Reports from Israel-Palestine: Lydia Veliko
A reflection on a United Church of Christ visit to Israel and Palestine
4-9 November 2005
United Church of Christ
A reflection on a United Church of Christ visit to Israel and Palestine
4-9 November 2005
United Church of Christ
I will confess I was not eager to return to the land called “holy” for thousands of years by three world religions. A sense of responsibility toward, and deep gratitude for, our partners and their work in the region, as well as a clear commitment to accompanying them in a life that in some ways should belong to all of us, made the decision to say yes beyond question. But it was through a wave of weariness that I returned to a place which I had experienced once, albeit briefly in July 2003, as being characterized by overwhelming hostility and hopelessness. These last several days confirmed, deepened, and broadened my initial impressions, and were a powerful reminder that it is only in encounter that we can understand.
What follows are not the only stories to be told from this land, but important ones.
Each setting we entered and each person we met offered many perspectives on the circumstances in Israel or Palestine. One thing, however, about which everyone, both Palestinians and Israelis, seemed to agree was that patterns of movement have changed dramatically in the region in the 30 months since our last visit. The politics, ethics, theology and analysis of movement vary – but that there has been a profound change, everyone agrees.
This is immediately apparent upon exit from the airport. I was stunned by the development of the highway infrastructure in and around Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. It was as, if not more, highly developed as many in the US. The highway offered me my first glimpse into changes since we were last in the region. The road on which we drove was called an “Israel only” road. Only those with the orange license plates from the state of Israel could travel them, and they exist both in Israel and in the West Bank. In the West Bank those without Israeli plates use alternative routes many of which have not been developed yet, all of which are indirect, and some of which require 4-wheel drive vehicles to traverse. Israeli Minister for Housing and Construction, Mr. Isaac Herzog, shared with us the government’s perspective on this development. Separation road access, he said, is required for security as a result of Palestinian terrorism, and access to the highway system would be tantamount to allowing terrorists faster and more direct access to Israel and Israelis whom these terrorists wish great harm. Acknowledging that many are adversely affected by the evil actions of a few, he reflected that it is the responsibility of government to do everything in its power to secure its citizens, be they Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. This, he said, is why leaders maintain that in a democratic system everyone is required to give up some rights in order for society to be safely preserved.
Most Americans – indeed most people in any nation – can easily see the rationale, and few if any would deny a responsible government the right to oversee its citizens’ safety. I found myself sympathetic to a politician whose constituency demanded accountability about protection in the face of disaster.
The situation is somewhat more complex, however, than at first meets the eye. On one evening while returning by highway from a visit to Jayyous in the northwest corner of the West Bank, we found ourselves at one of the larger security checkpoints. There were three lanes: two to our right, and one to the far left labeled “authorized.” The car in front of us had an orange Israeli license plate just like ours. The one ahead of that had a plate which appeared to indicate governmental or diplomatic status. Not surprisingly, the car with the diplomatic plates went through without an identification check. After a brief check of the driver’s papers, the car ahead of us went through without incident. We, however, were stopped, our driver reprimanded, and our passports and vehicle inspected as seemed to be the case with drivers in the two lanes to our right. We were then told that we should have been sent immediately to the back of one of the lanes to our right, and would be next time, but were finally allowed to pass. Curious, I asked why the car in front of us, with identical plates, passed without incident while on the other hand we were checked. Our driver explained he was reprimanded by the solder that “authorized” was understood to refer to those whose identity cards indicated “Jewish” rather than “Muslim” or “Christian.” Because our driver knew we were a bit late for our next appointment he gave it a try. He suspected that it was our US passports which would ultimately secure our passage through this lane of the checkpoint, but said that doesn’t always work either.
In spite of the very real threat that exists from some in the Palestinian community toward the state of Israel and Israelis, one is hard pressed not to see the creation of a multi-tiered road system as anything other than segregation. There are elements in the Middle East and beyond who wish the elimination of the state, as clearly evidenced by the horrifying rhetoric from the President of Iran a week prior to our visit. Violence abounds in the region and has for generations. Some Palestinians openly advocate for the removal of the Jewish people from the region, just as some extremist Jewish settlers advocate for the removal of Palestinians, and Palestinian Muslims in particular. Even as we arrived in Berlin from Tel Aviv at the end of that phase of our journey we were greeted with the news from Jordan of the bombing of three American hotels, most of whose victims were Jordanians. In response, hundreds of citizens of Jordan took to the streets of Amman to protest this violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda.
