Tuesday, October 30, 2007
One year later
October 30, 2007
It has been a year since we embarked on our journey to
We had hope that in a year there would be improvement for the Palestinians living there, especially the Christians who are trying to be Peacemakers and Reconcilers. The situation is just as complex now but there are if not signs of hope at least recognition by some of the parties that change must take place.
A few weeks ago we got to hear Archbishop Elias Chacour speak at Nassau Presbyterian Church. When we were at Mars Elias, the educational institution he founded, he was recovering from surgery so we did not get to meet with him then. I am glad we finally did. The Archbishop is a true Peacemaking and we pray for his success.
Less than a week later we heard Jeff Halper speak at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville. Jeff is Director of ICAHD. We met him on the first day of visit. It was great to meet him again and get an update, though sad to hear there has been no stopping of the house demolitions and building of walls.
Tonight I heard Rev. Ted Wright who with his wife Susan are regional liaisons for east and central
One of our goals was to have others visit the
I pray for them, and that they meet the wonderful people that we did. Most of all my heart is with out host family, that they are well and living their dreams.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Hebron and CPT
Hebron and Christian Peacemaker Teams
“Peace also takes courage” (Jeff Vamos’ bumper sticker). About two months ago, on Nov. 7, 2006, our group visited the city of Hebron. As our bus entered the very lively old city and drove us to its center and “the square, we found it filled to overflowing with people, taxi cabs and cars, with hardly room to breathe. It was there that we were met by two members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, Jerry Levin and Abigail Ozanne. As our tour began, Jerry explained how, since early 1997, the city has been divided into two sectors: H1 and H2. The H1 sector, home to around 120,000 Palestinians, came under the control of the Palestinian Authority, in accordance with Hebron Protocol. H2, which was inhabited by around 30,000 Palestinians, remained under Israeli control due to the presence of around 500 Jewish Israeli settlers living in an enclave near the center of the town. During the last five years, the Palestinian population in H2 has decreased by 20,000 and the current figures show that only around 10,000 Palestinians continue to live in this sector. This decrease of the Palestinian population in the H2 sector has been attributed to continuous harassment of the Palestinians by the settlers, as well as extended curfews and restrictions placed on Palestinian residents by the Israeli Defense Forces (Occupation Forces).
As we walked from one section closer to the settlements, fewer people and most of the businesses have had to close down because of the occupation. We visited the apartment of the CPT and the end of a closed off street and walked to the rooftop of their apartment where we could see much of the city of Hebron, with the Israeli military watching us from the top of a nearby building to our south. We then continued our walk through more of the Old City stopping long enough for a lunch of falafel sandwiches, one of the best sandwiches of the trip. Along the way, we were pestered continuously by several small Palestinian boys asking for money. Abigail explained that school had not started yet nor were there any playgrounds for the kids.
At the turnstiles in the Old City leading to the Ibrahimi Mosque, we met with our guide from the mosque, about 86 years old and he could say all the names of the states in the U.S. in less than a minute. The mosque is also know as the Tomb of the Patriarchs -at present half-synagogue and half-mosque - and it is thought to lie directly above the underground tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. The security was tight and we were required to present passports and pass through a metal detector. This security was the result of the actions of an American-born Jewish extremist who, in 1994, entered the mosque and opened fire killing 48 Muslims and injuring 200 ( as stated in my guide book). But the CPT says that 29 Muslims were murdered as they were praying in the Ibrahimi mosque. Modest dress for the women in our group required brown monk like capes and having our heads covered. And of course, we all had to remove our shoes.
I am one of the leaders for our Women’s Bible study of Genesis this year so, I was very excited to see this Holy site. I took many photos to share with my friends. As we were leaving, we came up one pair of shoes short – missing a size 6 pair of sneakers. Jan was given a large pair of sandals to wear until a replacement pair could be purchased. It was quite emotional seeing and the realizing what these people have to endure everyday – with the occupation.
