In praise of messiness in writing history

By Michael Marten
14 Jun 2012

Scottish and Anglican missionaries in Palestine during the period from the First World War until the Israeli declaration of the state and the connected Palestinian Nakba of 1948 were determined, they continually argued, to stay out of the controversy and not take sides.

Palestine at this time was governed by Britain under a League of Nations mandate, with the theoretical aim of gradually enabling independence. The growing Zionist movement and the resultant resistance of the local Palestinian Arab population characterised these years.

The missionaries’ job – to quote one of the missionaries of the time, George Sloan – was ‘to stand between Jew and Arab holding out a hand of friendship and brotherhood to each, seeking to draw each into fellowship and love with the other’. For nearly three decades, the missionaries thought they could see arguments for both sides: for Jews, Palestine embodied the idea of an ancient homeland and relief from European persecution; for Arabs, there was a deep worry about losing their rights to their land to Zionists (even though the Scots doubted the Arabs’ ability to govern the country independently).

This idea of friendship to both sides was seen as core to Christian belief. This was also expressed as ‘mutual toleration’ or ‘respect’ for ‘Muslim and Christian, Druse and Jew’. Maria Smaberg’s excellent doctoral thesis, published in 2005 by Lund University, describes the ‘ambivalent friendship’ of the Anglican church in Palestine at this time, and we can point to similar sentiments on the part of the Scottish missionaries. In terms of theory and analysis, however, I would like to further develop some of her propositions.

Needless to say, the missionaries were rarely successful in their attempts to be ‘fair’ to both sides and to encourage friendship: at different times they were seen by both sides as extremely partial. For example, some of the Jews in Hebron regarded Alexander Paterson, a missionary doctor, as an anti-Zionist. Sloan felt himself to be in danger from what he called ‘Arab fanatics’ on at least two occasions, one of these involving a bomb being found in his garden.

In any case, many of their efforts to further ‘friendship’ were unsuccessful. For example, a visit to Yemen gave Sloan the opportunity to see Jews and Arabs living alongside each peacefully, but when he published an article about this in the Palestine Post, it was prefaced with an editorial comment that it represented a minority view of the situation in Yemen, clearly suggesting it should be disregarded.

At other times, there was great wariness about Zionism, primarily because it was felt it might hinder the work of missionaries as well as make the position of any converts to Christianity from Judaism quite untenable, which was seen as a priority for the missionaries’ continued engagement. At times this reached extreme forms, as this extract about Sloan from the 1943 General Assembly report of the Church of Scotland shows:

On one occasion he addressed in Hebrew a mass meeting of Jews in mourning for the slaughtered Jews of Europe. After expressing the Church’s sympathy he went on “to make a challenging call to repentance in the style and partly in the very words of the Old Testament prophets. This made a tremendous impression and the whole vast crowd listened in deep silence as I drove home to them the message. I ended up by saying that if these calamities were the cause whereby there would be born again a new people of Israel, which would be in very truth a holy people, as God meant Israel to be, then the calamities would not have been in vain. My address was widely reported in the Hebrew press next day.”

We might question, of course, the reason for the ‘deep silence’ of his audience, who may have resented somewhat the idea that the mass murder of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps could in any way be seen as a positive sign of God’s involvement with anyone.

In fact, the only space in which the Scots managed to achieve relative harmony and co-operation was in their own congregations, which consisted of a few Jewish converts mixed with Arab Christians – mostly ‘converts’ from the Greek Orthodox, Latin or other Eastern Churches (of course, as with other European missions, this did not make the Scots popular with their fellow Christians!).

It would be easy to dismiss the missionaries’ ideology of ‘friendship’ as naïve and unrealistic, but interpreting the engagement of the missionaries in such a complex situation as Palestine in the Mandate period in this way misses some key issues.

We can use contemporary educational theory, and in particular work carried out by John Law and Wen-yuan Lin, to offer insights here. They seek to integrate educational theory in postcolonial settings, reflecting on the differences between dominant and subaltern contexts. I first came across their work through colleagues in the Critical Religion Research Group (A Jasper and J I’Anson) working on contemporary secondary school education, but it seems to me that this work can also be used in historical contexts.

Law and Lin point out that whilst subaltern contexts vary considerably, there is an overall stability to the Western legacy, which, thought not consistent or coherent, does reveal broad outlines that are similar. In Mandate Palestine there is, of course, a dominant power – Britain – from whence the missionaries come, and they relate to various gradations of subalterneity in Palestine. But the missionaries are also part of the subaltern, as I have shown in various publications. Law and Lin identify the following key aspects to knowledge and communicating knowing from a broadly Western perspective of educational praxis:

* Firstly, metaphysics: ‘The dominant Western knowledge traditions carry and reproduce a metaphysics that seeks to distinguish the world on the one hand from knowledge of that world on the other… in the Western scheme of things it is generally taken for granted that there is a world out there, a cosmos, that is ordered and structured… it is possible to gather knowledge about that world, to represent it, to debate the merits of different putative representations, and to arrive at provisional conclusions about its structure.’

* Secondly, institutions: ‘Western knowledge traditions rest in and reproduce specific institutional arrangements. These take many forms, and have changed profoundly since pre-Socratic Greece… Even so, for certain purposes the distinction between truth and power is sustained at least in rhetorical form, and this division is embedded in institutions... that reproduce and are reproduced by specific but hegemonic truth practices and their metaphysics, career structures, statuses, and systems for circulating knowledge.’

* Thirdly, subjectivities: ‘... the Western tradition and its institutional arrangements also imply particular subjectivities. Though breaches are legion, the normative expert is often taken to be [a] rational and intellectual subject who expresses truths about the world in symbolic form... Competent subjects are thus those that reliably find out about and represent the world... And, though this is a matter for debate and disagreement, as a part of this, in the normative case, the ‘personal’ emotions and bodily states of such subjects are Othered to the subordinate (and often gendered or racialised) category of ‘private life’. In the first instance, the assumption is that messy bodies get in the way of clean thinking.’

These lengthy citations are important: Law and Lin note that this is very broad, and, as they say, there are times when there are no Western-type of explanations and we need to be accepting of the messiness of a situation, even, and perhaps especially, when it doesn’t appear messy to the non-Western participant. We know that knowledge is situated, and the point comes when the epistemology underpinning our situated knowledge needs to expand to accept something else beyond the confines of what it knows.

For many non-Westerners, holding a broad ontology together is not in the least messy – it simply involves different kinds of epistemology. For example, there doesn’t always need to be a meta-narrative to a situation (which actually comes dangerously close to a structural determinist perspective on history) but because history as it has emerged as a discipline in the West is teleological in orientation, it usually tries to move towards a meta-narrative, and this can cause serious epistemological difficulties.

Knowing, therefore, is not just about epistemological awareness, which in any case is often gendered: the masculine is rational, cognitive, observational, whilst the feminine is turned into a ‘personal’ alterity. Rather, we need to ‘know well’, to understand the diversity and confusion that manifests itself to us once we encounter Other worldviews, and to ‘know differently’, in other words, know what we are seeing in a different way.

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Part two of this article will explore the scope and implications for such forms of knowing in the mission history context, and will be released here in the next few weeks. A link will be provided here once the second text is available. References for this article, in the form of hyperlinks, can be found in the mirrored article on the CR blog.

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© Michael Marten is Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling and an Ekklesia associate. More on his work, background and publications history is summarised here.


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