Saturday, December 19, 2015

gimme shelter...

As many in the US (and Europe) grow more fearful about terrorism - domestic and foreign - I have found myself wrestling with seemingly contradictory truths:

+  First, having been sucked in to scapegoating, fear and the acceptance of massive violence in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US myself, I can now sense the same vicious feelings and actions being ramped-up in 2015. Listening for just a short time to the recent Republican "debate" makes it clear to me that demagoguery and future war crimes are just a breath away from becoming the new normal. Solidarity based on fear in pursuit of a common enemy works - this is the ugly truth of scapegoating - and it has been creation's "original sin." Religious and political leaders have used it since the start of time to retain power and build social cohesion. The problem with this course of action, however, is that it both requires an ever increasing level on new violence to satisfy human blood lust, and, more and more vulnerable or marginalized human beings are demonized and slaughtered as targets of the majority. The late Rene Girard hit the nail on the head: the gift that Christianity gives to the world is NOT Jesus dying for our sins, but rather showing the world through Christ what happens in such violence from the perspective of the scapegoat. Jesus on the Cross is what torture and death looks from the view point of the victim when religion collaborates with politics in pursuit of "the other." It is a vicious cycle than requires more and more enemy blood to maintain social cohesion.

+ Second, as one who appreciates the nuanced wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr re: "the irony of American history" and political engagement, I know that any action executed in pursuit of the well being and safety of Americans always results in uneven and unplanned consequences at home and abroad. These unintended consequences may be less onerous than the problem being addressed, but not always. Take the use of drones that simultaneously execute terrorists before they can act, but also murder innocent civilians, too. I am not so cavalier or callous as to call these deaths "collateral damage," excusing them as a sad by-product of an ugly reality, because these deaths involve loved ones with hopes, dreams, and feelings much like my own. These deaths are sinful and ought not be described otherwise; at the same time, our sinful activity has likely reduced even more death, pain, and anguish for ourselves and our allies. So, while our actions are designed to maintain our safety they also wreak havoc upon innocent sisters and brothers and breed anger and terrorist resentment that leads to an increase in international acts or terror. Being a Niebuhrian, President Obama wrestles with the qualified morality of these acts even as they continue. It is a Faustian bargain, to be sure, that few can comprehend. 

+ Third, few of us have been able to synthesize the new political realities of this era. The hymn sings: "Time makes ancient truth uncouth" but for a time that new truth feels ungrounded. We operate with worldviews shaped by Vietnam - or the Cold War - or even the Reagan era's specious claim of "an end of ideology and history" (that is, the collapse of communism and the triumph of international corporate capitalism.) In his recent small book about the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, Walter Brueggemann highlights how old thinking refuses to acknowledge the facts on the ground. I have been guilty of such limited vision, too in my deep support of Israel. In Chosen? Brueggemann makes three points that warrant serious explorations:

1) There is no question that nearly 2,000 years of Christian antisemitism - and our collective responsibility for the Shoah - have made many of us unquestioning advocates for the modern state of Israel. This is as it should be. What has occurred at the same time, however, is that we have let our loyalty and shame blind us to the human rights debacle that continues to fester and grow as Israel becomes ever more aggressive towards Palestinian women, men, and children. Palestine's violence - while terrifying and reprehensible - is not equivalent to the sophisticated arms and technology of Israel's modern armed forces. As a consequence, many (myself included) have been immobilized by our out-dated analysis and loyalty when it comes to 21st century Israel. We have been unable or unwilling to use our power and presence for a true peace between these two people who inhabit one land. Therefore, fear and loathing festers and more and more Palestinians suffer and die. Israeli soldiers also become inured to the effects of violence and the way it strangles the soul's desire for solace and peace. Everyone loses and despair is magnified.

2) This antiquated analysis is informed by an inaccurate and incomplete theology of the land that confuses the modern state of Israel with Biblical promises made in the Abrahamic and Mosaic/exodus narratives. To be sure, there is a dominant story that gives the Biblical lands to ancient Israel unconditionally. Fifty years after the Babylonian exile of 587 BCE, when the leaders and priests of Israel returned to their former home, a new theological viewpoint developed that celebrated exclusion and racial purity as essential to the new Israel. There is, however, another Biblical narrative informed by both Deuteronomy and the prophets that is equally important: namely, that retention of the land freely given to Israel by the Lord, is conditional upon maintaining Torah. To use Brueggemann's words that means practicing neighborliness and justice - even to those viewed as "the other." In this version of the covenant, the people of God must practice compassion, inclusion and right relations between all people in order to keep the gift of the land. Clearly, the first narrative has been the focal point of the settlers in modern Israel - and the current coalition government, too - and that guarantees intransigence when it comes to honoring the humanity of Palestinians. It also gives religious incentive for violence, bigotry and hatred. Please don't misread my intentions: I am crystal clear that there is a long, ugly and violent theology and history at work within the Palestinian world, too that has erupted in death and ever vicious acts of terror against Jews. My point is this: many Western allies of Israel who want to find a way to be equally supportive of Palestine have been inhibited from action by outmoded religious stories that no longer apply. To those for whom this matters - and that includes many - this is an important shift that could empower us towards greater solidarity with Palestine even as we work with our Jewish allies and friends.

3) Christians - who are grounded in our authentic Jewish roots - cannot remain neutral in
support of the status quo between Israel and Palestine. We must first seriously own and understand the history and consequences of our antisemitism. To do otherwise would be naive and short-sighted. There is a reason why Israel mistrusts so much of Christianity - and the death camps are the evidence. Still, 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." (Breuggemann, p. 58)  We should accept as fact that there is no realistic hope for any two-state solution in Israel. Such a hope was a mixed desire by both parties, but there is no ambiguity today: "For all the pretense and obfuscation of Israel, it never intends to allow a viable Palestinian state, so two state negotiations simply buy more time for the development and expansion of the status quo...(when ideology coupled with unrivaled power is preferred to sharing the neighborhood, the chance for neighborliness is forfeited."

Prophetic faith is characteristically contemporary in its anticipation of the purpose of God: it insists on truth-telling that is attentive to bodily suffering. and it refuses ideological pretenses. It will tell the truth in the face of distortions that come with ideological passion and unrestrained power. When truthfulness about human suffering is honored, new possibilities of a just kind can and do emerge. Thus, being able to differentiate between old mantras and urgent truthfulness is a beginning point for faithful engagement in the real world.
The more Christians are able to own - and then speak - the truth about the suffering in Palestine without diminishing the anguish and fear that is real throughout Israel, the more credible we become as advocates for peace and hope. Equally, the more Christians find ways to create acts and symbols of solidarity with our cousins in Islam - insisting that we worship the same God albeit in different ways - the more likely common ground and trust can be built in a slow and careful way.

As I prepare to move into Advent IV, I am aware of the complexity of opposing religious hatred and fear in my country. I wish to God we were able to be more like Canada and welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees. I ache that Syrian suffering has become yet one more political football to be kicked around by politicians pandering to our lowest common denominator. And I am sickened and grieved that so many Protestant Christians are ready to celebrate war crimes against Muslims rather than sacrifice and advocate for their safety inf the spirit of Jesus. At the same time, I give thanks to the Lord the so many Roman Catholic bishops - starting with Pope Francis - offer an alternative to the hatred and fear. I give thanks for my own congregation that is seeking out ways to stand in solidarity with both Muslims and Jews during this season of xenophobia. And I trust that as we collectively and individually change what must be changed - and accept what cannot be changed - we will know that peace that passes understand: serenity even in the face of suffering.

Lisa Fischer and Le Grand Baton make "Gimme Shelter" the Advent hymn for this season...

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