Upon returning my husband, Ted and I have received the Hebron Update from the Christian Peacemaker Teams and read about their day to day encounters and nonviolent approach to various incidences makes us admire their efforts in dealing with Israeli police and military and the Israeli settlers. And I was appalled at what happened on Nov 18, to a 19 year old Swedish international human rights activist, when a violent incident occurred and her checkbone was fractured by an Israeli settler who hit her with an empty bottle. Being able to stay calm and react in a nonviolent way would be very hard for me, when confronted with the situations facing the Christian Peacemaking Teams. My prayers and support go with them daily. I learned from this and other experiences on the trip that “if you want peace work for justice.”
Friday, December 22, 2006
Experience with host family
Linda and I stayed with a Palestinian Christian family, a mother and her two teen-age daughters, living in Beit Sahour outside Bethlehem. It was wonderful to return and relax with that family after our intense experiences during the day. We often met in the evening with sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews in family gatherings at the grandparents’ home and experienced their closeness and comraderie. Family members would laugh and talk together, and the young children would dance to music on the TV. The grandfather showed us his artwork and played his colorful guitar. He gave Linda and me some pictures of the Holy Family and olive wood crèche scenes that he had made.
But we also learned of their difficult experiences negotiating the separation barriers. Our host’s cousin told how he tried to cross into Jerusalem to go to work at a construction site and was detained for several hours by a crossing guard. He said that he needed to return to care for his children, and the guard finally let him go, but said, “Don’t ever come back here again or you will be imprisoned.”
Linda and I especially enjoyed interacting with Andrea, the older teenage daughter in our family. She was interested in everything about us and spent a lot of time with us in her bedroom, where we were staying while there. She showed us her art supplies and was interested in Linda’s artwork. Linda gave her some art supplies and sketched a picture of her and of other members of the family. I made some hanging Origami paper cranes for them and crocheted wrist bands for Andrea and her sister and a cousin. It was a wonderful experience for us to interact so intimately with the family.
How the experience has changed me
Since I have returned I am very tuned in to news of Israel/Palestinian Territories, and I am much saddened to hear about continuing violence there, especially in Gaza. Every day I receive email messages from peacemaking groups that I have connected with, e.g. Israel Palestine Network, and from folks in our own group. I have learned about other people here who are concerned about peace in that area, and I am making connections with them. Also, I am experiencing Christmas in a different way this year. From staying with host families in the Bethlehem area I see beyond the peaceful manger scene with shepherds and wise men visiting the baby Jesus. It makes me sad to know that the area where the Prince of Peace was born is so disrupted now. I want to help in some way to bring peace to this troubled land. But first, I realize that I must go beyond viewing the birth of Jesus as an outside event and bring his birth into my heart, to “prepare him room” there. In this way I may be equipped to be a peacemaker.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
A Road Map for Peace
TRENTON: Westminster Presbyterian Church Welcomes Parish Associate to reflect on Israel/Palestine trip. December 10, 2006.
Before I left to go on a mission trip to the Middle East, Pastor Karen Hernandez-Granzen invited me to preach in December. When I returned, I found out that I was scheduled to preach on December 10th, the 2nd Sunday in Advent, when we light the candle of Peace, which is also Human Rights Day. I knew while I was on my trip that I would have the opportunity to preach and share my experience with my worshiping community.
Yesterday was the first time, except for a few intimate friends, that I shared my journey. I tried to state it through the eyes of my host family, a teenager from Berzeit University, two men who are a part of the Parents Circle group and all the children that I could possibly remember. What I didn’t anticipate were the emotions that I would experience during a hectic work week schedule, with not a lot of time to spare.
Thanks to Ted Settle, I was able to make a beautiful bulletin with the City of Jerusalem on the front. I began with the image of Jerusalem and ended with Bill McQuoid’s collage of Palestinian Children.
During Worship in the Arts for the Child in All of Us, I was able to dedicate the olive wood crèche to Westminster. I had fun with the children, asking them if they remembered their birth, which many acknowledged that they did. I showed the congregation the spot where Jesus was born and where the troth might have been, along with contemporary pictures of what Bethlehem looks like today.
