Can Martin’s dreams and Jesus’ schemes spread like dandelion seeds caught on the sweet breath of singing Palestinian children? Their smiles and laughter say let freedom ring and God’s kindom come from the Golan’s hills to Jericho’s canyon, from Aida’s keys to Hebron’s tombs. The Spirit always blows those seeds, especially with children’s breath, those seeds of dandelion hope. This time watch them blow, blow over stone slabs of intended walled death, blow over a grey ribboned noose aimed at slicing and strangling Palestinian hills. And those seeds? They will take root there. Where walls were driven like blank tombstones with Zionist arms and foreign hammers, but bare of any epitaph for neither freedom nor faith, nor hope, nor love. They can’t write it there. A breath blown dandelion stops them. Instead, those walls, like the cross transformed, inscribed with graffiti of outrageous hope will one day become a ringing and singing resurrection. Listen and you can hear it. Look and you can see it.
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We stood on a mountainous perch overlooking the city of Jerusalem. It was an awesome site. We marveled at the beauty of the sand colored brick duplexes stacked upon the hills. However, a closer, detailed look revealed a different picture. The city of Jerusalem is in fact divided into two sections: East and West Jerusalem. It is truly a tale of two cities; one of privilege and opportunity and one of poverty and exclusion. From the roof tops one can see stark evidence of a striking limitation of basic human needs; water rights for Palestinian families are sharply curtailed. The residents of East Jerusalem receive fresh water two to three times a month while their neighbors in West Jerusalem receive unlimited amounts of fresh water every day. The roof tops of East Jerusalem homes contain black water tanks that are filled during the limited periods when water is released to their neighborhoods. When the water supply is shut off, these residents must carefully regulate their water usage saved in the tanks until more water is available. East Jerusalem residents also utilize silver tanks that are used to collect rain water in an effort to collect as much fresh water as possible. All Palestinian neighborhoods throughout the holy land are subject to this peculiar water policy.
Additionally, one can see a winding thirty foot concrete wall that has been erected throughout many parts of the land primarily around and through Palestinian communities. Neighborhoods are divided, families and friends are separated but even worse, Palestinians and Jewish Israeli citizens live divided from each other. Many don’t have the opportunity to interact yet they live so closely together. Howard Thurman commented in his mystical work: Jesus and the Disinherited that hatred is engendered when there is limited knowledge or contact without fellowship between people. It is possible to know of someone without ever having a true exchange. Fellowship requires one to exchange with and touch their neighbor. My concern is that members of the two areas of Jerusalem are sharing virtually the same space but living with physical and social barriers that will prevent them from knowing each other as members of the same human family. It seems as if these close neighbors of East and West Jerusalem are both under siege. The systematic isolation harms both communities making true reconciliation more difficult as both populations cease making contact and genuine fellowship with each other. Ellen Blum Barish, one of my adopted Jewish congregants from Evanston, Illinois recently reflected upon an exchange that took place between our congregations during a joint biblical study group session. In her article entitled: “The Power of a Circle: Standing Hand-in Hand to Overcome Discrimination” she reflected upon our own personal interaction stating, “It isn’t too often that we find ourselves standing in a circle with other people. Especially one consisting of black and white, male and female, young and old, Jewish and Baptist. Aren’t we more inclined to just show up and stand, separate from one another, in the back to observe?”
It is precisely this inclination to separate that drives the concerns that I am attempting to convey in this blog. Why the disparity of water resources? Why are families in the same area being treated so differently? I am not naïve regarding the histories of each of the populations in East and West Jerusalem. I acknowledge there are security concerns and historical disputes that are beyond my capacity to interpret and fully understand. I understand that members of both communities have experienced tremendous pain, terror, death and destruction. However, at the present moment I am informed and educated enough to know that the present status quo in Jerusalem is unsustainable and harmful to all citizens involved. I also recognize that we all have a tendency to label and categorize some human beings as the “other”. This tendency if allowed to go unchecked, guides communities into a defensive posture further alienating and dividing them until they both regard each other as the “other”. Once we label another human being as the “other” we are able to declassify their humanity and treat them as less than the magnificent creation that God has created in God’s image. We forget and ignore the divine spark that God has delicately placed in every human being. I asked our Palestinian tour guide if there was ever a group demonstration in the Old City of Jerusalem where Christians, Jews and Muslims gather each day by the thousands. Would it be possible for us to designate a time and space in the center of Old Jerusalem where we could just assemble one time in a circle of unity? I asked him if this had ever been attempted and he looked at me pointedly and said, “Never.”
