Justice at the Gate: the Role of our Faith Traditions in Healing the Holy Land

Friends of Sabeel North America
First Presbyterian Church of Cedar Falls Iowa
October 8, 2009

Mark Braverman

I am very pleased and blessed to be here with you tonight. The first thing I want to do is acknowledge that the reason I am standing here in this honored place is because our friend Pastor Fahed Abu Akel of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and a member of the Friends of Sabeel steering committee cannot be here because of the illness of his wife, Mary. So I ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer for Mary and Fahed.

Last week at the Sabeel conference in Washington DC, Richard Falk urged us to imagine the impossible. The title of our conference is: A Free Palestine and a Secure Israel: From Occupation to Liberation and Reconciliation.” We are at a point in history where it has never been more urgent and the obstacles and frustrations never greater and sometimes, frankly, we wonder: is it possible? Will we ever see it? So where can we turn for guidance? And the answer is: we are right where we need to be. We are with Sabeel – the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. And we are in church, and, I will submit to you, this is the way – faith can provide the guidance and the answer. And not only that: the institution of the church provides the structure and the vehicle for change. And I’m going to talk about that this evening.

But first, since we are in church, let us move right into the lessons from scripture. Having grown up in the synagogue, the lectionary makes complete sense to me. This practice of a yearly cycle of Bible readings allows us to step back into the river every year to find ourselves — how we are new, how we are changed, and at the same time reconnecting to what is enduring and deep. It’s a candy store for me. – when I open that internet page and see what is there from the Old Testament – almost always the prophets – and Paul’s epistles, and the psalms and finally the gospels. Somewhere, recently in my reading, I came across this statement that I believe deeply – that it is an accident of history that we, Jews and Christians together, are not worshiping in church on Saturday and reading from one Bible, Genesis to Revelations. And I’m sure, from what I understand from my Muslim friends, that Islam would join in this concept. The trick is to overcome the human tendency to claim one’s own tradition as the only or the superior path. From there, the way is clear to us all gathering together in a common goal.

So—turning to the lessons for today, listen to what we first encounter, and perhaps encounter is a mild word for the experience of reading from the prophet Amos —

Seek the Lord if you want to live!
Or he will break out like fire against the house of Joseph
And devour Bethel, and there will be no quenching of it.

Amos comes right at us, and it is the gift of God’s anger that he gives us, and, I would say it is God’s pain that he gives us. At bottom, what Amos is pouring out is a message about what God wants. And what God wants is justice. Speaking with the authority and voice of God, Amos is instructing us in how the world works:

You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them;
You have planted lovely vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.

And Amos tells us why this is so:

Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.
I know how numerous are your transgressions, how huge are your sins –
You – the enemies of the righteous, who do it for the money
And turn away from the sufferers at the gate.

You can acquire the wealth, you can build and live in your houses, plant your vineyards, but: “you shall not live in them,” “you shall not drink their wine.” Really? Is that now what we see everywhere in the world? Do we not see the world’s wealthy living in huge houses while the poor languish in the open or in squalid camps? Do we not see land taken and homes demolished to make way for cities? Do we not see outright land taking, house demolition and theft, the story of Naboth’s vineyard replayed continually?

Of course the prophet sees this. And he recognizes our peril. In true prophetic fashion, Amos presses the point – I know what is going on, he says to us, I can see it, better than you can. In fact, he sees nothing else. And this is the prophet’s burden: to see evil, to see it appear to triumph, and to recognize the blindness, the willingness not to see. And so he presses the point, he repeats the key words:

Hate evil and love good.
Establish justice at the gate.

What is this gate? This is not the pearly gates, this is not some higher court. The judgment that counts is that which is rendered in your towns, at the gates of the cities, where in ancient times justice was pursued at the very grassroots. It was a community affair – people, who knew one another, looking out for one another. We confront the eternal, not at Heaven’s Gate, but at the gates of our cities. Just as in Jacob’s dream, the gate of heaven begins at the bottom rung of the ladder – right here on earth. This is the justice imperative. Then, says the prophet, then, and only then

Perhaps the Lord will be gracious to the remnant of Jacob.