These horrifying acts, and the intended recipients of the message (the United States, the Jewish community, and any who cooperate with them) appear to be caught in an inescapable cycle of violent retribution and the citizens of the countries in which the acts are perpetrated (Iraqi, Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian – the list is long) clean up the mess. This creates a rage and subsequent violence which, while perhaps easy to understand, is justifiable in no setting, under no circumstances. Palestinian Muslim leaders must take aggressive responsibility for teaching their young men to understand good from evil interpretations of their faith; that those who promise a reward in heaven of seventy virgins as a result of earthly life’s sacrifice are distorting and making a mockery of a respected world faith; and that the world’s citizens will have no choice but to cast a disbelieving eye toward Muslim leadership until and unless such proclamations are made publicly and with vigor, rather than quietly and with notes of equivocation. Both Israel and the rest of the world have a right to expect this from Muslim leadership, Palestinian and otherwise, and have a right to expect it even in the face of flawed western foreign policy and obvious injustice. In many cases they are not doing so. No one, least of all those who travel to the occupied territories or who live there, is naïve about the difficulty of imposing order on a society whose infrastructure is devastated. But this cannot ever be an excuse for weak public responses to terrorism and hate rhetoric.
A segregated road system, however, creating an undeniable class system in Palestine and Israel where even Israeli citizens are not all treated alike, will neither stop violent individuals nor promote goodwill leading to peace – ever. Members of Israeli society may consider this the uninformed idealism of an outsider, but my Christian faith and experience of my own country’s history of segregation tells me that systematic exclusion and isolation are profoundly counterproductive.It is not hard to understand the skepticism of the vast majority of innocent Palestinians living in a system which identifies them as the danger, and therefore targets them as those who must be regulated out of existence or at least out of normal travel patterns. They know, as do we, that fundamentalists exist in every community (after all, it was a Jewish fundamentalist who killed Rabin). Some extremist fundamentalists call for the obliteration of the state of Israel; for others the target can just as easily be the leader of Venezuela; and for yet others, the target, apparently facilitated by God through the horror of September 11, 2001 are godless feminists, gays, lesbians and their supporters, and those who agree to the right of a women to choose to have an abortion. In some settings we respond to such extremism by victimizing entire communities. In other cases, we…well, it’s not clear what we do.
Critics of this line of thought will surely respond that these systems in Israel and Palestine have not been developed in response to one individual or one event but as a result of long-standing, historic enmity and that my comparisons are naïve and uninformed. My Christian faith, however, tells me otherwise. Systematic exclusion, expulsion and demonization are never appropriate responses to extremists, evil, or hatred. No one, for example, felt the need to create a second road system for white supremacists (who have for decades publicly preached hatred, violence and annihilation without shame or reticence) as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing killing 168, after the revelation of who was responsible and the white hate groups with which they were affiliated. Good democracies don’t respond that way, nor do people of faith traditions whose tenets are at their core peaceful, loving and just. And in no case of which I am aware has the depth of a people’s despair and history of persecution been redeemed or mitigated by the perpetuation of violence toward another.
Movement: the Wall
In 2003 we saw the beginning of the construction. Two years later we have seen it mostly either completed or authorized for construction. Our visit to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, was a particularly important one. It was a strong reminder that there are many Israeli Jews who are eager to work in partnership with government and with Palestinian citizens for a just and peaceful society and understand such a mandate not in spite of but as an integral part of their Jewish faith and Israeli citizenship. In such a dismal environment it is vital to experience reminders of the best of humanity.