PS: There were more children than there were seats! Praise God!
I wrote a sermon, which I began to edit for the blog, but realized that even though I wrote one, I took the liberty of telling stories through 2/3 of it. The stories began with Rafat and Mary. Then I moved to a bit about what we saw, including pictures of the walls. I spoke a bit about the media, and then told the story of Akram from Beirzeit University as a witness to the checkpoints and how people are played with like pawns. I ended my sermon with stories and photographs of the children. I concluded with a message of hope. I realized how desperately I need to do that in the middle of the week! I shared about the 31 peace-making groups, but lifted up the groups and schools that work specifically by teaching and modeling non-violence and reconciliation. Wouldn’t this most likely raise a generation of people who might do something differently?
I capitalized on the metaphor, Road Map to Peace. We learned that this is how each side of the conflict might come to consensus about a solution. I suggested that we each need our own road map.
I have been personally challenged over the last 30 days by a relationship that I struggle with in my own life. This forced me to ask the question, “How do we look at conflict in our own lives?” If we are preparing for the prince of peace, our reconciler, it should not be that difficult to get along with our family member, colleagues and people who believe in Christ? Right?
The reason that I am taking this “blog time” is because my church embraced this message. I felt free to lift my eyes from the text and share the stories that touched my life when I was in the Holy Land.
Yesterday was a busy day, we had a baptism, which affected many people in different ways. We discovered that Inae was meant to be raised by Westminster Presbyterian Church. She had lived in the neighborhood, but only by a mere coincidence--is there such a thing-- her guardians, who are her grandparents, happen to be members of the church. As the newest member of the church, Inae is an example that I was able to use for our road map of peace. We can practice non-violence and love with our commitment to her--to all children in our lives.
I can certainly share stories of pain and hope. I can put images on a multi-media screen to move people, but how do those that didn’t make the trip become motivated toward justice? I think we have to take it personally.
“What this text has forced me to look at is my own way to peace. Sure, I can share the awful plight and state the facts of what I saw, the injustices and the hope. I can show you pictures, so that you will become more engaged. But, what good does it do, if we don’t have our own way of dealing with peace. Where do we stand in our own relationships, when there is conflict? What is our own road map to peace? How do we prepare the way for God to enter our own lives?”
Yesterday many people came up to me afterwards and thanked me. They said things like, “I had no idea that you would have to be careful about how you say things” . . . .or “thank you for telling us about the media, I had no idea that we were not getting the full picture.” I even heard, “I appreciated that you told the truth!” I am not talking about patting me on the back because I did a good job, but I got thanked for bringing the message to my worshipping community, who not only loves and cares for me, but prayed for all of us and continue to do so.
I thank God for Westminster Presbyterian Church. We are a community that tries to be creative and authentic to the worship of God. However, the freedom to express myself, using pictures and liturgy from the Human Rights Liturgy, PCUSA, is something that was a blessing. I know that many churches would not have had the courage.
This service was taped, so we might have a copy for our archives. As we continue to gather, reflect on scripture and pray for the wisdom to speak the truth, I want to say thank you to my church for letting me be who God has called me to be.
Marcia MacKillop, Parish Associate
Saturday, December 09, 2006
A Journey to the Holy Land
The Bible is filled with different images of the Holy Land: the majesty of God’s creation reflected in the mountains, deserts, and streams; the horrific battles between the Israelites and neighboring armies; the vision of a new Jerusalem where all people will gather in praise of God; Christ’s tears for the people of Jerusalem as they turn away from peace. As Mike and I traveled through Israel and Palestine for two weeks this November, we were greeted with similarly contrasting images. We witnessed violence, oppression, and suffering amidst the beauty of the Biblical landscape.
