Reflections on Interreligious Peacebuilding with Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J.: The Middle East

By: John Borelli

December 19, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

Drew Christiansen and I became friends and colleagues from his earliest weeks after his arrival in 1991 at the U.S. Catholic Conference to direct international justice and world peace. I was already at the sister organization, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, developing interreligious relations, especially with Muslim leaders in the United States, and staffing Orthodox-Christian ecumenical relations.

Our friendship and collaboration continued through Drew’s and my succeeding positions. While he was still editor-in-chief at America, we co-authored an article, which appeared in three publications, on Muslims in America 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. At Georgetown University, we co-authored a piece on Vatican II to serve as an introduction to a volume of papers from a 2015 conference, “Vatican II: Remembering the Future.” I miss Drew dearly, and will for the rest of my life, because he was one of those friends whose company I truly enjoyed and with whom I shared limitless concerns and interests from academic topics, to spiritual themes, to personal hunches and feelings.

We could not avoid Middle East political, religious, and social issues in any of the relationships that we shared with Orthodox Christians, Muslims, or Jews. Before I arrived in Washington to inaugurate a position on interreligious relations for the bishops’ conference, there had been a trialogue of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, sponsored by Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, but it eventually had foundered on these same Middle East goals. By 1987, it no longer convened, and when Drew arrived in 1991, there was little energy for attempting such a trilateral conversation again. Consequently, Drew and I had to work in three separate contexts because all three groups—Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims—were preoccupied with issues within each of their families, especially regarding the Middle East, and wanted discussions with Catholics to be only bilateral.

We could not address improving interreligious understanding without taking notice of pressing international issues. We could not put our attention towards understanding international issues without taking account of religious presumptions and perspectives. We also had to deal with negativity from those in our own Catholic communities who viewed Middle East conflict as irresolvable or who often represented anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim attitudes. Besides, by 1991, global issues were pushing our relationships, as representatives of the national conference of bishops, with Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims into arenas that were more political than religious: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the intervention of the United States in the first Iraq war, the first intifada in Palestine well underway, and the Balkans heating up to end the twentieth century with a war.

In Drew’s view, interreligious dialogue was the third of three important factors for international peacebuilding: 1) justice and forgiveness, 2) solidarity, and 3) dialogue. Working with Drew to build relationships, we sought to emphasize John Paul II’s Word Day of Peace message for 2002, a most important one after 9/11: “There is no peace without justice, and no justice without forgiveness.”

In time, I came to understand that the pope was offering an editorial change in Nostra Aetate, the 1965 Vatican II declaration on interreligious dialogue:

In the course of centuries there have indeed arisen not a few quarrels and hostilities between Christians and Muslims. But now this Sacred Synod pleads with all to forget the past, to make sincere efforts for mutual understanding, and so to work together for the preservation and fostering of social justice, moral welfare, and peace and freedom, for all humankind.

John Paul II observed that we do not forget the past so easily. It is better that we recall it and begin the process of healing and cooperation.

In the early 1990s, Drew wanted to have consultations with Muslims to hear what they were thinking about public issues. Results do not come overnight when you spend most of your time listening. You have to listen internationally, nationally, and locally. International discussions are in a fishbowl where every phrase, movement, and decision are watched and analyzed, but less so on a national level. On the local level, those same international discussions can more easily become neighborly exchanges mixed with immediate and personal concerns. At this level, one has an opportunity to understand what people are truly thinking and worried about.

Together, Drew and I planned a visit of Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran to Washington, DC, in March 1999. Tauran was then serving as Vatican secretary for relations with states and was coming to this important capital to promote the position of the Holy See regarding Jerusalem. In October 1998, Archbishop Tauran had delivered an address in Jerusalem a few days after the Wye Plantation negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, facilitated by the Clinton administration on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Tauran’s policy favored raising its unresolved set of issues on Jerusalem to universal importance because the city is a treasure for all humanity. Any unilateral or forced solution to its status, Tauran had urged, would be no solution at all. Any exclusive claim, religious or political, would be contrary to the logic proper to Jerusalem. Nothing should prevent Jerusalem, in its unity and uniqueness, from becoming the symbol and the national center for both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians.

That was 23 years, almost a lifetime, ago. What would Drew be concerned about today? In his last few years, he was already addressing the problematic rise of Christian Zionism, now even being proposed by Catholic scholars. Christian Zionism is a movement primarily based on the evangelical belief that the return of Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 are signs of the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. The immediate concern of Catholics in this regard should not be the end of time, but whether any of the relevant religious communities are seeking to make exclusive claims to the land.

At Vatican II, the Nostra Aetate declaration represented a 180 degree turn in Catholic teaching on the relation of Jews to the church. For centuries, Christians presented their faith in anti-Jewish ways. Nostra Aetate reoriented Catholic teaching primarily toward St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one of the earliest New Testament writings and certainly the earliest highly developed theological treatise. Nostra Aetate 4 states:

The Church keeps ever in mind the words of the Apostle about his kinsfolk: “To them belong the adoption as children, and the glory, and the covenant, and the giving of the law, and the worship, and the promises; to them belong the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Romans 9:4-5), the Son of the Virgin Mary. She also recalls that the Apostles, the Church’s foundation stones and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.

This is a good example of the rich statements that Nostra Aetate, in its brevity of 41 sentences and 1,141 Latin words, left unexplained for subsequent generations to interpret.

The framers of Nostra Aetate made clear that they were writing a religious document and not a political one. Drew argued that while there are universalistic elements in the Torah, they are overshadowed by the exclusivist texts with regard to Jewish claims on the land. By contrast, the writings of the prophets, especially the post-exilic prophets, conveyed a universalistic vision of Jerusalem and the land, a view that carried over into the Gospels.

The rise of Christian nationalism these days, combined with forms of Christian Zionism, would be of grave concern to Drew. He was critical of the Trump administration’s unilateral recognition of a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which was highly influenced by evangelical Christian advisors promoting a form of Christian Zionism. Drew would also be critical of the Abraham Accords developed subsequently by the Trump administration, which offered economic agreements and have led to normalization of relations between Israel and certain Muslim-majority countries controlled by despots.

I believe that Drew likewise would have been very troubled by the recent return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, now in coalition with extremist groups. He would be worried about the continued displacement of Palestinians, the expansion of settlements, and the loss of a Christian presence in the Holy Land. Drew would promote dialogue and the demands of justice from our shared scriptural messages, hoping that an appeal would resonate with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He would promote sharing viewpoints based on matters of conscience, respecting genuine differences but preventing harmful divisions.

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