A Palestinian Christian living in Israel writes a book on reconciliation. Palestinian. Christian. Reconciliation. Put all those words together and I couldn’t resist to buy, read and review the book.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Theology of Reconciliation in the Context of Church Relations: A Palestinian Christian Perspective in Dialogue with Miroslav Volf” by Rula Khoury Mansour. 352 pages, published by Langham Monographs in January 2020.
How did I come across this book? The author is not famous. Yet. Maybe after this book review she will be. You won’t see this book in your bookshops. It’s not in any bestseller list. Yet. Again, maybe after this book review it will be.
I got to know of Rula Khoury Mansour from an interview Chris Wright did. When I heard she is a Palestinian Christian, I thought, “Cool! Rare species.” Listening to the interview, I learnt she wrote a book on reconciliation. That is just too many juxtapositions for me to ignore. I’ve got to read this book. And so I did.
We have an author’s biodata on the book’s cover but I like how she describes herself in the book.
I believe I am uniquely placed to research the topic of Palestinian Baptists in Israeli and their intra-church conflicts. I approached the analysis of the data not from the unsympathetic lens of an outsider nor from the uncritical lens of an insider. I’m neither solely a woman, wife and mother, nor just a Palestinian Christian, cultural Middle Easterner, British academic, Israeli citizen and lawyer who studied in secular Jewish universities and worked as a public prosecutor in the Israeli establishment. I am all of those identities together.
This book is a monograph, meaning it’s her research thesis. I paid good money for someone’s research thesis. I still find it surprising that I did this. But why should it be surprising? Instead of reading titillating trashy novels, imagine if we as a society enjoy a good monograph or two.
Don’t you think the title of this book is far more interesting than any trashy novel? I keep repeating myself but come on man, a Palestinian Christian in Israel writing on Reconciliation. Surely you see how intriguing this is. But is it any good? I’ve finished the book and I have three words to describe it: Intimate, Practical and Critical.
It’s intimate because the pastors and church members involved in the church conflicts are so exposed. She doesn’t name names, she uses pseudonyms. But there are only 3000 or so Palestinian Baptists in Israel. It’s a small community. How did she manage to draw out people who live in an honour and shame culture to speak of conflict which to them is shameful and to have it published for the world to read?
This is not a tabloid running a headline, “The Church War You Didn’t Know in Israel”. This is a practical book on reconciliation. I would like to think that the reason why the people opened up is they saw greater honour in sharing their unique perspective on church conflict that blesses the global church.
This is not a how-to book with the title, “Ten Steps to Reconcile with the Utterly Irreconcilable”. This book is critical in that it takes a theologian-scholar’s framework and tells us where it works and where it doesn’t in the Palestinian context. It’s a research monograph.
I have put off describing the structure of the book because I didn’t want to scare you to switch to another podcast. This book has subheadings that only researchers would love:
- Research Question
- Choice of Qualitative Methodology and Methods Used in the Study
- Research Plan
- Research Ethics
Take heart, if you are not a research geek, there is still plenty to love in this book.
The book is divided into two parts.
If you like ‘gossip’, you’ll appreciate Chapters 1 to 5. How did the Baptists wind up in Palestine and why did they leave? And curiously, why did the church splits only occur after they left? Did money and church buildings play a part? Was the problem the old men in power, the young rebellious group, the indomitable women or all of the above?
In Chapters 6 to 9, Mansour brings Miroslav Volf’s Theology of Reconciliation to the Palestinian context. Miroslav Volf has his own unique lived experience as a Croatian who lived through the Balkan Wars and has since famously contributed towards the theology of reconciliation. Mansour develops aspects of Volf’s work into four chapter-length critiques namely: “Theology of Remembrance”, “Theology of Forgiveness”, “Theology of Justice” and “Theology of Embrace”.
In Chapter 10, having identified some gaps in Volf’s framework as it pertains to the Palestinian context, Mansour makes some recommendations, which include a stronger role for the community, a place for venting, the need for rituals and dignity, restoration and others.
