The Cradle Fund: A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East

Stirling bridgeA few months ago in Capital Commentary, I shared some ideas from the biblical wisdom tradition about shalom and the vital work of repairing damaged and broken lives and relationships, socially, economically, and politically, whether domestically or internationally. I want to extend that thinking here. (The following was published in a recent issue of Capital Commentary.)

Many Christian and Jewish circles today talk about shalom as God’s vision for a future of peace and harmony for all of creation, including, of course, collective human life. And to give that vision legs in the here and now, shalom is also advanced as social, economic, and political “flourishing” or “well-being” in this world.

Those of us in the West already blessed with goodly degrees of well-being typically maintain the latter idea . But there seems to be a kind of relativity to shalom. We would see that the near-future goals of a Chinese peasant farmer, for instance, or an Indian woman seeking a micro-loan would most likely entail visions of flourishing that are much more modest than our own. And there are countless others whose lives can only be described as precariously lived – consider the refugee families who have fled ISIL for whom shalom in this world would be different still.

Beyond that, however, lies a blind spot. After a decade or more of Christians like me giving airplay to shalom in America, we haven’t been able to prevent the word from becoming equivalent to “getting ahead,” “succeeding,” or “moving up in the world.”

It seems that shalom is becoming synonymous with pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. If so, the biblical sense of shalom as “gift” has been lost.

The contradiction between shalom as “gift” and “trying to improve one’s lot in life” hit me hard last autumn as I learned about the Cradle of Christianity Fund,  which has been implemented by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) to supply immediate- and long-term aid and support to thousands of displaced and refugee families who have fled ISIL/ISIS. At the time, I had been talking with friends about the staggering changes of life that have been forced on these families. We wanted to help alleviate their misery, but were got stuck. We were here. They were there. And we knew of no bridge. But with the Cradle Fund we had not only a bridge but an inspiring this-world reminder of biblical shalom.

Policies by Western governments to address the crisis have been slow in developing, and in November, 2014 the UN reported that a huge shortfall in funding meant that winter aid from the UNHCR would reach only 240,000 of the 600,000 displaced Iraqis and Syrians. The Cradle Fund and other NGOs, such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Heart for Lebanon, have stepped into the gap with manna: food and water, insulation kits and boards, heaters and kerosene, and other essentials needed by families to survive the winter while holed up in small tents, abandoned buildings, and other makeshift shelters

In the Exodus narrative, the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, I’ve “come down to rescue them.” That rescue was a poignant example of the gift of shalom.

“For the precarious,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “shalom can be understood as the assurance that there is a hearer for our cries, an intervener who comes to transform our lives.”

Today, the cry of despair and the hope of an intervener coming from persecuted Christian, Yazidi, and even Muslim families in Iraq and Syria is analogous to the Exodus narrative, when the only thing that matters is survival and the form that faith takes is one that cries out for deliverance. Brueggemann notes that because the Exodus generation lived their lives amid the acute precariousness of their situation, they “were interested in the question of survival – either actual physical, historical survival or at least the survival of faith and meaning.” Similarly, the crisis among Christians in Iraq evoked this cry last year from Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church: “We feel forgotten and isolated” and wonder about the reaction of the world.

Neither the giving of shalom nor its receipt must wait for the bullets to stop flying.

For me, the Cradle of Christianity initiative has brought a necessary corrective in my thinking, bringing me back to the biblical meaning of shalom as gift to the most helpless. This fund enables churches and people of faith here in the United States to join with the indigenous efforts already underway by local churches and organizations in the countries of conflict and the countries that have received the overwhelming numbers of refugees.

The current exodus may not be over. But the vital work of rescuing and repairing damaged and broken lives has begun, but only just.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Neil Howard (permission via Creative Commons)

For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.

Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.

Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// Snapshots: A Day-in-the-Life of Iraq’s Religious Refugees /// This Bad Weather Is No Joke /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.

Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, founding director of The Wisdom Project, and a visiting research fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

“Land for Peace” in the Middle East

attached to the landAs a foreign policy, the theology of Christian Zionism is counterproductive to a negotiated Middle East peace. It is tone deaf to the cries of a large majority of Israelis and Palestinians, who, hoping against hope, continually strive for an equitable peace in the land through a political solution. The land is one of the four recognized keys to a political solution between Israel and the Palestinian government. The others are the settlements, Jerusalem, and the return of the Palestinian refugees. Let’s briefly consider just the land.

Palestinians and Jews have a profound sense of historical and religious attachment to the land. At extreme ends of the spectrum are Jews and Palestinians who claim the land completely for themselves. In between these extremes are the majorities of both peoples who, favoring a political agreement, are willing to share the land in a just and equitable way.

For nearly half a century, UN Security Council Resolution 242, shorthanded as “Land for Peace,” has been a central tenet of negotiations in final status peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors. It was a crucial principle in Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. A “land for peace” formula is also a basic political tenet in Israeli – Palestinian negotiations. I do not want to enter, here, into the critical debate that surrounds this principle in those negotiations. (It will be obvious, however, that a land for peace formula is unacceptable to those who want the land solely for Israel or solely for the Palestinians. Equally obvious is the monkey wrench thrown into the works by that Israel’s ongoing West Bank settlements.)

Instead, I want to point out that insight from the Bible from Israel’s point of view and with Yahweh’s blessing is available for wisdom-based negotiations about the land. I want to stress this for Christian Zionists, for whom the Bible is the ultimate source of authority in this world.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet, in the spirit of jubilee, is recorded as speaking Yahweh’s intention for the land. The Israelites are to “allot it [the land] as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides – declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 47:22-23; The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation). (I want to thank Calvin Seerveld for drawing my attention to this passage, but the following thoughts are mine, not his, so any mistakes are my bad.)

blessing the land (wdfi)The significant phrase “treat them as Israelite citizens” – the NIV has “consider them as native-born Israelites” – indicates that allotments of land are to be given – with God’s blessing – to those who reside in the land who cannot meet a requisite qualification of first being an Israelite. The line about the progeny of the non-Israelites is equally significant. (1) It protects them by clarifying and strengthening the thought of settlements in the land held well into the future by “strangers” (Hebrew: gerim). And (2) it precludes land-grabbing by Israelites from the non-Israelites who reside in the land. Today we might call this something of a housing market policy.

In short, the text establishes the principle of permanent settlements in the land by both Israelites and non-Israelites, and with God’s blessing. Aside: Ezekiel may be expanding on Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger (ger) resides with you in the land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Note that this text, too, ends with the signature of Yahweh. As a Levitical priest, Ezekiel was certainly skilled in the use and application of Leviticus.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but with some creative thinking from today’s religious and political leaders in the Middle East Israel, would not the acceptance and outworking of this text in the Middle East help to eliminate the psychology of exclusionary othering that hinders the land for peace formula?

Of course, of course. This is not to wave a magic wand over the peace process. I have merely wanted to point out to Christian Zionists just one illustration of how the Bible may be legitimately relied on to support a policy that does not oppose the ethic of Jesus, which is clearly evident in the life of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine. In my view it is much wiser to spend one’s time pondering creatively with the Bible in this way, rather than destructively with Christian Zionism as a theology of war.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Books on “the land” that you might want to read: The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Walter Brueggemann; Whose Land? Whose Promise?: What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians, Gary M. Burge; Whose Promised Land?: The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine, Colin Chapman.

Images by Frank M. Rafik & wdfi, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


wisdom and insightAbraham Joshua Heschel was a seminal rabbinic figure in twentieth century religious studies and also a serious civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Heschel personally encountered many outrageous events and experiences as a civil rights activist in the America south during the 1950s and 1960s. As well, Heschel had also faced tragic experiences in Nazi Germany until he escaped.

I call attention to this part of the good rabbi’s personal narrative because in these current posts we are talking about insight, especially the insight that comes from asking questions about events and experiences that are new to us or exceptional. We ask the questions, especially why, because we want to know in a special way. “What’s that all about?” we wonder. In other words, we want insight.