It was an amazing opportunity for us to deepen our faith as we experienced the land where our Savior walked and as we met Christians whose roots go back to the early church. As we visited the Old City of Jerusalem with its thousands of years of history, our own country’s few centuries of existence paled in comparison. We imagined ourselves living in the Holy Land and worshipping each week at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial – or visiting the garden tomb at the edge of the city, where some believe Jesus was buried. What would it be like to spend every Christmas in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Christ was born? Or to drink from Jacob’s well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman? Or to wade in the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River? We would better appreciate Biblical history if we lived in this land surrounded by ancient archaeological sites: visiting palaces and fortresses built by Herod the Great, touching the remains of the outer wall of the temple, walking on Roman roads still in use today, seeing villages where Old Testament prophets were born, and visiting the tombs of Abraham and Sarah. As we took all this in, we felt amazed, spiritually enriched, full of peace, and deeply connected to the Bible.
Such feelings were in great tension with the reality of life we witnessed as we traveled beyond the tourist sites into the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to towns like Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and Ramallah. We soon found that most of the Biblical sites we had visited are not accessible to the Christians who live in the West Bank. Our sense of the holiness of the land was shattered by the ominous concrete wall surrounding Bethlehem, where we stayed for five nights with Palestinian Christian families. As a security defense for Israel, the wall creates a jagged border between Israel and the West Bank for nearly 100 miles. It encircles some Palestinian communities completely, divides one Palestinian town from another, and separates villagers from their own olive orchards and farmland. When we drove the short distance between Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we passed an Israeli military checkpoint before we reached the wall. This was easy for us as Americans, but most of the Christians we met in Bethlehem have been unable to leave that community for the past six years to work in other towns or go to Jerusalem for Christmas. This was one of the many checkpoints in Palestinian territory that our tour bus passed through with ease.
Only once did we begin to experience what Palestinians endure each day traveling from one town to another. When we arrived at Nablus, a Palestinian city that is the home of Jacob’s well, we had to leave our bus behind and cross through the checkpoint on foot. Although Nablus is located far from the Israeli border and is under Palestinian governance, Israeli soldiers monitored everyone who entered or exited the city. After touring Nablus by taxi, our group was held up as we neared the checkpoint to rejoin our bus. We joined a line of Palestinians waiting to cross the checkpoint on foot. Many of them were university students returning to their own towns at the end of the day. The women in our group made it through the checkpoint after about 20 minutes, but the men’s line was hardly moving, since Palestinian males were subject to lengthy questioning and searching. As I waited for my husband, I imagined myself as a Palestinian woman doing this each day, worrying that my husband might offend the Israeli soldiers. The men finally returned to the bus after an hour, but only because they had been allowed through the women’s line since they were Americans.
This is one example of the restriction of movement that has crippled the Palestinian economy since 2000. We were told that over 50% of Bethlehem residents are unemployed, and in every Palestinian town we found children begging on the streets. Teachers and other civic workers had been unpaid for months because the Palestinian Authority had not received its usual revenues from the international community. This foreign aid has been withheld since the democratic elections in January 2006, which resulted in a Palestinian government led by Hamas, a political party recognized by the US as a terrorist organization. In the midst of this difficult situation, we were saddened that during our trip around 80 people were killed in Gaza by the Israeli military, many of them women and children. In retaliation, a resistance group fired a homemade rocket into a nearby Israeli community, killing one resident. Although the complicated political situation and violent acts committed by both sides raise controversy in the US, we should not overlook the effect the conflict has on the lives of ordinary people. As Christians, we are called to pray for Jewish Israelis who are living in fear, Arab Israelis who are treated as second class citizens, and the many Palestinians who feel imprisoned in their suffering. As Christmas approaches, let us especially remember our fellow Christians who will celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in a land devastated by war.
Hope in the Midst of Conflict
Many of the Christian leaders we met in Israel and Palestine told us that they no longer call their homeland the Holy Land because of the terrible violence that has taken place there. They prefer to call it the land of the Holy One, and it is this faith in God’s holiness that sustains them as they endure oppression. The Christians living in the land where Jesus was born are Palestinian Arabs. They are a minority community among the larger Jewish and Muslim populations. Some have Israeli citizenship. Many others live in the Occupied Territories, and we found that the Christian population there has been steadily shrinking as more and more families have immigrated to Europe, Canada, or the US. Some fear that the Christian population will disappear completely within a generation unless true is established in the region.
