A Debate We All Win

A Jewish synagogue is not primarily a place of worship but rather a “house of gathering.” If the Temple was the place of worship, the synagogue was where Jews could meet to study the Scriptures, fellowship and talk about what was happening in the community, and deliberate those matters.

Does the “land flowing with milk and honey” have anything to do with cows? Yes. Does it have anything to do with bees? No. To clarify, this phrase references not the honey that comes from a beehive but that which comes from the sweet dates that grow on the palm trees in the region.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a church that houses a literal “stone that the builders rejected” when constructing the city of Jerusalem, and it does not contain the body of Jesus Christ. To believe that Christians venerate this church because it is the tomb of Christ is non-sensical, seeing that Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead and is alive.

If you do not understand Jewish worship you won’t grasp the synagogue’s purpose. If you do not understand the agricultural region of Jerusalem you won’t fully comprehend scripture. And if you do not understand what Christians believe you won’t appreciate the value of many holy sites.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to visit Israel, but everyone who preaches or teaches on Judeo-Christian culture and beliefs can shed more light and add more depth to their sermons and lessons if we make a strong effort to understand the geographical, cultural, and theological contexts we are learning from.

I must admit that I experienced a paradigm shifting moment when I learned about the City of David and the archeological work being done to unearth, perhaps, the original palace and city of David. The same occurred when I realized just how recent Israel’s independence and territories were won when I learned that Moshe Dayan was the first born son of the Kibbutz that arrived in Israel. A final pause of reflection moved through me when I heard my guide and Dr. Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., describe that the birth of the idea of a Palestinian state came about only after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Tomorrow I will hear the Palestinian side of the story, but for now the facts proclaim that the Palestinians were technically either Arabs who lived in East Jerusalem and Arabs who lived in Gaza. After the war, for whatever reasons I have yet to learn, the two Arab nations of Jordan and Egypt wanted nothing to do with the two groups of Arabs from East Jerusalem and Gaza. In a newly formed Israel, with only a small voice through the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and rejected by the Arab nations, the East Jerusalem and Gaza Arabs all of a sudden declared themselves to be their own separate state, a Palestinian state, though this was something they never once called for under Jordanian rule.

The point is there is information about the Middle East, even if only learned from one perspective, that if never learned will keep us ignorant. Additionally, there are details that if learned can enlighten the way we understand the Middle East and sharpen the way we discuss foreign policy in this region. I anticipate someone will read the facts I give in this short blog and say, “Wow, I never knew that.” And I hope and pray that there will be at least one other reader who will not only object to what I write but will remark, “Thanks, but have you considered these other facts?” This is discussion and deliberation. This is what prepares us to make more informed conclusions and recommendations that can get into the hands of decision-makers. We must learn. We must debate. Not so that one may win, but so that all may win.

Israel and the Middle East: Not So Black and White

In the Middle East not everything is black and white, which makes solutions in the region not so black and white. One of my favorite sayings from our guide Inon Hedvati is, “Yes . . . and no.” Do the Israelis control this area? Is this Palestinian territory? Does Syria still pose a threat? I can almost always anticipate the answer.

Sunday evening over dinner, respected archeologists Dr. Ian Stern shared an hour and half lecture on the exile and return of the Jewish and Israelite people throughout history. Before the Six-Day War in 1967, the last time the Jewish people officially held Jerusalem was 70 A.D, which means there was nearly a two-thousand year gap until they regained control. The Israeli region was under the control of numerous empires throughout history, such as the Babylonians, Persians, Romans, and Maccabees. According to Dr. Stern, after 70 A.D. and throughout much of their exile, the Jews were in a state of “psychosis.” Why? His answer, “What else would you say about a people that believed themselves to be the chosen people of Jerusalem yet have no formal rule and authority in the city.” Nonetheless, it was this “psychotic” state of mind that helped many Jews keep their desire set on and find their way back home despite centuries of exile and persecution. And in 1908, sixty-six newly settled Jewish families in Israel saw Tel Aviv as more than just the desert that it was.

Monday we visited a town whose main industry is scrap metal, Barta-West along the West Bank. Barta-West was a “B” territory, which unlike “A” (full Palestinian control) and “C” (full Israeli control), the municipalities and city services were under Palestinian direction but security was under Israeli’s. Here, and in the area around Harish, Israel gives thousands of Palestinians the liberty to enter into “C” territory to work and earn wages for their families. It was an interesting comment our other tour guide Lydia said: Palestinians are building Israeli cities.