I was pleasantly surprsied that Ellen Blum Barish was so moved to write about the exchanges between our congregations. Honestly, I don’t recall the exact words of the address but Ellen quoted me saying these words: True connectivity needs touch. It’s not enough to just be in the room, just to show up. As I think about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ I am reminded that Jesus touched people often. The Christian disciples were directed to lay hands on those who were ill or in need of spiritual renewal. I am especially reminded of the story of a woman with a chronic issue of blood who trusted Jesus so much that she touched him and was healed despite the strict limitations of the culture. Touching is necessary for healing to take place. Christians, Jews and Muslims it is not enough to go to our holy places. It is not enough to study our holy texts. If we fail to touch each other we have failed to be the people that God has called us to be. God has designed us to interact and grow from each other. We live and worship in our own little Jerusalems, our separate cities. When are we going to join hands and form a new unified Jerusalem; one that transcends the land and embraces the touch of the spiritual realm?
We have hands but our hardened souls have turned them into fists. Bombs, walls and policies won’t heal but a touch will.
Human beings have an insatiable habit of labeling people, places and things according to their own imaginations. Sometimes we willingly allow our fantasies to govern our sense of reality and even our morality. As a member of the Outrageous Hope peace and justice pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine we are in the process of engaging various segments of the Palestinian community with the hope that we might understand the often hidden voices that are largely ignored by Western media and scholarship.
We personally met with Father Elias Chacour, archbishop of the Greek Catholic church in Galilee. Archbishop Chacour is not great in physical stature. One might pass him by on the street without even noticing him. However, he possesses a countenance and presence of great power and authority that comes from a life of redemptive suffering, temperance and faith. I marveled at this eloquent sage of peace. I wanted to hear every word that he said.
Archbishop Chacour spoke to us about his life experience as a young, Palestinian, Christian man called to serve as a priest. His story resonated with many of us who have been called by God. We all identified with the persistent calling that he described. Chacour answered the call to serve God’s people and he has done it through a tenacious ministry that includes building schools and libraries while expanding educational opportunities for Palestinian children in his country. He is both exuberant and tenacious in his efforts to bring opportunities for peace and education to his community.
What is not immediately apparent is the burden Chacour carries in his soul. I only noticed it after a brief exchange with him after his lecture. “I’m a refuge.” He quietly said to me. I discovered after skimming his book entitled: Blood Brothers, Chacour along with members of his community was forced from his home village of Bir’am. Bir’am had been a peaceful Christian village since the first century. The village is located high in a remote mountainous region at the northern edge of Israel-Palestine, just south of the border of Lebanon. The village was decimated by a military attack leaving only shattered walls an frames of stone homes where the proud villagers once lived and thrived for centuries. We visited Chacour’s ancestral homeland during our tour and discovered the remains as well as the fact that his village is now designated as a national park. We were met by an 87 year old Bir’am villager named Tomme Magzai who showed us the site of his demolished home. He proudly directed us to the well that he had constructed in what was formerly his front yard. He showed us the spot where he planted a rose bush and an olive tree. This story resonated with me because I also love planting trees and flowers in my own yard. I recalled the rose bush my father and grandfather planted in my home community on the south side of Chicago. Strangely this physically ruined village came to life in my mind and spirit. I could envision the people walking and harvesting fruit and vegetables in their gardens. I could hear the children laughing and running through the steep winding paths of Bir’am. These Christian villagers belong to God too.
