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Redressing Harm

(first 3 paragraphs and quotes are from an article published on World Council of Churches, 18th April 2024)

On 15 April, faith-based and civil society organizations came together to engage with the theme of the third session of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent and its implications for the work of religious organizations working with and for People of African Descent.

The recommendations centered on what states and other actors can do to redress the historic exploitation and harms that Africans and people of African descent have suffered.

Adele Halliday, Anti-Racism and Equity lead for The United Church of Canada, urged participants, most of whom represented churches or faith-based organizations, to

approach the discussions with the full knowledge that faith institutions and actors were complicit in or legitimized racism.

Rev Dr Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the Center for the Repair of Historic Harms of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church (USA), reflecting on Acts 2 suggested that

the result of divine grace is economic or wealth redistribution for a harmonious community in which everyone’s needs are met.

While Australian Churches are not part of that particular discussion regarding the impact of colonisation on Africa, the one before us right now is not dissimilar – our relationship with First Peoples, and the impact of colonisation on the First Peoples.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission in Victoria is implementing the first formal truth-telling process into historical and ongoing injustices committed against First Peoples in Victoria as a result of colonisation, across all areas of social, political and economic life. The Victorian Government has committed to working with the First People’s Assembly of Victoria for a truth and justice process.

For decades, First Peoples have fought for truth-telling, to recognise the impacts of colonisation and address historic and ongoing injustices. The work of the Yoorook Justice Commission is ongoing, and we can expect truth-telling will throw up many challenges as questions are explored.

Some of our Member Churches are already involved in preparing submissions and making presentations to the Commission and are committed to actively engage with the Commission as it proceeds with its work.

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Darkest valleys are lit by the mercy of God (Psalm 23)

Written by Rev Sharon Hollis, President of the Uniting Church in Australia and originally published here

This week, many of us will hear Psalm 23 read in our worship services. It is a psalm that speaks of God’s goodness, God’s mercy and God’s provision. It is a psalm that has been prayed for millennia by the people of Israel. It is a prayer Jesus prayed as he grew up and went about his ministry.

It is also a prayer that speaks of suffering so profound it is experienced of the darkest valley.

We come to the psalm this week with the shadow of death, fear and suffering all around us. And we wonder where God is. Are we forsaken? How will we live in the face of violence, death and despair?

We think of the darkest valley that those who were killed in a shopping centre in Bondi, those who were wounded and those who witnessed the violence are walking through.

We remember the priests and people of Christ the Good Shepherd Church who seek peace and forgiveness in response to the violence in their sacred meeting space.

We call to mind the people of Ballarat struggling with the violent death of three women, and women and non-binary people everywhere who wonder if they are safe to go about their daily business.

We think of those in our communities with mental illness; who will now fear how they are seen, will worry that people will turn from them afraid they too might be violent. They walk this dark valley daily.

Ever before us is the darkest valley of Gaza, the war in Ukraine, violence, war and hunger in countries we barely hear of where people suffer without end in sight.

The witness of Easter is that our darkest valleys are lit by the mercy of God who comes not as one removed from the suffering of the world but as One who has walked this darkest valley before us and has transformed the darkness. The One who cried at the grave of a friend, prayed for suffering to pass him by, laid down his life, died with a cry of God forsakenness on his lips. This One walks with us in the darkest valley and calls us to love and peace.

Because we walk through the darkest valley with the Holy One who has trod this path before us, we can hope that maybe, just maybe, healing will come to brokenness, we will see peace where it seems hopeless, those most in need will know mercy.

Because we walk through the darkest valley with the Holy One who has trod this path before us, we can hope that maybe, just maybe, we will find ourselves comforted and made whole and can participate in God’s healing of a broken world.

I encourage us all to continue holding our nation and world in prayer and to hold each other in loving care.


If you are distressed or need support at this time, reach out to:

Lifeline
24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.
13 11 14

Beyond Blue
Mental health support for anyone in Australia.
1300 224 636

13YARN
A free, confidential and culturally safe service managed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
13 92 76

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Christ the Good Shepherd Church and Bishop Emmanuel

Shocking to learn of another stabbing attack in Sydney, this time in a church by a 15 year old. Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel was stabbed, as well as three others, during a worship service in an Assyrian Orthodox Church in Wakely in Sydney’s south west.

