January 1st marks the expiration of the old and the beginning of things anew. If we’ve had a particularly rough year we can’t wait for January 1st to get here as if the changing of the date on the calendar is going to make all of our troubles disappear, am I right? Nonetheless each New Year we set goals, and make resolutions and we set out on a mission to make this year better than the previous. So in typical New Year’s fashion I too set out on a mission. January 1st I boarded a plane to the holy land to join 15 other young adult leaders on a mission: a mission of accompaniment, advocacy, and awareness, the key tenants of the ELCA’s Peace not Walls Campaign. Now as a person of faith, visiting the holy sites was a significant spiritual experience for me. So this morning’s gospel is especially personal for me because just short of a month ago I stood on the mount of beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee where Jesus preached “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9 KJV)” Blessed are those who build peace…not walls.
So this morning it’s within that spirit that i greet you…in the spirit of God’s peace…not walls. Peace…not walls. But what types of walls are we talking about? The Great Wall of China that can be seen from space? Or is it a memorial wall like the one in DC dedicated to Vietnam veterans? Maybe we’re referring to a wall of prayers such as the Western wall of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem, also known as the whaling wall. Or the wall in Seattle full of sticky poly-isobutylene… The Chewing gum wall. We might even be talking about a wall of tribute like the Lennon wall in Prague inspired by the late member of the beetles, John Lennon. It could be the sea wall in Galveston, that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the shore or the Dutch named “de waal strat” better known as Wall Street, a street that got its name from the Dutch erected 12ft wall that once ran along side it. There are many types of walls ya’ll but WHAT type of wall do I speak of? This morning i want to lift up or tear down rather a wall in the holy land erected by the Israeli government that they refer to as the security wall, but Palestinians would probably call it something else. You see in there eyes it’s a wall not about security or safety but about separation and control. A separation wall. And i must say what my eyes have seen they cannot unsee, and I’d have to agree with the people of Palestine. Earlier this week I read a quote on fb from Erik Backus of the metro DC synod, he said, “Safety is not about building walls. Safety is about creating relationships that don’t require walls.” My brothers and sisters in Christ this morning I want to deal with the issue of building walls and discuss the steps we must take in order to create relationships that don’t require them. And I’d like to do so through the lens of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Is that alright with yall?
Now before I begin allow me to offer this disclaimer: I am not Israeli nor am I Palestinian. I am not Jewish nor am I Muslim. I cannot identify with either of these particular contexts ethnically, religiously, or culturally. My context is that of a young, Christian, African American male. However I can identify with oppression. I can relate to that. And I will always stand up for and stand with the oppressed. But identifying with the oppressed does not simultaneously make me anti-oppressor; just anti-oppression. Just pro-justice. And surely I tell you, what my eyes have seen, they cannot un-see. There’s apartheid in the Holy Land. But how has it come to that? Well we’ve got to go as far back as 4000 years to the book of Genesis. So I invite you to take a brief stroll through history with me, beginning with Abram or Abraham descendant of Noah.
God calls Abraham into Canaan which is modern day Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria territories, which God promised to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham essentially was the first Hebrew, and Jewish people today consider him to be their patriarch through Isaac, the son born to him and Sarah in their old age. It’s important to note that before Isaac came Ishmael, son born to Abraham and Hagar, through whom many Arabs are believed to be descendants of and through whom the Islamic faith was born. However Ishmael was not the heir promised to Abraham by God, Isaac was. So Isaac marries Rebekah and they have twin boys Esau (Eesaw) and Jacob. Jacob was a player and married 2 women: Rachel and Leah and between them they had 12 sons, but not before Jacob would wrestle with God and be renamed Israel. Now Israel’s 12 sons represent the 12 tribes of Israel, from which the Israelites would spawn. One of those tribes was Joseph and his two sons. Joseph had favor with his father which his 11 brothers envied. So in an act of jealously, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery where he would eventually rise to power as 2nd in command to pharaoh. With family like that who needs enemies. You know some of ya’ll have some family members who’d sell you into slavery RIGHT NOW if they got the chance. I’m just being honest. But look at where it got the Israelites, you see famine came over the holy land and Jacob and all his descendants fled to Egypt where Hebrews themselves would become slaves. Until, Moses leads the exodus of Hebrew people out of Egypt and eventually into the Promised Land. Fast forward about 700 years when David becomes king over areas of the holy land and conquers Jerusalem making it the capital. Over about the next 1000 years Israel and Judah and all its surrounding territories change hands more times than worth counting. Then 1 BCE, in walks Jesus and Christianity is born. And soon after Christianity, Islam follows. All that means is now there are even more people to fight over stuff. And they would do so from the time of Jesus until 1917 when Britain takes Jerusalem and its surrounding areas from the Ottomans after the “quest for a Jewish State” was launched almost 20yrs prior. Uganda was considered among other places but the consensus was Palestine. So Palestine would be under British mandate until 1948, a time span during which the UK foreign secretary effectively declares the establishment of a Jewish state in the region, post holocaust. Of course this didn’t sit well with the native Palestinians who were there as Canaanites even before the genesis of the Israelites, so they unsuccessfully revolted against British forces. In 1948 the British withdraw from the region, Israel declares its independence, and wide spread fighting ensues between Israeli’s and Palestinians. And yall, they’ve been in conflict ever since. Only now, Israel is almost in complete control over the region as the population of Israeli’s has exceeded Palestinians, and as the state of Israel has gained support from power houses like the United States and others. So where does all this history leave us? Where does it leave them?
