A Reflection from the Mosaic of Peace Conference
Our bus drive from Bethlehem to Qasr el Yahud, the latter designated as the possible site of Jesus’ baptism, is brown and dusty like much of Palestine. Israel either claims or controls most of the water, so there is no chance for the desert on this side of The Separation Wall to blossom like a rose. Our Mosaic of Peace group descends a gravel road crowded with wire fences. Technically, the property through which the road runs belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church: Domes of both an ancient edifice and a more contemporary one mark the horizon. We Presbyterians walk along the road with a group I would best guess to be Baptist. Pope Francis will approach from the opposite side of the river in a few weeks: Ad majorem Dei Gloriam.
Yet the Prince of Peace has no obvious claim in these parts. A guard tower allows for a blackbird’s eye view east to Jordan, where a young Jordanian soldier in camo stares at his two riverside counterparts ten yards back west. All three have fingers on triggers. Honestly, their presence is more symbolic than effective. Providing the true defense are the mines that lace holy ground, placed there by Israel against a once and future invasion. Fear of the future rules the place, as it rules much of Israel and Palestine. History is not permitted to become past here.
Honestly, the soldiers’ presence is more symbolic than effective. Providing the true defense are the mines that lace holy ground, placed there by Israel against a once and future invasion.
The alleged baptismal site of Jesus is guarded, militarized, mined. We see again what the Scriptures teach us. At the margins, where proud empires rub against each other, can be found the seedbed from which prophets emerge. Reputedly Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus were among them. Prophets are akin to weeds that find a way, against the odds, to flourish in pavement cracks.
I wish for the residents of the Holy Land a new prophet, one willing to risk life to liberate the future. On our journey we meet many faithful and hopeful persons who can articulate pain, yet no contemporary messiah comes to our attention: no Gandhi, no Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., no Nelson Mandela. Perhaps this is because after so many Christians have fled Palestine, the few remaining stubbornly incarnate a priestly role. They together are the body of Christ in the world, still crucified. They grow through the cracks, breaking down hard surfaces, reseeding themselves among ruins in spite of determined efforts at eradication
The oppressed Christians of Palestine also fall between the cracks of the American religious community. They do not find easy advocacy with either conservatives or progressive Presbyterians. Consider a brief survey of recent Presbyterian Church (USA) literary offerings. A conservative magazine presents irony without recognizing it: In parallel articles it advocates for Egyptian Christians because, after all, they are Christians. Simultaneously it advocates for an Israeli government that oppresses Palestinian Christians, assumedly because the latter are not the chosen people, no matter how Christian they may be.
How can we ask the lamb to lie down with the lion if we don’t make it disadvantageous for the lion to chew on the lamb?
In an editorial in a second magazine, the editor urges progressive Christians to resist calls for divesting from, boycotting, and sanctioning (BDS) Israel for its treatment of Palestinian Christians. His urging echoes the ones made by liberal rabbis who speak to our tour group. Although opposed to BDS, these rabbis present no practical, non-violent strategic alternatives to our group that will loosen Israel’s noose. Neither does the editor. Stated openly or not, the progressive American concern lies mainly in the harm that BDS will do to interfaith dialogue between American Jews and Christians. To be sure, this negative impact on what might be called privileged conversations is already being experienced in some quarters. Truthfully, no one likes being labeled an anti-Semite. Yet abhorring Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, Christian or not, does not mean hating Jews or being anti-Israel, despite accusations to the contrary. BDS and reconciliation are not incompatible means and ends, as the South African experience proved.
A third offering comes from an advertisement for a General Assembly event entitled “Peacemaking or BDS; Which path will we take?” (advertisement featured in the Presbyterian Outlook). The presumption that these two positions are polar opposites already prejudges the choice being advocated. Again, it is hard to imagine the end of apartheid in South Africa – an authentic illustration of peacemaking, which is peace with justice – without having economic pressure applied to the white government there. How can we ask the lamb to lie down with the lion if we don’t make it disadvantageous for the lion to chew on the lamb?
