Remarks at Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation: The Role of Faith in Bringing Peace to the Middle East
11th Annual meeting of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation
October 24, 2009
Thank you, Fr. McManus, and thanks to the organizers for inviting me to say some words on this important topic. I am pleased to be in the company of my friends Imam Hendi and Bishop Graham. Before I accepted the invitation to be here, the program listing on the internet page called for a Rabbi — I cannot, in the contemporary frame, claim that professional title. But I remind us that the title Rabbi means “teacher,” and that it was applied to and claimed by a great Jewish teacher, Joshua the son of Joseph, who lived during the time of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus in occupied Judea. A man who his disciples called “my teacher,” who preached on hillsides, in the city square, and in the synagogues of his time. And who of course, witnessed the abuses of power and spoke truth to that power, both secular and religious. So I am honored and pleased to claim that legacy and take my place with my esteemed colleagues from my sister faiths.
I am the grandson of a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew. My grandfather was born in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He emigrated to the U.S as a young man, and so I was born here 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. 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. 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 in silent rows at the edges of its grounds. Returning to the USA, my concerns about Israel’s policies increased in direct proportion to the pace of illegal settlement-building. Still, I held to the Zionist 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 and the restricted roads. I heard about the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers on Palestinian farmers and villagers. 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. But the part of the experience that had the most profound impact on me was that 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, my relationship to Israel changed forever.
The subject of this panel is Religious Faith as a Path to Peace. I believe that for the answer the question posed to this panel we can turn to no more authentic source than the very mouthpieces of God, the prophets. And, for our subject today, no better representative of that group than Amos. Two weeks ago the lesson from the lectionary included this passage from Amos chapter 6:
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, the prophet sees nothing else. And so he presses the point, repeating 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 our towns, at the gates of the cities, where in ancient times justice was pursued at the grassroots. It was a community. We confront the eternal, not at Heaven’s Gate, but at the gates of our cities. 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.
To know God’s love, and to be faithful to this divine gift and the imperative to act that it brings requires that in every historical age, in every lifetime, the command to pursue justice must be re-examined and re-learned. 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 traditional Christian theology, the Jews were depicted as the cursed of God – scattered over the earth as proof that they had rejected God. Modern Christian thinkers realized – correctly – that this theology had set in motion the great evil of Jew hatred over the millennia, and that it had to be corrected. In the new theology that grew up after WW II, the Jews were seen no longer as the darkness but as the light. No longer displaced by the “new Israel” of Christianity, the Jews were now reinstated as God’s elect – the original covenant between God and Abraham was in force. Generations of theologians and clergy have been educated in this revised theology. But in the current historical context, there is a problem with this theology, in particular with respect to the issue of the land promise.
Recently in my reading, I came across an example of this problem. In the June 2009 edition of Cross Currents, Fr. John Pawlikowski, Director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago named the Vatican’s 1993 recognition of the State of Israel pivotal in correcting the anti-Judaism of Christian theology. With that act, he writes, “the coffin on displacement/perpetual wandering theology had been finally sealed.” I find this an astonishing argument. Consider: recognizing the Jewish state corrects Christian theology! Not that this particular aspect of Christian theology did not need fixing, but consider the implications of this: It’s not only that the Jews are OK, that they are not damned and deserving of eternal punishment. It’s that the proof of that is the establishment of the State of Israel. If God has restored the Jewish people to their land, then this is proof of their election. The original covenant is valid and in force.
There is more here. Pawlikowski takes aim at another fundamental of Christian theology – the spiritualization of the land. This is a hallmark of Christian theology. In the Christian reenvisioning, God is universal, and as such not tied to a geographical location. In this way the land was lifted out of the original tribal context, becoming a symbol of a new world in which God’s love is available to all of humankind. But Pawlikowski tells us that this is wrong because it is a repudiation of the covenant with the Jews. By spiritualizing the land, he claims, Christians had in effect claimed it for their own, thus depriving the Jews of their birthright. This to me is an astonishing argument. The whole point of spiritualizing the land was to transform it from a key clause in the covenant between God and one particular people into a universal symbol. This is not to say that Christians at different times in history have claimed the land for “their” exclusive God. But that is the point – that was wrong. If it was wrong for Christians then it is wrong for Jews today. But in this reasoning, Pawlikowski is saying that the fact of the State of Israel has theological power – God has returned the land to its rightful owners. There are many, many examples of this powerful current in contemporary Christian theology. I recently heard a Lutheran theologian, arguing for the primacy of the Jewish claim on historic Palestine, say that the land was the Jewish sacrament. This is not the radical Zionism of millennial dispensationalist end time theology. This is a Christian Zionism hiding in plain sight, in mainstream Christianity.
