Peace. Most of us wish we had more of it – in our lives, and in the world. That beautiful anthem the choir just sang speaks of that longing in our hearts to know serenity, gentleness, calm – for those to be the words that describe our lives. But they don’t very often, do they? Not our own lives, nor the world.
Most of you know that I’m just back from visiting Israel-Palestine, the Holy Land of three great faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Peaceful is not a word you could use to describe either my visit, or the land itself. There were a few moments of peaceful reflection – sitting beside the Sea of Galilee or visiting the Tomb of Moses out in the desert – but most of the time it was near-constant intake of information. I’ll tell you more about the trip when I have more time and my voice is back to normal, but for now, let me start with this:
There can be no peace – in the Holy Land, in Canada, in the world – without justice. Any peace that does not include the values that Jesus preached in the Beatitudes and elsewhere cannot last, because it is built on oppression that opposes the will of God.
The Palestinian people live with daily discrimination, denied their human rights both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Those in the occupied territories are cut off from their work, their families and their land by security walls and armed teenage soldiers who can, on a whim, decide not to open the gates and let them go about their business. Their land is daily being taken for Israeli settlements and Israeli businesses, their orchards cut down and their homes demolished. They have been driven out of their homes and forced into refugee camps and overcrowded and under-serviced cities that are cut off from each other by walls and a system of roads segregated according to who can drive on them – yes, really. Their children are arrested in the middle of the night and illegally detained without access to a lawyer or their parents, and they can be held for months without charge – and when released, the parents are billed for their imprisonment! All this and more, from a country that touts itself as the stronghold of democracy in the Middle East!
In the face of that reality, I was continually impressed by the dignity and good humour of the people we met and their absolute commitment to non-violent resistance – the kind Jesus spoke of in the sermon we just heard: loving enemies, doing good to those who hurt them, refusing to get caught in a cycle of violent retaliation. We met mostly with Palestinian Christians, some of whom were citizens of Israel and some of whom were not; we also met with Jewish and Muslim citizens and Muslim Palestinians. Each one was dedicated to standing against oppression and for justice, at the risk of imprisonment or worse, and they strongly rejected any violent action. This is hardly the stereotype of the dangerous Palestinian many of us grew up with, and it gives me hope that God is doing a new thing in Palestine – that there will come a time within my lifetime, possibly within the next couple of decades, when the Palestinians will have an experience like the one Jeremiah wrote of for the Jews as they hoped for a return from THEIR exile in Babylon. There will come a day when many will be able to return to their land, to build their homes and live in them, to plow their fields and plant their olive trees and herd their sheep and goats unmolested.
My commitment to the people I met with is to do what I can from here in Canada to hasten that day. It will not come without cost, perhaps to my own reputation and to some of my relationships. It has been deeply instilled in the education of Israeli children and Jewish children worldwide that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. There is a genuine fear that without the protection of a state that is dedicated for the Jewish people, another Holocaust could be just around the corner. Remember, this is not ancient history! The Holocaust is living memory, and it has created indelible trauma among the Jewish people.
In a real sense, Christians are responsible for the current plight of the Palestinian people. Christian anti-Semitism led not only to the Holocaust but also to a failure to welcome those fleeing the carnage, and the Holocaust was the tipping point that led to the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. The establishment of Israel started the Naqba, the catastrophe that the Palestinian people are still experiencing daily. Those us with European Christian roots started this historical trajectory, so we have a responsibility to see that justice is done for all in that troubled land.
When the United Church discussed officially adopting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions campaign against products made in illegal Israeli settlements – and let me remind you that those settlements have been declared illegal by the UN and international courts on numerous occasions, confirmed again while I was actually in Palestine – the UCC received letters from B’nai Brit and the Canadian Jewish Congress warning us that taking such an action would have grave consequences for our relationships with those bodies – relationships that the UCC had worked very hard to build in the face of centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. I was on the commission of the General Council that examined the issue; I read those letters; and I was there when the GC decided against BDS as official policy. I now believe we were wrong.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “ My conviction that a great wrong is being done to the Palestinian people comes straight from my faith in Jesus as Liberator and Friend of the poor and oppressed. Any action that I choose to take will be motivated by the faith I share with my Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters, not any sort of prejudice against Jewish people, faith or culture. Many Jews also oppose the illegal actions of Israel, so I believe I am in good company; indeed, the main characteristic of a prophet in ancient Israel was his or her opposition to the policies and actions of the powers-that-be! They spoke for faithfulness, justice and peace on behalf of God. That’s a tradition we share.
I think it’s time we stopped worrying about our reputation and did the right thing. It was just such a campaign that put enough international pressure on apartheid South Africa to change; and I heard loudly and clearly that such a campaign may be the only thing that will put enough pressure on Israel which is fast becoming an apartheid state. It is Peace Sunday this Sunday in Advent; this coming Tuesday is Human Rights Day – what better time to make a new commitment for justice and a lasting peace for the Holy Land?
Ironically, in order to see a true and lasting peace with justice in Israel-Palestine, we here in North America may have to go through our own conflict – a conflict of ideas, theological readings, political analyses, economic evaluations, religious beliefs. Working for justice tends to ruffle feathers and disturb consciences. In order to achieve real peace, we will need to sacrifice our own internal peace for a time. I don’t look forward to the turmoil – I am a peaceable soul – but sometimes putting our faith into practice allows us no other path – and I and anyone who cares to join me will find ourselves walking the road with the Palestinian people.
A beautiful Palestinian Quaker woman named Jean Zaru, said these words to us in Ramallah toward the end of our stay: “Believe me it is not easy; sometimes my tears fall down. Today a prisoner with cancer died. He wanted to spend his last two hours with his family; this was not permitted. The funeral is being planned even though his body has not been released…..I am sad for the heartened hearts of my oppressors. I am sensitive to the suffering of others; I will not use violence against them.” For Jean, for Omar, for Andreos and his new bride Diana, for Rania, for Nazim, for Jonathon, for David, for Sami, for Mahmoud, for so many others whom I met and all the others we may never meet, let us set our feet on the path to a just peace. Let us say together the Affirmation of Peace you’ll find on 683 in Voices United…