As visitors witnessing the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we often felt overwhelmed. What kept our spirits alive was our encounter with organizations working for peace and reconciliation, both Israeli and Palestinian, religious and non-religious, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. What gave me the most hope were the Christians we met who are so committed to the gospel of Christ that they are able to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. We drew hope from those who are determined to remain in their land despite the Israeli occupation, to support the Christian community, and to work for reconciliation. As followers of Christ they recognize that peace does not come through the military defeat of one people by another. True peace comes through reconciliation between people, and in this Christians have a great role to play by encouraging non-violence and forgiveness.
One Christian organization, the Middle East Fellowship, which is based in the US, supports Christian churches in the region and organizes tours, like the one we went on, for American Christians (www.middleeastfellowship.org). Another ministry that we encountered, called Jerusalem Evangelistic Outreach, is committed to sharing the gospel of Christ in the midst of the conflict. JEO helps sustain the faith of the Christian community in Israel and Palestine by supporting churches of all denominations, and it also provides food and humanitarian assistance to families that are the hardest hit by the conflict. This ministry is a strong witness to the love of Christ in a land full of injustice and hatred. Mike and I are partnering with JEO to help American churches learn about Christian work in the Holy Land. If you would like to learn more about this ministry, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Deanna Womack
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Here I would like to share one particular visit which had a profound impact on myself as well as the group: B'Tselem (www.btselem.org), which is "The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories". On Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006,we met Eitan Diamond, a young Israeli Jewish lawyer working on researching human rights violations in the Occupied Territories. He began the meeting by reading the verses in Genesis:
"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness...So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.' "
With this deep religeous conviction, he committed himself to exposing the human rights violations occurring in the Occupied Territories. He believed that if human rights violations were exposed, people will not allow them to continue. The major violation to human rights he sited "was the limitation of freedom of movement. Since 2000 (the launch of the second intifada), Palestinian freedom of movement was significantly reduced. Few Palestinian jobs were allowed. Many thousands of Palestinians have no place to work, and limitation of the movement of goods severely damaged the economy. While Settlements were illegal under International Law, Palestinians were forbidden to be near settlements. Palestinians were not allowed to use the roads in the Territories; where they were allowed, there were many blocades; access to health care, schools were limited. Many families were split due to severe limitations on Palestinians entering the West Bank. Settlements were treated as 'neighborhoods of Israel'. Most Israelis who lived in the East Jeruselem settlements were treated as from Israel. Walls were built within the Territories. Israeli soldiers would open fire when people came near the wall. Construction of walls on the Territories not belonging to Israel was against International Law. Yet these walls were done to establish facts on the ground. Walls were often placed at the lowest point (i.e. the weakest point); clearly not done for security reasons, but for financial interest for massive expansion plans. Private Palestinian land was confiscated for military needs. Gradually they became for civilian use (settlements). New public land was conficated and used for construction of roads and settlement. More recently, there were cumulative house demolitions. The inhabitants of the demolished homes did not have connections to suicide bombings, but was a punitive measure. Since B'Selem's work, the number of punitive demolitions has reduced (225 punitive demolitions in 2003, compared with 177 in 2004. But there were still many houses and trees demolished for other reasons - such as houses built without permit. There were simply not enough houses to keep up with population growth. Demolition measures were there to discourage Palestinians living in East Jarusalem, done for the expansion of settlement and demogratphic considerations, to keep down the number of Palestinians in Israel. The Greater Jerusalem (including many settlements in occupied Territories) took up as much land as possible. Meanwhile, the Palestinian regions were not provided with services, even though they paid taxes. There were 200,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers often detained Palestinians and they were severely abused."