Conflict within a Conflict
That’s the overview, now let’s get into the conflict in Israel. Only this time, it’s not the conflict with rockets and bombs, the one debated in the United Nations, the one that arguably can be traced back to Old Testament times. We are going to study a conflict set in the background of a greater conflict. Imagine bombs exploding outside your home, while you are having a family quarrel inside your home. Welcome to the Palestinian Baptist Churches in Israel.
The Palestinian Baptists are a threefold minority.
As Palestinians, they are a minority in Israel. An unwelcome minority because Palestinians are a reminder of the greater, wider, conflict.
As Christians, they are a minority among Palestinians. Palestinians are mostly Muslims.
And lastly, as an evangelical, they are a minority among the Christian denominations. Baptists make up a tiny tiny slice of the Christian population.
Adding more fuel to the mix is how successive generations have engaged with the war around them. Citing historical research, Mansour presents three generations or stages in the Palestinian community: from 1948-1955 it’s the survival generation, from 1956-1988 it’s the worn-out generation and from 1990-2016 it’s the stand tall generation. And each generation deals with church conflict in a different way.
I can imagine some Christians getting uncomfortable reading the history of Israel from a Palestinian perspective.
For some Christians are so zealous for Zion that any news that implies national Israel is at fault is fake news. Israel is God’s chosen nation, it can do no wrong or the burden of proof is so high, it might as well be.
The main theme of this book is not the Israel-Palestine conflict. That is the background that influences the conflict in front of us, the Palestinian Baptist Churches. There isn’t much here to really trigger you but perhaps reading events from another perspective, from another sister-in-Christ’s perspective, will help you see not just the Israeli side, or the Palestinian side, but a Palestinian Christian side.
Churches A, B and C
Mansour presents three churches as her case study: Church A, B and C which are pastored by Pastor A, B and C respectively. In this review, I’ll pick examples from Church A just to give you a taste of what to expect as you progress through the book. This is the scenario at Church A, Mansour writes:
When Pastor A reached pension age, the church committee decided to extend his time as there was no replacement. Two years later, Pastor A and the deacons invited Pastor George to be assistant pastor for six months and then replace Pastor A. Pastor A’s wife claimed that George was invited without Pastor A being informed. After six months, surprisingly, Pastor A informed the deacons that he was not ready to resign and wished to continue. He suggested George could work under his authority, but George refused. This resulted in a dispute and many heated meetings. In one meeting, Pastor A overrode the constitution and dismissed the deacons and finally the church split and church A2 was founded.
Fortunately, they are all Christians. So after a night of soul-searching, Bible-reading and prayer, the Holy Spirit touched everyone’s hearts and they came crying to each other, embracing one another. Right? Nope. In church A, the conflict went on for years.
Didn’t anyone work to reconcile in these churches? There was. Mansour demonstrated that there were four different approaches used to resolve the conflict. She writes:
Two approaches are cultural: (1) The Israeli alternative-legalistic approach and (2) the Palestinian traditional sulha approach; and two approaches are theological: (1) the traditional Palestinian church approach and (2) the Western-Baptist approach.
The alternative-legalistic, traditional church and the Western-Baptist approach, if I describe them, will be familiar to you. The one that is not so familiar is the Palestinian traditional sulha approach. It’s alien, even exotic. When cultures collide, we become more aware of what we take for granted in our own culture, whether for good or for bad.
Let me quickly go through the sulha approach. Let’s say you offended someone. You need to form a jaha. The jaha are the respected elders of the community. A hodna or ceasefire agreement is called so that nobody is allowed to take revenge. The offender provides the jaha with a taffwid. The taffwid is an irreversible written authorisation to act on their behalf and it contains the commitment of the offender’s family to obey whatever verdict the jafa reaches.
Do you see the difference? One, your family is involved. Two, you commit to obey before you know the verdict. Exciting isn’t it?
The sulha not only has a different approach, it also has a different aim. In the sulha, conflict is bad, so we need to restore the status quo. In the Western-Baptist approach, conflict may be a good thing, and resolving the conflict may mean changing the status quo.
