Bible’s call to be ‘light to the nations’ not just a theological construct

We Jews know our own story well – occupation, persecution, exile, genocide, but always remembering and believing in the promise of rebirth.

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October 17, 2017 22:11
3 minute read.
A CHRISTIAN man in Iraq creates miniature replicas of statues destroyed by Islamic State when they o

A CHRISTIAN man in Iraq creates miniature replicas of statues destroyed by Islamic State when they overran the 3,000-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud in 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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 It was perhaps one of the stranger invitations ever extended to an Orthodox Jew, even one like myself who works deeply in Jewish-Christian relations. Did I want to be a representative of Israel and the Jewish People at a historic event in the history of the Assyrian Church of the East? I struggled to understand the details. The Church was ordaining two men to the priesthood here in Israel – the Holy Land – for the first time in 800 years. Did I want to attend? And so I found myself wandering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre far too early on a Sunday morning, awkwardly dodging Copts at prayer and tourists taking pictures, on the lookout for Assyrians.

We Jews know our own story well – occupation, persecution, exile, genocide, but always remembering and believing in the promise of rebirth and return that we were finally granted to witness in our time, with our language, our culture and our homeland.

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We are proud of how our peoples’ history has helped to nourish the quest for liberation of other peoples. Most famously, we remember how African Americans drew inspiration from the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt, and how our biblical history helped to change the ways that people could imagine their own futures. Our challenge now, however, is to recognize how also the modern story of our people can do the same, to inspire and encourage other endangered religions and ethnic minorities in the world today.

Assyrian Christians in Iraq have suffered relentless attacks. Churches have been bombed over and over again. Christians in some areas have been offered the choice of conversion, the payment of a heavy tax or execution. Women have been kidnapped. Property has been burned. The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud has been bulldozed. Their Church is fractured.

Their language is not spoken by many of their young people in diaspora. Assyrian Christians look with hope toward the Nineveh Plains both as the historical homeland of their people and for a safe future for their people, where the integrity and security of Iraq’s indigenous minorities can be maintained. Sound familiar? It should.

The visitors waved Assyrian flags and sang “Hallelujah” while the two men who were to become priests carried heavy wooden crosses in procession through the Old City to St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox church, where the ceremony was to take place. I was overwhelmed by the image of all they carried with them – the historical burden of a deeply splintered religion and a people who were almost wiped out, the weight of a community driven into diaspora by persecution, of a nation struggling to maintain continuity and memory into the next generation.


People took me aside at the church that day in Jerusalem, eager to tell me how much they love Israel. How much their Assyrian nation looks to ours. How their family helped to hide and then smuggle Jews out of Iraq. How they were welcomed so warmly everywhere they went in Israel. How finally their Church had come to be reconnected with its roots in the Holy Land.

The Bible’s call to be a “light to the nations” is not just a theological construct, a biblical ideal, or exemplified by sending scientific expertise to Africa. It is also a challenge, with our return to our Land and the rebirth of our Jewish People, to be able to identify with, strengthen and encourage other oppressed ethno- religious minorities.

When I spoke to the organizers before the event, we discussed how we would recognize one another that day. Don’t worry, I said – when you see the person who most obviously doesn’t belong, that will be me. We both laughed. And yet, perhaps that wasn’t as true as I thought, as a Jew among Assyrians.

It was a morning rich in unfamiliar smells and sights, but it is two notable sounds I will carry with me from the day the Assyrian Church of the East re-established its connection to the Holy Land after 800 years. One is that of joyful prayer in an ancient tongue so close to Hebrew that even the little Aramaic of the Passover Seder proved useful in understanding it. The other is the relentless, gentle noise of adults weeping.

The writer is the director for the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and an Associate Fellow at the Philos Project. She can be contacted at director@jewishchristianrelations.com.

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