I recorded these passages so as to pay trubute to the courage and integrity of this young Israeli Jewish Lawyer. There were many other such courageous people, Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinian Christians, Israeli Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Muslims. Their collective voice to use non-violent approaches to expose these abuses, and to advocate reconcillation reflects God's will that freedom and justice will prevail.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
A Sermon: "The Things That Make for Peace"
“The Things that Make for Peace”
“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”
A Sermon by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Vamos
The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville
November 19, 2006
This sermon is number four in a five part series entitled “The Gospel and Real Life”, and is addressed to the topic, “The Gospel and peace in the Middle East.” The sermon speaks to the experience of 15 Presbyterians, 13 from this Presbytery and 2 from the Phoenix area, who traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories for two weeks, from October 29 – November 12. Five persons from The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville were part of the delegation: Barb Hallows, Jan Everett, Linda Sung, Rev. William McQuoid, and this Pastor. This sermon is really just an introduction toward telling the story of that journey.
The story began on the side of a mountain—the mountain they called The Mount of Olives. It began on a Sunday we now call Palm Sunday, with Jesus of Nazareth, the peasant prophet, riding on a donkey down the Mount of Olives toward the Kidron Valley, the city of Jerusalem above in the distance, throbbing with pilgrims going to festival; he looked up and saw it there, Jerusalem, gleaming on the mountain ahead of them. It began on that mountain.
Our story, the story of 15 Presbyterians foggy with jet lag, began on that same mountain. The hotel where we stayed for the first several days of our journey was located on that same Mount of Olives. And on our first day in Jerusalem, we walked that same path that Jesus walked, or one very close to it, as he walked with his Disciples that Sunday, riding into Jerusalem as the crowds cheered, and the hopeful raised their strain. And we too paused, like Jesus paused that day, as he stopped for a moment, looking out at the city of Jerusalem, and wept. And these are the words he said: “If you only knew the things that makes for Peace!” Earlier in Luke (in chapter 13) as he thinks about this moment, as he thinks about the moment he will enter Jerusalem, he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those sent to you. How often would I have gathered your children like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” He goes to Jerusalem, knowing that he too will be killed, like all the prophets before him who spoke the truth to people who were using religion to oppress one another; using religion to kill one another with a holy zeal.
We too would come to weep over Jerusalem, as we began to see how her children, the Children of Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims—are killing each other. One member of our group literally wept in seeing the violence we encountered there. “I had no idea it was so bad,” that person said.
I know why Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
But how can we tell you this story, our story? Our group heard and saw things that are difficult to see and hear—as we felt first-hand the deep suffering of the Palestinian people, we saw with our own eyes things that we never see or hear on our news media. How can we tell how we felt the very real fear of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are so afraid for their own security, since they spend each day with the threat of suicide bombers and Qassam rockets hitting them; each day with the sense that all the nations at their borders are enemies?
How can we tell you the story of our journey?
We come back not as experts in the politics of the Middle East, but as humble pilgrims having heard and seen what is happening in Jerusalem—what is happening in the place we call “The Holy Land”. How can we tell you this story, and wade out into a minefield littered with the volatile pain that exploded in the middle of the 20th century through the murder of over 6 million Jews in the holocaust? How can we account for the nuclear shock of that pain, and the fallout of fear it has created in our Jewish brothers and sisters? How can we account for the grapes of wrath that are filling among our Palestinian brothers and sisters and how we saw with our own eyes how terribly they are suffering under occupation by their own brothers and sisters in the Covenant—how the Jewish people are inflicting on them some of the same wounds as they themselves suffered some half a century ago in Germany, in Poland, in Eastern Europe? How can we tell you of both anti-Semitism, and anti-Arab racism? How can we tell you that story, of a journey that certainly changed my life, and I suspect the lives of those with us?
How can we tell the story when we can so easily offend people who have such different perspectives on this—who have lived with it so much longer than we have? How can we be both humble and truthful? I know that I have already offended some in telling this story. And yet, we come back full of the responsibility to tell it—to tell the story that’s not being told; to say to you, we must do something, and we can do something. We must do something because lack of peace in Jerusalem means we cannot have peace in the Middle East—and without peace in Jerusalem, we cannot have peace here. If we were to somehow solve this conflict, we would all be more secure—Jews, Arabs, Americans.
How can we tell you this story?