He doesn’t say the Lord will forgive. He says, be gracious — in other words, this is how we earn God’s love. This, in fact, is how we know God’s love.

Knowing Gods’ love is the connection to the gospel lesson, from Mark chapter 10. It is the story of the man who runs up to Jesus, asking, “What must I do to earn eternal life?” Jesus; response, both compelling and perplexing is to repeat six of the ten commandments, those that relate directly to justice – those between man and man, not man and God (that Jesus chooses these six is huge – but that’s a whole other theological discussion) – the man protests that he observes all these, and Jesus yes – ah, but you lack one thing, the essential ingredient – you must sell all that you own and give the money to the poor. The man, “When he heard this, was stunned and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

The disciples, of course, in their characteristic, endearing and very human cluelessness, were totally thrown by this: “Then who can be saved?!” they asked Jesus. Ah, replies Jesus, for mortals, this is impossible, but not for God, for whom all things are possible.” Which I can imagine may have left them all the more confused.

But look: are we not all assembled here in pursuit of a goal which sometimes, perhaps today more than ever, appears impossible? I heard Naim last weekend talk about the difference between optimism and hope – and have been pondering on that – and I wonder if that is not what he was getting to: we are here to take up the possibility of the impossible: peace in the Holy Land. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And how is this to be accomplished?

This story, this parable, alongside of Amos’ thundering, searing condemnation of injustice, is here to deliver the same message: the path to God, to peace, personal, interpersonal, political – is social justice. As much as the man with the possessions professed to follow the commandments, he was not by virtue of that to be a recipient of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s true gift. And what was it that the man of the many possessions could not do? What were these many possessions, what is the meaning of this gospel story? Why did he – why do we – cling to that which we have acquired? Is not this parable about our need to control and to be in control? Is it not asking us to look hard inside and recognize how much we are run by our personal insecurity, our lack of trust that the world, God’s world bequeathed to us, will support us? And Jesus’ line to Peter further on in the lesson about the last being first and the first being last – is it really so confusing and mysterious? Don’t we know what that means? When we hold on to the security represented by our possessions, our idolatries, our beliefs about what will keep us safe, where does that leave us? It leaves us at the back of the line – powerless, at the mercy of the worst elements of human nature, of the forces that despoil the environment and rob the poor to keep the rich in luxury.

No, not many of us will not sell our homes and cars and clothes and give every last penny to humanitarian causes. But what is the gospel story telling us? It is that we will not feel secure, safe, protected, and nourished unless and until we do justice at the gate. Not until and not unless we recognize that seeing the enemy as over there, seeing the world as us and them, means that we have to take from them in order to have for us, and that then, of course, we need our armies and our planes and our bombs to protect what we have taken. Who are those fighting the self-evident truth of the Goldstone Report? Who are those building the separation wall? Who are those who persist in blaming the dispossessed Palestinian people for “intransigence” and “eternal hatred of the Jewish people?” Who are those who have taken the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees off the table, having established the Law of Return that allows any Jew, from anywhere in world, to come to Israel and claim citizenship? Who are those who cannot let go of the enemy without, remaining blind and deaf to the enemy within?

Until we understand what it means to establish justice at the gate – to know that this is the source of our true security, our true wealth, the only possession worth having, the way to live in our homes and gain sustenance from our lands — we will not transform the impossible into the possible. And is it really so impossible? Could it be that what Jesus was saying was that if we are truly with God, that these things are indeed possible, in fact that it is all possible?

