December 28th, 2009

Dec 09

From the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation: “As Gaza Freedom Marchers persist in Cairo, solidarity actions across the globe”

From the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s blog:

Reports from Gaza Freedom March participants in Cairo are rolling in so quickly that I am struggling to keep up. Here are just a few of the reports we’ve been receiving:

1) Emily Ratner of US Campaign member group New Orleans Palestine Solidarity and the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival (which the US Campaign has helped sponsor for the past several years), writes at Mondoweiss:

Yesterday we joined the people of Gaza, the people of all of Palestine, and allies around the world in remembering the anniversary of the inhuman and illegal Israeli attacks that stole the lives of more than 1,400 mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons last December and January. And, in a manner far too appropriately suited to remembering an unfathomably vicious massacre and the preposterous silence of the American and Egyptian governments, we freedom marched in circles throughout the streets of Cairo.

Read her full report here.

2) The front page of Ma’an News was dedicated to the Gaza Freedom March:

Surrounded by police, an international group of human rights advocates staged a demonstration at a UN installation in Cairo on Monday after the Egyptian government denied their request to enter Gaza….Former EU parliament vice president Luisa Morgantini, Filipino Senator and president of the Transnational Institute Walden Bello and others held a news conference outside the UN building in Cairo in hopes to negotiate their entry in Gaza via the Rafah crossing. Another member of the Gaza Freedom March group, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstien, 85, declared a hunger strike in protest of Egypt’s decision. More than 600 others joined the demonstration at the UN building….

3) AFP is carrying this report on Hedy Epstein and other hunger strikers:

An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was among a group of grandmothers who began a hunger strike in Cairo on Monday to protest against Egypt’s refusal to allow a Gaza solidarity march to proceed. American activist Hedy Epstein and other grandmothers participating in the Gaza Freedom March began a hunger strike at 1000 GMT. “I’ve never done this before, I don’t know how my body will react, but I’ll do whatever it takes,” Epstein told AFP, sitting on a chair surrounded by hundreds of protesters outside the United Nations building in Cairo.

UPDATE: The BBC is now carrying the report as well.

4) Democracy Now! is carrying this report as well as an interview with Palestinian journalist Sami Abu Salem:

5) Ken Mayers, National Treasurer of Veterans for Peace, writes of an action at the Kasr al Nil bridge in Cairo:

This was a small but moving action in which small groups of us moved to the bridge and tied notes to the bridge recording our solidarity with the people of Gaza and our sorrow at the horrors inflicted on them a year ago in the three weeks prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama. The action was schedule to unfold from 11am to 1pm. I was there from 11 to 12:30 or so and saw no security force interference during that period [the memorial was apparently broken up by security forces later on-ed.]. Pictured below is the flower and the note that I tied to the bridge. This is not to say that there were no security forces around. I don’t believe I have ever been in a city where police are more visible — and that includes Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Beijing.

6) Mohammad at KABOBfest breaks down a recent report on the humanitarian situation in Gaza one year after “Operation Cast Lead” in a devastating fashion, including these figures:

  • Since the assault ended, leaving 15,000 buildings damages and 5,000 completely destroyed, only 41 trucks of contsruction materials have been allowed to enter Gaza
  • Prior to 2007, and average of 70 truckloads of exports left Gaza everyday. For the past two years, that number has been zero.
  • Only 35 categories of items are allowed into Gaza. That is, only 35 types of products are allowed in to the 1.5 million prisoners.

The figures highlight the complete failure of governments to act on behalf of justice and peace.

When governments–whether Egyptian, Israeli, or U.S.–fail to act, civil society steps up to the plate. This time around it’s no exception. As 1400 human rights advocates work to highlight the siege of Gaza in Cairo, people around the world are organizing. Some are contacting the Egyptian government. Others are organizing solidarity actions.

Here in the United States, it’s important to link these solidarity actions with our ongoing national campaign to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to one that respects international law, human rights, and equality for all. Take action in the media, with Congress; and in the streets. Link your actions with ongoing campaigns against Caterpillar (whose bulldozers were used heavily in Operation Cast Lead), Motorola, Ahava, and U.S. military aid. It’s long past time for the siege to end. It’s long past time for the Israeli occupation to end. It’s long past time for apartheid to end.

