Thursday, July 2, 2015

REMEMBERING ZION: What It Means for Peace and Justice Advocates Today

Album cover for Climbing! (detail),
debut album by the band Mountain.

In an article I recently wrote for the Chicago Monitor, I said that Christians are working hard to becoming more knowledgeable and more discerning about current affairs in Israel/Palestine.  This includes:

Separating biblical “Israel” from the modern State of Israel — Part of the weekly “media” that churchgoers are exposed to consists of readings from the Old and New Testaments. In the course of a year, there are dozens of Sundays when lessons including reference to “Israel” and/or “Zion” are included. This is leading church leaders at all levels to recognize the need to be explicit about the difference between biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel. As one leader recently put it, “What God’s promise to the people of Israel in the Old Testament means for us today is that God wants peace and security for ALL of the people of that part of the world.”

(See "Chicago-area Lutherans Resolution Widens Conversation About Palestine Throughout the Church")

In my mind, this is essential to what Pastor Mitri Raheb means when he challenges churches to stop providing the "software" of the Occupation.

Here's a case in point: this Sunday, July 5, 2015, includes two lectionary readings that focus on the notion of Zion and the kingship of David over Israel.  How will Christians across the country and across the world hear these lessons?

from 2 Samuel 5

Hebron, by Munir Alawi
5 All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. 2 In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’”

3 When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

4 David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. 5 In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. . . .

9 David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David. He built up the area around it, from the terraces[a] inward. 10 And he became more and more powerful, because the Lord God Almighty was with him.

Psalm 48

Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
in the city of our God, his holy mountain.

Beautiful in its loftiness,
the joy of the whole earth,
like the heights of Zaphon[b] is Mount Zion,
the city of the Great King.

God is in her citadels;
he has shown himself to be her fortress.

When the kings joined forces,
when they advanced together,

they saw her and were astounded;
they fled in terror.

Trembling seized them there,
pain like that of a woman in labor.

You destroyed them like ships of Tarshish
shattered by an east wind.

Mormon temple - visible from DC beltway.
As we have heard,
so we have seen
in the city of the Lord Almighty,
in the city of our God:
God makes her secure

Within your temple, O God,
we meditate on your unfailing love.

Like your name, O God,
your praise reaches to the ends of the earth;
your right hand is filled with righteousness.

Mount Zion rejoices,
the villages of Judah are glad
because of your judgments.

Walk about Zion, go around her,
count her towers,

consider well her ramparts,
view her citadels,
that you may tell of them
to the next generation.

For this God is our God for ever and ever;
he will be our guide even to the end.

What do we remember when we remember Zion?

So, clearly, Sunday, July 5, 2015, is a day when many Christians are going to get a healthy helping of "Israel" and "Zion." Is it any wonder that many of them will think that the day's lessons are an affirmation of the State of Israel and of Zionism?

Part of the reason that we need to be careful is that most people in our society don't know much about the Bible, and so the meaning of "Israel" and "Zion" is up for grabs.

Personally, I was probably most familiar with the word "Zion" because of a version of the song "By the Rivers of Babylon" performed by The Melodians on the soundtrack for the film The Harder They Come. "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." (Psalms 137:1)

Wikipedia explains that Zion "is a place name often used as a synonym for Jerusalem. . . . It commonly referred to a specific mountain near Jerusalem (Mount Zion), on which stood a Jebusite fortress of the same name that was conquered by David and was named the City of David. The term Tzion came to designate the area of Jerusalem where the fortress stood, and later became a metonym for Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, the city of Jerusalem and "the World to Come", the Jewish understanding of the hereafter."

"Zion" has a particular set of meanings for Mormons (members of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

Zion, 1903, by the Zionist art nouveau
designer Ephraim Moses Lilien.
Well, clearly the term covers a lot of territory, and means different things to different people. Whole books have been written on it -- see, for instance, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism, by Robert Smith. Another book on the way terms like "Zion" have been appropriated to fit diverse people's aspirations is The Bible and the Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour by Barbara Tuchman.

As Wikipedia further explains, "The term "Zionism" coined by Austrian Nathan Birnbaum, was derived from the German rendering of Tzion in his journal Selbstemanzipation (Self Emancipation) in 1890. Zionism as a political movement started in 1897 and supported a 'national home', and later a state, for the Jewish people in British Palestine. The Zionist movement declared the re-establishment of its State of Israel in 1948, following the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Since then and with varying ideologies, Zionists have focused on developing and protecting this state."

In fact, there is an excellent resource called Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide, available from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

As indicated above, the lessons being read from church lecterns can be confusing. But there are plenty of resources available for un-confusing congregations, and plenty of opportunities to clear the air (starting with the sermon that follows the lessons).

This Sunday, what will church leaders be doing where you live to be explicit about the difference between biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel?

Related posts

Can there be any more clear illustration than the one at left to remind us that the work of the Church is liberation?

(See Christian "Church"? How about Christian "Liberation Organization"? )

There is a need for a much broader effort to tackle the issue of Palestine, particularly among faith communities (congregations). Why not start in December, when all eyes turn toward Bethlehem?

(See Faith Communities Need to Get Active Working for Justice in Palestine)

The big takeaway for me from this panel was the message conveyed by Ali Abunimah: people in Gaza say now that there is a ceasefire, and the summer 2014 massacre in Gaza is behind us, please don't let up on your advocacy. Don't drop it! I left convinced that Christian congregations -- including congregations of the ELCA, of which I'm a member, as well as others -- are one of the key places that continued faithful attention to issues of peace and justice in Israel / Palestine must be carried out.

(See PRAY, LEARN, ACT: Congregations Need to Stay Engaged on Palestine )

I believe that once the Church comes out of the closet -- that is, once we start speaking quite openly about the difference between the world as we find it and the world as we believe God wishes it to be -- there is no way this old world will be able to stay the same.

(See Let the Church Out of the Closet )