Finally, we turn to the psalm, which I find in general to be the final and crowning gift of each week’s set of lessons. The prophet rages and speaks God’s truth – it is fire, it is a hammer. The gospel teaches – which means, as the best teaching does, that it perplexes, beckons us out of the boxes of our thinking, our comfort zones and our self-delusion, and calls on us to grow and become our best selves. But the psalms meet us right where we are – at our most human, feeling selves, the core of our experience. The psalms cry, petition, comfort, and exult. Psalm 90, Job-like, shows us the mirror, and we hear echoes of Amos’ angry, admonishing God:

You sweep us away like a dream,
We fade away all at once, like the grass.

When you are angry, all our days are gone
Our years are over like a murmuring sigh.

But here the tone has shifted – with the anger, there is a gentleness, and, finally hope. When we have learned the lesson, let go of our possessiveness and the greed and insularity that it brings, when we have grieved our blindness and selfishness, we can turn to God and beseech for the gift that awaits us:

Teach us to number our days
So that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Give us joy according to the measure of days that you afflicted us,
Those very days that we witnessed evil.

And then, this astonishing, sweet, powerful, and textually difficult final, repeated verse:

May the sweetness of the Lord our God be upon us
And prosper the work of our hands.
And prosper the work of our hands.

The word translated as prosper means, literally, bind up so it is strong, like grafting a branch to a trunk, or lashing two sticks together to make them more resilient.

In the psalm we beseech God to show us the way to bind our work to our own deepest, truest selves. To be true to our hearts. This too is the function of the prophetic — to induce in us a profound grieving, like the grief the man feels when Jesus tells him what he must do to gain heaven. That is me, that is you – when we understand what it is we have to lose, then we can be open to what we have to gain. That is the joy of our gathering here, this day, this place. We join, with God, grief stricken over what our humanness has caused and resolved to move from there. When Jesus says, for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible, he is saying it is possible, yes, for you to be with God.

Today, here, in this place, we are gathered to make all things possible. To become the community that Jesus sought to form among his dear, devoted, clueless followers. To leave behind the need for control, for rectitude, for being right and in the right, for being either the victims or the conquerors. To bind ourselves to one another. So to grieve is to grow.

These lessons came to me hard. They were forced upon me in the course of my own journey.

I am the grandson of a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew. My grandfather was the direct descendant of one of the great Hasidic Rabbis of Europe, a family that later settled in Jerusalem in the mid 19th century. I was born in the United States in 1948 – the year of the declaration of the State of Israel. As such, I was raised in an amalgam of Rabbinic Judaism and political Zionism. I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not a mere historical event – it was redemption. In every generation, so said we every year at Passover, tyrants rose up to oppress us, and the Lord God stretched out his hand to redeem us; Pharoah, Chmelnistsky, Hitler – and, of course, let us not forget, Gamal Nasser. All of Jewish History was a story of struggle, exile, oppression and slaughter that had culminated in a Homeland, again, and at last. 

I first visited Israel as a boy of 17, and I fell in love with the young state. I was proud of the miracle of modern Israel – of what my people had done, creating this vibrant country out of the ashes of Auschwitz. My Israeli family – religious Jews — warmly embraced me. But even as I embraced them in return, I heard the racism in the way they talked about “the Arabs” – it was in the way that whites talked about black people in the pre-Civil Rights Philadelphia of my birth. I knew then that something was fundamentally wrong with the Zionist project, but my love for the Land stayed strong. After college, I lived for a year on a kibbutz, ignoring the implications of the pre-1948 Palestinian houses still in use and the ancient olive trees standing at the edges of its grounds. Returning to the USA, my concerns about Israel increased in direct proportion to the pace of illegal settlement-building. Still, I held to the Jewish narrative: the Occupation, although lamentably abusive of human rights, was the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank.

Traveling in Israel and the Occupied Territories my defenses against the reality of Israel’s crimes crumbled. I saw the Separation Wall – I knew it was not for defense. I saw the damage inflicted by the checkpoints on Palestinian life and on the souls and psyches of my Jewish cousins in uniform who where placed there. I saw the settlements. I heard about the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers. And words like apartheid and ethnic cleansing sprang to my mind, unbidden and undeniable. And what is more, I learned that 1948, what I had learned to call The War of Liberation, was the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of ¾ of a million Palestinians from their villages, cities and farms. And I knew that what I was witnessing in the present, the whole apparatus of occupation, was a continuation of that project of colonization and ethnic cleansing. It horrified me and it broke my heart. Most important of all, I met the Palestinian people, and recognized them, no – claimed them – as my sisters and brothers. That summer, 40 years after my first encounter with the Land, I saw all that, and my relationship to Israel changed forever.

