Heeding the Bethlehem Call: Freedom Comes from Tenacity
In preparing to leave for the Holy Land a few weeks ago, I reflected on the monthly message from our new bishop in the Washington Diocese, Marianne Budde. Her words contained a seed thought: “Freedom comes from a persistent, all encompassing tenacity.”
I jotted her words down in my calendar to ponder while travelling. Then, as these things go repeatedly in the Daily Lectionary readings, a synonym for tenacity kept popping up: endurance, to which I added faithfulness.
I was in Bethlehem for the Kairos for Global Justice Encounter, engaging with 60 of us from 15 countries. We joined our Palestinian friends prayerfully for strategy, reprising the 2009 Kairos Palestine appeal to the churches to stand with them in their non-violent struggle for freedom with justice. Our sisters and brothers oppressed in their land declared they want to move from mourning the dead to cultivating a culture of life, rejecting victimhood even while facing the growing shadows of the occupation of their land (87 percent of the West Bank now controlled by Israel including all their forests and 47 percent of their water.)
With Nativity Church up the hill from the conference hotel the recurring Christmas story was at the forefront of discussion. It resonated especially strongly, since it is now more obvious that President Obama, like George Bush before him, or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are not the “saviors” in the deepening gloom of the surrounding hill top settlements that populate now half of Bethlehem’s land.
We already have a Savior and He is the Light on the subject in His challenge to the imperial powers.
A central question in the discussion then became: How do you want the wider faith community to call attention to the criminal, even self-destructive behavior of Israel, out of concern for Jews as well as Arabs? Suicidal impulses by Israeli leaders appear to be bringing both houses down — as alluded to lately by many, including New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Israeli journalist and historian Gershom Gorenburg.
We know that it is impossible to break down the physical and political walls by force, so the non-violent options of boycott, divestment and sanctions are an obvious option. Maybe shame and isolation of not only Israel but also the wider enabling world as in the Apartheid South Africa era will further the cause?
The support of Israel’s criminal activity such as land confiscation, home demolitions, canceling resident rights, creating urban bantustans and uprooting of 1 million trees by means of a diabolical separation wall snaking through Palestinian villages, school yards, cemeteries and olive groves, has to be forefront in the world’s conscience if not in parliaments and courts. It could not continue without dollars from the worlds so-called super power.
The resulting “Bethlehem Call” is an appeal to the world’s faith communities to stand with the oppressed against the Jewish and Christian Zionism that has replaced Rabbinic Judaism. It resembles the calls of the Barmen Declaration against fascism supported by the state church in the German Weimar Republic, the 1985 Kairos directed against the Dutch Reformed Church’s support of Apartheid South Africa, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail challenging the church’s acquiescence to segregation in the American South. Heady historic stuff this.
The religious communities of the world are in status confessionis. This is the greatest sign of hope for those oppressed by modern colonial powers: That we in the Abrahamic Community acknowledge we are committing heresy by support of a Zionism that puts land, trees, and geographic expanse as the idolatrous substitute for God; that the Kingdom of Heaven announced on that first Christmas is a spiritual geography that protects the weak against the powers of the world’s empires.
The 8-year-old daughter of a Ramallah-based Mercy Corps staff person got to the core of the issue when riding with her mom from Jerusalem along the snaking barrier wall and then passing through the onerous Callandia checkpoint “border post”. “Mommy,” she asked, as only a child can, “why do Jews have to live behind that wall?”
The wall represents a deeply troubled society and all that is wrong with the occupation of Palestine. “The Jewish narrative for today, the story that could redeem the Jewish people,” said Jewish activist and writer Mark Braverman in an address to the assembled in Bethlehem, “is the Nakba -- the Palestinian holocaust of ethnic cleansing and dispossession.” We must understand what we have done, he said, so that there is a chance to change course before it is too late.
Until the story of Palestinian suffering becomes part of the Jewish story, Israel will continue its slide into isolation and racism. And this is just as true for the church today, a church that has, tragically, through its theology, its silence, and its actions, supported the Jewish people’s tragic yielding to the heresy that violence can redeem a people from suffering.
It became increasingly apparent as the week of the Kairos conference progressed that the answer is not more negotiations in a “Peace Process” through which Israeli recalcitrance provides room for taking more and more of traditional Palestine. The answer is not more talk with the “Quartet” or back channel efforts to ensure some progress in removing a few checkpoints or violent settlers from what is left of Palestinian lands. The Oslo Peace Process is finished." The two state conversation is over. Rather, we must turn to the liberating and faithful power of the rising up of civil society – what we witnessed in the American and South African liberation struggles led by the “Confessing Church of Jesus Christ
Jesus said, “I have come to bring a sword:” to divide just from unjust, to bring in the Kingdom of God to stand against any empire that empowers those who perpetuate poverty and oppression.
The question now is: will we as the faith community in the United States that bears such a burden of responsibility for the enabling of the injustice stand up for a humiliated people and support them in their drive to regain their dignity and homes? Will we act to save Israel from self-destruction?
The Psalmist says it clearly…”Happy are those who consider the poor and needy! The Lord will deliver them in the time of trouble” (Ps. 41). “The wicked draw their sword and bend their bow to strike down the poor and needy…their sword shall go through their own heart and bow shall be broken” (Ps. 37).
A hegemonic power that separates and excludes is not of Jesus. I came away from the deep darkness settling on the land of the Holy One to declare along with my fellow Kairos delegates that, to paraphrase Bishop Marianne, “the fate of the free world depends on a civil society committed to Christ and a persistent, all-encompassing faithful non-violent tenacity pursuing creative and compassionate resistance.“
We must respond to those faithful ones behind both sides of the walls who are saying to us, “Come and See and Be with the people.” We must feel what Jesus felt as he witnessed tyranny and empire – the principalities and powers that oppress and dispossess and kill the poor for whom He had a heart. Please listen to the cries of the oppressed and act today in doing at least one small thing to bring a just peace…make a personal and if possible corporate choice in this critical moment of God’s Kairos.
If all who hear the “Bethlehem Call” respond then momentum will build for the liberation of all God’s children in the Holy Land.
Tom Getman served as Sen. Mark Hatfield’s legislative director from 1976 to 1985 and with World Vision for 25 years, including five years as national director in Jerusalem.