“In suffering, we discover a new space – a space in which God is present,” says Dr. Yohanna Katanacho. As a Palestinian Israeli Evangelical, Yohanna knows this firsthand: “In the Middle East, we think that we are completely abandoned. It’s not true. God is with us.” Yohanna’s story is one of God’s power to transform from hatred to love in a context of suffering.
Yohanna’s intellectual achievements are impressive, especially given the barriers posed by Palestine’s volatility. In 2007, he earned his PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Chicago, U.S.A.) with SCHOLARLEADERS LeaderStudies support. (He was jointly sponsored with Langham.) Now, he serves as academic dean at Nazareth Evangelical College. He has written or contributed to many books in Arabic and English, including Reading the Gospel of John through Palestinian Eyes and Praying through the Psalms. In 2019, he received the ScholarLeader of the Year Award.
But what good are books and lectures for solving the Middle East’s intractable conflicts? Why bother with scholarship while bombs are falling around you? Yohanna was born in 1967, during the Arab-Israeli war, to a Roman Catholic Palestinian father and an Armenian Catholic mother. His father broke curfew to bring him and his mother home from the hospital. As his parents entered their house with their new baby, a bomb exploded, and a neighbor was killed. So, as a young man, Yohanna decided, “God is only the God of Israel. He cannot be the God of the Palestinians.” During his undergraduate studies in chemistry, he became a leading atheist on his campus.
“I love you”
Early one morning while he was a student, ringing church bells woke him. He remembers, “I was paralyzed. I was not able to move my hands. I was not able to move my legs. I can’t explain exactly what was happening to me. I tried to free myself, but I didn’t succeed. Two hours later, I gave up. I said, ‘God, if this is from you, free me, and I promise to look for you’. The moment I said that, I was able to move again. My whole worldview collapsed in one night. I was supposed to advocate for atheism, and now I believed in a metaphysical reality.”
Soon after this, Yohanna heard the Gospel and accepted Christ. He began to study the Bible. As he studied, though, “I came across texts that said, ‘Love your enemies’. I was in shock. I had grown up in a context full of hatred. I didn’t need to go to a dictionary to know what the word ‘enemy’ meant. I closed my Bible, and I said, ‘God, I cannot be a traitor to my people. You are asking too much’.”
One night, he had to stay late at church photocopying bulletins for the next day’s worship service. The church worshipped in Arabic. At that time, the political situation was very tense. Flyers in Arabic were everywhere, exhorting violence against Israelis; most Israeli soldiers didn’t read Arabic, so they assumed that Arabic was a language of hatred. The church copier ran slowly, and it was midnight before Yohanna finished. He stuffed the Arabic bulletins inside his jacket and walked home along the cold, empty streets. As he approached the Damascus Gate, through which he had to pass, he saw three soldiers. One of the soldiers crooked a finger at him. To show his identity documents, Yohanna unzipped his jacket very quickly – the situation was so tense that Israeli soldiers would shoot at people’s feet – and the flyers inside his jacket burst out. Seeing the Arabic writing, the soldiers thought they were being attacked and leveled their machine guns at Yohanna’s head. Terrified, he put his hand on his heart and said, “I love you.” He laughs, remembering: “They were in shock, and I was in shock.”
Thus, study of God’s Word changed Yohanna’s heart, led him unwillingly to learn love for his enemies – and, perhaps, saved his life. Now, Yohanna says, “I dream of a Middle East in which all human beings are equal.” He preaches and writes as an Israeli citizen and an ethnic Palestinian whose faith is in Christ. The ScholarLeader of the Year Award gave Yohanna an opportunity to share this vision in another context that struggles with complex national identity – Ukraine.
“Transform our Political Perceptions”
In November 2013, Ukraine’s president Victor Yanukovych began to ally the nation less with the European Union and more with Russia. As Ukrainians rejected this pro-Russia trajectory, the Euromaidan protests erupted. In January 2014, 98 died, and 15,000 were injured. Yanukovych was ousted and a new, pro-European government elected; however, in response, Russia annexed Crimea, sparking armed conflict with Ukraine. A ceasefire began in 2015, but Russia still holds Crimea.
