by Frank Rogers
I am sitting in the Newark airport awaiting my flight to southern California, a storm of feelings and impressions swirling within me. Israel/Palestine, this land we called holy—and Jerusalem, whose name literally means, ‘the City of Peace’—seem anything but holy, anything but peaceful. It feels like a tragic region, each side bearing deep wounds and taking understandable but oftentimes destructive stabs at safety and bloody justice.
I have lived my entire life dedicated to a state of Israel; a commitment that I still hold dear. The Jewish people endured an unimaginable persecution—systematic and genocidal. The entire world turned its back upon them. Permeating the genocide, anti-Semitism has polluted Christian history, teaching, and even our sacred writings—a reality that has fueled pogroms and persecutions to which Christians must repent and seek to repair. The Jewish people need a state; they need an attachment to a homeland; they need a nation that is sovereign and safe. They have found it in Israel, and Israel is here to stay. Any talk of denying this to Jewish and Israeli people should be discontinued. And a profound compassion and understanding should be extended to them as they experience any and every attack as a threat to their very existence.
Alongside that unequivocal truth, the Palestinian people, likewise, deserve freedom, respect, and an attachment to a homeland that offers them safety, dignity, and sovereignty as a people. Currently, this is being denied to them. We heard so many stories and listened to countless statistics of human rights abuses, oppression under an occupation, and an insidiously systematic attempt to drive them from the land while Israelis consume more and more of the meager territory reluctantly allotted to Palestinians. The International Court of Justice has critiqued Israeli policies and actions; Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory have been declared illegal within the international community; and the United Nations has called for justice. Nevertheless, the injustice to the Palestinian people persists. As many Israelis insisted to us on our trip, it is possible to be in favor of Israel and critical of certain Israeli policies; indeed, a true democracy invites such critique and scrutiny.
A number of peace activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, named for us the barriers that seem insurmountable to overcome—what to do with all of the refugees scattered across neighboring countries; where to draw the borders between territory allotted to Israelis and Palestinians; how to handle the Israeli settlers who have made homes in Palestinian territories; how to honor the sacred connection to Jerusalem that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all revere; how to unite a Palestinian people now fragmented into vying factions and living ghettoized one from another. It is easy to see why so much discouragement pervades the Palestinian people. Their options seem limited to violent uprisings, resignation to a military occupation as endless as it is violating, fleeing the region altogether, or waiting out a mired negotiation process that has never yielded a livable resolution. To where do we look for hope in the midst of such tragic suffering?
I find hope in those courageous persons who have chosen another option altogether. Communities like the Tent of the Nations and the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center who resist and push for justice through vigorous and creative nonviolence; arts programs like the Alrowwad Cultural Center at the Aida refugee Camp and the Rawdat El Zuhur Elementary School where children and young people voice their suffering, stoke their hope, and channel their anger into the creative self-expression of dance and theater, film and photography; centers of healing like the YMCA in Bethlehem and the Beyond Words workshops throughout Israel where trauma transforms into resilience and alienation turns into understanding; and research centers like B’Tselem and the Applied Research Institute where Israeli and Palestinian activists alike withstand governmental harassment to document human rights abuses in an attempt to wake up the international community. By far, the vast majority of Palestinian and Israeli people that we met have chosen against violence, hatred, and an endless cycle of blame and revenge. They simply want peace; and they are seeking it through truth-telling and understanding, justice and compassion, creativity and hope in the human spirit.
I also found hope at the side of the Sea of Galilee. The tour leaders asked if I would facilitate communion for our Christian party on pilgrimage. Not being ordained, I asked the group to consecrate the elements with me. We circled the outdoor altar at the beach where a risen Jesus is rumored to have appeared to Peter and commissioned him to feed the sheep of the faithful. We acknowledged that we were celebrating the Eucharist in an occupied territory; and we named the other ways that people in our world are persecuted by oppressive conditions—gays, lesbians, the transgendered and bisexual, women in patriarchal societies, undocumented immigrants, the poor, those trafficked for sex and slave labor. Within these conditions of cruelty and injustice, we remembered those leaders who have risen up to struggle for justice—Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, and Dorothy Day. And we reminded ourselves that many of these also gathered around a table with their people and celebrated the very meal that we were preparing to share. They did so for good reason. Before them, their leader and spiritual guide had shared this same meal some two thousand years ago. Jesus was a brother in the struggle. He too lived in an occupied country. He preached and taught a way of resisting that was rooted in love and nonviolence, dignity and empowerment. Then, at the point where his ministry led him to Jerusalem to encounter the powers that were oppressing his people, he gathered his followers. He had a sense that this encounter would end with his death. But his death would not be the defeat of his movement. He left them a meal, the food that sustains the revolution of love. The bread of nonviolent compassion is his presence embodied anew; the wine of bold resistance is his blood spilt once more. We ate this food. And we prayed that it would become, for us, the body and blood of Christ.
That food is still served in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Where the truth is told, and the stories of the unheard are voiced; where children’s souls are mended and their spirits restored; where young people trade stones and Molotov cocktails for the pen and the paintbrush; where farmers fight for their land with peace circles and harvest gatherings; where the harassed resist being run off the land and create local businesses on micro credit; these are faithful people feeding on the food that sustains a nonviolent revolution. We shared some of this food with them. And once we are home, we are invited to perpetuate the feast. We are invited to live in solidarity and, through our own acts of compassionate justice, embody the body and blood of all the courageous people who defy evil with goodness, who return hate with love. To the extent that we take up this invitation, truly, we do so in remembrance of them.