Thursday, 24 July 2014

Palestinian Christians: The Abandoned Sheep

Imagine there was a country- not a small, unstable state, but a 21st-century modern state, with stable democratic institutions, a thriving, diversified economy, and the fourth-largest military on the globe- with a sizeable Christian minority.

Suppose that Christian minority was being denied basic human rights- freedom of movement, freedom of worship, freedom to live where they chose, freedom to own property….

Suppose they were subject to arrest and detention without trial; 

Suppose their property could be confiscated on a moment’s notice;

Suppose they were subject to segregated schools; suppose there were even roads they were not allowed to drive on;

Suppose this Christian community was under military occupation and the regular targets for military action, economic blockade, and attack.

I don’t know about you, but I imagine that American Christians would be out of their minds. Advocacy groups like Voice of the Martyrs, Christian Freedom International, and Focus on the Family would be incandescent with anger. News outlets like CBN, the 700 Club, and FOX News would be reporting it 24-7. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly would be screaming for action. There’d be denunciations from pulpits; it’d be all over the cover of Christianity Today, World magazine, and the Christian Post; needless to say, President Obama would probably be on the receiving end of some very pointed questions: ‘these are our Christian brethren! Why were we supporting such a regime? Why were we giving them billions in military aid?!'

But we’re not hearing any of that. The Christian media- at least the Evangelical end of the spectrum- is virtually silent. In fact, it supports the repressive regime, demands it be given more aid, more weapons, more political support.

How can this be? Simply but bluntly, it is because the Christian community in question are Palestinians.

There are about 350,000 Christians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. They have been there for 2000 years, but in the last 60 years, the number of Christians is dropping- by the day- like a stone. Most emigrate as the occupation continues to strangle the local economy and illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand, confiscating more and more Palestinian land and diverting more and more water.

Nazareth and Bethlehem- Jesus’s birthplace and home town- used to be predominantly Christian. Not anymore. It is not an unreasonable fear that, in a few decades, there might be no living Christian presence in the Holy Land. The most sacred sites in the Christian religion might become mere museums. A Christian community that can trace its lineage to the Day of Pentecost (they are the ‘Arabs’ of Acts 2:9) will be gone.

And the state of Israel will be delighted to see them go.

Now we sit, once again, and watch the Israeli military pound Gaza into rubble once again, with civilian casualties in the hundreds.

Once again, we hear the endless repetition from the US government: ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’.

No, it does not. Under international law, they have one prerogative: withdraw. End the occupation; withdraw to the 1967 borders; dismantle the settlements; build two states on a foundation of real justice and real peace.

I don’t want to get too utopian here, though. Ending the occupation will not solve every political problem in- and between- Israel and Palestine. But I am convinced that it will end about 70% of them. But the occupation should not be ended because it is expedient, but because it is right- and acting rightly allows space for other right actions. 

Israel has the right to exist- but not like this.

Israel has the right to security- but not like this.

The very fact that these sentiments will immediately be read by many as being anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas only shows how dysfunctional most of the discussion and debate surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue has become.

Under international law, an occupied nation has the right to resist its occupation. But all of the rockets Hamas has fired into Israel have not brought them any closer to their military aims. They are symbolic rather than strategic, lacking any semblance of praxis, action for action’s sake. All of their 'resistance' is stupid and criminal. 

Yet it is no less stupid and criminal than the Israeli strategy, and theirs has proven far more deadly.  While Israel has every right to not want violent Islamists living anywhere near them, the occupation- with all of its military, economic, and legislative might- has not been able to subdue the Palestinian insurgents, and while they try, the lives and livelihoods of thousands are destroyed. The occupation has has given Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and every other violent Islamist organization an enormous issue to hide behind while conveniently advancing agendas that are spectacularly frightening- getting rid of the state of Israel altogether being the most disturbing. Ending the occupation would be one giant step toward exposing these people for who they really are and what they really want- and how few people actually want it.