It is clear that we, the Jewish people, have lost our way. We have built the stone houses and planted the vineyards, but we do not live in them. We live behind a wall of our own construction, in the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, in “Fortress Israel.” That wall exists not only in the hills of the West Bank but in the hearts of Israelis, and in the hearts of our own Jewish leadership here in the U.S. But change is coming —though it is only just beginning. We are getting a heart of wisdom.

Last weekend at the Friends of Sabeel conference in DC, Rabbi Brian Walt, co-director of the Fast for Gaza, brought the audience to its feet when he said that the tragedy of the Holocaust for Jews today is that, rather than doing what it should do, which is to connect us as a people to the oppression and suffering of other peoples, it is serving to disconnect us from humanity and from the call to universal justice. We have claimed genocide as our exclusive patrimony.

Rabbi Brant Rosen from Chicago wrote in his blog last spring on Israel Independence Day that he could not celebrate. Rather, he wrote, he could no longer separate the reality of the Nakba from the founding of the State of Israel. The anniversary of Israel’s birth, he wrote, had to be a day for soul searching for Jews – to acknowledge the Palestinian Nakba as our story as well as it is theirs.

It’s slow, however, and this is not the mainstream, as you well know. When I returned from the West Bank in 2006, naively thinking that I would bring the message to my Jewish community, the reception, to put it mildly, was not warm. I was accused of being — you know what I was accused of being. But a wonderful thing happened – the doors of the churches were flung open. My Jewish voice was welcomed, in fact I realized that there was a great hunger for it. And so it’s simple why that is so – because Christians know what’s right, they know what they are supposed to be doing. And the major barrier is the fear – well taught – of being perceived as anti-Semitic. Christians are even informed that that to criticize the State of Israel is anti-Semitic!

Finally at this ripe age, I have discovered what it means for me to be Jewish. People ask me what my affiliation is: where do I attend synagogue. And I answer, you’re standing in it. It’s here –it’s this work. So it is my honor and pleasure tonight to welcome you to my synagogue. And I know that the visionary, itinerant prophet and social revolutionary Jesus, born Joshua ben Joseph and who preached in the synagogues of his day, would fully endorse this statement.

Liberation theology provides the key to finding our way through this difficult period of history. The gospels, as the record of Jesus’ teachings, is the record of a movement of social transformation, of nonviolent resistance to the evil of empire. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Yes! Go! Walk, as they say, where Jesus walked! For, if you do go and indeed see what is to be seen, you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw. You will see land taken through the imposition of illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots. You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life. But you will also see resistance – the kind of nonviolent resistance represented by Sabeel’s conferences and educational work, by the demonstrations against the wall, by groups of women gathering to support themselves by community-based industries, by families of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost children to the conflict gathering together, by Jewish men who have taken off their uniforms and joined with Palestinian men emerging from Israeli prisons who pledge themselves to reject violence and enmity and to work together for a new society. You will see it in the farmers who refuse to abandon their land, even as the walls go up, the restrictions on movement tighten, and the everyday harassment and violence against them intensifies. And then, you will return to your Bibles and understand the origin of Christianity as a movement of nonviolent resistance to the forces that would remove women and men from the source of their strength and from knowledge of God’s love. And yes, Jesus was opposing the Jewish client government in Jerusalem as much as he was opposing Rome itself. He was, as a Jew, saying to his people and to his followers: this empire is trying to make an end of us: it is trying to take us away from our core values and away from following God. And, he was also saying: as much as violence is the tool that the enemy is using against us, for us violence is not the answer – in fact it is suicide (Jesus had seen, with his own eyes, the outcome of violent Jewish insurrection) — but neither is acceptance or collaboration. We are not allowed to give in, and we are not allowed to give up.