Over many decades Heschel encountered the kinds of events and experiences that no doubt deeply challenged and at times changed his thinking and doing, as they would anyone seeking insight. I have wondered if the deeply challenging personal experiences of his life were not in the back of his mind when he wrote in The Prophets:

“Insight first requires much intellectual dismantling and dislocation.” For he then adds that the process “begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight – upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew” (xxv).

For his part, the theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Creative Word, speaks of a “great brooding” process (71-73). It is a process of discovery, of seeing anew. In this process we are

“in touch with a mystery that cannot be too closely shepherded, as in the Torah, or protested against, as in the prophets. There is here a not-knowing, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned, and a respect for not knowing that must be honored and not crowded. This way does not seek conclusions for immediate resolutions. It works at a different pace because it understands that its secrets cannot be forced” (71).

Wisdom and insight, he continues, are found in the kind of engagement with events and experiences in the world that entail

“fascination, imagination, patience, attentiveness to detail, and finally, observation of the regularities which seem to govern. Wisdom is found in the experience of the specific, concrete experiences which individuals discern for themselves. . . . That is where wisdom shall be found – in the stuff of life, the world, our experience. . . . It holds for the patient, diligent observer what needs to be known” (72-73).

Intellectual dismantling and dislocation. Great brooding. Discerning what is not evident. A sense of surprise at seeing anew. Such is both the cost and the yield to the people seeking what the wisdom literature calls “understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Sadiq Alam (permission via Creative Commons)


©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

widsom traditionIt is becoming clear that when we think about Jesus as teacher of wisdom, this is not about someone who went around quoting the book of Proverbs. Something else was taking place. Jesus was teaching from a way of reasoning about life, relationships, and decision making. It was a peaceable way of reasoning that was wisdom-based, and it had strong similarities to the ancient Hebrew sages’ peaceable way of reasoning. We have been exploring some vital and often overlooked aspects of this wisdom – this way of seeing life and living in it – since the first post in this series.

To quickly recall one of those aspects, the Hebrew sages had a way of reasoning in which shalom played a vital role in cooperative human activity and decision making across the spectrum of life. In ancient Israel this provided a morally responsible means for peoples of different faiths and cultures not only to meet and greet but to negotiate peaceable initiatives and agreements across all sorts of perhaps otherwise unnegotiable boundaries.

However, as an authoritative form or mode of knowledge and instruction, Christianity today, whatever the reasons, has in some ways clipped this way of reasoning from its Bible. That is, we are big on the Law (Torah) and the prophets as authoritative. But wisdom? We see a clue to the problem in the book of Jeremiah. Some conspirators (they are not identified) are plotting against the prophet, and while doing that they summarize three sources of authoritative knowledge for ancient Israel: the teaching of the law by the priest, the counsel from the wise, and the word from the prophet (Jeremiah 18:18).

I like Walter Brueggemann’s treatment of this triad (The Creative Word, chapter 1). “Torah,” “counsel,” and “word” are three shapes of “Israelite authoritative knowledge,” and “the priest,” “the wise,” and “the prophet” are the three agents of that knowledge and instruction. Each form of knowledge, he argues, “has a special substance and a distinct mode in the life of Israel. And a faithful community must attend to all three, not selecting one to the neglect of the others” (p. 8, his emphases).

In all four Gospels, Jesus can be seen as the archetypal agent of all three of these forms of authoritative knowledge and instruction. What I am hoping for in these posts on Jesus as a teacher of wisdom is to help us think about the form that we have neglected for far too long.

Jesus’ way of reasoning squares with that of the Hebrew sages and their wisdom tradition, with its emphases on shalom as vital to cooperative and peaceable human relations amid their diversity (see the earlier posts). But in Jesus, the sages’ peaceable way of wisdom gets taken up in the love of God and transformed into the gospel-shaped wisdom for loving not only one’s neighbors but also one’s adversaries.

In the previous post, we looked briefly at some ways in which Jesus taught this peaceable wisdom in ancient Palestine amid that roiling diversity with its conflicting ethnic, social, political, and religious interests. But Jesus did not just teach it. He also personally modeled it. This we will see in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

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