Now imagine what happens when two parties adopt different mechanisms and have different expectations. And it’s not as if they write up the protocol up front. A lot of the approach and expectations is implicit, they are not explicitly stated. This research is fascinating. You should stop listening to this review and just buy the very expensive monograph.
It’s Really Very Simple, We Just Need To…
I know what some of you are thinking. You are thinking that all they need to do, all every Christians in conflict should do is simply humbly go to the Bible.
Listen to this. I have edited this paragraph for brevity:
In case A, the group was given a few worksheets about biblical peace-making in preparation for the meeting. They met for two days. The purpose of this gathering was to discuss the problems and see how they could be resolved. During the meetings, there were sermons and Bible studies based on what Scripture says about unity and reconciliation (with a focus on Matthew 18). Two themes were addressed: relationships between believers and seeking the good of others over one’s own desires. Around nine prayer meetings and Bible studies took place during the retreat. While one group met with facilitators, the other group had prayer meetings.
Now when I read that, I was thinking, “that’s exactly how I think reconciliation work should look like. Lots of Bible and prayer.
Then listen to Mansour’s explain why the Western-Baptist approach failed:
The findings show that studying Scripture together was not sufficient to deal with the conflict. Interveners (missionaries and Western-minded pastors) focused on how to act and related to God and others. However, this approach ignored the pastors’ struggles, such as how to deal with feelings of rejection, anger, insult and loss of dignity. Also, it did not take into consideration that the parties were deeply related and influenced by their families, so any agreement was incomplete until approved by the family.
Frankly, Mansour has collected enough material on the conflict here to start a fire that would metaphorically burn down all the Palestinian Baptist Churches. She could, if she chose to, make one party the villain and the other, the hero. After all, many of us like our heroes and villains easily labeled. Well, I’m glad that Mansour didn’t try to force an easy narrative. She isn’t here to sell books, she is here to present her research. And her research shows that conflicts and attempts to reconcile are messy, painful and can be dragged on. There are no villains or heroes in this book. They are all simultaneously sinners and saints.
At half-time, it’s Volf-time. Here we have four superb chapters on Remembrance, Forgiveness, Justice and Embrace. What makes Mansour’s critique on Volf engaging is she uses his framework to analyse what happened to Church A, B and C. And in the process, helps us think through aspects of reconciliation in ways that I did not consider before.
For example, in reconciliation we all naturally focus on forgiveness because that seems to be where the Bible focus is. In the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant, the servant was forgiven 10,000 talents of gold but did not forgive his fellow servant who owed much less. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father forgives the son despite everything he did. So forgiveness is clearly important but what about remembering?
According to Volf, we should remember rightly. We should remember truthfully. Mansour takes this and compares against the churches in her case study.
Pastors remembered and focused on their church’s past glory and their contributions. They wondered how the “rebellious groups” could forget these past contributions. Pastor A spent 90 percent of the interview describing in detail the glory of church A during the 1970s-1980s revival. Pastor A’s wife told me, teary-eyed, “When I remember [the split] I get sad and so does Pastor A who has served the church all his life.” Rami, an ABC leader, told me that history is still alive in people’s minds; pastors expected that members would not forget their decades of service, and thus expected that their past contributions must influence the church’s present decision-making.
The idea here is if you cannot remember rightly, then this hinders reconciliation. This is just one example from the chapter on remembrance. There are more insights and examples which I won’t get into.
In the chapter on Justice, we consider what is the role of compensation or repentance in reconciliation. Surely, wrongs must be acknowledged and righted before we can speak of reconciliation.
In the chapter on Embrace, Volf and Mansour bring out the question of what does embrace look like, should we expect it and how can we work towards it.
I have not read any of Volf’s writings but if Mansour has presented Volf’s work properly, which she should since he is her research supervisor, then I appreciate how these chapters offer a brief introduction to Volf’s Theology of Reconciliation.
I also appreciate Mansour’s analysis against other theologians and ministers of reconciliation. For example, Mansour shows us that Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth & Reconciliation Committee in South Africa is less emphatic on justice compared to the other aspects.
