Saturday, February 19, 2011

“Faith is nothing, if it’s just a label”

Jean Zaru is a Palestinian Christian woman, and an amazing example of living the life of faith “in context,” in a way in which faith is worked out within the limitations of a particular socio-cultural-political-religious context, and also impacts and transforms the context in the process (see her book, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Christian Woman Speaks).

She is a woman living and leading in a man’s environment. As head of the Friends’ (Quaker) Meeting, she is the only woman who is a leader of a church, in all of Palestine; and she is a co-VP of Sabeel, with Father Elias Chacour.

She is Palestinian, living under but resisting and working against Israeli occupation ("what do you do with problems and inequalities? do you sit and do nothing? faith is nothing if it's just a label - it should lead to resistance - to resist is to be human").

She is a Christian who engages in interfaith relationship, in a predominantly Muslim setting (and acts on the convictions that “All humanity are my brothers and sisters, created in God’s image” and that “The indwelling presence of God is in all people, not just Christians”).

And she is a Quaker, one of the smallest groups of Christians in Palestine, but holds her own with all of the older and larger churches (as mentioned, she is co-VP of Sabeel with Father Elias Chacour, the Archbishop of the largest church in Palestine, the Malekite).

She is living in a context in which women are known in relation – “mother of … (oldest son),” “wife of…,” and now for her, “widow of…”; a context in which women are told not to question, and not to confront men. But her vision, informed by a faith in which all human beings are equal in their creation in the image of God, is for women and men to be “equal partners” in the work, and for young women to be empowered to know their value and equality in the society.  From her perspective, women need to be “liberated from the inside”; in her experience, “no one call tell me I’m not equal – I feel empowered.” Her life demonstrates that she has experienced this liberation and empowerment, and is working on the basis of an inwardly experienced “equality,” regardless of whether others (e.g., the men around her) acknowledge it.

Her family context seems to have given root to her ability to think and act “outside the box” as she has followed her convictions over the years. In a land in which people hold very tightly to their family religious heritage, and may “disown” those who change religious affiliations (even from one Christian group to another), her family is startling different (does one call this “open-minded”? or are there other dynamics at work?).  Her family background is Orthodox, but things began to change with her parents’ generation.  Her parents became Quaker, she has an Uncle who is Baptist, two Uncles who are Anglican, and two Aunts who became Catholic Nuns). As she puts it, her family is (has become) “very ecumenical.” She says that her father and her husband both “empowered” her, encouraging her to follow her passions, and to believe that she could do anything. When her husband was dying, he called the family together and encouraged them to support Jean in continuing to follow her convictions.

She is often the only woman present in Muslim-Christian or Christian-Jewish dialogue. She has repeatedly been asked by men over the years, “why do you bother with all these issues? Go home and take care of your children.” But she carries on, energized by her confidence in her identity and calling.

It is interesting that she challenges the status quo – be it the pressures against women in leadership in public life, or the injustices of the Israeli occupation – but that she also works within the cultural context that she finds herself in. She shared various ways in which, as a woman, she has to act, to comport herself, so as to have a place at the table, an ability to speak and act and influence others. (And many of her male counterparts have said to her something like, “you’re okay, but don’t encourage other women to do this” – words which will go unheeded…)

Jean Zaru is a person who works for peace, and I would say for “culture change,” on many fronts at once: as a woman, she works to change the prevailing culture surrounding the freedom of women to participate fully in various aspects of life outside the home; as a Christian, she is active in interfaith relationships with Muslims; and as a Palestinian, she relentlessly challenges the Israeli occupation of her people.

“Religion,” Jean said, “can be a problem or a potential for transformation,” and "faith is nothing if it's just a label" (and does not lead to action). It is clear that in her case, faith is a powerful force for personal liberation and social change, and for transformational relationship with others.

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