Despite being a descendant of Irish and Slovene Catholics, I didn’t know a lot about Catholicism as a child. By the time I was born, my parents, newly born-again Evangelicals, had distanced themselves from the Catholic Church. What little I knew of Catholicism boiled down to a few assumptions: Catholics were focused on works, we Protestants emphasized grace. Without accepting the grace of God most Catholics, save a few exceptions, were not destined for an eternity in heaven. Oh, we didn’t really say that, but that seemed to be implied.
Those assumptions were confronted when I traveled as a student to Cairo, Egypt. There I sat in a dusty classroom with twenty-three other wide-eyed undergrads as our faith and beliefs about the world around us were challenged by the cutting words of a fiery Palestinian man from Galilee. No, it wasn’t Jesus. Well, not directly. The words of Jesus would certainly challenge what I held to be true in the months and years to come. But in this instance, it was a short, stocky man whose graying goatee was long enough to make any man jealous.
At an early age Elias Chacour, with his family, was forced from their home and off their land, away from their groves of olive trees. His father and older brothers were trucked off and deported, refugees in Jordan. As a young boy, he and the rest of his family were forced to move to a new village while their olive trees were bulldozed by Israeli troops. Captivated by his story, which he also details in his book, Blood Brothers, a bunch of idealistic kids from the States listened intently as the injustice of his experiences settled in our hearts and demanded our anger and our sympathy. A forceful advocate for reconciliation between religious communities and across ethnic lines in Palestine, Chacour started a school with a diverse student body. He calls for justice and peace, waged non-violently amidst the oppression of his people.
Our time with Chacour, a priest in the Greek Melkite Catholic Church, shortly shifted from his story to an intense dialogue on faith and politics. Our cohort listened defensively as Chacour began to rail against our “Western theology.” We shifted in our seats uncomfortably as he vehemently disagreed with some teachings of Augustine. People question Augustine? we wondered.
As my peers pressed him on his theology a few things became clear about Chacour:
First, Elias Chacour interprets the Bible very differently than I do. Second, his interpretations are rooted in his story: growing up in Palestine as part of an oppressed people. And third, Elias Chacour really loves Jesus.
There he was, a Palestinian Catholic who, as a boy, conversed with the King of Kings as he roamed through his family’s olive trees. This discovery startled me. How would I reconcile this disconnect with my own story and my assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus?
Jesus’ personal declaration of his identity and mission exemplifies the way Chacour’s experiences shape how he interprets the Bible. In the synagogue Jesus proclaimed:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4: 18-19, TNIV)
Chacour’s life as a Palestinian in an occupied land meant that his understanding of Jesus’ liberating message had not on spiritual, but physical implications.
Prior to meeting him, this interpretation of the passage was definitely not my understanding of what Jesus meant. It was obvious to me that Jesus’ good news was about heaven. The freedom Jesus proclaimed was for people who were imprisoned by sin, Satan, and death. The sight Jesus offered was in reference to spiritual eyes. Those spiritually oppressed would be free.
And then it hit me. I, who had not experienced an ounce of physical oppression in my life and who did not know poverty or imprisonment, brought my own experiences, culture and assumptions to this text. I interpreted these words to be spiritual in context, not physical, and I did so because of where I came from.
It seems simple now, but at the time it was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes.
My interaction with Elias Chacour was a catalyst for a journey that has continued to this day. In the following years I have not only allowed my faith to be shaped by Catholics like Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Oscar Romero, but I have been forced to wrestle with a host of assumptions that I held to be true, shaped by the culture and perspectives around me.
To learn more about Elias Chacour’s incredible life an ministry, I highly recommend reading his autobiography Blood Brothers: The Unforgettable Story of a Palestinian Christian Working for Peace in Isreal. Foreword by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III