Dec 09

Three important developments in the struggle for Palestinian rights

Three important developments in the struggle for Palestinian rights:

1) 1300 people from around the world are gathered in Egypt for the Gaza Freedom March, marking one year since last winter’s 22-day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip (codenamed “Operation Cast Lead”). As of right now, the Egyptian government is stating that they will not let the marchers through the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip. For more information on the Gaza Freedom March, check out the march’s website here.

You can see the latest news from and about the Gaza Freedom March here. And you can click here to contact the Egyptian government and tell them to let the Gaza Freedom March into the Gaza Strip.

2) Related to the first item, solidarity actions with the Gaza Freedom March are being organized all across the globe this week. To find a Gaza solidarity action near you click here. For resources to organize your own action and other ways you can take action, check out the US Campaign’s Gaza action resources here.

3) The Palestinian Christian community has issued a document entitled “A Moment of Truth,” commonly being referred to as a Palestinian Kairos Document. The word “kairos” is a Greek word for time. Unlike “chronos,” chronological time, kairos implies the in-breaking of eternal time into our time. Kairos is a moment or eternal truth. The original Kairos Document was written by South African Christians, calling on the global church to oppose apartheid, and included a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The Palestinian Kairos Document “declare[s] that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.” It also calls for churches around the world to prayerfully consider taking up tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli occupation. I’m hoping to have more about “A Moment of Truth” up in the coming days, but in the meantime, you can read about it here. Check out the list of signatories (including many of the folks I had the honor of working with at Sabeel) here. Read a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the authors of the document here. And check out resources for getting involved with boycott and divestment in your own community here.

Dec 09

That tricky Christian Zionism

It happens almost every time I give a presentation.

I’ll be rolling along, really laying it down. People are inspired. They’re pumped. They’re ready to act.

And then, someone raises their hand, and says something along the lines of this:

“Here’s my problem. I agree with everything that you’re saying [ok, they don't usually say THAT, but they are generally agreeing]. But when I try to talk to my brother/best friend/uncle/congregation/pastor about Israel and Palestine, they just tell me that the Bible says we have to support Israel, and that’s that. What do I say to them.”

Oh man. Nothing presents more of a challenge in talking about Palestine and Israel in the church (with the possible exception of people’s fear of being branded as anti-semitic for speaking out) than this thing called Christian Zionism.

Books have been written–and websites founded–on this concept, many of them addressing this theology in its most extreme form (which involves fervent belief in a Rapture and other creepy Left Behind horror movie stuff). Yet a watered down, primarily subconscious form of Christian Zionism (which is in and of itself truly anti-semitic) remains very much prevalent even in “liberal” churches today.

Recently a friend contacted me. They had had an encounter with a person they love and respect, who told them in no uncertain terms that their advocacy for Palestinian rights was against “the will of God.” Here is my response to that friend, which I hope will be helpful for folks facing Christian Zionism in their own communities:

“The simple answer is that your friend, no matter how good of a person that they are, is wrong about what the Bible says, wrong about how they are reading it, and certainly wrong about you going to Hell (or at least the part about you going to Hell due to supporting the Palestinians, haha). There’s a couple of books I can recommend you on the subject if you want, but here’s a really quick run-down. Believing what your friend does requires a few things:

1) A literalist view of the Bible, which would also require that your friend believes that touching pigskin is against the will of God and that disobedient children should be stoned to death.

2) A decontextualized reading of Hebrew bible prophecy, which reads the Hebrew bible as if it was written for people in the 21st century instead of people in the century it was actually written in. Amalekites and Canaanites and Israelites become, uncritically, Palestinians or Arabs or Russians or Israelis or whoever, instead of being the actual people the texts are in reference to.

3) A view of Biblical prophetic texts that reads them not as political and social critiques of power and culture, but as “predictions of the future,” which is not what they were, really.

4) A complete lack of knowledge about the history of Palestine/Israel, which consists in statements such as “Jews and Arabs have fought for all of history,” “Those people won’t ever learn to get along,” “This all goes back to Isaac and Ishmael/Jacob and Esau/whatever.” None of this is true. Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together just fine in the Middle East–speaking Arabic, in fact–for centuries before Zionism. There were certainly tensions and power struggles between communities, but there are tensions and power struggles between all communities. This conflict is a modern conflict–past 100 years tension wise, past 60 years as far as the conflict as we know it. So it’s just BS to say that this is somehow a Biblical or ancient conflict.