In this book, Mansour models for us how to adopt a framework to a real-life problem: Church A, B and C, and shows us how well and how poorly the framework applies to the Palestinian context. We know we should adjust any solution or framework to the culture we are working on but we seldom get to study the friction of adopting an analytical model to a real-life culture.
This Book May Not Be For You
I like this book. I like the fact that this book exists. Its existence means there are Christians willing to share their reconciliation struggles to bless the wider Christian community. I am thankful that this is a recent monograph which means there continues to be believers studying reconciliation in the practice of the church. I am also thankful to note that the author is an unknown outside of Israel, and here I want to commend Langham for publishing books that some, most(?) publishers would not publish.
In fact, my experience with this book was so good, I bought another Langham Monograph which was available at a discount, “Interpersonal Reconciliation between Christians in a Shame-Oriented Culture: A Sri Lankan Case Study” by Mano Emmanuel. This book was discounted to USD6.27 which is a lot cheaper than Mansour’s book which cost USD25.99.
Warning Dear Reader
However, as much as I enjoy Mansour’s book and think the USD25.99 price tag worth the insight a Palestinian Christian in Israel offers on reconciliation, I am duty bound to warn you.
This is a research thesis. It’s not written for a popular audience. Perhaps this book review would generate some well-deserved interest on Mansour and her writing, and make it her while to write a book for the everyday reader.
And if she does write another book, I hope she tells us how well her recommendations work. Taking one example, in this book I reviewed today, she successfully showed a need for the people to express the injustice they experienced or the anger and disappointments they felt. She successfully showed how other approaches that did not consider this cultural aspect failed to move the people towards reconciliation. She successfully showed how Volf’s framework did not consider this aspect and she recommended venting be part of the reconciliation process, at least for Palestinian Christians.
Therefore, this leaves a big gap, a research gap, namely, do her recommendations work in the field? I hope one day to read an evaluation of these methods. It would also be amazing if we can one day read that Church A, B and C achieved reconciliation and how they are sharing the Lord’s goodness with other believers. Reconciliation is possible! Do not mistake the Lord’s arm to be so short that He cannot save you from your conflicts.
Other than buying the book and leaving good reviews, there are other ways we can encourage Rula Khoury Mansour and the Palestinian Baptist Churches in her case study. If you are a researcher, you can the read and cite her work and build on her work to advance the field one step further.
More powerfully, if this book has helped you reconcile with another, and what a miracle this is!, then send a note to Rula Khoury Mansour to thank her. And if it isn’t too much trouble, I would love to hear it as well. You can find my contact details at www.readingandreaders.com. That’s www.readingandreaders.com.
In conclusion, I found Mansour’s book to be an intimate look at the Palestinian Baptist Church, so intimate that I dearly pray my brothers and sisters there would agree in the Lord and I pray that peacemakers would come forth to help them.
The book is practical. Since reading the book, I have shared the ideas on the pulpit and applied them in a real life case, specifically the need to remember truthfully and to integrate the past into the present.
The book is critical. I learnt how to take a framework and evaluate it critically in my context. When I first heard of Mansour and her book in Chris Wright’s interview, I didn’t know her book was a monograph. After reading the book, I realised that I can enjoy reading a monograph.
Let me close this book review with Matthew 5:9, which says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” May the Lord send his peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation to work in Israel-Palestine and the Palestinian Baptist Churches.
This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Theology of Reconciliation: A Palestinian Christian Perspective in Dialogue with Miroslav Volf” by Rula Khoury Mansour. 352 pages. Published by Langham Monographs in January 2020. Thank you for listening.
- “Theology of Reconciliation: A Palestinian Christian Perspective in Dialogue with Miroslav Volf” by Rula Khoury Mansour. Amazon. Logos.
- “Interpersonal Reconciliation between Christians in a Shame-Oriented Culture: A Sri Lankan Case Study” by Mano Emmanuel. Amazon.
- “Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation” by Miroslav Volf. Amazon.