Who knows why...

Who knows why things happen? I trust the Lord but don't pretend to comprehend the why and how of most things in my life. I fundamentally believe that I am NOT in control of very much - even when I rebel and chaff at this truth - mostly because my powerlessness keeps being proven over and over again. Marriage, divorce, friendships, politics, spirituality, dogs, the way a song hits you unexpectedly, tears and so much more are all mysteries to me and I expect that to remain true until I die.

We sow the glebe, we reap the corn,
We build the house where we may rest,
And then, at moments, suddenly,
We look up to the great wide sky,
Inquiring wherefore we were born…
For earnest or for jest?

Last week a colleague asked me: "Why are you hosting two events at your
church that focus on the conflict between Israel and Palestine? And why now?" Well, partially because my good friends Peter and Joyce have just returned from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but that's not the whole answer. Truth is I don't fully know why - especially now. But doing so has opened new portals of possibilities for us to explore trust-building and listening carefully to the wisdom and stories of some of our Jewish friends and neighbors. It has also created the context for making connections with our contacts in Palestine, too. And just to add to the mystery of the moment: who knew that Pope Francis I was going to travel to both Palestine and Israel and insert himself into the stalled peace process?
The senses folding thick and dark
About the stifled soul within,
We guess diviner things beyond,
And yearn to them with yearning fond;
We strike out blindly to a mark
Believed in, but not seen.
We vibrate to the pant and thrill
Wherewith Eternity has curled
In serpent-twine about God’s seat;
While, freshening upward to His feet,
In gradual growth His full-leaved will
Expands from world to world.
And, in the tumult and excess
Of act and passion under sun,
We sometimes hear—oh, soft and far,
As silver star did touch with star,
The kiss of Peace and Righteousness
Through all things that are done.
Last night I was doing some background reading concerning some of the charges that Palestinian activists are making about Israel. One author reprised a statement that Dr. Amy-Jill Levine shared with us a few years ago when she was promoting The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  "Please do not hold Israel to standards that are higher or even different from any other nation state just because they are Israel" she told us. To do so, she suggested, is genuinely anti-Semitic - and I think she is right. Many of the complaints against Israel are never aired against authoritarian Arab despots. Many of the so-called historic arguments about Israeli behavior toward Palestinians in the past all too conveniently forget the actual facts on the ground in favor of sensationalism. And, while the current downward spiral of violence, hatred and fear that now exists between Israel and Palestine has created despair and frustration, making the possibility of peace and a measure of dignity appear futile, this is as much due to the machinations of Palestinian politicians as to Israel's army and their dangerous over reactions. In a word, the ugly roots of antisemitism run deep.
Note that I am not saying that any or all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. Not at all.  Just that Christians in the West - and those of us whose hearts ache for real peace - need to be careful, precise and on guard against the legacy of antisemitism that has too often poisoned our analysis. Israel is NOT acting like Nazi Germany. Israel is NOT renewing a form of apartheid. And Israel is NOT the only player to derail and thwart the creation of a viable two state peace plan for Palestine and Israel. Yes, Israel has made horrible blunders that have been cruel and unjust. And yes Israel must be held accountable for both the violence and degradation it currently directs against an impoverished Palestinian people.  At the same time, the propaganda of many Palestinian politicians and extremists must be challenged and opposed with equal vigor.
I think that is why the approach of Pope Francis I is so satisfying to me: he is
neither pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. He is pro-peace. He respects both peoples and nations; he values and honors the pain and wounds both have suffered; and he hold both sides accountable for their own sins. Nothing more but nothing less. And while some disparage his intervention as mere symbolism, his call for the three faiths to meet for prayer to the God we hold in common on June 8th has interrupted business as usual. 
In my world, we will listen to our guests with respect and hospitality. We will ask them and ourselves hard questions. And we will keep searching for the deeper truths. I look forward to doing this hard work together with some of my local Jewish colleagues. Who knows, maybe we like Pope Francis can bring our Islamic friends to the table for both prayer and dialogue. Who knows why? I keep thinking of Carrie Newcomer's song borrowing Rabbi Hillel's question: if not now, tell me when? But the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning , whom I have been quoting, has another take on it, too:
God keeps His holy mysteries
Just on the outside of man’s dream;
In diapason slow, we think
To hear their pinions rise and sink,
While they float pure beneath His eyes,
Like swans adown a stream.
Abstractions, are they, from the forms
Of His great beauty?—exaltations
From His great glory?—strong previsions
Of what we shall be?—intuitions
Of what we are—in calms and storms,
Beyond our peace and passions?
Things nameless! which, in passing so,
Do stroke us with a subtle grace.
We say, ‘Who passes?’—they are dumb.
We cannot see them go or come:
Their touches fall soft, cold, as snow
Upon a blind man’s face.
Yet, touching so, they draw above
Our common thoughts to Heaven’s unknown,
Our daily joy and pain advance
To a divine significance,
Our human love—O mortal love,
That light is not its own!

I understand that some will say that this is too simplistic - or naive - that in this struggle we have to take sides. But I have to confess that one of the real surprises I've experienced this year has come from trusting God like a child. As Jesus teaches unless we become as a child we shall not move into the community of God. There is always more to say, but for now this will suffice. 