While there we saw maps showing the current status of the wall: those sections completed, those underway, and those sections not yet begun but having received authorization from the government for construction. The map also showed the existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, those in some stage of construction, and those which have been authorized but not yet begun. The incursion into the West Bank is deep and in many cases well beyond the green line. The protection for these illegal settlements and their Israeli inhabitants (both current settlements and those planned and authorized, as one sees if one overlays a map of the Wall with a map of the settlements) is the stated reason for its construction. Minister Herzog shared with us that in the places where the wall has been completed and the security gates active, the percentage of suicide bombing attacks has decreased by 100%. While there seems to be some disagreement about this since the statistics also say that those suicide bombings which have occurred have been perpetrated by those who got through a checkpoint and not by people who entered without barrier, it is easy to see how compelling an argument this would be for citizens who live in fear of extremists, and with evidence to show that such individuals willingly act on their convictions.
It is also clear, however, that the path of the wall cuts very deep into Palestinian lands even where there is no current settlement, and that the existence of the settlements necessitating the wall so far beyond the green line raises significant questions about the construction of both the wall and the settlements. It also renders it nearly impossible to view the wall as anything other than the physical announcement of an intent to occupy land. It is even more difficult to see it any other way when extremist settlers in Hebron and elsewhere unabashedly proclaim their irrefutable right to the land and underline this conviction by attacking both Palestinians and the westerners present to accompany them. A young Swedish woman participating in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel* told stories of accompanying Palestinian children through the security checkpoints as they walked to school and being the target of verbal and physical attacks by extremist settlers.
Setting aside that question for the moment, the existence of the wall within West Bank borders has devastated the economic and social life of Palestinians. Reverend Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem Christmas Lutheran Church, uses the image of Swiss cheese when describing the emerging Palestinian reality, identifying the Palestinian towns and villages as the holes in the slice of cheese. In many cases entire towns or villages have found themselves completely surrounded by the wall which cuts them off from their farms, their jobs, their schools, their hospitals and their family – in some cases husband from wife, and parents from children and grandchildren. A visit to al-Nuaman, a village just outside of Bethlehem, was a poignant example. Soon al-Nuaman will be entirely separated from the school that serves it and the fields from which its families obtain their income. Even the roads not affected by the construction of the wall have been obstructed with large mounds of dirt so that only 4-wheel drive vehicles can pass. Children must now be accompanied through security checkpoints, and fewer and fewer are willing to face the harassment they experience there. So they stay home, and because there is nothing for them to do there, many have chosen to leave. Our hosts told us that al-Nuaman (translated “grace”) appears nowhere on most maps, and therefore will be an easy place simply to forget when conditions imposed by the construction of the wall have forced everyone to leave. A small community, they have no leverage to change the course already (literally) mapped, and so their choice is an existence of slow starvation and economic disintegration, or departure.
We experienced similar realities on our trip to Jayyous, a town in the northwestern sector of the West Bank. There we met three additional members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program whose three-month tenure comes to an end in December. In this setting the role of the accompaniers is to monitor the checkpoints through which the community must travel to reach their school and olive orchards. The tasks include caring for the safety of the children who cross, calling authorities when the checkpoint isn’t opened at the times specified, monitoring the instances of human rights violations, and keeping statistics on the number of people exiting and entering each day. These statistics will be used to help persuade the government not to close this checkpoint (one of only two in the barbed wire fence encircling the town), a closing currently planned because it is alleged that there is not sufficient use to warrant the expense of the soldiers’ presence. Later in the day we were taken to the afternoon checkpoint opening and it was clear to me that the four dozen or more inhabitants who entered accounted for a significant number of heads of households or laborers for the village. To close the checkpoint would result in additional miles of a walk for the inhabitants, which would decrease their available work hours since the security gates are opened only three times a day, and only for fifteen minute to one hour periods at a time.
Before seeing the security checkpoint, however, we were taken by the accompaniers up to a hill where we could see the snake of the barrier through the fields. In this setting it is a razor wire fence rather than a concrete wall, several feet high, followed by a ditch, followed by a road guarded by soldiers at a security checkpoint, followed by another ditch, and another several foot razor wire fence. The only meaningful difference between it and what in other places in the West Bank is a concrete wall is that with the razor wire, one can see through to what one can no longer access with any reliability, regularity, or dignity.