Well, to tell our story, I encourage you to become familiar with the main story—this modern story, which is the story of the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and how these children of Abraham—the Jews and the Arabs (who include both Christians and Muslims), came to live on and dispute the same land. And it is a different story, depending on whether you are a Jew or an Arab, depending upon which world you inhabit—because we discovered, they are two different worlds; two different realities. The 1948 war that was fought to create Israel, for example, is called “The War of Independence,” by the Jewish people of Israel, while it is called The Nakhbah, the catastrophe, by the Arab people, since hundreds of thousands became refugees in their own land because of it. You need to know something of the territories called the West Bank, and Gaza and the Golan Heights, part of the Holy Land recognized by the international community as territory that will be necessary to create a future Palestinian state, but which is now under military occupation, and is being colonized by Israel, jeopardizing a peaceful future for both peoples.
I urge you to read about that story—what we found to be the hugely complex and challenging narrative of modern Israel and the Palestinian people.
But, again, how do we begin to tell our story, the story of our experience there? And, as we came to know a story so full of pain and hopelessness, how can we find hope? As Jesus wept over Jerusalem, as we wept over Jerusalem—we kept asking: where is the hope? How can the gospel have any bearing…on such a situation full of seeming hopelessness?
Perhaps the best way to begin to tell the story is to tell stories—and there are so many stories to tell, but here are just two stories among many we encountered that do, I think, point us to the hope of the gospel.
First, here is the story of a young man named Avram. It is a story about conscience and how God can penetrate the conscience of human beings. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, spoke of how nations cannot have consciences; a mob cannot have a conscience. Only individual people have moral consciences, but it is individual people who can change a mob, can change a nation. In that is hope. So this is a story about an individual conscience.
Avram met with us to tell us about the Israeli human rights organization he was working for. He told of many facts and figures about Israeli human rights violations, the wall that’s been built to separate Israelis from Palestinians—he told us many interesting things about all the issues we were studying, but at one point, a member of our group asked him the question: “how did you come to do what you’re doing? What is your personal story?” And so he told the story of his service in the army, the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF. He spoke about how he served in a tank battalion defending a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Now you need to know that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world; it’s a narrow strip of land near the Mediterranean where Arabs have lived historically, and have been forced to live as refugees. But some of the very nationalist Jewish people asserted their right to live there, amidst them, and created settlements, which were a great source of pain and anger for the Palestinian people—to take Palestinian land and live there, claiming the land for themselves. And by law, the Israeli Army has to protect these people who illegally create settlements on Palestinian land. And so what they would do is make a security perimeter around the settlement, uprooting the olive trees and destroying the buildings around it, in order to create such a security barrier. And the job of Avram and his tank battalion was to patrol this perimeter.
He told of one night having to shoot a man who was approaching with a gun. They killed him. Then he told of another night in which they saw a man go into the security perimeter; they saw him through night vision goggles. And he didn’t look armed. They fired warning shots to warn him away, but he kept stumbling through the perimeter toward the settlement. They fired again, and he didn’t turn back. So they tried to shoot him in the legs. You can imagine that it’s very difficult to shoot someone in the legs. They ended up killing him. They needed to investigate, because such people might be wired with bombs. And so they went over to where the man was, and discovered that he was a man with Downs Syndrome, a retarded man.
Several weeks later, his girlfriend called. She heard in the background that they were firing off guns, and she asked what they were doing. He told her they were firing on children—all the time the children would come into the perimeter, and throw rocks at the tanks. They would shoot at them, around them—warning shots to shoo them away. It was routine, he said; nobody thought about it. But later, when he was back home visiting his girlfriend, she asked him about it, about what he was doing in his army service. “What are you doing there?” she asked him. “What are you doing?” Somehow the question penetrated his conscience, and he realized what he was doing was wrong; after a time of discernment, he refused to go back to serving with the IDF in the Occupied Territories. And that was the beginning of his journey, to work for human rights in the Occupied Territories.