In the Middle East, the majority of families value their ethnic identity much more than their national identity. Many Israelis preferred to be called Jews, Maronite Christians are proud to be Israeli but they distinguish themselves from Arabs, and both Israeli Christians and Jews are proud of Israel’s religious diversity. I must admit that I did not expect to see so many chapels, mosques, and synagogues within walking distance from each other. So, despite the religious diversity which is a hallmark of Israel, Israeli citizens strongly desire to retain and pass on their ethnic identity to their children, whichever that may be. Yet, despite a Jewish desire to see their ethnic group grow, Israelis have no desire to expel Arabs from the region. Aramaeans desire that each ethnic group be treated equally before the law.

Shadi, one of our guest lecturers, spent nearly seven years petitioning before the Israeli state to recognize his Aramaean ethnic group. He recounts his religious and ethnic history with pride, and more so now that his official I.D. lists him as Maronite Israeli. When listening to a brief from an IDF intelligence officer at an Israeli bunker a kilometer’s distance from the Syrian border (the Golan Heights used to be occupied by Syria until the end of the Six-Day War), he stressed the importance of seeing the situation of the Middle East not through a nationalistic lens but an ethnic lens. “There is no Syria,” he said. “Only hundreds of different ethnic groups.” We trust his word and his guidance, especially as he assured us everything was fine even as we heard gunfire and shelling and could see smoke rising from the Syrian fields brought about by recent inter-Syrian shelling. There are over a thousand independent fighting groups in Syria, he told us. “Syria was always a mess.”

Inon, our very wise tour guide, remarked something that carried practical worth as well as rhetorical value: You need vision to survive in the desert. Vision is what built Tel Aviv into a great city in just a little over a hundred years. Vision is what turned the Kibbutz into a prosperous community on former Syrian fields and what inspired them to grow and harvest the first ever white truffles in the Middle East. Vision is what brings Palestinians over the border into Israel every day to work. Vision is what Shadi had for his Aramaean Christians.

In a region that is not colored black and white but every shade of gray, world leaders and local leaders need a vision to paint differently. They need to listen to every side of the story, to stop scratching the surface and dig deeper, and to seek out long-term solutions instead of short-term repairs in order to bring stability to this region. Those visionary leaders are out there, yes. And those painters, it is argued, must be strongly represented by Arabs.

An Unforgettable Educational Journey Begins: The Six-Day War

I begin this pilgrimage to Israel appreciative of the NHCLC for recommending me to participate on this trip, and of the Philos Project for sponsoring me. It is rare to be blessed with the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land and even rarer, I might add, to go with no cost out of pocket.

The purpose of this trip is educational. Not theological. Not spiritual. And not related to my PhD studies at Dallas Baptist University, although I am sure I will experience personal edification in those respects. No. The focus of this journey is to understand what is commonly known as the Six-Day War, or to many Arab nations: an-nakash, “the setback.”[1] This year marks the fifty-year anniversary, and most of what I’ve gathered so far comes from a few “assigned” articles given to the group of participants and me to review on our way to Tel Aviv.

The Six-Day War took place from June 5-10, 1967, and much of the agitation and animosity currently present in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to areas occupied by Israel, have roots that trace back to the consequences of the war. Obviously, contention between Israel and many surrounding Arab nations goes back much further than what transpired in June of ’67. One thing is clear: recent statistics that reveal Palestinian views towards Israelis do nothing to affirm the old adage that “time heals all wounds.”

An overwhelming majority of present-day Palestinians see violence against Israelis as a legitimate and effective use of force, and 54% support the use of attacks on Israeli civilians in general. That Palestinian support rises to 84% for attacks on Israeli settlers.[2] More so, Palestinians do not shy away from venerating shahids, those who die carrying out attacks on Israelis, and even go so far as to naming streets in their honor.[2]

As stated, much discord between Arabs and Jews goes back many generations, yet some have argued that the discord has been further promulgated by the surge of modern “historians,” argued to consist mainly of liberal social scientists not actual historians (i.e. revisionists), who aim to shift culpability of the Six-Day War away from the Arab-alliance to the state of Israel.[1] No one denies that since the end of the war, in newly occupied territories, a handful of Israeli individuals, some would argue such as Moshe Dayan, became disillusioned with power and treated Arabs brutally and inhumanely. This certainly added fuel to the fire of disaffection. At the same time, many argue that it would be hard to find a modern, well-respected Israeli politician who would vociferously support such treatment of Palestinian citizens. I wonder if the same assertion can be made of modern, well-respected Palestinian leaders.