Where do the Palestinians stand on BDS? Advocates of BDS see it as the only non-violent alternative for pressuring the Israelis: They tend to be middle-aged and younger. Those older, who perhaps are fearful of losing their guardianship of the holy sites, express ambivalence toward BDS. Yet their position can sound more like a refusal to go on the record than outright opposition to the movement. Perhaps there is fear of embarrassing Americans or suffering further reprisals from Israelis monitoring communications, so they remain reticent.
The sad truth is that the Palestinian Christians have been sacrificed to the moral relativity practiced by American Presbyterians at both ends of the theological and political spectrum.
Cut away ideological posturing and the discoverable facts are these: Israel exploits the natural resources of Palestine. It controls Palestine’s trade, making so-called positive investment in Palestine both difficult and limited in effectiveness. If conscience eschews violence, and moral suasion has no impact on the unrelenting forced balkanization of Palestine by Israeli settlement, what remains except economic pressure?
The sad truth is that the Palestinian Christians have been sacrificed to the moral relativity practiced by American Presbyterians at both ends of the theological and political spectrum. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus confronted Jewish and Gentile political and economic power for the sake of justice, mercy, and faith being extended to the least, the meek. Similarly, Palestinian Christians – truly the least – need contemporary American Christian allies who are no respecters of those who wield power. And yet, even without the advocacy they deserve, the Palestinians persist in the narrow spaces between ideological correctness and hardened hearts.
Yet it is the meek that God blesses. Or so says Jesus in Matthew 5:5, as our group sees proclaimed in the Melkite Church associated with Archbishop Emeritus Elias Chacour. When God gives the Levitical instruction regarding the land, God also provides limitations to property ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:23-24). Land ownership is by necessity provisional, as “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Land is not owned by its human occupants; it is only held in trust. Its enjoyment in no way contradicts God’s ownership of it or God’s insistence that it be shared. After all, all people are aliens and tenants compared to God: Jew or Gentile, Israeli or Palestinian. The meek with whom Jesus identifies have first claim on the land. They are the heirs.
We should recall that Christians in the margins often do not have the luxury to burden themselves with the issues that we American Christians debate.
Dr. Mitri Raheb, Lutheran pastor of the Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine, states that imperial politics follow the same historical course regardless of the identity of the conqueror and the conquered. Eventually, he says, the privileged and gifted, if they are not killed, go into exile. The unwanted, the meek, are left behind to claim ownership of the land. Raheb believes this is the point that Jesus is making in the Beatitude and is the promise that Jesus continues to make to the Palestinians. The present Israeli empire, as temporary as David’s and Solomon’s if it remains unrepentant, has chosen the road to ruin. Every fighter plane bought and mile of wall built with US tax dollars move it closer. God who is willing and able to do a new thing, God who is unbound by doubtful human interpretation of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature, will eventually leave the poorest of the poor in possession of the land of Palestine. Indeed, ‘land’ is actually the proper translation of the word in the Beatitude – mistranslated in the English Bible as ‘earth’. Blessed are the meek, because when the oppressor finally withdraws, the land will belong to them.
Speaking of the meek, four of us go to visit Reverend Danny Awad. His congregation is part of the Council of Baraka Presbyterian Churches. The council was abandoned recently by another American Presbyterian denomination, perhaps because of that denomination’s uncritical support of Israel. Without outside assistance, the council struggles at the margins of socio-economic, political, and religious life in Palestine – its land is threatened – and it seeks new allies in our denomination. Undoubtedly the council realizes that our Reformed faith varies biblically and theologically from its own on some points, yet this prospect would probably not perturb it greatly. Why?
We should recall that Christians in the margins often do not have the luxury to burden themselves with the issues that we American Christians debate. Their energies and focus lie in determined efforts to “lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim” in the face of enormous resistance. As we U.S. Presbyterians prepare for our biennial General Assembly, which promises a week devoted to deliberating on our denomination’s future, this is the wisdom that Palestinian Christians share with us. It appears our oppressed sisters and brothers have much to teach us about Christian unity if we will risk taking up solidarity with them.
AUTHOR BIO: Sam Massey, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Iowa City, IA, recently returned from the Mosaic of Peace 2014 visit to Israel and Palestine. Sam earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from Princeton Seminary and his Ph.D. from Gonzaga University. He is husband to Susan and father of two boys, Will and Daniel.
Click here to read the items of business concerning the Middle East coming before the General Assembly this summer.
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