The attack took place as Bishop Emmanuel was delivering a sermon, which was being live-streamed. Police have labelled the attack a terrorist act.

The Bishop says he’s “doing fine” and has forgiven his attacker as he urged his followers to act in peace.

Churches in Australia have called for prayers of peace.

Places of worship – including synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, and shrines of all faiths and religious heritage sites – are places of prayer. The people who gather there should never feel threatened or unsafe, no matter what religion they follow.

People everywhere must be allowed to observe and practice their faith in peace, as affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Religion cannot be used to justify human rights violations and abuses or to fuel violence.

We must stand together as faith communities to support one another in solidarity, to cooperate in protecting and preventing attacks against places of worship, and to counter intolerance and discrimination.

A statement from Christ the Good Shepherd Church said,

“Dear Brothers & Sisters, Our beloved Bishop, His Grace Mar Mari Emmanuel, and Father Isaac have been admitted to hospital. They are in a stable condition. We ask for your prayers at this time. It is the Bishop’s and Father’s wishes that you also pray for the perpetrator. We also kindly ask anyone at the Church premises to leave in peace, as our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, teaches us. Thank you”.

The Moderator of NSW/ACT UCA Synod issued a statement:

“In the face of this horrific incident, we all must stand together to recommit to respecting and caring for one another, to protecting one another, and to preventing such violence. Any form of violence we reject and denounce. Let us together as a community embrace human rights and values. I call on all of us to continue to pray for peace and hope for those who have been impacted.” (Rev Faaimata Havea Hiliau)

The Most Reverend Bishop Robert Rabbat*‘s Statement on Attack in Wakeley and a Plea for Peace. (* Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Australia, New Zealand and All Oceania)

Statement from NSW Ecumenical council here

Statement from Syriac Orthodox Church

Statement from Uniting Church Vic/Tas Synod Moderator, Rev David Fotheringham

Other faith traditions have condemned the act of violence.

Multicultural NSW statement here.

The Australian Jewish Association has said:

“Our thoughts are with our friends in the beautiful Assyrian community and we wish them a speedy recovery”.

A statement from the Australian National Islamic Council and the Australian National Imams Council has condemned the attack – read more here.

(Other links to statements will be added if they become available)

In an update, the Regulator has ordered Meta-owned platforms and X to remove all content livestreamed from Sydney’s Wakeley Church (and the Bondi Junction attack).

Further reading
More Protections Needed for People of Faith article (2020)
https://humanrights.gov.au/about/news/more-protections-needed-people-faith

https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/publications/freedom-religion-australia-focus-serious-harms-2020 (with downloadable link on ‘Freedom of religions in Australia: a Focus on Serious Harms’. July 2020)
ahrc_freedom_of_religion_2020

 

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Recognising Jesus in the world

John 21:1-19

In this week’s text, Jesus appears to the disciples yet a third time, but significantly this time they are no longer fearfully hiding in the house. Rather, they are on the lake fishing. Simon Peter had returned to his life as a fisherman, and six of the other disciples decided that they would join him.

But when the fearful disciples try to return to their former lives, they find that their old patterns no longer work. Despite being on the boat and fishing throughout the night, John tells us, the disciples had “caught nothing.” Their old patterns no longer work for them, and they finish a long night tired and emptyhanded. It is an image not only of failure but also of scarcity. If they can catch nothing, how will the disciples feed themselves? How will they make a future for themselves?

It is at this point in John’s narrative that Jesus appears, telling them to “cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish]” (21:6). It is not that the disciples are bad fishermen (it is difficult to imagine that they had not even tried the other side of the boat) but rather that Jesus has miraculously provided fish for them. According to John, the failed patterns of the old life are transformed by the miraculous presence of the risen Jesus, in whose presence the fruitless toil of the long night yields to nets overflowing with abundance. It is the presence of the risen Christ that makes the difference.