High atop the hill we saw how the barrier left one Bedouin family on the wrong side, making access to a doctor’s care, desperately needed by the mother of the family, and school for the children all but impossible. The mother is sick enough not to be able to withstand the longer distance to travel around the barrier to the checkpoint daily for her appointments (previously a ten minute walk, now taking sometimes up to ninety minutes). The daughter in the family no longer attends school because the requirement for her to lift her shirt and skirt to prove that she has no bombs strapped to her is religiously unacceptable and socially humiliating. We asked Mr. Herzog about this practice, and his response, reasonable on one level, is that in the beginning women were not checked because no one thought that a woman would perform an act of suicide bombing. After the instance in which one did, however, the authorities felt required to begin the practice. It is important to recognize that most of us in any community might have a similar reaction; and the practice of racial and ethnic profiling, in existence long before but highlighted as a result of September 11, evidenced this sort of response and the US public’s general tolerance for such practices. The United States has a great deal of sympathy for this kind of protocol, and gives open and unequivocal support for the need of its allies to do what is required to protect themselves.
But I wonder what would our reaction have been to a similar protocol requiring all young white males to undergo systematic security checks, including strip searches, as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing? And the building of a security wall around any and all states in the union where such groups operate? Both the men centrally responsible for those attacks were involved with white supremacist groups with long histories of vicious rhetoric, openly articulated hatred toward certain segments of US society, and well-documented track records of violence. Using this rationale, US Catholics, Jews, African Americans, gays, lesbians, and others would have a well-founded right to demand that such measures be instituted in our own country.
While in Jayyous we met with a local government official whose expertise is in the area of hydrology. We heard about how the town’s inhabitants now find it extraordinarily difficult to access not only farms but water supply both for the town and the orchards. In response to concerns raised by the citizens, the government inserted a pipe under the security road – but it is currently a pipe that is connected to nothing on either side – a tube running from nowhere to nowhere, and not long enough to reach anywhere even if it were agreed by the authorities.
Before the building of the barrier the town had been economically self-sufficient and profitable. Now hundreds of pounds of agriculture, including crops in hothouses, go unattended and therefore rot on the ground. In addition, many of the fields are no longer accessible by routes which used to accommodate pick-up or larger trucks – many of these roads are either destroyed or deliberately blocked. The lucky ones have fields close enough to the main road that they can bring trucks alongside the fields, load them, and bring the produce home – as long as they can obtain a permit for exit and entry. To do so they must present legal proof that they are the owners. In a region where land has been handed down from generation to generation, in many cases prior to the systematic keeping of paper records, this is sometimes hard to do. The unlucky ones have fields now only accessible by secondary roads which have been blocked. Their only option, should they receive a permit, is to carry the produce on their shoulders or via donkey and therefore harvest only a fraction of what they once did, a fraction of what is necessary for their economic survival.
After a conversation with the hydrologist we spent the rest of the afternoon at the security checkpoint during the open hour. There are some days when the gates don’t open (the accompaniers then telephone what is called the “civil administration humanitarian hotline” to ask that the soldiers come to open the checkpoint), and other days when the government gives an order, without advance notice, that the gate will remain closed. The explanation for this is generally that a security breach has been detected, but both the town’s inhabitants and the accompaniers reported that they have only once been aware of a breach, in a neighboring town, and have no explanation for the many other occurrences of unannounced closing. If a resident has missed the previous evening’s opening, they are shut out of the town for the night. In those cases they either spend the night where they are while family members spend the day unable to go to work or school.