5) The type of Biblical view that your friend holds, unfortunately, is connected to some really scary (and anti-Semitic) views of the ‘end times,’ which involve all of the Jews going back to the Promised Land so that they can be wiped out by Divine Conquering Warrior Jesus. This is not a belief that I hold, at all….

So that’s the basics. Like I said, there are a lot of books out there about Christian Zionism (which is what I would identify your friend’s beliefs about this as being), many of them written by faithful and concerned Christians who think this type of belief is not only dangerous but biblically unsound. Of the top of my head I’d suggest Stephen Sizer, Donald Wagner, Naim Ateek, Mark Braverman (a Jewish author on the subject), and Colin Chapman as good names to look into.”

One last thing to add:

It is highly problematic to associate the modern, political, nuclear-armed state of Israel with the Israel that we read about in the Hebrew and Greek bibles. There has been a lot of work done to critique this sort of uncritical reading of the scriptures, not the least of which has been undertaken by Palestinian Christian scholars such as Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek and other authors of the Palestinian Kairos Document.   However, even if we do this for a second, as a thought experiment, the idea that “the Bible says we have to support Israel” has a serious, Biblical flaw.

In short, one thing that the Hebrew texts record over and over again is that the ancient Israelites were not to trust in military might, and certainly not in military alliances with seemingly more powerful nations. Here’s Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder on the topic:

“2 Chronicles 16 recounts the formation of an alliance between Asa of Judah and Benhadad of Damascus against the Northern Kingdom [which would have been Israel, FYI]. Whether it is the alliance itself or the attack against the sister kingdom which brought forth the word of condemnation by the prophet Hannai, one cannot say for sure. In any case, what the prophet’s words condemn specifically is the reliance upon politico-military resources….” (Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Eerdman’s Publishing, 1994, pg. 80).

And here’s “New Monastics” Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw: “Yahweh continues to be careful to choose the weakest, most unlikely characters to be the heroes of the liberation story, lets we be tempted to think we did it ourselves, with our own power or might or ingenuity. It is clear that God was the one fighting for these people whom no one else would fight for….There is the brilliant story of Gideon, who went forth to fight the Midianites (Judges 7). Like any good commander in chief, he rallied the troops, 32,000 of them, to be exact. But then the Lord said, ‘You have too many men,’ and order that he send some away so that Israel couldn’t boast that her own strength saved her. So 22,000 headed off, leaving him with 10,000. And then the Lord spoke again, telling him there were still too many, and sook it down to 300. From an army over 30,000 to 300–not exactly a force to be reckoned with. But this is precisely the point. Only God can be trusted with power and strength, lest Israel think too highly of herself or depend on her military might rather than the miraculous God who can split oceans open to protect them.” (Claiborne and Haw, Jesus for President, pg. 47).

The Israelites were warned in Isaiah 30 against “tak[ing] refuge in the protection of Pharaoh” and “seek[ing] shelter in the shadow of Egypt,” at the time a much stronger power. (Note that conservative evangelical types use these passages all the time to argue against Israel making peace with its Arab neighbors. But at the time, Egypt wasn’t Arab. The point here is alliances with stronger nations, with empires. It doesn’t matter what particular name or shape that empire takes).

Here’s Isaiah 31: “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!”

And here is Psalm 33: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples….A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.”

Not exactly a formula for supporting $30 billion of purely military aid over 10 years, is it? It seems to me that if one has a literalist view of scripture, and one associates the ancient Israelites with modern Israel, then the last thing you’d want to do is lend military support. That would be a recipe for disaster, and for Israel’s downfall. No, you wouldn’t want to send weapons at all–you’d want to get out of the way, and let God do the work.

Ok. That’s it. End of thought experiment. Hope this has been helpful to some folks out there!

Dec 09

Two great sermons (and an ok prayer) to help you get over your post-Christmas blues

Two of my friends gave sermons today that go along way to addressing some of the “what next” feeling that comes after the Christmas holiday. (And no, the answer is not “New Year’s Eve,” although of course that is literally true).