We have to be very concerned about this. Christian triumphalism has been replaced by Jewish triumphalism. The Christian desire for reconciliation and atonement has morphed into theological support for an anachronistic, ethnic nationalist ideology that has hijacked Judaism, put the continued existence of Christians in the Holy Land at risk, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most egregious, systematic and longstanding violation of human rights in the world today.
However well-intentioned the original motivation for atonement and reconciliation was, in the current historical context, it presents a barrier to the global justice agenda of the modern church at congregational and denominational levels, and has muzzling effect on the discourse. In a tragic, disturbing irony, vigilance against anti-Semitism has come to trump commitment to social justice when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians. This goes against God’s will. God requires justice. The times call out for the prophetic.
Christians today talk about the need to honor the deep Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. But as a Jew I must consider hard the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my identity and as my birthright. When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster, which is exactly what the Jewish people are confronting in the State of Israel today – not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual. We need to take a long hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. The theology of the land, like that of election, like any other aspect of scripture, must be open to conversation with history. As Harvey Cox said in the recent WCC conference in Bern, Switzerland,
What does the Bible mean by ‘promised land’? How has the term been hijacked and used for various political reasons, when maybe that is not the significance of the texts at all? Ancient Israel is often confused with modern Israel. They are not the same. The Jewish people and the modern State of Israel, though they overlap in certain ways, are not the same, and therefore we have to be thoughtful and self-critical about how that theme is dealt with.
Happily, Harvey Cox’s statement in Bern is only one example of a shift in how Christians are now beginning to understand the meaning of their Jewish origins and the parallels between our own time and the situation of the Palestinians (i.e. Jews) of Jesus’ time. They understand the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to the evil of empire. Jesus was confronting the evil of the Roman Empire and telling his people, the Jews of Palestine, what was required to bring about the Kingdom of God. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Yes! Go! Walk 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 nonviolent resistance represented by demonstrations against the separation wall, 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.
So the church is — or should be — right at home here. This is the social justice agenda that permeates the American church – it’s not a hard call! Except for the interfaith issue. That makes it difficult. I know. I know what charges you open yourselves to when you dare to criticize the State of Israel. I have been the object of those same charges. And I can only imagine the impact that it has on you. But I say to you: do not let yourselves be held captive to our struggle. Honor the Jewish people as your sister and brothers, and honor the painful process that we must go through as we begin to look in the mirror and consider what we must do now to be OK with God. You may witness our journey, you may love us as we confront the awful consequences that have resulted from our nationalist project. But do not wait for us. In these urgent times, you must not allow yourselves to be held captive to our struggle. Tragically, history has erected a wall, a wall that has today created the activity of interfaith dialogue – an activity that is too often confined to polite, careful encounters that avoid the tough issues and observe strict rules against criticism of Israel. What we need is not dialogue but communion, common cause in the pursuit of justice. There are some in the Jewish community – still not the organized community itself, but many individuals and several newly founded organizations – who are taking the prophetic step outside the mainstream and are ready, as faithful Jews, to join with you in this prophetic endeavor. Find us. Bind us to you. Let us together be faithful servants of God.
I know that for Christians in the U.S. today, taking this prophetic stance puts the interfaith reconciliation work of decades at risk. Professional, personal and family relationships are on the line. That is painful and that is very hard. But as Walter Brueggemann reminds us, the prophetic requires us to deal with the full range of emotions – especially those we want to avoid: sadness and grief chief among them. Only by acknowledging what has been broken can we be open to the new.
Jim Wallis has written that when diplomacy and the political process alone fails to bring about the change that is needed, broad social movements emerge to change the wind: to push and to direct the political and diplomatic process. It is up to us, at the grassroots, to change the wind. 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 now falls to the church to lead. Without this movement, led by and located within the church, a church freed up theologically to go forward and to raise its prophetic voice, our President will have very little chance to do what he wants to do in the Middle East.
The church in the U.S. is poised to fulfill its calling. You are here – wide, deep, vast, strong, organized — with the scriptures pointing you directly to the divine imperative to do justice at the gate. And we Jews, who have suffered too long, must turn away from our history of suffering and turn ourselves toward a process of reformation in which we purge ourselves of the exceptionalism and triumphalism that has brought us to this perilous pass.
My prayer is that we will all, of all faiths, heed this prophetic call, receive God’s love and know God’s will:
Hate evil and love good.
Establish justice at the gate.
Thank you and God Bless You.
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.