We spoke with two young women whose lives had been fundamentally transformed by the presence of the barrier. In conversation with them we saw yet another dimension to the experience of the security checkpoints. Having suffered the humiliation of being asked to undress to prove they were not carrying bombs, one had opted, after a short time in college, simply not to return because she could not face the degradation. Having been called a Muslim pig by soldiers at the checkpoints too many times, and at gunpoint, she also reflected that entrance to Al Aqsa Mosque was, while a Muslim site, inaccessible to Muslims who don’t have the energy to endure the hostility. Both kept asking (and demanding of us answers we couldn’t give) where were human rights for Palestinians, and where was the voice of the international community and the United Nations. A heartbreaking combination of despair, bewilderment and anger characterized most of their conversation with us, though after a bit we began to see additional depths. We invited them to come with us to observe at the checkpoint, and after a few moments of incredulity that we would even suggest such a thing, they agreed. One, a teacher of elementary school children, spoke of the difficulty in helping her six and seven year old students to process their fear and anger, but worked at it through music and art. The other described completing a degree in psychology and spoke to me, while we stood together observing at the security gate, of likening her experience to the stages through which one travels after the death of a loved one. She told me that she would not be overcome by the reality, but that often the stages of despair, denial and desperation intrude and that the stage of acceptance in this situation must never be characterized by an assent to the circumstances but rather by a realistic demand for justice in the face of brutal conditions. These young women presented a radical challenge to our stereotypes of rural Palestine where family income is often near zero as a result of the barrier, and who support their own expenses and care for families’ livelihood in whatever way they can. Each instance of being denied access, often capriciously, diminishes wages by a day and threatens existence. The determination in the face of these conditions was extraordinary, and the strength of young women in a circumstance where they had no power, and could legitimately understand themselves to be in control of no aspect of their lives, was an inspiration.
Strongly in evidence as we stood at the checkpoint was the relationship of trust between the accompaniers and the residents of Jayyous. Though a new team every three months, they clearly have the confidence of inhabitants, and particularly the children seemed to have come to rely on their ministry of accompaniment and presence as they traveled through the security gates twice each day to and from school. While we stood there we watched as both young and old approached the soldiers, were instructed to unload their produce or other materials a distance from the checkpoint (for security reasons, since there was no way of knowing what was contained in them), and come forward to present papers. Bags and individuals were inspected, vehicles then allowed to pass through the gates, and individuals allowed to pass through after them. Several times during the hour we observed vehicles arriving from the village to meet returning residents, called via cell phone to transport the produce from inside the gate to those who were not able to obtain a permit to enter or exit, or whose fields were inaccessible by any vehicle they owned. One of the young women with us mentioned that most land lines are no longer operative and that without cell phones, family and friends would conceivably spend much of their afternoon waiting at the gate, sometimes in vain if the individual were denied access to pass or if gates were ordered to remain closed that day. We watched while farmers loaded and unloaded their pickups and donkeys, took off jackets and lifted shirts, and were joined on the other side of the gate by family members with trucks to haul the day’s load. I found myself reflecting on the strange juxtaposition of primitive farming conditions and modern technology in this era of cell phones, making manageable what otherwise would likely have been almost impossible.
Governing the license to move and operate is the incredible bureaucracy of permits required of all citizens of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. A stark example was shared with us on our visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. This impressive institution with a long history in the region (built in 1910) is now operated by the Lutheran World Federation and has a permit to treat only Palestinians. (This is the same hospital whose long-standing tax agreements with the Israeli government are being questioned, with the intent to revoke, resulting if that should occur in the impossibility of the hospital’s economic survival.) The difficulty is that the hospital’s location, and the wall, now require its director to devise elaborate bussing systems for its patients and staff, most of whom have to cross through security gates to get to it, and most of whom have to obtain additional permits to do that. Even this, he concedes, is an uncomfortable acquiescence, rather than resistance, to the reality of the restrictions of the occupation.
