Tuesday, June 10

We had a group here recently on a learning tour. A learning tour is different than a historical tour. The first time I ever came here to Israel/Palestine, I did a historical tour. I visited all of the biblical sites (yes, ALL of them, we didn't stop moving for 3 weeks). We didn't discuss politics very much. On the learning tours that we do, we do our best to allow the participants to hear from people that are representative of all different perspectives here. We talk to Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims on both sides of the wall. We meet with Jewish settlers living in the West Bank who say the blame at the moment is entirely on the Palestinian side and with Jewish Israelis living in Tel Aviv who say that Israeli society needs to wake to up to the great wrong that it is doing; Palestinian farmers living in villages where they're attacked by Jewish settlers; Jewish settlers who've been attacked by Palestinians; foreigners living here, some of whom sleep in villages without running water in solidarity with Palestinians, and some who argue that Israel has a divine right to the entire land of Israel and think the Palestinians need to leave. We had a non-observant Jewish tour guide show us the religious and historical history of Jerusalem from David to Jesus' time, and we had a Palestinian Christian man from Nazareth who drove us around during our tour. We sat with a Palestinian Muslim woman whose brother was killed by an Israeli soldier approaching a checkpoint and a secular Jewish Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while working at a checkpoint.

Why do I bother to mention all of these things? If you go back and read through that list again, and then try to imagine developing relationships with ALL the people from the list, you start to get a sense of what life is like for us here; we don't have relationships with all of those people, but we have relationships with people that represent all of those viewpoints (those of you who've been reading for a while also know that I'm encouraging you to visit). This is part of what peacebuilding is: we're trying to help people that would normally only see each other as enemies see each other as people. Lots of Palestinians only experience Israelis as unfriendly soldiers at checkpoints behind guns, barriers, and fences. Lots of Israelis only see Palestinians on the news carrying weapons and bombs. We're trying to help them see each other as mothers, parents, carpenters, soccer players. As people.

So why should we care? Well, driving around Bethlehem the other day we came across this picture spray-painted on the wall.
That 'Made in USA' stencil makes me feel invested in what's going on here. Whoever wrote that there is making a deeper point: this wall that restricts the rights of a lot of Palestinians couldn't have been made without the political support of the United States. Then, there's the question for Israel: have you become the evil you deplored? For me, the USA stencil and the question for Israel are intertwined. Has Israel, as a 'Jewish state', become evil? It's a legitimate question, and I think that there are lots of people that would read that question and stop reading right there simply because I asked it. I think that's what the 'Made in USA' thing is getting at. Are we at a place where we aren't able to even ask the question about whether what the State of Israel is doing is right or not? Lots of people are of the opinion that since Israel is God's chosen nation (I'm not of that opinion and can get into it deeper if you'd like, but 'Israelis' are not the same thing as 'Israelites' and Tel Aviv is not the same thing that Solomon's Jerusalem was) we shouldn't challenge them or confront them. "Those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you cursed" is thrown out there pretty often. One response to that, and one I think can connect with those who argue that we should support the State of Israel out of a biblical basis, is that if the State should be supported because it's made up of God's chosen people, then we should hold the modern state to the same standard God held his people to when he made all those promises; one of the biggest injunctions for the biblical Israelites was that they 'love the alien in the land' since they were once aliens themselves. How do we miss this? Those things seem pretty logically connected to me.

The Church should be speaking out about these things. However, the problem with the Church is that we either don't see these things or don't take them seriously. We are looking to the global Church to be a prophetic voice about these things, expecting it to be willing to speak truth to power and calling it to work to make this world look more like God's Kingdom (isn't that what we're asking for when we pray 'Your kingdom come, your will be done..'?) but it isn't responding to the situation here. Like this picture, the Church's complacency only leads to another wall for Palestinians and a dead end for peace.
Hopefully you're starting to feel a sense of what it's like to work here and try to figure out how to live as a citizen of God's Kingdom while all around us absurd injustices are going on. One of the passages we read Sunday in church was from John 20:19. The verse was printed in the bulletin, "Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you..." When the reader got to the words 'fear of the Jews' he started to say them, realized what he was saying, and said instead 'for fear of Jesus' enemies'. I started thinking about media and how what we say matters. Here, it'd be pretty offensive if there was a Jewish person sitting in the church and the reader talked about disciples hiding for fear of the Jews; don't we do something like that when we say 'the Palestinians' launched rockets from Gaza? Are they all launching rockets? What if the news called them 'enemies of Israel' instead? Would that change the way we see things?

(Still with me? We'll tie it all together in a second here.) Earlier I mentioned the Palestinian woman whose brother was killed and the Jewish woman who lost her son. I sat with a group of pastors, listening to a Muslim woman and a secular Jew tell me about losing loved ones, knowing that their respective societies view the other as 'the enemy'. Seeing them interact with each other as friends, as humans, taught me more about grace than anything I've ever heard someone say from a pulpit. Someone asked the Muslim woman if it's difficult for her to travel because of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, and if she'd been able to accompany her Israeli colleague on any of the speaking trips the Israeli woman had taken to North America. She reached out and put her hand on the woman sitting next to her. "Not yet. I'd love to travel with my friend, but not yet." I never expected a Muslim woman and a secular Jewish woman to so clearly demonstrate to me the grace, forgiveness, and love my Christian savior so often talks about in a book that neither of them have probably ever bothered to read, much less claim to believe.

Finally, while showing a friend around here, we stopped by the Church of the Nativity, the church built to commemorate Jesus' birth here in Bethlehem. Inside the church is a poor box, a place for parishioners and visitors to leave donations for the poor. It's just off to the side, out of the way but not inconspicuous, just large enough to be noticed by anyone who's been in the church more than once. The Greek Orthodox Church does a large part of the upkeep around the church, and there are signs of that all over the place. One of them is the fact that most of the writing around the poor box is in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Seeking God's Kingdom is something that has to be actively pursued. I don't think God's Kingdom looks like what I see most of the time: a huge concrete wall, people treating each other with no dignity, intentionally humiliating or demonizing each other, seeing each other as enemies rather than neighbors, oppressing each other, full of fear, hatred, and violence. Most of the time these are things that we encounter in our daily life as we try to connect with the normal people on either side, as we sit with people here we know genuinely want peace and are trying to figure out ways to help the greater publics understand it. Occasionally, we'll have moments like with the two women I mentioned above, who show us what God's Kingdom looks like here in this part of the world, and those are the moments when it all kind of comes together and relieves a lot of the frustration, pressure, and tension we feel living here as citizens of a different place. That's when what's written on the side of the poor box starts to take on a more immediate meaning for us. I start to understand why Jesus tells us to go out and love our enemies and care for the poor; we usually think we're supposed to do those things to benefit them, but I think they're actually for our benefit, so that we can hurry up and live in the world that God intended for us to live in. "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the poor." (Luke 12:32-33) We all meet people that are poor and that we can give to, and not just materially.

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