As we walked deeper in the ruins we came across a group of seven Palestinian men who were living in a shed sleeping on mats near the village church which had been preserved despite the destruction. As our group approached them there was a brief period during which we stopped a stared at each other from a distance. Both groups of people stood frozen in a form of distance and fear that was all too familiar to me as a black man who lives on the North Shore of Evanston but hails from the south side Englewood community of Chicago. I understand the pain being an object of people’s curiosity and I felt myself succumbing to that same fear. Western media has sharply portrayed Palestinian men and women as potential threats to society. Very few Americans have established relationships with Palestinians so we really don’t know them. On the other hand American policy decisions are obvious throughout this region. American citizens are largely viewed as complicit with policy decisions that are harmful to many Palestinian families. During this short moment both parties were faced with the option of connecting or continuing on our separate paths. The likelihood of our paths ever crossing again was highly unlikely yet there was a strong sense, a longing for us to express our shared sense of humanity. I walked toward on the gentlemen and extended my hand telling him, “Hello, I’m Brian.” He responded in kind and engaged me in a way that I will never forget. It was apparent that the entire group was relieved understanding that we both came in peace. One of the gentlemen told us that he and his fellow villagers were returning despite the condition of their village. They asked us to communicate with the U.S. government, specifically Barak Obama in order to assist them to change policies in their country. “You see what is here”, he calmly stated.
A few weeks ago, my pastor spoke prophetically to me. He gestured towards our pulpit and he said to me: “Brian the pulpit is bigger than what your see here.” He was preparing me to love and serve God’s people wherever I encounter them; especially beyond the walls of our sanctuary. I realized during my brief encounter with these men from a Christian, Palestinian village in Bir’am that the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. I’m a Black American seminarian from the Southside of Chicago and God has allowed me to fellowship with other ministers and seminarians of different, races, denominations and cultural backgrounds. Together we have assembled in Galilee where Jesus once walked, preached, healed and delivered us all from the power and effects of sin. It is in this holy place that we have gathered to hear the voices of all God’s children. These Palestinians belong to God too.
As we end our Outrageous Hope Study Trip in the Holy Lands, included on the agenda was a visit to a Jewish settlement. During this visit we were welcomed and had a discussion with an resident in a Synagogue. In our dialogue, the settler’s closing words were, “They [Palestinians/ Non-Jews] are the bad guys and we [the Jews] are the good guys. It’s just that simple.” He made this comment in the Jewish holy place of worship, the Synagogue. This has been my second encounter with a Jewish settler, and both have stated similar ideologies, which is frightening. This unfortunate reality reminded me of an “us versus them” theology. A theology that is dangerous and very exclusive. A theology that only looks at one side of the narrative and does not take a look at the other.
This type of theology has been used to justify the nearly extermination of Native Americans by the Europeans. This type of theology has been used to justify the bringing of Africans to North America for slavery. This type of theology has been used to justify Apartheid and other injustices throughout history and that are currently present in our world today. As Naim Ateek suggests, “God is being used to legitimize and sanction crime.” When God is being used to justify the unjustifiable, when God is being used to legitimize what cannot be legitimized, this becomes a problem in every aspect of life! We cannot and must not use God to justify the killing of children, using military occupation and causing harm to thousands of peopleto occupy a piece of land! How does that make God look?
The one thing that I will take away from this trip is reading the scriptures from a Palestinian Christian perspective. I have always understood the Zionist movement. I had once believed in it myself, but let us look at what the Zionist movement is doing to innocent babies.
Look around Palestinian territories and you will find refuge camps, trash everywhere, destroyed villages, children walking around alone, and an ugly grey Apartheid wall. A wall that costs a lot of money and that could have went to help the Palestinian neighborhood rather than separate them and exile them from the community. Does this sound like an all loving God to you? I do not think so. I invite you to read scripture in the eyes of the Palestinian. We do not need a replacement or displacement theology. But what we need in this conflict and peace and healing.
The killing has to stop and so does any form of oppressive theology. At the end of the day, we are all God’s children. The Bible say, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)”
I am not taking a side on this issue, but I chose to stand for the oppressed and fight for justice. It takes an outrageous hope to stand for those who are oppressive and marginalized. I am willing to have that outrageous hope in the God of justice and liberation of all people. I believe this is the God that Mohandas Gandhi put his hope in. I believe this is the God Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put his hope in. I believe this is the God that Nelson Mandela put his hope in. And this is the God I chose to put my outrageous hope in.