My good friend John-Forrest, who is a student at Wesley Seminary, gave the sermon at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church today. In the sermon, which you can listen to here, he wonders why the church spends so little time lingering on Christmas before rushing off to Jesus as a 12-year old boy (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the text of the Gospel of Luke, we get very little information about Jesus as a child. All of a sudden he’s an adolescent, and then an adult). John-Forrest argues that there is an importance both to the recognition that “Jesus grew up” (in the words of Taladega Nights…), and that we are all called to grow and to become the “us” that we are made to be. But there is a simple truth in the Nativity story, he adds, that has to stay with us in this process of “growing up.” Listen to his sermon here.

My friend Mark is the United Methodist campus chaplain at American University. He gave a sermon today at Stillwater United Church, which you can read in full here. Mark also notes the tendency of the church–and U.S.-society-at-large–to rush off after Christmas, when in fact according to the traditional church calendar we are only on day 3 of Christmas! (Remember that song that takes way too long to sing?) Mark argues that for folks who are in the church, the celebration of Christmas should really be the celebration of the Incarnation–God with us, God in solidarity with us in our struggles.

A bit of self-promotion in this one, since Mark quotes my story about Yanoun. He also quotes Archbishop Oscar Romero. In no way, shape, or form do I think I’ve at all earned this quote slot, but I’m honored nonetheless….Here’s a couple of my favorite parts:

“There is much we get wrong about Christmas. Christians get this wrong as much as anyone. The culture has so overwhelmed us that we buy into it. We get upset when retailers wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” without ever bothering to ask ourselves why we care what some clerk at Wal-Mart or Target says to us as we buy our goods. But commerce and Christmas have become incredibly intertwined, that even for us Christians it is not always easy to separate.”

“The true message of Christmas is not in the parties, it’s not in the Capitalist onslaught that is the Holiday Shopping Season or in the giving and exchanging of gifts. It’s not in the trappings of the season, not in the greetings we get from retail clerks. It’s not really even in the birth of a baby in a manger.

The message of Christmas–and of Christianity–is that in the midst of our sorrows, our suffering, our brokenness, God should dwell with us , in our midst. God should take on our life, our pain, our suffering, our joys, our being, even our death. God pitches a tent among us and sets up camp as one of us.

Christianity is about the Word becoming Flesh and dwelling in our midst. Of the radical declaration of the Eternal God’s solidarity with mortal humanity: and all the implications and consequences that that solidarity has for us.”

“If Christ is the demonstration of God’s solidarity with us, it is the demonstration of God’s solidarity with all of us. And that necessitates that we relate to one another not as people separate and disconnected from us, but as fellow human beings, likewise made in the image of God, and as ones for whom Christ also came.

The poor, the oppressed, the lowly. The outcast, the despised, the marginalized, and rejected. The alienated, the friendless. The declaration of God’s solidarity with mortal humanity in the flesh means that our lives have fundamental dignity and meaning. All of us. Every single one. There is not a person on earth whose life does not have a fundamental human dignity, because our human lives were validated by the Eternal, who pitched a tent among us.”

Read the whole thing here.

Great job friends!

I didn’t do any preaching today (heard a great joint sermon from Dumbarton UMC’s pastor, Rev. Mary Kay Totty and her best friend, Rev. Allen Harris), but I was the liturgist and had to write the peace prayer for the day. Here’s what I came up with:

Compassionate and Merciful God,

Your birth is announced with words of peace, not to the powerful, the Emperors or Governors, but to seemingly powerless shepherds. Be born in us, and make us instruments of your peace. May our feet walk in the way of peace. May our hands dismantle the tools of violence. May our mouths speak up against injustice. May our eyes see visions of a more peaceful and healthy tomorrow for ourselves, our communities, our nations, and our worlds.


Dec 09

The first time I really understood the Nativity

I am sometimes not so great at Christmas cheer. But here is why I think it matters:

The first time I really understood the Nativity was in Yanoun, in the northern West Bank. The shepherds we were with–Mohammad and Mohammad, not joking–showed us where they keep their sheep. It was a low, dark, cave. Noisy, crowded with animals, and smelling like–well–sheep shit. The mangers were rusty, with sheep pushing at each other to find space to eat. Not the sort of place you’d want to have a kid.

I remember thinking: “If God can be born here, I guess God can be born anywhere.”

(To support the people of Yanoun, who are sorely pressed by military occupation and nearby settlements, check out the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program of the World Council of Churches, which maintains a nonviolent accompaniment and human rights observation presence in the village.)