Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots
I was in Tel Aviv for the fast of Yom Kippur, the highest of holidays in Judaism. It was a challenging, holy, disjointed experience. Imagine a city the size of Atlanta (Really, it looks and feels exactly like a U.S. city)shutting down completely from sundown to sundown. No businesses open. No motor vehicles in the streets. No mechanical noise. No pollution. Well, “shutting down” is not entirely accurate. Instead of the usual cacophony of commerce, the streets were filled with people walking, biking, murmuring to each other, playing, and supposedly praying, meditating, and reflecting. This last bit because Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when Jews are called upon to dwell upon their sins, acknowledge them, making reparations for them, and change the behavior.
Dr. Martens, a disciple of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas at Notre Dame, made it abundantly clear in freshman year theology that the word “atonement” is quite simply “at-one-ment”—bringing something back to the state of oneness. For ancient Israel this meant restoring their relationship with YHWH, with fellow human beings, and with all of creation. One of these could not be done without the others.
It was being in the modern Israeli state as a U.S. American, though, that made this challenging and holy experience disjointed. The next day I went to Jerusalem and took my first steps on the Via Dolorosa in the old city, the path Jesus is thought to have walked on his way to his death. Lining this sacred ground were squads of the most heavily armed soldiers I have ever encountered. It was jarring even for me, a white U.S. citizen in no danger whatsoever of being targeted by these weapons. You see, the start of the Via Dolorosa is near to the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque (or the Dome of the Rock), one of the holiest sites in all of Islam. It then runs adjacent to and through some of the Muslim Quarter before entering the Christian Quarter. The vast majority of Palestinians are Muslim or Christian. I am sure any Palestinian or even Arab Israeli for that matter gets a sense of what Jesus felt walking through these same streets staring down the weaponized might of the Roman Empire.
I was struck by the dissonance of a nationally enforced observance of a fast instituted for the purpose of at-one-ment and reconciliation followed by the experience of a nationally enforced militarization of a holy city for the purpose of the maintenance of apartheid.
This dissonance was amplified the next two days in Bethlehem. After going through the Israeli checkpoint marking the boundary between occupied Palestine and “sovereign” Palestine, I arrived at the House of Peace hostel, run by a lovely Palestinian Christian family. That night I visited the Church of the Nativity, thought by many to be the birthplace of Jesus. The next day, though, I experienced the truth that the peace I felt at the birthsite of the Prince of Peace was an illusion. I went out into the desert wilderness so often mentioned in the Bible and saw rivers diverted, drained, and polluted for the sake of Israeli lawns. I saw tall barbed wire fencing surrounding settlements. I saw refugee camps. I saw the wall. As the bus left Bethlehem heading back to Jerusalem we were stopped at the checkpoint. Heavily armed soldiers entered the bus, checked I.D.’s, and pulled a young Palestinian man out before ushering the bus onward. No questions asked. No explanations offered. No refund given.
I heard the dissonance.
That same evening, after over an hour of questioning, screening, and intimidation at the airport I flew through Larnaca, Cyprus, final resting place of Lazarus of Bethany, en (very circuitous) route to Amman, Jordan. My time in Jordan consisted of exploring Amman itself, going to Mt. Nebo—where Moses overlooked Canaan and died, visiting the Jordan River, floating on and mud-bathing next to the Dead Sea, and wandering the awe-inspiring streets of Petra. I must say that one should never do a Holy Land trip without including Jordan.
Again, though, I heard the dissonance. As I sat on the banks of the Jordan River (now a sadly diminished and polluted stream), a grandmotherly woman next to me pointed to the other side, which is claimed by Israel. She said something along the lines of, “That’s my home. I am a Christian at the place where my savior was baptized looking across at my homeland. I haven’t been allowed to go back since I was a little girl. They will never let me back in.” I have heard somewhere that nearly 60% of Jordan’s population is made up of Palestinian refugees.
Statue Commemorating the Snake Staff of Moses at Mt. Nebo
After Jordan I headed to Lebanon. As with Jordan, I can say no Holy Land experience is complete without Lebanon. I recommend changing the order around, though, as there is no entering Lebanon if there is any evidence that you have been to Israel beforehand. There is no diplomatic relationship whatsoever. Luckily most people get cards instead of passport stamps in Israel. Apparently, though, you can enter Israel with a Lebanese stamp. That being said, I would not wish the questioning that would occur in Tel Aviv because of that stamp upon anyone. Back to the majesty of Lebanon. The ancient home of the Phoenician empire. Home of the Ba’als and Astarte. Home of the most complete standing Roman temple (Baalbek’s Bacchus Temple). Home of the Syro-Phoenician woman and several journeys by Jesus, Mary, and the disciples. Home of the cave monasteries of heavily persecuted Christian groups during the Umayyad and Ottoman empires. And of course, home of the Cedars of Lebanon—sung about in the Psalms, used in the construction of the Temple, envy of all the surrounding empires and kingdoms throughout history. Trust me, even if all the rest of the rich cultural and natural resources were not there, the Cedars would make it worth it.
Cedars of Lebanon
In Beirut I was hosted by the venerable Mrs. Aida Haddad, a matron in the Presbyterian church there. She and her family lived through one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history. She mourns what is happening in Aleppo, Dara’a, and Damascus, where she has spent significant time. She speaks most wistfully, however, about her childhood home in Jerusalem and how she, her siblings, and parents were forced from it and became refugees in Jordan. Well above eighty years old, she has never been able to go back.
The truth is that this dissonance is by no means entirely external. It lives within me and my identity. Just a few weeks before this Holy Land journey the U.S.A. gave 36 billion dollars in aid to Israel, the largest aid package in history. New settlements popped up almost immediately. It is no mystery where the assault rifles along the Via Dolorosa are coming from. It is no mystery where the actual weapons of mass destruction in the Near East are coming from. It is no mystery where the project of manifest destiny settlement building was learned. In short, it is no mystery who the real empire is.
I am proud to be part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am proud that we listened to the Palestinian people and have joined the BDS movement even when doing so caused great controversy. This is nowhere near enough, though, as it locates the dissonance externally. It does not come close to addressing the atonement that needs to be done within our own church for our own complicity in manifest destiny settlements and apartheid in the U.S.A.
Remember, atonement requires dwelling upon sins, acknowledging them, making reparation for them, and changing behavior. Joining in protests in North Dakota, Fort Benning, and the many cities where police have ripped away Black lives is an important thing to do, and many Presbyterians and people of faith in general are indeed involved. Such action, though, is only one small step toward true atonement. As a church with great privilege, we should be demanding systemic change that includes reparations for those we have wronged as well as accountability for the vast resources being handed out to harm others. As followers of Christ we should be sacrificing our resources, our good name, and our power in order to protect those who are harmed by the principalities of this world…especially our own. And as believers in the God of Hagar, Sarah, Rachel, and Rebekah, we should be challenging our brothers and sisters in the many manifestations of Judaism and Christianity to also truly atone. We can even reach out to Jewish partners who were angered by our decision to divest and say that we, too, have gigantic planks in our eyes that need to be dealt with. Please point them out to us. Help us to do better.