Regardless of the damage it does and the injustices it perpetuates, the occupation continues and spreads. In this fruitless endeavor, Israel has been lavishly supported by the US government for decades. Any nation over which the US holds enough sway tacitly looks the other way. Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream is a nightmare for many. And the question that so many of us keep asking is, Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of the preservation of an exclusively ‘Jewish State’?  

It is not merely Palestinians who think this way and are asking that question. There is a growing body of opinion within Israel- proud, patriotic, some even Zionist- who are speaking out.  There is the Parents Circle - Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Palestinian/Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the conflict; there is Breaking The Silence, an organization of Israeli military veterans who are publicly exposing the brutality of the occupation, as well as Courage To Refuse, another group of military veterans refusing to go into the West Bank; there was the Shminitsim (‘twelfth graders’)  incident in 2001, where a group of young people resisted their military service on moral grounds; there are dozens of authors, writers, journalists, academics, and activists who are raising awareness, asking questions, demanding answers.

On the Palestinian side, there is the Holy Land Trust, Tent of Nations, Bethlehem Bible College, and Sabeel, working against incredible odds to maintain a positive, empowered, nonviolent, and creative Christian presence in the midst of a violent occupation and harassment.

And in the midst of it all are the Palestinian Christians- fleeing the army, watching their homes being flattened, dying, opening their churches to hundreds of those fleeing the bombardment…  And the silence of their American brothers and sisters in Christ is deafening.

‘But’, I hear over and over, ‘we must support Israel’, to which I constantly answer: no, you must pick which ‘Israel’ you wish to support. Right now, the Evangelical churches in the US have thrown their wholehearted support behind the most militaristic, intransigent, theocratic, and fanatical elements within Israel.  I’ve traveled to Israel and the occupied territories and met dozens of peacemakers- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secularists; Israelis and Palestinians. These people are doing incredible work against incredible odds.  If they had a tenth of the financial support, the region would be a much different place.

In John 10, Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd- a good shepherd. The good shepherd, he said, knows his sheep and his sheep know him; it’s a powerful image of the bond that Jesus felt for his followers. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of a shepherd who loses one of his hundredfold flock and does not rest until he finds the one lost sheep, a powerful image of the love that God has for every one of us.

The Palestinian Christians are not ‘lost’; they know who and where they are they are, and so does their shepherd, Jesus.  

Rather, the Palestinian Christians have been abandoned, and abandoned utterly- not by Christ but by a vast majority of their fellow Christians, especially in the US.

Worse, they are being sacrificed.

They are being sacrificed to a particular reading of scripture that equates all references to ‘Israel’ in the Bible with the modern state of Israel;

They are being sacrificed to the notion that any criticism of the modern state of Israel- for any action- is anti-Semitism;

They are being sacrificed to the absurdity that to speak out for justice for Palestinians is support for terrorism;

They are being sacrificed to the most militaristic, extremist, and theocratic dreams of the settler movement in the West Bank;

They have been sacrificed to a failed political vision.

It is never the God of life who demands a human sacrifice; it is the idols of death. The first law given to Moses was specific: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This was the God who revealed himself, first and foremost, as a God of life and liberation. Yet the temptation will always be there to put something- the interpretation, the ideology, the policy, the state- before the God of life.

And when that happens, people die. They always do.  

When I was in The West Bank, every Christian I met was dismayed that their brothers and sisters in America cared nothing for them, and in fact supported their oppressors. Every one of them said the same thing: ‘Tell them about us; tell the whole world what is going on here'. 

I’ve attempted to do that ever since- to bear witness to the Palestinian church; to the Israelis trying to change their country; to Muslims who refuse to be enemies of the other Abrahamic faiths; to Israeli and Arab secularists who are tired of the 'parties of God' having an unconditional veto over peace and pluralism; to the peacemakers…

For God shall call them his children…

Stop the war. End the occupation. Build the peace. 

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