At some point we all must consider our own motivating core values and principles in life and how we are to live in the broader world. My faith in Jesus Christ is normative, and deeply formative, for my worldview but honestly has also caused some collisions for me in terms of how I live my faith out in the shadow of the organized church, and as an ordained minister and leader within that community. This is especially true over the last 15-20 years due in large part to my encounters in the Holy Land, but also ongoing relationships with my Muslim friends. The intro video for this session probably shows some of my heart issues in this journey. Questions about how I read scripture, and what my faith has to say about issues of injustice in Israel/Palestine keep percolating to the top. My pivotal crisis, which I refer to when observing the demolition back in 2011 near Hebron, keeps expanding my horizons and forces me to dig deeper.
In collecting my thoughts for this session in the study guide, I came across some of my journal entries and memories from my first trips to the Holy Land (2007-2009), before my protracted stay in Hebron in 2011. I found lots of tears on those pages but also deep internal conversations that continue to have a theological heft and an ethical tug-of-war I probably hadn’t engaged in since my seminary days. These early journal entries from my Palestine/Israel trips betray my path to falling in love with a people and a culture I was taught to fear, if not be suspicious of in my early years as a young Christian. But today, from this vantage point, and after going through a significant transformation in my thinking, one might accuse me of being blinded by the famous Palestinian hospitality. I now have many friends. But my friends, for the most part, are invisible. Their voices are largely not heard and acknowledged in the North American Christian church, especially in the “evangelical” culture I grew up in. One of the tragic pieces in this narrative is a complete disenfranchisement of our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters, let along the majority Palestinian Muslim population in Palestine. The Christians of Palestine date their family histories back to the time of Christ. These friends are largely ignored by the global church, or merely seen as pawns in a larger drama that emphasizes the return of the Jews to the Holy Land as a precondition for the return of Christ. Little did I know where this would take me, or how this would realign my thinking and relationships. It messed with my theology for sure. I see this change as a vast improvement, and a more robust, perhaps better reading of scripture. I can’t go back to my shallow understanding of the conflict in Palestine & Israel. I can’t turn my back on my friends. My faith also must address issues of injustice, the need for systemic peace, and an ethical response to the situation in the Holy Land or its merely a personal, rather selfish worldview. Let me tell you another story that contributed to a shift in my thinking and, as mentioned in this session’s video, my critical tipping point.
Journal Entry: It Began for me at The Allenby Bridge on the Jordon River. Spring 2007.
“I still remember trying to get back into Jordan from Israel with several friends after having spent several nights in Jerusalem. We were at the border and I felt my heart pounding inside my chest as an Israeli border guard was yelling at anyone who was not either an Israeli citizen or one of those favored foreigners, like me, with a favored passport like mine from the US. When I handed the authorities my passport, it was like a magic wand, expediting my passage through turnstiles, past heavily armed guards, thick plexiglass windows and the watchful eye of multiple security cameras. I was in the express lane and breezed past others. I felt the awkward sense of “why me” and not them? What had the mother covered with a hijab and hanging onto several tearful children done, other than be Palestinian, to face such humiliation, and deliberate delay tactics by the authorities just to make a point they were in control? The barrage of questions from the 18-year-old female border guard decked out with a Kevlar vest and backed up with a plethora of tools and weapons of surveillance and security just seemed like overkill. And it was. Which to me begs the question, “who is terrorizing who?” I’ve been back multiple times since that trip, each time learning more, building more relationships, pushing back on preconceived notions about what is happening, who was to blame, and grasping more deeply the gravity of this long standing conflict in the place I grew up knowing simply as “the Holy Land.”
In 2011 I went back for an extended time in the capacity of a human rights advocate and was baptized, not in the Jordan River like many Christians tours do, but rather into the heart of the tension of regular conflict as it shows up in the city of Hebron. I was more like an “embedded journalist” or “peace activist.” I went deep into the heart of the West Bank and saw the formidable wall that marks out the places where Palestinians are quarantined, sometimes even separating them from family members who live in another part of the West Bank. In some instances, farmers are also separated from their farmland. It’s absolutely crazy and ugly and cruel and sabotages any sense of a normal life. During that time, I also had the chance to encounter many of the historic locations of religious devotion in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, places that often are the sites for face-to-face, intense conflict with tear gas, rubber bullets, burning rubber tires and much more. I saw home demolitions, felt my eyes burn and smelt the lingering stench of tear gas. I made friends with young Palestinian men the age of my own boys who were often detained at a checkpoint just because they were young and male and because the Israeli military needed to keep their testosterone in check. (end of journal entry).”
What does one do, as a follower of Jesus Christ, with all of this? Here are a few pieces to my journey that started at the Jordon river back in 2007. These experiences in Israel/Palestine precipitated a personal crisis of faith.
- I had to deal with my inherited “peace with God” narrative? I still believe in the necessity of personal peace with God but was there something more? Was my faith adequate to grapple with the systemic injustice and evil I was witnessing? (remember Plantinga’s definition for peace from above: “One of the words that appears in both Hebrew and Arabic, and therefore used by both Israelis and Palestinians for peace, defines a full orbed, comprehensive idea that is not fully articulated in the English word PEACE. The Semitic idea is both deeper and broader. SHALOM, the Hebrew word, or SALAM in Arabic, captures what theologian Cornelius Plantinga refers to as full human flourishing. He says SHALOM is “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (NOT the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. p. 10).
- Additionally, what do I do with my confirmation class curriculum of God blessing his “Chosen People”? My big question that arose from these experiences was, “Does God play favorites”?
- I went back to the Bible and in a deeper reading found that justice IS connected to “peace”—to the Kingdom of God (where God reigns). It’s not just disembodied souls strumming harps in heaven later, forsaking justice now.
- What can I do NOW? How can I constructively engage in peacemaking? How do I remain passionate in my walk with Jesus without getting burned out or lost in a cause with no roots in Jesus Christ?