Yet the story also introduces a critical complication into the narrative, which is that the disciples seem to find it nearly impossible to recognize Jesus when they encounter him in the world. This theme appears repeatedly in the Gospels. Only when Jesus multiplies the fish do the disciples begin to understand who he is. This detail is important, as it reminds us of the earlier times that Jesus has procured fish for hungry people, notably in the story of Jesus feeding of the 5,000, which occurs in all of the Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). Jesus’s capacity to feed the hungry is fundamental to his identity, not only in his earthly ministry but also in his resurrected existence. The connection is so clear that John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) immediately recognizes him. “It is the Lord!” he shouts. Peter, too, recognizes him, leaping into the water and swimming to meet him.

Yet the other disciples continue to struggle with recognizing Jesus. When they finally row to shore, Jesus has started a campfire and is already cooking some fish of his own, along with some bread. But Jesus does not simply feed them with food that he himself has brought, instead turning the gathering into a community meal. “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught,” he tells them. Together they make a meal for one another, of bread and fish, those that Jesus brought and those that the disciples caught. We imagine them together forming a little community of abundance as the toil-filled night yielding to the morning’s dawn. It is in that moment that the rest of the disciples recognize him (21:12).

If even his own closest disciples struggle to recognize him, how much more so must our faith communities offer unmistakable signs of Christ’s presence for those who are yet struggling in the night. Holding out possibilities of new life to those trapped fearfully in the failed patterns of the past .Sharing what we have with those in need, even if it is only a few fish and some bread, and inviting others to do the same. The disciples recognize Christ when he creates communities of abundance in the midst of scarcity. Our task is to do the same.

Adapted from a reflection by Robert Williamson Jr.

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Truth-telling at the heart of reconciliation

Aunty Dr Jill Gallagher AO is a proud Gunditjmara woman, a former Treaty Advancement Commissioner, and Chief Executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. She provided an opening keynote speech at the Statewide Treaty Gathering in which she outlined ten things she suggests must be part of a Statewide Treaty. They are her views, and not policy of the First People’s Assembly of Victoria.

She suggests that Aboriginal People must be exempt from Land Tax (including stamp duty), and council rates, and have access to interest free loans to empower Aboriginal People to purchase homes. She highlighted  the fact that Aboriginal people historically were robbed of the opportunity to generate wealth, and could not purchase land and homes. In the education space, she said Aboriginal People must be exempt from HECS / HELP fees. Tertiary education must be provided to Aboriginal students without charge. Her focus was on addressing historic disadvantage and closing the gap in identified areas of concern.

Unfortunately, it has generated a response from politicians who are using social media to spread mistruths.

The campaign demands a response.

Fact checking
The social posts incorrectly state that Premier Jacinta Allan has said that race-based tax is on the table in Victoria. She has not. And it is not. Furthermore, one of the posts states that the State Government is considering tax, including land tax and stamp duty, being imposed based on race. This is blatantly untrue and seems to be designed to stir up racism and fear.

In fact, the Premier has explicitly declined to comment on whether the Government would accept or reject the ideas proposed by Aunty Dr Jill Gallagher. Firstly, she had not seen the comments at the time she was interviewed. Secondly, the views expressed in Aunty Dr Jill Gallagher’s speech belong to her, and are not policy, nor even proposed policy. When the First People’s Assembly have formulated policies there will be an opportunity for negotiation and dialogue. At that point, the Government will consider whether to accept or reject proposals.

Why is this important?
Race issues have grown significantly since the Referendum was defeated. Some people have become emboldened in the way they disparage Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture. Eddie Betts’ sons recently had a racial slur yelled at them repeatedly while they were playing basketball at their home. They are now too scared to go out and play basketball at night. This kind of racist behaviour is completely unacceptable and is emboldened further by fear campaigns.

We can expect that our elected officials will behave in a way that shows respect for all people in their electorate, and not stir up racist thinking and behaviour for political purposes.

We need political leadership that shows a commitment to reconciliation in this country, and strategies to close the gap.

