Friday, August 1, 2014

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

So my previous post was a nine-year old sermon. By comparison, this post is "young" - only half as old! I began writing this weblog when I traveled to the land of the Holy One in January 2010, and the post below is another only slightly edited version of that original post from January 29, 2010. It's not that I'm getting lazy (I don't think so anyway) or that I have nothing new to say. Rather (on this post anyway) I've found myself reflecting a lot (in light of the mess in Gaza) on my personal experience there four and a half years ago. There is always a danger of absolutizing what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears, because we never hear or see it all. But even so, it is less "filtered" than what we get through CNN or FoxNews or MSNBC. I was there. On the ground. Walking those streets. Talking to people who live there. And that experience has stayed with me...

I had actually hoped to get back there this fall, in September, to do another class at St. George's College called "The Children of Abraham." For a number of reasons that didn't work out. Part of me feels sad that I won't be there at a time when the need for the children of old Abraham to come together is greater than ever. And, of course, an even bigger part of me is relieved that I am relatively safe and secure in central Massachusetts. 

The picture of the wall below remains the problem. I don't know what the solution is. But you can't ghettoize (I choose that word with great care) the entire Palestinian population and expect them to say "thank you" very much. Tunnels aren't the solution either. Cliche or not, the solution still has something to do with bridges.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Re-entry has been interesting but it is still a real challenge when someone says "how was your trip?" to know exactly how to respond. It doesn't fit easily into a formulaic response and this pilgrimage is still working in, and on, me. So this post is probably going to be my last post on this trip - although I'm hoping to continue to write on this blog in Lent for anyone interested. It's going to be my last post not because I've "settled" things but because more than a week has passed and life goes on and all of that. 

I think the picture above speaks for itself: it's the wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territory. You have to go through a check-point to get to places like Bethlehem or Bethany, where my friend Kalil lives (and of course where Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived before him.) It took us over an hour to get through the checkpoint when we traveled to Bethlehem, it takes Kalil about 45 minutes to get to work each day (he's at St. George's by 5 a.m) and the trip is all of 3 miles. It's easy of course to condemn walls whether built through Berlin, on the Mexican border, around gated communities that keep out the riff-raff, or in Israel. As I have mentioned, however, there is a lot of fear and some of that fear is legitimate. I know angels are always saying in the Bible "be not afraid" and I'm glad they do. But there is a difference between misplaced anxiety and healthy realistic awareness, even when the line isn't always clear. People are afraid in Israel on both sides of that wall and with good reason. We take our shoes off in airports and are getting ready for full-body scans and all the rest because we'd rather be humiliated than blown-up. In Israel they live with all of that 24/7, not just at the airport.

But walls aren't going to bring about peace on earth and good will to all. Ultimately safety and security can only ever be penultimate goals that shouldn't be confused with Shalom/Salaam. It doesn't seem like any good can come of this wall, at least as I see it. The view from each side speaks volumes: Ministry of Tourism posters on the Israeli side and protest graffiti on the Palestinian side.

So, yes, it's a cliche to say that Christians are called to tear down walls and build bridges. And yes, I took this photo while we were waiting at the check-point for over an hour to go to Bethlehem. It is honestly hard to know where to begin, with so much fear and mistrust. In ministry, both at the personal level and the congregational level, I've often felt that more information, more accurate information, eventually helps people move toward reconciliation. But not always and even when it does people have to be open to that new information and it can be very hard to filter that through "what we know." Sometimes people (including me!) become so entrenched in their own "truths" that they cannot see or hear anything that contradicts that reality. I see it over sexuality issues in my own denomination and in the wider Anglican Communion, and I saw it in Israel as I listened to people like Ophir and Xavier. They literally inhabit different worlds, see from totally different angles, and it is not merely new "information" that will bring about transformation, or peace with justice.

What I want anyone who has been reading this blog to understand is that we didn't have an "innocent" pilgrimage back in time. I have touched on this, I know, but it is most of all what I take away from the experience: you cannot separate the past from the present (or the future) in Jerusalem. They all converge. You cannot separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. That's no profound revelation, I know; it's Christology 101. Nevertheless what it meant for me is that a trip to Israel isn't just about "holy" sites. Or to say it more accurately, the "holy" must be discovered and claimed in the midst of the present realities. And I think that is the deeper reality of the Incarnation: the "wall" we sometimes erect, in the name of God no less, between what is "sacred" and what is "secular." So we are tempted to force a "holy encounter" at the cave where Jesus was born by attempting to block out the political realities of present-day Bethlehem in order to do that. But that is bad theology!

I can't say if it's worse or better today in Israel than in Jesus' day, or if the prospects for peace are better or worse. I imagine they are in fact about the same, give or take. But the work of Christian ministry remains the same: even when we don't have a "plan" for how to implement peace (as if technique will save us!) we must not shun the work of being in the midst of it all as Jesus was, and is: as vulnerable, as curious and open, as reconcilers, as willing to heal and to be healed. Human beings alone won't "fix" this. But we can mess it up all the way to Armeggedon if we aren't careful. But, with God's help, human beings can be present and attentive and faithful.

For my own part, as I return and am not at all clear whether or not I will ever return to that land of the Holy One, I am more commited in a desire to grow in my understanding of both Judaism and Islam and to try not to "bear false witness" against my neighbor. There is so much anti-Semitism built into Christian theology and even the Scriptures themselves. But to counter that by conflating Judeo-Christian faith into one piece (and usually as an alternative to Islam) is no solution. I realize more and more that the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament--even when they contain the same books (albeit in a different order) are not the same library--they are read differently by Christians and Jews. I'm preparing to teach an Elderhostel course that begins in early February that always includes a healthy mix of Jews and Christians on Second-Temple Judaisms. Reading Scripture in that context always makes me realize that there is no "innocent" reading of the texts, no "objective" reading. So I guess that means putting our agendas on the table rather than pretending we have none.

The danger of this whole blogging medium, for me at least, is that it can ramble with no end in sight. I don't know how others "blog," but I realize that when I do move from pictures to words I tend to write more stream-of-consciousness than with clearly formulated "arguments." For anyone who has read this blog from the beginning to the end I guess what I am left is not a conclusion, but a continuing awareness that the past events of Jesus' life and the present events of conflict in the Middle East converge for me in the call for Christians to be peacemakers. We can't make it happen by force of will; but we can at least try to avoid bad theology. And that isn't just a head trip: what we think about God, how we imagine God, shapes how we respond to that God by deed and action. Bad theology can and does lead too many Christians to fuel the fires toward Armegeddon. No where in Scripture (including Daniel and the Book of Revelation) however, do I see a vocation for Christians to force God's hand by being instruments of war and mistrust and destruction.

So I come back home more committed to being a peacemaker, not in some cliche kind of way, not in some naive and idealistic way, but as someone who feels that this is what Christians are called to do, with God's help. I think of good old Francis and his trip to the same places I just visited so many centuries ago; his encounter with Islam and his willingness to speak the truth he knew without defaming the other or denying that they had any truth. He didn't offer a "program" for peace; just a willingness to hold that possibility before all. And of course the Franciscans, who have custody of so many of the Terre Santasites today, continue in that work. 

I hope in some small way, "me too."

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