I write from thousands of feet above the clouds and have yet to step foot on Israel and begin my education journey on the Six-Day War. Nonetheless, there are a few claims that my readings seem to reach consensus on about the war:

  1. Arab nations greatly opposed the statehood of Israel, and still do so as of today. In fact, the Arab rejection of the Jewish state is the general cause of the Six-Day War. Abdel Rahman Azzam in 1947 said of Israel, “You are not a fact at all.”[3] Many Arab nations refuse to compete against Israel in the Olympic games as a sign of solidarity on this matter.
  2. The catalyst to justify Egyptian mobilization against Israel was a false Soviet warning that Israeli troops were organizing along the Syrian border. This is a report that General Fawzi of Egypt advised was a completely false assessment to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.[3] To this day, many Palestinians believe that Israel intends to extend its borders farther out and completely expel Arabs from the region.[2]
  3. Egypt escalated tensions with Israel. This occurred when Egypt aligned forces with the nations of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (to name a few) against Israel and by closing off the Straight of Tiran on May 22, 1967.[3]
  4. The Arab nations sought to entirely destroy the Israeli state and its people. Iraqi president Abdel Rahman Aref said in 1967 that they hoped to “remove Israel from the map.”[3]
  5. Israel’s victory in the war was a miracle and it was resounding. With Egypt and the Arab nations delusional with power, and with Britain and the U.S. both deciding to remain neutral, the odds were stacked heavily against Israel. Nonetheless, when the war began Israel neutralized Egypt’s air force almost entirely in only a matter of 3 hours,[3] they gained control of the Old City within 3 days, and although incurring 800 casualties, they left the Egyptian forces with more than 15,000 casualties.[4] And as is clear from the title given to this war, they won the battle in a matter of 6 days.
  6. Lastly, Israel acted in self-defense. With no actual Israeli threat at the borders of Syria,[3] with the release of 30-year old classified Israeli documents which reveal Israeli sentiments and attempts to ameliorate tensions before the war,[1] and with the fact that the result of the war did not end with greater amounts of land occupied by Israel (many Israelis argued that with the Egyptian and Arab forces depleted they could have easily captured Cairo, Damascus, and Amman), we are presented with reasonable evidence that suggests that Israel acted in a manner sufficient to (1) secure its defense and (2) reinforce its sovereignty.

There will be many first-hand accounts of the war that I will encounter in these next few days. Historians, archeologists, and Jewish leaders will more amply explain the unfolding of events that led up to the Six-Day War and the impact that its consequences continue to have on the region.

I am moments away from stepping into the Holy Land, from walking where Jesus walked, eating and dining where the Apostles ministered. What will I learn? I imagine it will be an unforgettable educational journey. After all, this was a war Israel will never forget.

1. Azure, 1999
2. Mosaic, 2015
3. Middle East Forum, 2017
4. The New Yorker, 2007

Significance over Success

In this interview with Grammy-nominated product Kevin “Khao” Cates, he recalls the moment in his life when he knew he needed to do something different. He had experienced success as a music producer working with the top musical artists, but despite the accolades he had yet to experience significance.

The difference between success and significance was a line of demarcation that his father had taught him to see from a very young age, and now, as a grown man, he had to choose which one would take priority.

As a believer, as with Khao, significance isn’t a selfish pursuit. It is an understanding that you have made a God-inspired contribution to the world and to the Kingdom of God. It is knowing that you have been obedient to the Spirit and the divine impulses He places inside of you.

  • Moses chose significance over safety when he left Midian to return to Egypt and rescue his people (Exodus 4:20)
  • David chose significance over dignity when he danced foolishly in celebration before the Lord (2 Samuel 6:22)
  • Elisha chose significance over security when he sacrificed his oxen and destroyed his plows to follow the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:21)
  • Esther chose significance over complacency when she risked her life before Xerxes to save her people (Esther 4:16)

Success and significance aren’t entirely divorced from one another. Often times the world is grateful for our contribution to society and rewards us with fame and honor, which is why these historical figures were written about and their legacies honored.

Nonetheless, every day (not just in huge life-altering moments) we have to decide what will take priority: significance or success. If you pursue the latter, you may very well get that. If you pursue the former, there is no promise what you will receive; no promise except to be welcomed into God’s presence as a “good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).

Risky Risk Behaviors

This month is Mental Health Month.

According to mentalhealthamerica.net, actions such as risky sex, prescription drug misuse, internet addiction, excessive spending, marijuana use, and troublesome exercise patterns increase the risk of developing or worsening mental illnesses, and in and of themselves could be signs of mental health problems. Mental health issues are a serious problem, but after reading that list of “risk factors” I can’t help but notice that perhaps we need a Behavioral Health Month.

In other words, one shouldn’t just avoid these behaviors because they lead to mental health issues. Many of these behaviors are the issue.

We are “why?” creatures. When we are asked to do or refrain from doing something we often ask, “why?” If you engage in any simple theological discussion with a Jew or Christian and you ask him, “Why did God make the law telling us to (or not to) _____?” any understanding Jew or Christian will tell you that God doesn’t give us the “why.” Put differently, God doesn’t require us to understand why we should obey Him, He only requires that we obey Him.