As Christians, let us “aim to respect, value and acknowledge the unique cultures, spiritualities, histories and languages of the oldest surviving culture in the world, and to engage in a unified and positive relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their communities”. (Source: TSA RAP)

What can you do?

  • Contact your local Member of Parliament by letter or email or in person to respectfully express your concerns.
  • Be clear you expect politicians to work together for the common good.
  • Use your own socials to raise concerns.
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Thursdays in Black

No doubt we are all shocked by the number of women who have died violently this year. In particular, the Ballarat region is grieving the tragic deaths of three women who have allegedly died at the hands of men – Samantha Murphy, Rebecca Young and Hannah McGuire.

According to the research group, Counting Dead Women Australia, 64 women were killed in violent incidents in 2023.

And domestic and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women, with nearly half of those seeking homelessness assistance citing it as a reason, a report from Homelessness Australia found.

In every country and culture, gender-based violence is a tragic reality. This violence is frequently hidden, and victims are often silent, fearing stigma and further violence.

Violence against women is a widespread and serious issue in Australia. The statistics are staggeringly high:

• One in five women have experienced at least one incident of sexual violence.
• One in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man they know.
• One in four women has experienced emotional abuse by a partner.

This violence has deep and long-lasting impacts for those who experience it. Such violence is in stark contrast to the abundant life that God intends for us in Christ (quote from PVAW).

As Christians, and together as the Church, we are compelled by Christ’s love to challenge the attitudes, behaviours and structures that underpin violence and to work towards a future in which women and girls can live lives free from violence – and the fear of violence.

We all have a responsibility to speak out against violence, to ensure that women and men, boys and girls, are safe from rape and violence in homes, schools, work, streets – in all places in our societies.

The World Council of Churches runs a campaign, Thursdays in Black – for a world free of rape and violence. There are badges available. Rev Sharon Hollis, UCA President, is a WCC Ambassador for Thursdays in Black.

The campaign is simple but profound. Wear black on Thursdays. Wear a badge to declare you are part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence. Show your respect for women who are resilient in the face of injustice and violence. Encourage others to join you.

[Wearing the badge always invites conversations, and spreads the word person by person by person…]

Often black has been used with negative racial connotations. In this campaign Black is used as a color of resistance and resilience.

Many churches are pro-active in offering programs and training in prevention of violence against women. An example is the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne run a Prevention of Violence Against Women (PVAW) program, to support and equip church leaders and communities to respond to and help to prevent violence against women. The Program is run in partnership with Anglicare Victoria, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and Lifeworks. The Program Manager is Robyn Boosey and the chair of the Program’s Committee of Management is Bishop Genieve Blackwell.

Further reading: We deserve a reality in which women’s lives count, not their deaths by Lauren Coutts and Chloe Papas

(A Thursdays in Black badge can be organised for interested people)

#ThursdaysinBlack

 

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World Health Day 2024 – 7th April

Around the world, the right to health of millions is increasingly coming under threat.

Diseases and disasters loom large as causes of death and disability.

Conflicts are devastating lives, causing death, pain, hunger and psychological distress.

The burning of fossil fuels is simultaneously driving the climate crisis and taking away our right to breathe clean air, with indoor and outdoor air pollution claiming a life every 5 seconds.

The WHO Council on the Economics of Health for All has found that at least 140 countries recognize health as a human right in their constitution. Yet countries are not passing and putting into practice laws to ensure their populations are entitled to access health services. This underpins the fact that at least 4.5 billion people — more than half of the world’s population — were not fully covered by essential health services in 2021.

To address these types of challenges, the theme for World Health Day 2024 is ‘My health, my right’.

This year’s theme was chosen to champion the right of everyone, everywhere to have access to quality health services, education, and information, as well as safe drinking water, clean air, good nutrition, quality housing, decent working and environmental conditions, and freedom from discrimination.