Peter said…
There is a lot here, James, and I need to respond (after a few days' reflection) to some of the points made.

From our experience, any criticism of Israel seems to bring forth charges of anti-Semitism, and the state of Israel has never hesitated to play this card, even when it is so clearly and irrefutably in the wrong. I am reminded of the shepherd boy in the fable, and "wolf!"

Secondly, it must always be remembered who is in charge there, and that is the state of Israel: to me, the onus for better behaviour is on the occupier, the one who holds the whip hand. Yes, Palestinian leadership sucks and indeed, Arab leadership has let down Palestinians across the board. But Arab leadership, as depicted so ably by Dr Sari Nusseibeh in his excellent "Once Upon a Country", has been consistently outclassed, outorganized, outmaneuvered by Israel.

Thirdly, on the ground, in our experience, the situation is actually worse than is often described. Yes, the language can be and has been intemperate (a cultural trait in Middle Eastern language, btw), but there is not only the matter of Israeli army and state depredations against Palestinians, but the whole issue of Israel's flouting of international law (especially in the matter of settlements) gets next to no media mention. I venture to say that the world mainstream media coverage defaults in favour of Israel's version of events, with rare exceptions.

Lastly, the only side we need take (and I suggest that we Do take sides here) is for rule of law and justice. There is no doubt from my perspective that the effect of this is call upon the one with the power to obey the rule of law, as we would any nation.

I cannot answer your colleague's question as to why focus on Israel/Palestine, except to say that any situation of oppression and injustice deserves our attention, and therefore, I pose the question, "Why not?"
Peter said…
Part 2 of the above: A question that is never asked is, How can Israel as a country and a moral entity benefit from the critique of its actions and policies, and from the dismantling of the occupation and concommitant policies and actions?

The short answer is, a great deal.

Any country is a member of the world citizenry and must be subject to examination and critique of its actions. You might remember the United States during the Viet Nam war, and how world attention and critique helped change the country's direction.

In straight economics, although Israel is benefiting greatly from the resources that it is extracting from Palestine, the occupation is bleeding the state dry. The military budget is huge, and social programs are suffering.

In moral terms, Israel is living in a self-induced siege mentality, which cannot help its citizenry at all. It is easy to forget that it has the 4th most powerful military force on the planet, and is under no existential threat--in fact hasn't been since the 1960s.

Even more importantly, one of the world's most important and beneficial religions, Judaism, has lost, in the words of an Israeli Jew we met there, its moral compass. To me, this is the moral equivalent of the loss of the Amazonian rainforests to our world's climate. I would add that we met many sincere and thoughtful Israelis who deplore their government's actions and policies just as there are many Americans who deplore their government's actions in the world.

So, to shed critical light on Israel is potentially to Israel's benefit. Yes, the criticism can be battleaxe blunt and misguided and yes, even ant-Semitic in real terms, but Israel and the cause of justice and peace require it.
RJ said…
As is almost always the case, I love and value your insights and critique. At heart - and in most facts - I don't disagree with most of what you have written. Three points of clarification are in order from me:

1) By anti-Semitic, I mean applying values and concepts to Israel alone that are not in place or used universally. To make Israel the exception - and demand higher morality than any other nation state - strikes me as both wrong and unhelpful. This is not to turn a blind eye to Israel's violence; it is to be fair - and sadly none of the Arab states have embraced for themselves the standards they seek to impose on Israel.

2) I believe an historic distinction must be made between the current state of tragedy that exists on the ground (for which I believe Israel has over-reacted and created great suffering far in excess of what might be deemed necessary)and the roots of this tragedy. As I read it, even before the UN Partition the Muslim world was actively engaged in opposing and fighting Israel Had there been sensible reaction in 1948 much of this horror would not have happened. Again, that is not to excuse the excessive violence and hatred that flowed from Israel during the years after its birth. But a two state solution could have become a viable reality had it not been for Arab opposition of the worst kind. That said, when Mr. Arafat pulled the plug on the peace process after the Oslo Accord - and shrewdly encouraged suicide bombings, etc - that set the stage for the current fear and ugly over reaction by Israel that they must be held accountable for.

And 3) I thoroughly embrace your point about the loss of Jewish moral guidance in the world. That has happened in my own country not only because of Vietnam but because of the adventurist wars we have celebrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The once noble voice for freedom has been rendered impotent because of our moral failure. I see that as part of the current tragedy in Israel.

So, I value your experiences and insights from being on the ground. I love and respect you dearly. And I give thanks to God that we can have this hard and complicated conversation - and look forward to more of it in person next week. Never worry about being clear with me, ok my friend? Even if I fully disagree I have deep respect and love for you.

So, until we meet again: God's peace.
Peter said…
1/ mostly yes.
2/ A reading of Miko Peled's The General's Son would take care of the first part of #2, and once again Dr Nusseibeh's book would deal very well with the latter part of #2.
3/ As has our nation...
RJ said…
Thank you, my man, I will read both suggestions. I am grateful and committed to this conversation in the spirit of all that is sacred.

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