The Ukrainian Church has struggled to respond to this situation. (See Denys Kondyuk’s January 2020 InSights Journal article, “Addressing Social and Theological Challenges.”) How should Christians think about national identity? What does patriotism mean? When is it right to fight against oppression? Young people raged against a Church that they perceived as socially passive and, therefore, irresponsible. Soldiers returning from Crimea suffered from PTSD, and the army lacked Christian chaplains trained to care for them. The conflict has strained relationships between the Russian and Ukrainian evangelical churches that had been united.
In February 2020, Yohanna visited Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kyiv (Vital SustainAbility Initiative) to share his perspective on national identity and oppression with Ukrainian Christians. He taught three five-day courses on the Gospel of John, was interviewed on local TV, and gave two public lectures.
In light of how Russia’s conflict with Ukraine challenges Christians to think about national identity, Yohanna emphasized “the seven identities of believers presented in the Gospel of John: people of love, people of the Spirit, people of the vine, persecuted people, people of unity, people of the cross, and people of resurrection.” Christian identity flows from Christ above all. Then, as Yohanna wrote in a 2008 letter, “[O]ur relationship with the Son of God must transform our political perceptions in a way that will make us more critical of the policies of our governments, more vocal of our support of divine mercy, love, and justice. Our connection with the Kingdom of God must lead us to the path of love, not bloodshed.”
Yohanna wrote this letter to Messianic Christians during a time of particularly intense fighting in Gaza – and at UETS, students from Messianic backgrounds questioned Yohanna about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Messianic Christians maintain a theology in which the Jewish people have a God-given right to the Holy Land and therefore justly fight to protect themselves from Palestinian threats. Some of these students objected to Yohanna’s call for Israeli-Palestinian peace, even perceiving Yohanna as having “an ‘anti-Semitic’ perspective,” as Ivan Rusyn, UETS’s President, recalls. Yet, Yohanna says, he “gladly listened and strongly affirmed my love and commitment to follow Jesus Christ.” The students became “willing to learn about our Lord who combines us under the banner of love that pursues justice.” Ivan concludes, “Hearing a Palestinian perspective was very useful (especially for these Messianic students) since usually we hear very pro-Israel (and in many ways, anti-Palestinian) perspectives. Hearing a sincere Palestinian Christian made many students, especially from the Messianic movement, reflect more (and sometimes for the first time).”
Overall, Yohanna says, “Biblical discussions paved the way for addressing enmity, identity, conflict, and loving your enemy.” As UETS seeks to help the Church respond wisely to Russia’s influence in Ukraine, Ivan gives thanks for Yohanna’s time at UETS: “We are developing a theology of citizenship, and it was encouraging for our team to see how our churches and society can benefit from it.”
Not only did UETS grow through Yohanna’s exploration of the Gospel of John and Christian identity, but Yohanna learned as well: “I was ignorant of the history, struggle, and spirituality of my brothers and sisters in Ukraine. The challenge of bringing evangelical faith into dialogue with the Orthodox Church encouraged me to develop further reading.”
So why bother with scholarship while bombs are falling? As Yohanna testifies, “Biblical love is the best kind of mission” because it impacts “governments and nations.” Sharing knowledge gained through Biblical study helps the Church pursue reconciliation across ethnic and political divides; ultimately, it builds the Kingdom in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” but all are Christ’s.
Preaching in Chicago in 2019, Yohanna emphasized that these truths apply to individuals and nations alike: “When Jesus enters into a context of hatred, into a context of violence, into a context of segregation, things are transformed. Many times, when we think about our problems, we are stuck. God can show his grace through your problems and turn them into a blessing so that they become an opportunity to reveal the glory of God, to reveal the mercy of God, to reveal the power of God, to reveal the healing of God. In God’s hands, our problems are divine opportunities for God’s grace.” With God’s power, “Love is an opportunity to pursue justice with the right motive.”