Gaza
The United Nations’ human rights chief, Volker Turk, has raised alarm over the impending health and hunger crises in Gaza following prolonged Israeli military activities. He warned of the imminent risk of extensive infectious disease outbreaks and severe hunger, conditions worsened by the conflict.
The crisis is intensified by the destruction of key infrastructure. Every bakery in Gaza has shut down following Israeli air strikes, cutting off a vital food source for the already distressed populace. This critical situation underscores the deepening hardships and challenges faced by the people of Gaza in the wake of the conflict.
Food and safe water have become incredibly scarce and diseases are rife, compromising women and children’s nutrition and immunity and resulting in a surge of acute malnutrition. The situation is especially serious in the north, which has been cut off from humanitarian aid for weeks, where one in six children under the age of two is acutely malnourished.
“The Gaza Strip is poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths which would compound the already unbearable level of child deaths in Gaza,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Humanitarian Action and Supply Operations, Ted Chaiban. “We’ve been warning for weeks that the Gaza Strip is on the brink of a nutrition crisis. If the conflict doesn’t end now, children’s nutrition will continue to plummet, leading to preventable deaths or health issues which will affect the children of Gaza for the rest of their lives and have potential intergenerational consequences.”

Prayer service for World Health Day

A prayer for World Health Day

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Praying without ceasing – and work for justice

This Easter, the tragedy in Gaza will be referenced in many sermons, in prayers and liturgies. The suffering, grief and loss is more than can adequately be expressed in words.

Rev. Dr Mitri Raheb, Founder and President of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, recounts a conversation with someone in Gaza City soon after the campus of the Greek Orthodox Church was struck. He struggled to find words, finally saying “We pray for you all.” He recalled, “I thought that these words would calm a sister who dedicated her life for Christ and to a life in prayer. To my surprise, she shouted while crying “We don’t need prayers!” I was meditating on her words for hours. Why would a sister say something like this? The more I thought about it, the more I started understanding her answer. She knew that without an immediate ceasefire, without swift access to food, water, and medicine, and without a just and lasting peace, neither she nor her community would survive this war. Yet, her words were not just about fearing for her life and for the people in Gaza. Her words, in that moment, had something prophetic in them. “Stop thinking you are doing the people in Gaza a favour by praying without working vehemently for justice.”

He went on to reflect: Her prophetic words reminded me of the words of the prophet Amos:
Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Here are two practical ways to offer financial support for humanitarian aid. Pray, pray, pray without ceasing for a resolution. And, consider practical actions you (and your community) might engage in to support the people in desperate need in Gaza.

Act for Peace has set up an appeal (the international humanitarian agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia) for donations to help provide lifesaving medical care and to help respond to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Click on link for more details. 

The Middle East Council of Churches, Department of the Palestinian Refugees (MECC-DSPR) is also seeking financial contributions. Read more here

This Easter, consider what you may do in addition to the important discipline of prayer. 

MECC-DSPR is a faith-based Christian organization founded in 1949 as a humanitarian response to Al Nakba (the Catastrophe), led and governed by the Four Families of Churches in the Middle East (Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant).

During this unprecedented pain in Gaza, and despite the destruction of most of its clinics and centres as well as the horrific impact on staff, their families and their properties, MECC-DSPR is offering the following services:

• Primary health care services

An average of 500 patients are received daily in the clinic in Rafah. The Clinic offers primary health care services including but not limited to mothers and childcare, dental services, medicine and supplements, medical lab service, conducting health awareness workshops and distributing hygiene/dignity kits.

  • Mental Health & Psychosocial Support
    MECC-DSPR organizes MHPSS interventions with the forcibly displaced people in the south of the Gaza Strip, including offering Psychological First Aid, mainly targeting children and women.
  • Cash support: MECC-DSPR is supporting the most marginalized families with an average of 200 USD per household, the focus is on forcibly displaced families living in the tents, women led families, and people with disabilities.
  • Care to the Christians who are taking refuge in the Churches
    MECC-DSPR is assisting approximately 775 Christian individuals who have sought refuge in two churches in Gaza City and the surrounding community. The support includes distributing food, medical supplies, hygiene/dignity kits, as well as offering essential psychosocial care for children and mothers.