Often times we look to justify our actions with a broader context. I.e. God tells us not to steal because it is harmful to another individual; or, God tells us to love our neighbor because He wants us to live in peace. Whether the reason is true or not is of no consequence. The point is that God tells us “Do not steal” and “Love your neighbor.” They are not conditional commands. There may be an instance in which stealing harms no one, or a time in which loving my neighbor only creates more discord.

Though we always hope for the brightest outcomes from our behaviors, neither the promise or absence of good consequences should alter my obligation to behave righteously as God commands. The moment we begin to teach results-based ethics is when we enter into a religion of pragmatism and out of a religion of obedience. Enter at your own risk.

A Marriage Worth Plunging Into

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. – Genesis 2

Nowadays, when we talk about marriage, we often associate it with a series of aphorisms: tying the knot, taking the plunge, settling down, dropping the anchor. None of which sound pleasant or appealing. In a recent thought-article on the history of marriage by professor Loyd Uglow, we learn that the who-what-when-where-why-and-how’s of marriage played a major factor in this sacred (and often not-so-sacred) union.

I was recently engaged to a wonderful woman of God, and in all seriousness, these questions matter to us and play a vital role in our relationship. We live in a nation and culture of “relational liberty” where, for the most part, we get to pick and choose who we want to marry – or not marry. Yet as Christians, as those who have relinquished our liberties to become slaves of Christ, we make a conscious effort to submit our freedoms to the will of the Father and the Spirit. This is true for marriage, as well.

In other words, the relationship I have with my fiancé isn’t some casual expression of the love we have for one another. It is not, and will never be, any of the expressions of matrimony that I led this blog of with. We submit our relationship to the will of God. And as such, it is (we believe) a prayer-covered, God-purposed, family-blessed, community-affirmed, and spiritually-motivated holy union in which we seek to allow Jesus to be glorified in and through all!

This is how I will view my marriage. And this is worth “plunging” into.

G. R. Salazar

Avoiding Life’s Bites

It is always in our best interest to avoid mosquitos. First they bite; then you itch. A recent Yahoo article discussed the 7 things that make mosquitos bite you more. We learned that mosquitoes like to bite people who emit more carbon dioxide when they breathe, they are attracted to the lactic acid released when we sweat, and one study even claimed that they like people who drink beer.

It is always in our best interest to avoid the unpleasant things in life. There is no magic cure for taking the displeasure out of life’s problems, and I certainly do not advocate for adopting a lifestyle of either apathy or seclusions as a remedy. God, however, deeply concerned about the wholesome pleasure of our lives provided us with principles to live by to guard us from many of the things that “bite” in life.

To avert disgrace – Act in humility. Proverbs 11:2

To prevent failure – Seek counsel. Proverbs 11:14

To deter poverty  – Work the land. Proverbs 12:11

To avoid anxiety – Speak a kind word. Proverbs 12:25

To escape death – Find the way of righteousness. Proverbs 12:28

We can’t prevent all terrible things from happening. Yet, many of the “bites” that we experience in life can be avoided if we (1) encounter and (2) follow the principles of God. We could write a one-thousand volume series of all the things a person could do to bring about unpleasant experiences, but to bring about the enjoyable things, the happiness that we all desire to experience, there is only one Book we need to turn to for that.

G. R. Salazar

The Start of a Journey North

Then we turned back and set out toward the wilderness along the route to the Red Sea, as the Lord had directed me. For a long time we made our way around the hill country of Seir. Then the Lord said to me, “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north.” – Deuteronomy 2

NBC News published an article on the top Trump controversies of his first 100 days in office. Recode reported on the top 10 games purchased on the Apple App store and, despite having booming sales during the launch period, their struggle to increase and maintain revenue.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step; ships were made for the seas, not the harbor; and the best time to plant a tree was yesterday. There is no way of predicting how the start to a new job, business, or journey will ever turn out, no way of telling where the road will lead to, and no telling if this is the right time to go.

We men and women of Faith do know, however, that (1) we follow the Lord’s voice and not our own, (2) the “right path” sometimes leads towards the wilderness, (3) we are to step out at the time He determines, no matter what stage of life we are in, and (4) where we are now is not where God wants us to stay.

He is always calling us forward into a new destination. There is always a “north.” It may not be that He is calling us towards a geographical advancement but perhaps a spiritual advancement; a new place of spiritual maturity. Listen to His voice. Stay tuned in to the Spirit. You are not called to wander in circles but to listen for Him who will lead you. Today you may hear him say, “You have made your way around THIS long enough; now turn north.”

G. R. Salazar