Then there is the story of Rami, a Jewish man living in Jerusalem, and Waggeh, a Muslim man living in Bethlehem. They came to visit us and tell their story. Rami told us, in a way that seemed so calm and peaceful, how his world changed on Thursday, June 5, 1997, at 3pm. That was when his daughter was killed on a bus on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when a suicide bomber blew himself up. She was 14 years old. He told us how, at the wake, at the time when people come together to sit Shiva with the bereaved, there was a man from an organization called Parents’ Circle who asked him if he might someday be able to forgive the people who did this, if he might be willing to meet with other people, Arab people, who had also lost loved ones. He was enraged and offended by the question; it was outrageous to him that someone could possibly ask that question at that time. But he explained how, after months of grief and anger, a voice emerged inside of him that spoke clearly to him: the way of anger and violence is not the way. He attended a meeting with other people, Arabs and Jews, who had lost loved ones in the fighting, who embraced one another, and found a way to forgive those who had killed. He looked over to Waggeh, who had lost a brother, at 15 years old. His brother had thrown a rock at an Israeli soldier, who shot him. 10 years later, he lost 2 other family members, one of them a week-old baby, killed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
“We are not doomed,” Rami said. “We can break the cycle. And the only way to do that is the way of forgiveness, the way of dialogue.”
I watched them, those two men—a Jewish man and a Muslim man—and I felt I was watching Jesus. These two were, for me, Jesus in that moment. “This is the gospel,” I thought. “This is the gospel. What these people have found is the gospel—and they are not even Christians.” And we who so glibly call ourselves Christian, all the Bible-believing Christians who so easily talk Jesus, who say “Lord, Lord”—have they paid this price? Can they say that they know the gospel in this way—to forgive their enemies in such a way? To have lost a loved one and not sunk into anger and vengeance and despair? Can we say we know this kind of love? This is what it means to be a Christian. The Amish people who forgave the killer of their children, who sat and mourned with the wife of their children’s killer—that is what it means to live the gospel, to know the cost of discipleship, to know that kind of love that does not come from our human will, but from God.
What are the things that make for peace?
You know, what burned in me…. No, before I get into that, I need to offer a little exhortation here: if you ever get a chance to go on a journey like this—leave your every day monkey mindedness, to get out and see the reality of the world, whether here or on the Gulf Coast or in Haiti—I would tell you to do it: sell your stock, take all your vacation time; do it. It will transform you. And you will know your Christian faith in a way you have never known it.
Because what burned in me throughout this experience is that what we take for granted as Christians, what we pay such easy lip service to, what we mumble in our prayers every week about the way of Christ, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation—that is the way. It’s such a simple lesson; it really isn’t complicated. It doesn’t require complex theological gymnastics. Forgive. Love your enemies. It’s what Jesus really did mean.
Jesus looks over at Jerusalem, and says, “If you only knew the things that make for peace.” And the point here is, Jesus showed us what makes for peace. It’s this: a cross. The symbol that shows us the self-giving, the forgiving and transforming love of God. I’m convinced it is the only way.
Charles Bartow, the person who preached at Presbytery on Tuesday said that God’s pre-emptive strike against terrorism is this: a cross. The symbol of God’s ultimate forgiveness of humans for the ultimate crime: killing God. Is it possible then for us to forgive terrorists? Even those terrorists who committed 9/11? It seems laughable almost, in our current culture, in our current political climate. But it’s the gospel; it’s what we believe.
I came to think that the answer is so simple. And I am convinced that the weapon we know through the gospel is more powerful than any Apache helicopter, or Qassam rocket. It is the power of forgiveness, the reconciling love we know through this cross.
So hard to believe! So foolish! So naïve! But, we must ask ourselves the question, as we see the downward spiral of violence spill out on our television screens each night: is all that violence working? Is it making us a safer place? Will our war on terrorism be won with violence?
“IF only you knew the things that make for peace.” The truth is, we do.
And if we are to survive as a human species—we must invest heavily in this weapon: the sword of love, the shield of forgiveness. We must invest ourselves in making peace without violence.
It is, I am convinced, the only way.