Permits played a prominent role in our inability to enter Gaza where the UCC, with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), helps fund humanitarian projects overseen by the Middle East Council of Churches. In the days following our visit to the region the border with Egypt opened. But our ultimately unsuccessful attempt to enter during our stay, occurring, incidentally, after the Israelis relinquished control of Gaza, told a dismal story. Though all of our paperwork had been completed well in advance of our intended visit, we were denied access and upon calling to rectify the situation we were shuttled from office to office, once being told that our paperwork couldn’t be found, next being told there was no record of the conversations that established permission for entry, finally being told that we couldn’t enter because we had no churches in Israel or Gaza. This clarified for me, at least, that in fact the problem was not bureaucratic or institutional ineptitude but a desire to keep us out, with one excuse after another offered in response to our ultimately unsuccessful persistence. Though Minister Herzog immediately brushed this incident off as symptomatic of bureaucratic headaches (and even faulted us for not having asked our embassy to help), I found myself wondering why, in the wake of all the international celebration of the liberation of this strip of land, no one would let us in. Wouldn’t the Israeli government want us to see the wonderful thing that had occurred? And why did we spend all of our time, in this newly freed territory, dealing only with the Israeli government? The media tells us that in the days since our time in the region there has been movement, and I don’t dispute that opening the border with Egypt is an important development. But I heard the celebration this summer and experienced a radically different reality on the ground. Perhaps this next phase of “celebration” is more real – I don’t know, because I’m not there to experience it. What is created by this web of wall, fence, and permits, however, are “facts on the ground” that drain hope and ultimately will devastate all the peoples in that region, including the Israelis who state that this system represents their best opportunity for security.
Permits govern daily life for everyone. On the Sunday we were there we worshiped in Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The pastor took us to the roof where we saw the Old City from a perspective few can observe. I closed my eyes imagining what the scene would have looked like one thousand, or two thousand, years ago. I imagined what it would have been like prior to 70 CE when the Temple would have been present, now memorialized by the presence of the sacred Wailing Wall. When I opened my eyes I noticed a purple garbage dumpster. The pastor reflected that the dumpster told a story emblematic of the life of Palestinians and even internationals in the Christian community. The dumpster, he said, suddenly appeared on their roof one day and when he called the municipal authorities to have it taken away, stating that they didn’t ask for it and had no use for it – and therefore did not want to pay for garbage removal for something they don’t need – was told that it would be removed the following week. Soon thereafter he received a call from the municipal office indicating that they had made a mistake. In fact they could not remove the dumpster because, while on the property of Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Christian quarter, had been requisitioned by a rabbi who was gathering a yeshiva on the roof and needed the dumpster for the school. The municipal authority had, it appears, no authority to countermand his request and, therefore there the dumpster stayed, with valid permit and at cost to the church which had no use for it and no power to remove it.
Most citizens have multiple permits, most of which must be renewed every three months, and the time it takes to do that takes valuable time from jobs and school. One incident on our last visit to the Old City clarified both the burden of the permits for ordinary citizens and the incredible ignorance outsiders can demonstrate. As we left the Old City we became aware that a young man was being questioned by the group of soldiers seated on the steps outside the gate. While only doing their job, they were doing it with some relish. We walked up the stairs and stood watching as it became clear that he would not be permitted to enter (an expired permit, it seemed), and one spit on him as if, I suppose, to emphasize the point. While this was going on, I suddenly noticed that a young tourist woman had seated herself with the soldiers not primarily engaged in conversation with this young man, had asked one of them if she could wear his hat and had her friends take a picture of her sitting among the soldiers, giggling. It was a surreal scene as she enjoyed what she obviously though was an exotic opportunity to have her picture taken with foreign soldiers – literally within spitting distance – of the interaction occurring three feet from her. Tourists should be deeply ashamed of such obliviousness.
We waited for the young man to come back up the steps and spoke with him. He was quite matter-of-fact in his conversation, stating that he was trying to get to his university class but that it was his fault for not having had time to renew his permits, expired by a week. Rules are, after all, rules. I didn’t ask about whether he was spit upon frequently, but he did indicate that he is stopped almost every day he enters for class. It’s a part of life in an occupied territory.