MECC-DSPR in Gaza has 103 staff to run the clinics, centres and outreach activities covering the whole Gaza strip. You may wish to support the important work of MECC-DSPR as individuals or as a church community through donating to the following DSPR bank account:

DSPR Bank Account
Beneiciary’s Name: DSPR
Beneiciary’s Address: Augusta Victoria Hospital Jerusalem Beneiciary’s Account
Number: 9490-661508-510

Beneficiary’s Bank
Arab Bank
Al Balad Branch
Ramallah, Palestinian Territory
Bank #: 49
Branch Code: 0864
SWIFT CODE: ARABPS22
IBAN: PS96 ARAB 0000 0000 9490 6615 0851 0

Intermediary Bank:
CITI Bank N.A New York –USA

Swift code:
CITIUS33XXX ACCOUNT NO 36371743

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Seven Weeks for Water Lenten resources (week 7)

25th March 2024
Seven Weeks for Water 2024, week 7: “Water for peace in the Africa region”, by Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri 

The seventh reflection of the Seven Weeks for Water 2024 series of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network is written by Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri. She reflects on one of earliest conflicts over water recorded in the Bible, and draws our attention to today’s water conflicts, giving examples of transboundary water conflicts in her region in Africa. She highlights Isaac, who chose peace over conflict related to water, time after time—a fitting message for the World Water Day 2024 and its theme, “Water for Peace.” 

One woman helps another as they fetch water at the edge of Lake Malawi in Karonga, a town in northern Malawi. Fish from Lake Malawi, which is bordered by Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique, provide an important part of people’s diet in this area. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/Life on Earth

By Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri*

Text: Genesis 26: 17-32 (NRSV)

Isaac and Abimelech

17 So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20the herders of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. 22 He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” 23 From there he went up to Beer-sheba. 24 And that very night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25 So he built an altar there, called on the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well. 26 Then Abimelech went to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army. 27 Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” 28 They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you 29 so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” 30 So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31 In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. 32 That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!” 33 He called it Shibah; therefore, the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.

Reflection
The context of this passage is Genesis 21:22-32 where Abimelech’s predecessor had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac’s father. After the death of Abraham, Abimelech did not honour the agreement and ended up deporting Isaac. It was within Isaac’s rights to protest by quoting the previous agreement which he inherited from his father. But he chose peace and submitted to the deportation without protest. Isaac moved to the valley of Gerar, where he settled. This was the land of the Philistines. Abimelech was king of the Philistines. It is possible that the Abimelech that Abraham dealt with was different from the one who was in conflict with Isaac. When Isaac moved to the Valley of Gerar he reopened two wells that his father Abraham had dug and gave them the same names. In this way he was claiming the land that belonged to his father. But this did not bring peace. There was still conflict between his servants who dug the wells and the Philistines who inhabited the land. Again, Isaac refused to enter into conflict. For the sake of seeking peace, he kept on moving away from places where there was conflict over water. At the new location, his servants dug a new well which had fresh water. This time the Philistines did not claim the well. It was necessary for Isaac to find water because he had many herds and flocks. Water meant survival for both people and the animals. His actions of consistently choosing peace even when provoked to fight is the key message of this passage. It was this choice that attracted the attention of his opposition, King Abimelech, to come and seek peace with him despite their past conflict over his wife, Rebecca, and the water sources which had previously belonged to his father, Abraham. Isaac could have refused to deal with them again. After all, they did not respect the oath that was made with his father. He chose peace again and made fresh agreements.

One is tempted to assume that fights over water are things of the past because civilizations grow around water sources. That is not the case. In fact, it is argued that “The next world war will be fought over water.” One can dismiss this statement as a cliché. However, I will give two examples from the African region where it is shown that water has the potential to cause war between countries.