You know, we walked through that historical context because frankly, history is important. If you don’t know your history you are destined to repeat it. You’ve got to know where you’ve been to know where you are going. You know SANKOFA. My time spent learning more about the Israeli narrative revealed to me that there may be no other group of people who allow their past to inform their present, more than the people of Israel. Take Masada for example, a BC fortress where almost 1000 Jewish rebels and their families are said to have committed suicide in lieu of impending enslavement by the mightier Romans. to this day, 2000 yrs later the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) go to Masada before beginning their service to pledge their allegiance to Israel in honor of those fallen rebels. Then there is Yad Vashem a living memorial to the victims of the holocaust. Being there was like reliving fascist Germany between the years of 1933-45 from start to finish. 2/3 to half of an entire race of people exterminated. All I could do to even begin to relate to the pain felt by such genocide was draw parallels to slavery. But even that wasn’t enough. The holocaust was that bad. Separation from their families, their land, their faith. Abducted from their homes and thrown onto the streets and into concentration camps. Deprived of work, and even denied of services from non-Jews. Looted of all their possessions by Nazis. Erased. And for what? Because one anti-Semite convinced an entire country that Jews were parasites that needed to be exterminated. And Hitler…is he the worst person ever??? Just one question that raced through my mind. I had many others: If I felt this angry how did Jewish people feel?? Majority of the visitors at the museum that day were children of this unfortunate history. How healthy is it to constantly be reminded of such atrocities? At what point does remembrance and memorial cease to honor history, and begin to perpetuate it? Then I realized I was in the twilight zone. I’d been here before. The day before in fact. I’d heard similar stories the day before in Palestinian Hebron. And the week before in Aida Palestinian refugee camp. Stories of Palestinians separated from their land and other Palestinians by a concrete wall. Palestinians pulled out of their homes without explanation. Homes demolished. Refugee camps erected. Palestinians denied education, employment, and social services like access to water simply because they are Palestinian. I was angry then by the oppression I was witnessing the way I at the museum by the horror of the holocaust. I remember thinking “you’ve got to be a deeply hurt people to oppress others in this way.” It was clear, the hurt was in the history of the Jews, and hurt people hurt people. James Baldwin once said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” The people of Israel are trapped in their history, and their history in them, and as a result a new reign of oppression lives. Now I’m not comparing the holocaust to the apartheid taking place in the Holy Land today. Nothing compares. But I’m just saying. The similarity in some of the stories I heard at Yad Vashem and some of the things I saw in Palestine, were startling. Because Hurt people hurt people, yall. After being released from prison Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Likewise my beautiful black brothers and sisters, I say to you on this first Sunday in black history month, if we continue to carry around the hurt of slavery, constantly reliving the event, allowing it to negatively inform our present, then we too continue to be enslaved. It isn’t until we free ourselves of not only the physical hurt of our unfortunate pasts, but the mental and emotional health as well, that we can truly declare our freedom. So today I pray not for the liberation of the Palestinian people, instead I pray for the liberation of the people of Israel, for their liberations are bound. When we think about oppression, we often only think of the oppressed as being stuck. But the truth is, both are. One of the other young adult leaders put it to me this way, the oppressed is laying on the ground unable to move because the oppressor’s foot is holding them down. But the reality is, both are stuck. The oppressed can’t get up, and the oppressor can’t let up. In order to end oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressor have to be liberated. Today, let us pray for the healing of the historical hurt of the Israeli people and hurt people all over the world; by doing so we’ll be simultaneously liberating those held down by oppression.