It is harder and harder to find, and most seem unwilling to hold out much under the current conditions. But we saw some. The Israeli Jewish staff of B’tselem were one example. Before we began our formal conversation with the staff person there I asked whether it was hard for her to do the work, particularly as a woman. She said that yes, it was, but that she knew many in the Jewish community in Israel who supported the human rights work they did. The work of Jean Zaru, Clerk of the Friends Meeting in Ramallah, is another, as she testifies both to the experiences of Palestinians and her persistent and persuasive Christian hope that there are people of good will to be found in every segment of society, even in communities perpetuating oppression. The staff, students and parents of Rawdat El Zuhur, an elementary school for refugee Palestinian children in Jerusalem, is another. There the children are taught Arabic, French and English, and are helped to express deeply seated fear, anger and anxiety through music, dance, and art. The students attend university in large numbers. And they learn songs of hope. Not one easily moved to tears in public, I found it hard not to cry as the 6th grade class sang “We Shall Overcome” when we visited their classroom. When John Thomas asked if they knew Rosa Parks, the response was a quick “of course!” They take hope from the giants of the past. The significant question for the Palestinian community right now is who are their giants of the present – not from across the ocean, but in their occupied territory? If such beacons of hope are not highly visible, I fear for those children – but trust that even among them some will be found for the generations after them.
The Sunday worship service we attended in Redeemer Lutheran Church coincided with All Saints Day. That day held a baptism, and I found myself imagining the baptisms through the centuries in this troubled city held as holy by Muslims, Jews and Christians. I imagined the generations of Christians making pilgrimage to this place to know the holy water of the faith in this desert territory. I found myself thinking of the theological dialogues, much a part of my own work, relating to how – and if – we Christians “recognize” each other’s baptisms; and in that moment, was aware of a profound need to balance the importance of those ecclesial questions in tension with the awesome reality that I was sitting not far from the places where some of the first baptisms would have taken place. And felt the need to ask myself as a Christian again and again what is required of me as a result of my own baptism. Thinking that thought in that setting – imagined past and all-too-clear present – was extraordinary.
And then we sang that familiar and grand hymn “For All the Saints.” Singing those verses in the Holy Land afforded me the one experience of religious mystery I felt during our time in the region. I found myself wondering which saints of the past might have trod the very streets I walked. I remembered seeing with awe the cell in which St. Jerome wrote, under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and wondered which others entered and exited the very gates I did every day of our visit. It is not a large leap to consider the “saints” – of each religious tradition – treading those flagstones today.
I found it in 2003, and find it now, excruciatingly hard to be a Christian in this land. Our visit to Naim Ateek, founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, reminded me how fragile are the relationships among people of faith. Ateek is strongly criticized by both the Jewish community and conservative Christians for his work to raise the plight of Palestinians in international consciousness. In so doing he uses imagery of the cross, as is customary for liberation theologians and others. Centuries of charges of deicide against Jews, a tradition of which Christians must – and in many cases have – offered sincere apology with repentance, have made it necessary for modern Christians to be very careful about how we speak of the crucifixion, especially in a land as holy to Jews as to Christians. But as Christians we cannot be asked to relinquish our theology of suffering, known to us first and most powerfully in the death of Jesus, because it is in our knowledge of where God is in suffering that we understand both our own suffering and our guilt in that of others. This is a part of what it is to be Christian, and a part of the lens through which we see the world.
There is nothing about the region which enables for me an uplifting, much less sentimental, journey through the Bible stories of my childhood. I will find it hard to forget the conversation with the Armenian Patriarch who with both humility and dignity recounted having been spit upon time after time by some in extremist Jewish communities who believe it important to do more than simply turn away in the presence of a Christian. Christmas this year will carry with it not only images of the grotto in which the shepherds, it is said, kept their flocks by night but of the building across the street carrying the marks of gunfire and grenades from the most recent siege of Bethlehem. Melodies recalling Christ “away in a manger” will be accompanied by an indelible recollection of the bullet holes in the floor and ceiling of Bethlehem Christmas Lutheran Church across the square from the Church of the Nativity where it is said that the manger lay, preserved by glass as a witness to human cruelty and indiscriminate violence and destruction. In a perverse way, however, this land does help me relate to the life and ministry of Jesus: presence with the dispossessed, conviction that renders fear irrelevant, and, for a privileged citizen of the west, a glimmer of empathy that removes polite window-dressing from compassion and replaces it with the clothing of reality, enabling love for neighbor as I imagine Jesus taught it. May a future Christmas, someday, carry a new accompanying image.
*For more information on this program or participation in it, contact Mr. Derek Duncan (
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). The website for the program can be found at www.eappi.org.