The first example is the conflict between my own country, Malawi, and Tanzania over Lake Malawi/Lake Nyasa which is well captured in an article written by retired Brigadier General Marcel R D Chirwa and Dr Colin Robinson. In this article it becomes clear that the conflict is very much alive but it has its roots in the drawing of borders between the British who colonised what they called Nyasaland and the Germans who colonised Tanganyika. In the 1890 Heligoland Treaty, the border between what is now Malawi and Tanzania is at the shore of Lake Malawi on the eastern side, thus claiming the whole of Lake Malawi as part of Malawi. After political independence of the two countries, Tanzania sought the international legal rule to change the border to the median line of the Lake in 1967-68.

As explained by Chirwa and Robinson,

“Yet Tanzania’s challenge to the treaty was not actively pursued as government policy, and it effectively lapsed. Instead, in line with the Cairo Declaration, Tanzania recognised the general continuing validity of African borders as they had been at independence. Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, conceded the boundary.”

Things changed when in 2011, the then-president of Malawi Mbingu wa Mtalika hired international companies to explore the possibility of mining oil in Lake Malawi. The exploration was met with fierce opposition from Tanzania as they sighted their 1968 claim over part of Lake Malawi. The case went back to international court. By the time Bingu died and new leaders came in place, the case was not pursued by both sides in favour of working together peacefully in other projects of mutual interest. However, as long as there is no treaty for peace, the Lake Malawi claims from Malawi and Tanzania have potential for future conflict.

The second example is a conflict between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over control of the Blue Nile River and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  Ethiopia has built the dam in order to generate hydropower for itself as well as selling to neighbouring countries of Sudan and Egypt. It suffices to say that both Egypt and Sudan have issued threats ranging from destroying the dam to supporting the armed opposition in Ethiopia to force change of government and bring one that will stop the construction of the dam. As of now the building of the dam has continued and water has been filled to level 4. International mediation has not worked because there are too many players with their own biases. The two superpowers, the United States of America and Russia have been open about supporting opposite sides of the conflict. This too increases the chances of making the 3rd World War to be about water and to seek ways of preventing such a war.

Thoughts and questions for discussion:

Going back to Genesis 26:17-32 and in the context of how water conflicts have been handled in the Malawi-Tanzania conflict and the Ethiopian, Sudan, and Egypt, what lessons can be learnt about:

Moral leadership

Choosing peace even when you have a right to demand justice

The role of outsiders to assist in negotiations for peace

How to pursue what is rightly yours in the struggle for water justice

Which side would Jesus support and why?

In this context, what does it mean to conclude by saying: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:5.

Conclusion

On 22 March 2024, we celebrated the UN World Water Day. This year its theme is “Water for Peace.”  What an amazing ambassador of peace we see in Isaac in the above biblical story! We need more Isaacs in our society today, who can use water for peace!

*Prof. Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri is a notable Malawian theologian recognized for her contributions to gender justice, HIV/AIDS, and African theology. She has served as the Deputy General Secretary for the World Council of Churches since 2012 – 2022. She is currently the Vice Chancellor of the University of Blantyre Synod in Malawi.  Phiri’s work extends beyond academia into influential ecclesiastical roles, advocating for life-affirming practices within churches in Africa and challenging life-denying cultural norms. Her leadership and scholarly contributions continue to impact theological discourse and church practices, particularly in the context of African Christianity.

Additional resources:

Lake Malawi or Lake Nyasa? Malawi–Tanzania Border Dispute Slips Into Limbo” (10 May 2023)

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Learn more about Seven Weeks for Water 2024

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Holy Week

Holy Week proceeds with human naivete
and divine irony,
from royal palms to crown of thorns,
from Peter to Barabbas,
from feet anointed to feet pierced,
from sacrificial lamb to sacrificial lamb.
People who demand answers are full of speech;
the one who is the truth is silent.
Year after year we rehearse our infidelity
till we have it down perfect.
We keep on being forgiven for we know not,
and we keep on knowing not.
Watch the consistency of our false accusations,
our bogus claims, our flaky promises,
and his faithfulness, his gentleness, his love.
Notice our self-absorption and his self-giving.
Every year we say “How can I thank you?”
Every year he says, “Watch.”
Every year we say “This happened.”
Every year he says “Come with me.”

__________________
Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Unfolding Light
www.unfoldinglight.net