciple of the One who loved his oppressors.
In several chapters, Munther discusses that love through lens of the Good Samaritan. He thinks through what it means to be a neighbour, and in particular how that applies to Jews and to Muslims. I found these reflections on the parable to be particularly interesting as I attempted to apply them to myself, and my newly met Palestinian colleagues. And I came the realization that for many of us in the Western church, including myself, not only have we failed to serve as “Good Samaritans,” we haven’t even attained to the level of priests and Levites. The priest and Levite saw the beaten man, at the least. They were aware of the man’s situation. They probably had right theology about the situation: they knew that those who were suffering should be helped. I’m not trying to re-create them as heroes. They’re terrible people in the story, because their theology and awareness doesn’t result in any action. But at least they knew.
Much of the church it seems to me, either is not aware, or does not have the right theology. It is an ironic theological failure that one of the major purposes of the new covenant—the opening of the gospel equally to people of every tribe and language and people and nation—is utterly undone by those who believe that ethnic Israel remains on a unique relational track with God
But it is the unawareness that is baffling. How can the Western church have such an enormous blindspot that we cannot see millions of fellow humans in need of mercy on the global roadside? And shouldn’t we find it a bit humiliating that the one who has been beaten and robbed has had to write a book to make others aware? What a bizarre parable that would make! “They stripped him and beat him and left him half dead. And because no one even saw him lying on the road as they passed, he pulled out paper and pen and wrote a book so that people would know about his suffering. Then, maybe knowing, they might be compelled to mercy.” That’s strange, but it gets stranger: what if, after writing that book, the man was told over and over again that he hadn’t been hurt, or made to explain that he didn’t hate those who had hurt him, and didn’t wish them ill? What if some people told him either that he had imagined his mistreatment, or that in fact it was the robbers’ right to take his things, and he should simply accept it? These are the sorts of painful realities for Palestinians that Munther describes in his book.
Now That We Know
Before the book, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. After the book, I was left with the question, “what will I do, now that I know?”
Of course, straightforward answers are rare in such difficult situations. Perhaps part of the rise of “slacktivism” on social media is the desire to be able to do something simple for complex problems. And perhaps, slacktivism can have a place in raising awareness, which, as we have observed, is part of the problem for our Palestinian neighbours.
But, at least for me, it has made me think about how I spend my capital. And I’m not only, or even primarily, talking about money. All of us have social capital. When the subject of Israel comes up in my social network, am I willing to raise the subject of Palestine, especially if I know that might not be well received? I am a theological educator. Am I willing to spend some of my relational and educational capital in the classroom in order to point out the flaws in Zionist theology? What about time and bandwidth? With so many issues and directions in which our churches are pulled, many of them very worthy, am I willing to spend some of the bandwidth that I have to speak to the issue of oppression in Palestine and the sidelining of the Palestinian church?
Now, the very metaphor of capital reminds us that to support something is not without cost. Maybe it will close the door to some affiliations. Maybe it will close the door to some invitations. Maybe it will close the door to some jobs.
And maybe we should wonder if those opportunities are really worthwhile, if they do not do good to the world, and most especially if they come at the detriment of those whom our Lord calls brothers and sisters.
What Does this Mean for Lent?
This reflection was written originally for the CSBV’s 2023 Lent Book Club series, and so I wanted also to reflect on the intersection of this book, and Lent.
Lent is a season of entering into suffering, and into the life of our Lord. Through the forty days of Lent, we consider an event from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We consider what it is to prepare ourselves for temptation, and we reflect on how Jesus prepared for temptation through obedience, humility, and restraint. We see him reject not only objective sin (worshipping Satan) but also more subjective temptations: to focus on himself, instead of on the preparation for his mission. Discerning between good and evil is much easier than discerning between what is good, and what is better. And perhaps one thing we see in Jesus’ rejection of the first temptation is a reminder to focus on others, and on the work of kingdom proclamation. As Christians, as churches, sometimes I think that too often, our focus is inward to the diminishment of our concern for and identification with our global sisters and brothers.
As Lent draws to a close, we consider the end of Jesus’ ministry: how he faced undeserved suffering and wrongful death, perpetrated both by his enemies and by those who should have loved him. And, perhaps worst of all, the shame he experienced in being abandoned by his friends and brothers. The church today has too often acted like frightened or even uncaring disciples, abandoning those who are loved by Jesus in their time of need, and therefore abandoning him (Matt 25:45).
Let me conclude with a bit of a true-to-life parable. For as long as I’ve known what domestic violence is, I’ve believed it to be wrong. But I can’t say it ever touched me emotionally in my younger years. It was intellectual knowledge, but not a conviction born of love. In my early twenties, one of my dearest cousins left a marriage that, unknown to nearly everyone, had been abusive for many years. I spent a great deal of time with her in those months mostly just listening, being present for everything from shattered holidays to travesties of court proceedings. And watching the pain of what someone endures in that situation has given me a real passion about the issue of domestic violence, because I saw it lived by someone whom I love.
As I have come to know some of my counterparts at Christ at the Checkpoint, as I’ve heard their hearts, and dreamed and planned with them about holding a research conference, listened to their messages, and in one case read their book, I have come to know not only an issue, but also—more importantly—a people. And while I may not know them as well as I know my cousin, I have come to care, quite deeply. I hope I will be someone who cares well, whose knowledge compels me to mercy. As with learning about domestic violence by the lived experience of my cousin, so too have I learned about the suffering of my Palestinian brothers and sisters through the lived experience shared in this wonderful book.
May I encourage you all: take, and read. You don’t know what you don’t know. But read this memoir of lament and hope, and learn to love a people who, perhaps, you have not known.
Register for our Annual Conference taking place 28-29th June 2023, titled ‘Let Justice Roll: Scripture and Power in Palestine’. Munther Isaac will contribute in the first session. The conference is being held in person at Bristol Baptist College, and online only tickets are also available. Recordings will be made available to ticket holders following the sessions.
Ashley is currently adjunct faculty at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She has a BRE from Great Lakes Bible College (2010), an MDiv from Heritage Theological Seminary (2014), and a PhD in Theology from Trinity College/University of Aberdeen (2020). Her PhD dissertation was entitled, “Deep Calls to Deep: an investigation into a chain of intertextualities between some Genesis narratives and Deuteronomic laws.” Ashley is the lead editor of the Journal for the Study of Bible and Violence.