A letter from Tom Harvey in England
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Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS)
Dear Friends and Partners in Mission,
I just returned from Bethlehem, where I attended a conference entitled “Christ at the Checkpoint.” The conference brought in over 400 delegates and was organized by Munther Isaac, an OCMS scholar, Palestinian Christian leader, and Dean of Bethlehem Bible College.
I know the term “Palestinian Christian” may to some seem a contradiction in terms. Aren’t Palestinians all Muslims? Such a conclusion is not unreasonable given the penchant of journalists, politicians and church leaders to portray Israel and the Middle East in terms of Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, allies and enemies. Nonetheless, during my time there I came to appreciate that the reality of the Middle East and modern Israel is far more complex and multi-hued than I used to think.
On my way to the conference, I was anxious. I feared that, given the sharp political and ideological divisions and polarities that dominate the region, these would force me to take sides for or against Christian Palestinians or for or against the Jews and Israel. What I encountered were Palestinians, Jews, Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians who listened to each other, struggled with each other, and in the end saw in each other an affirmation of the Body of Christ and the peace and reconciliation that his love and grace affords.
Certainly we grew more aware of the conflict and despair that haunts the Middle East and radiates through the world, yet strangely this conference produced in me a hope and conviction that Christ and his people can offer another way that is able to reveal and nurture grace, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation in an area of the world in desperate need of Christ’s Shalom. This was not an exercise in listening to entrenched positions, but rather a forum where Palestinian and messianic Jews could be fully cognizant of the divisions that rend their land, yet willing to hear one another, reach out to one another, and commit to creative ways to embody reconciliation in Christ so as to pursue the dismantling of the physical and spiritual walls of hostility that separate followers of Christ from each other.
You might ask what all this has to do with OCMS and the centre in Oxford. Actually, quite a lot! OCMS draws global mission leaders who have devoted their life, their research and their ministries to the pursuit of peace, justice and reconciliation. The shalom they seek is not an alternative to evangelism, faith in Christ and transformation, but rather their fruit. They recognise that, because of Christ, they are no longer condemned to the ways and conflicts of this world, but are part of what Paul argues in 2 Corinthians 5 is a “new creation.” And that God is “placing in us as ambassadors the word of reconciliation,” a word so implanted that Christ’s people come to embody reconciliation in Christ both individually and corporately.
I was thus honored to witness Munther’s work and witness at the conference. Not only did he work tirelessly to encourage sceptical Jewish and Palestinian Christians to attend and ensure they all were given the chance to express their views, concerns and frustrations openly, but he ensured that we were able to visit persons and communities whose lives have been devastated by the continuing conflict. Though one could appreciate his nervousness as a plenary speaker with heavyweights like Tony Campolo and Jon Ortberg sharing the podium, Munther’s address captured the heart of the conference. Here a Christian Palestinian biblical scholar whose own life has been unalterably shaped by this conflict was able not only to express the pain of the suffering of his people but also to embody the vision and hope of reconciliation available in and through faith in Christ. Here was hope, reconciliation and new creation personified.
When delegates discovered he was an OCMS scholar, the rest of my week was filled with interested persons seeking to know more about our Centre so they might support it, recommend potential students, or apply to come and do research at OCMS.
Indeed, it is scholars such as Munther who have brought about a surge of interest in OCMS. This week we welcomed our spring induction cohort of 13 new scholars. This is our largest induction ever and we are full for the fall as well. This is a remarkable development in that across the UK even elite theological research programs are struggling with a serious decline in applications, which affects their funding and the very existence of their programs. We face a very different problem. Given our current rate of growth, our campus and faculty resource will need to double by 2018. Thus, with great courage and faith, our Council of Trustees has committed to a major expansion of OCMS, effectively doubling the current space of our building. Do pray for us in this regard. It is a daunting undertaking. We have no rich alumni, given that nearly 70 percent of our students come from the developing world. Nonetheless, we know that God reveals his power in weakness and that nothing is too difficult for God.
Tom, Judy, Joe, Paul and Emma
25 Hayfield Road
Oxford OX2 6TX
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 268
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