But how do we initiate such a healing process? How do we begin to liberate those shackled by the chains of oppression? How do we tear down the walls of separation present within the body of Christ so that we might begin to enjoy safe space by creating relationships that don’t require walls? Oh I thought you’d never ask…3 steps and then I’ll take my seat.
Step 1. Recognition that sometimes we as people of faith, allow our beliefs to tear down the kingdom of God and build up walls of separation, instead of the other way around. While in Jerusalem our group received a tour from Danny Seidemann, a secular Jew who is considered to be the foremost expert on contemporary Jerusalem, and he said this, “Almost every enemy of peace are people of faith who have weaponized their religion.” Have you ever weaponized your religion?? Have you ever used your faith as a weapon against another one of God’s children? Go ahead, I bet you don’t have to think that far back to find an answer. Because of the HIV and AIDS work I do in faith communities, I have to address sex and sexuality often. And the most common question I receive is, “as a believer, how do you feel about homosexuality?” And my answer is always unequivocally that I try not to use my faith as a weapon to break people down, but rather as medicine to build them up. I try to love them in spite of their circumstance and my perspective, and view their situation from the perspective of Christ which comes from a place of love. Romans 12:9-16 puts it even better:
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
We when recognize that sometimes we as people of faith are our own worst enemies….when we begin to use our faith to build up the kingdom and tear down the walls of oppression, then and only then will liberation take place.
Step 2. Acknowledgement that the viability of the body of Christ is bound up in all of us. Not the haves, and the have nots, but the we all we gots, I got you, and you got me. One of my theologian friends reminded me that the question of, “Am I my brother’s keeper” is said to be the first question of God in all scripture with the rest of the bible being an attempt to answer that question. Us Christians go out and do a lot of mission for the “needy”, and when we are done the needy go back to being needy and we go back to being comfortable. Christians: saving one wretch at a time. Lilla Watson said and I quote, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” And yet again, Romans 12 shows us the way,
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
But remember, “So in Christ we form one body, and each member belongs to all others.” So, are you your brother’s keeper?
Step 3. If we are to begin to liberate by tearing down the walls of separation we must be willing to recognize that sometimes we as people of faith are the enemies of peace. We must acknowledge that the viability of the body of Christ is bound up in all of us and finally, we must not only be willing to forgive and be forgiven, but we must actively seek reconciliation. While in the holy land we met with an organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict. And we’d asked a Jewish father who lost his daughter to a suicide bomber if he had forgiven the assailant. He said that forgiveness alone is not enough to bring peace to the situation. But forgiveness plus reconciliation is the right step to move in the right direction. You see forgiveness only requires one side. Think about it. How many people have you forgiven in your lifetime that don’t even know you’ve forgiven them? Sure it make you feel good to release that burden but if we are to continue with the theme of bound liberation, then complete freedom only comes when one side can say “I’m sorry” and the other side can say “I accept your apology AND I forgive you” AND then that person must allow themselves to release the guilt that they’ve been carrying by accepting your forgiveness.” That’s bound liberation and that’s how we begin to create relationships that don’t require walls.
I leave you with this: although I was in the holy land, my primary reason for being there was not to visit the holy sites. It was to accompany the oppressed people in the region, particularly Palestinians, to be an advocate for peace and justice, to bring awareness to the situation in the holy land and to prepare myself to co-lead a group back to the holy land to do the same, creating a critical mass of peacemakers and justice seekers here in the states. The holy sites were an added bonus and welcomed balance to an otherwise stressful yet enlightening experience. But far to often do we as tourists travel to places, particularly the holy land, just to see the dead stones. The rock devoted to the birth place of Jesus. Dead stone. The rock Jesus fed the 5 thousand upon. Dead Stone. The rock upon which Jesus builds the church of the primacy of Peter. Dead stone. The rocky remains of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified and the stone slate they laid his body on before placing him in the tomb. Dead stones. The Dome of the Rock. Dead stone. All dead stones. While those things were special for me as a person of faith, my most special moments came from the living stones. Drinking tea in community with refugees and Bedouins. Living stones. Worshiping in many languages, participating in many cultures, and eating native foods. Living stones. Sharing in the healing of critically ill individuals at a hospital that serves those that others will not. Living stones. There was even life in the hopeful art expressed on the stone separation wall. Living stones. Palestinian Christian Elias Chacour asks in his book Blood Brothers, “did you come for the shrines–or do you want to learn about the living stones?” So while it’s okay to go see the dead stones when we travel, also be mindful of the living ones, for they might have a far greater story to tell. A story for you to tell, even. Living stones.