When Optimism Fails - Why the Atlanta Church Summit Matters

When Optimism Fails - 
Why the Atlanta Church Summit Matters
by Jessica Pollock-Kim - CMEP's Legislative Director
 
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Christian leaders from the Holy Land and the US gathered in Atlanta last month to forge a path through the quagmire that is the Middle East peace process. A daunting task -- considering pessimism tends to dominate whenever the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is raised. In Washington, DC, everyone from think-tank experts to congressional staffers are quick to point out that the situation on the ground is the worst they have ever seen it.
 
But when these same individuals are asked how we might move closer to a resolution, most throw up their hands and shrug their shoulders. So it is understandable that some might question the ability of a gathering of religious people to create progress where so many experts have failed. Yet just a few weeks ago, one of those experts had the audacity to suggest that it is precisely when the political horizon looks bleak that we should look to religious communities for leadership.
 
787 Daniel Seidemann, founder of the NGO, Terrestrial Jerusalem, explained to an audience of Washington policy analysts and graduate students that after millennia of experience, religious leaders in the Holy Land understand that “Jerusalem must speak with multiple voices. [Experience has taught these leaders that] when Jerusalem falls under the hegemony of one group, it is hell for everyone else. And when it is hell for everyone else, it is dangerous for the entire world.” According to Seidemann, it is these religious leaders who have the “potential [to be] a stabilizing factor” amidst an increasingly violent reality. 
 
It is true that these leaders have the potential to be a stabilizing force. It is also true that when over 100 American church leaders gathered in Atlanta, GA, at the invitation of the Holy Land’s highest church officials, no one was seeking to simply stabilize the status quo. This first of its kind gathering sought to bring together the diversity found in 762 American churches with leaders of the Palestinian churches in the Holy Land not to create a new road map to peace but rather to build the road itself. 
 
As these diverse Christian leaders took turns speaking over two days, the central message was the same: if we want to see peace, it is critical that we move outside the silos of our institutions and work together.  
 
Bishop Munib Younan (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land):
“We must look outside our institutions, making intentional efforts to listen carefully to voices from civil society, and to include the grassroots voices of people in all spectrums of our respective societies.”
 
The Most Rev. Michael Curry (The Episcopal Church, USA): 
“It will be relationships that transform the hearts of the American people.”
 
Bishop John Bryant (African Methodist Episcopal Church):
“We’ve got to find a way to communicate with each other.”
 
President Jimmy Carter:
763 After telling the assembled Christian leaders that he endorsed the Atlanta Church Summit Document, Carter said, “It is my understanding that a copy will be delivered to Secretary Kerry and also to the White House, and I hope and I believe it will have some effect. But it will not have any effect unless all the churches represented here and the Palestinians represented here are able to carry out some of the agreements that you have reached and cooperate with each other fully and enthusiastically and aggressively in [the] times ahead of us.”
 
The Atlanta Church Document that Carter endorsed was written and signed by all of the American and Holy Land church leaders who participated in the Summit. It defines the purpose of the gathering, affirms what this group of church leaders believes, and outlines many of the issues requiring our attention in peacemaking and strengthening the Christian presence in the Holy Land. This document is not an end in itself but rather a beginning. It is up to those who were present to honor the commitments they made in the document. And it is up to all those who work with and surround those leaders to hold them accountable. 
 
When Bishop Elizabeth Eaton (ELCA) spoke about the role of US churches she pinpointed why this gathering could be a political game changer. “When we sign letters, it’s always the usual suspects -- all the liberal protestant denominations and some activist Catholics. But we have a chance here to have a [more diverse] coalition -- people that Congress does not expect to see working together to say something must change. And I think that’s our opportunity.” 
 
Why does it matter that the people who gathered together in Atlanta identify themselves as Christians? Because despite765 all of our differences in theology and practice, as people of faith we are drawn together by the knowledge that “faith without works is dead.” As Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb reminded those present, “Hope is knowing that the world might come to an end tomorrow and yet to make the decision today to go out into the garden and to plant an olive tree. Optimism is what we see, and hope is what we do.”
 
So to those who have thrown up their hands and started to walk away because they are unable to see a path forward through the peace process quagmire and who think this gathering in Atlanta was just more of the same -- ideas and speeches with a statement that will come to nothing. To them I say, you may be pessimistic today. But there will come a day when you begin to see a glimmer of optimism. And what we who gathered in Atlanta know with absolute certainty is that you will see that day because on this day we choose hope. Today, we choose to show up and do the work. Will you join us?