Over the last several months, I’ve had the pleasure of being engaged in an online book study with a group of colleagues primarily from the Mennonite and Methodist traditions. We were discussing a book entitled Chosen? –note the question mark! It was written by a renowned Old Testament scholar named Walter Brueggemann, and in it he reassesses his uncritical support of the state of Israel in the Palestinian/Israeli struggle over the land called Holy in the Middle East.
Most of us Christians in this country have an overwhelming bias toward supporting Israel in this struggle. We hear stories from the Bible every Sunday like our Old Testament reading this morning from Genesis where God is portrayed as giving the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants… for all time. And when we read stories of violence and terrorism today even in the holy city of Jerusalem, as we have again over the last few days, we weep with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel as he cries:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing. See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ’Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35)
Certainly, I am one of those with a “bias” towards Israel and the Jewish people. My Lord Jesus Christ was a Jew. All of the apostles were Jews. All of the writers of the New Testament (with the possible exception of St. Luke) were Jews.
Like Paul in his Letter to the Romans, I believe Christianity can best be understood, not so much as a “new” religion, but as a branch… grafted on to the vine and deep roots of Israel’s tree. That’s why we read from the Old Testament as well as the New every Sunday. I think it’s quite likely that Jesus did not even initially come to found a church… but to renew the faith and the practice of Judaism, of his own people!
And yet, because of studies such as the one I just completed with my online colleagues, and even more, because of a number of trips I have made to Israel and Palestine over the years, I know that there is another story…another narrative. It is the narrative of the Palestinian people who can make an equally ancient claim to the land Joshua once conquered.
It is the narrative of the more recent Palestinians who were displaced from the land of Palestine in 1948 when the world decided (quite rightly, I believe) to assure a homeland for the Jewish people who had just suffered the horrors of the Holocaust and who needed us to reassure them that this kind of thing would happen “Never again!”
It is the narrative of Palestinian Christians today who are caught squarely in the midst of the struggle between Arab Muslims and Israeli Jews. Sadly, most Christians in the United States are unaware that there are Palestinian Christians…in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Ramallah…on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. There are even Palestinian Episcopalians there!
One of them, a friend I traveled with on one of my journeys, is fond of telling about the time a tourist said to him, “Oh, you’re a Christian! How long have there been Palestinian Christians?” His response: “Since the Day of Pentecost!”
Yes, there two narratives, two understandings of the complex situation in the Holy Land. And it is those two narratives, deeply believed and deeply cherished by both sides, which make a “two state solution” so difficult to achieve in the land of Jesus’ birth. I’m sorry to have to inform you that my online colleagues and I did not solve the problems of the Middle East at the end of our book study!
But I think it’s safe to say that most of us would agree with at least one of Dr. Brueggemann’s conclusions in answering the question, “How should U.S. Christians be involved in promoting a solution (to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma)? In my judgment, he wrote, Christians must be zealous, relentless advocates for human rights. This means exposing the violations of human rights by all parties and recognizing the imbalance of power that makes Israel’s violations of human rights all the more ignominious. Christians must be zealous advocates with the U.S. government to check unilateral support of Israel as a bottom-line assumption. Our longstanding commitment to the security of Israel must be coupled with protection of human rights for Palestinians, not one without the other.”
Well, however, you come down on this issue, as we travel through the weeks of Lent and especially as we begin to trace the events of Holy Week which took place in and around Jerusalem, a city holy to each of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, please heed the Psalmist’s ancient plea to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Broaden your prayers and your concerns this Lent!
Pray that the Palestinian people may realize that violence will never be the path to that kind of peace. And that, if resistance to occupation and oppression must be mounted, only non-violent resistance has any chance of success.
Pray that the Israelis will heed the warnings of their great prophets that they may indeed be God’s Chosen People, but they are chosen for mission, not for privilege. They are chosen to witness to the God of justice who has always called them to welcome the stranger and the sojourner because they were once strangers and sojourners too.
And pray that our Christian witness, in this country and around the world, may always be balanced and fair. And that it may be fueled by the passion and tears of Jesus himself in today’s Gospel:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Pray for the eventual gathering of those hens — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian hens – under the shelter of the Most High! As the Psalmist puts it this morning:
7) …in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
in his shelter; *
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock. (Psalm 27)