Monday, March 21, 2016

Where the Church-In-Becoming Meets the Issue of Palestine

Where does the issue of Palestine intersect with the Church-in-becoming?

I am preparing to tend the Friends of Sabeel Conference North American (FOSNA) conference in Santa Cruz at the end of April, and this question is pressing on me.

Where is the Church headed?

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time playing games of pick-up football with friends. I remember quite vividly the huddles where someone acting as quarterback would give each of us instructions about the pattern to run, tracing a shape in the palm of their hand -- a "J" or an "L" or a "U." None of it came naturally to me, especially the throwing part; when it came my time to be the passer, I required some pretty graphic instruction on how to get the ball to the other person.

I remember someone actually had to explain to me, "When you're throwing to a receiver running downfield, don't throw the ball to where the person is, throw it to where they're gonna be -- throw it out toward the direction where they're headed."

"Don't throw the ball to where the person is, throw it to where they're gonna be!"

This is very much on my mind as I think about what we might hope for the Church to become, and where that might meet the issue of Palestine. I am emboldened to say that the challenge to the Church today is to stop thinking in terms of what's in front of our eyes on Sunday mornings -- our brick-and-mortar past -- and start thinking in terms of how our calling can possibly be embodied -- our young-people future.

I recently saw this put in a slightly different way -- and perhaps even more bluntly -- by the Rev. Stephen P. Bauman in the Fall, 2015, edition of Reflections. Pastor Bauman was writing from the standpoint of his New York City congregation, and the ways in which they need to behave differently in order to move into the future. He said,

"This cohort of Christians will not exist two or three decades from now unless it meaningfully recommits itself to the city -- and loves the city's inhabitants more than itself." ("Readying for Radical Change")

I would only generalize his statement for the rest of us by asking, "What does 'city,' as used by him, mean for us in our context?"

Why Palestine?

There is a strong tendency in church communities to approach the issue of justice for Palestine from the standpoint of "the Holy Land." We all care about the Holy Land right? So here's something we should naturally care about . . . .

Bethlehem: Wall ["Separation Barrier"] Art
(Photograph from my March, 2015, trip with
 Faith in the Face of Empire group.)

I have long felt that owning up to our Christian heritage requires us to own up to the centuries of Christian obsession with the Holy Land, and to the direct impact of that obsession upon the political developments that have led to the current predicament of the people in that land. (The Bible and the Sword, by Barbara Tuchman, is a book I would commend to those who have any doubt about this.)

I've personally witnessed how existing church communities in the US can find time and energy for Palestine -- in the midst of a blizzard of competing demands -- in no small part because there remains an attraction to, and fascination with, anything having to do with the Holy Land.

However, I think the time has come for us to change our approach. I think the relevant question is no longer, "How is the historical church tangled up in this thing?" but "Where does justice need to be done?"

Posters based on Wall Art -- used by the Metro Chicago
Synod Working Group on the Middle East at the
34th Annual 8th Day Good Friday Justice Walk
("Palestine: The Women Weep")
I was profoundly influenced by a presentation for Lutheran leaders last summer, asking people to think deeply about the connections between our work for justice in Palestine and our anti-racism work.

A major development in the past year or so has been the number of congregations that have come to understand that working against institutionalized racism in our society ("anti-racism work") is a priority -- because the Church is in society, and because the need is urgent, and because we can.

I hope that a major development in the coming year will be a larger number of congregations coming to understand that working for peace and justice in Palestine is similarly a priority -- because the Church is in the world, and because curing the violence and injustice being experienced in Palestine is foundational to curing the violence and injustice being experienced in much of the rest of the Mideast, and around the world.

What can congregations do?

I used to think that the role of congregations was to hold events whose nature was to say, "Come and hear what you should think and do about Palestine."

I now think the role of congregations needs to be to say, "Come and help us learn how this Church can support your work for Palestinian liberation."

Activism at UC Berkeley: "Students for Justice in
Palestine set up faux security checkpoint on Sproul."
(Source: The Daily Californian, February 25, 2015)
There is truly a widespread movement for justice being led largely by young people. (To get a sense of this, Google the name of a university near you plus "SJP" or "Students for Justice in Palestine.") A simple "to do" for church congregations is to figure out how to lift up these young people's leadership, and support it.

One thing anti-racism work and Palestine solidarity work have in common: it's hard work. It involves confronting with real world conflict -- conflict that often involves all kinds of violence -- and the stakes are high. There's an urgent need for more conversations -- and those are almost always difficult conversations. (Sound like a place for the Church?)

When congregations begin to understand their calling in terms of inclusion, anti-racism, justice in the Middle East, and war abolition, and when they join hands with others in the community to accomplish these goals, they will no longer need to figure out how "outreach" and "evangelism" and "community-building" should happen. They will be facing much more pressing questions. Such as, "How are we going to feed all these people . . . ?"

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"? )

This exchange has always stuck with me, because once you peel away the hopeless competitiveness and lack of compassion of these two characters, you are left with a grain of truth: if you want to succeed, you need to go where the conversation is taking place. The question for us: are we willing to check our egos at the door and get busy talking to people?

(See Antiwar Agitation in 2014: Less Mercutio, More Larry Levy )

As I walked home from today's service, I replayed the service in my mind. "The part about the visitor card was pretty good . . . " I thought, "and yet . . . visitor card . . . ? Maybe it's not really a visitor card . . . . Maybe what we should be calling them is participant cards."

(See Being Church in Logan Square, Chicago: An Ecclesiophilic Reflection )