I want to turn briefly to our situation here in the United States, and in particular to the call to the church – the challenge and the potential.

Sixty four years ago, Christians stood before the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau and said, “What we have done?” There ensued a project to rid Christian theology of what one prominent theologian has called “The Christian sin:” anti-Semitism. In this revision, sometimes called post-supersessionism or post-replacement theology, the Jews, who in early Christianity were depicted as the rejected of God – scattered over the earth as an example of what happens to a people who rejected God, were seen no longer as the darkness but as the light. No longer displaced by the “new Israel” of Christianity. the Jews had now been reinstated as God’s elect. Generations of theologians and clergy have been educated in this revised theology. Atonement for anti-Semitism has trumped all other theological considerations – reconciliation is the prime value in interfaith relations for Christians. Now — the impulse behind this is a good thing! It is a wonderful quality in Christianity, this ability to reform itself – most notably with a capital “R,” in the Protestant Reformation, and in our own time, in Vatican II for the Catholic Church. But the problem is that in lifting up the original covenant with Abraham – God’s exclusive deal with one family, one people – Christianity has swallowed a very un-Christian concept: particularity. The original covenant is an exclusive arrangement – and it includes a very clear and very specific real estate deal. It’s a slippery slope, this business of interfaith reconciliation, and it has effectively eliminated the possibility for productive conversation about the one of the most urgent issues facing the world today. Interfaith dialogue, as we have come to call it, has become, not a level field upon which the faiths can talk about who they are, what their faith requires of them and what it can mean for humanity facing today’s challenges. Rather, as far as Christians and Jews go, it has become a place for a careful, polite conversation, a kind of mutual admiration enterprise — and difficult issues are avoided. And the subtext is: Christians are guilty, and the Jews, the injured party, are now willing to accept your apology and your admiration. And I don’t have to tell what topic is out of bounds.

Sabeel has been attacked as being anti-Semitic because of Naim’s articulation of Palestinian Liberation Theology. In classic liberation theology, Jesus on the cross is the symbol, the embodiment, if you will, of the suffering of the oppressed. And because now it is the Palestinian people that are oppressed, and because it is the Jewish State, acting on behalf of the Jewish people, that is the oppressor – in this twisted reasoning, we now have the charge that Sabeel is reviving the ancient anti-Semitic charge of deicide – of Christ-killing. Nonsense! And for shame – that we Jews should cynically use this logically absurd and self evidently false charge – a charge that caused us such horror and suffering over the ages – for shame that we should use this to bully Christians into silence and inaction.

You know what happens when you break the rules. Marc Ellis talks about the ecumenical deal – I call it the interfaith deal: You killed our Lord. So we killed you. We were wrong – and we’re really sorry. So you can have the land. And we know the far-reaching and tragic consequences of this deal for the prospects for peace in historic Palestine today. Sadly, tragically, the Jewish establishment in the West exploits this sensitivity among Christians, this conditioning. Last year I attended the pre-conference meeting of the United Methodist Church, to participate in a briefing of delegates on a resolution to divest the church’s pension funds from companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian lands. I addressed the delegates, urging them to pass the resolution. I told them that it was the right thing to do, and reassured them that it was not anti-Semitic to do so, but rather an act of love toward the Jewish people. A Rabbi from the Simon Wiesenthal Center stood up next and said to the delegates: “I know you are being told that this act is not anti-Semitic, but I have to tell you that it feels that way.” He said this without explanation or apology – as if that was all that need be said to stop the Christians in their tracks, as if they would not dare to raise the issue again in the face of this affront to Jewish sensibilities. And certainly right here within the Presbyterian church, this controversy has been ongoing, ever since the PC(USA)’s historic selective divestment resolution in 2004 and since then in its persistent and courageous pursuit of this justice-based action.

Despite the attempt of both some Christians and some Jews to induct the church into the effort to silence all criticism of Israel and thwart the movement to bring about a peace based on justice, Christians know what is right. The social justice agenda is deep and wide in the church. Reverend Don Wagner is here to talk to us this weekend about fundamentalist Christian Zionism that has had and continues to have such a pervasive effect on politics today. And yet, I know Don will agree that there is a differently motivated yet also hugely powerful Zionism hiding, in plain sight, in the midst of mainstream Christianity.

So: do what you know is right, and do what you have to do. Deal with your critics respectfully, but do not be distracted from the task before you. Do what is right in your eyes, and leave the Jewish people to do what we have to do, which is to confront the evidence before us: that our commitment to insularity and to self protection has brought us to a perilous pass. The meaning of interfaith should be not dialogue but communion — dissolving the barriers of religion and ethnicity in the struggle for justice for all humankind. This, surely, is the heart of Christianity, this is the message that Jesus brought to the oppressed and suffering Jews of Palestine in the first century, speaking in a direct line from the Hebrew prophets. It is, must be the heart of Judaism and Islam as well. But here, today, as we in the U.S. confront the reality of our government’s responsibility in this struggle, I submit to you that it falls to the church to lead.

Jim Wallis has written that when politics fail, broad social movements emerge to change the wind: politicians wet their fingers, see the way the wind blows, and act accordingly. It is up to us, as the grassroots, to change the wind, and to have the politicians thus follow. And politics are failing us here. Diplomacy, as Richard Falk said last week in Washington, has failed, and he called for actions on the civil society level. And, as Dr. Charles Villa-Vicencio of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town South Africa told us in DC last weekend, if the church means anything, if it has any relevance, then it must take upon itself the struggle to right the monumental, self-evident and inexcusably longstanding abrogation of human rights that has occurred and is occurring in historic Palestine. We call to mind Martin Luther King’s statement from his letter from a Birmingham jail that unless the church takes up the fight for social justice it will “lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as a social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” King was calling for civil disobedience and for clergy to support the cause by raising their voices from the pulpits and putting their bodies on the line in the public forum. Villa-Vicencio, along with others at the conference, called for economic pressure on Israel. Whatever the particular actions, they must be taken up here, at the grassroots. This is about the broad social movement that Wallis calls for – the same that brought about the end of Jim Crow and the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

The church must be in the lead. The justice issues here are clear. So yes — let us raise up the conversation between the faiths, and honor what we have to learn from one another, but together — in community of purpose. Look: Christianity took the timeless teachings of Judaism and set them into a universal frame. This is Christianity’s great gift. And it is the heart of the faith’s social injustice imperative. Don’t take it back. We must go forward to universalism — not backward to particularism, tribalism, and nationalism.

I know it is painful. I know it is uncomfortable. I know that the interfaith reconciliation work of decades is threatened, and, more important, close professional, personal and family relationships are on the line. But do not let my people’s struggle — our confrontation with our own looming, inescapable Reformation — subvert your gift to the world, your unique contribution, at this critical juncture in history.

William Sloane Coffin, in his long career as a warrior for justice, epitomized this in his ferocious faithfulness to what his faith called him to do. Coffin wrote in his final autobiographical work, Credo: “We see ourselves walking not alone with our Lord, but with all the peoples of the world whom we now view as fellow walkers, not as those who fall in behind. And all are marching to Zion, to the mountain of God, where—can anyone doubt it?—God will cause the nations to beat their swords into plowshares and return to the people the peace that only God could give and no nation had the right to take away.”

And so we pray:

May this be your will. Prosper the work of our hands. Give us hearts of wisdom. Grant us justice at the gate.


Mark Braverman is a Jewish American with deep family roots in the Holy Land. He serves on the advisory board of Friends of Sabeel North American and on the Board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA. He is the author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land. Information and additional writing at www.markbraverman.org.