15 December 2011

The Bethlehem Call 2011

Written by 
Palestinians protesting the occupation Palestinians protesting the occupation http://blog.endtheoccupation.org/2011/11/op-ed-in-tennessean-call-for-solidarity.mwo4ml

“The existence of international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and other forms of non-violent resistance is an established fact. . . . The severity of the Palestinian situation makes comparisons with apartheid in South Africa superfluous and almost irrelevant. The benchmark is international law and not South Africa.” This excerpt from the Second Kairos Bethlehem Conference document, The Bethlehem Call, is an angry yet hopeful statement by over 60 seasoned activists from 15 countries, including prominent Palestinian church leaders on Dec. 13th.

I say “angry,” because prophetic statements are always angry in the face of persistent and systematic injustice. Listen to what 8th-century BCE prophet Amos intoned before a stunned Israelite audience:

“This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals’” (Amos 2:6).

Then again:

“Listen to me you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy . . .

The time will come when you will be led away with hooks in your noses” (4:1, 2).

Or again this:

“I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. . . . Away with your noisy hymns of praise! . . .

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

An endless river of righteous living” (5:21, 23, 24 NLT).

The statement was forwarded to me by veteran Christian activist, Tom Getman, through the auspices of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an organization I have long followed. Tom was World Vision/Palestine Director in 1999 when I conducted my 5-week research project in Hebron, staying at the Bethlehem Bible College. He is now CEO of an NGO that networks with the UN on issues of justice (the Getman Group), based in Washington, DC.

In his email to several friends and colleagues, he had this to say about this 3-day meeting he just attended in Bethlehem:

“Amazing experience of encouragement even if not optimism in the midst of deep darkness. Not so different from the first Christmas Light in the midst of the Roman Empire. And the Palestinians are choosing exuberant hope with non-violent response rather than being victims even now that 87% of the West Bank is under Israeli control (along with all the forests and 47% of the wells).

I suspect this will turn out to be historic in the nature of the Barman Declaration, South Africa Kairos 1985, and the Dr. King Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The Church is on notice!”

Please read this document for yourselves. I only want to highlight two aspects of it: its call to dismantle the oppressive chains of global Empire; and its connection to American evangelicals.

The brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, now in its 45th year, continues unabated, abetted by international silence. Palestine is indeed “a global issue” – one of many instances of how political power and economic clout converge to trample the rights of the poor and weak. In the words of the document,

“Today, the illegal regime and illegal forms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine assumes dimensions of systemic injustice whereby the unthinkable and unimaginable becomes globally accepted, supported and normalized. This is an example of Empire (global domination) at work . . .

As witnessed with our own eyes, the treacherous conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation on Palestinians and their land have reached a level of almost unimaginable and sophisticated criminality. This includes the slow yet deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing and the geo-cide of Palestinians and Palestine as well as the strangling of the Palestinian economy. . .”

This is also a Christian statement, though clearly worded to include other faith traditions. Its tone is raw. Irritation and resentment are palpable among the lines of this collective litany. These men and women are back from visiting Palestinian villages and refugee camps, having witnessed first hand the marks of an increasingly cruel apparatus of control. Listen to this passage explain that “God takes sides for justice against injustice”:

“In the deep pain of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees and of Israeli Arab citizens, we witnessed the tears of God. God keeps the flame of faith alive, as the darkness of despair closes in. God lives and breathes in the lament of those whose future has been stolen. In the cries of the dispossessed we have sensed the passion of God for right to prevail.”

That is my second and last point. It's a language that people of many faiths could call their own, from MLK to Gandhi, and surely the Dalai Lama (for whom “God” is a religious symbol he deeply respects). Plainly, it's also the language of the Hebrew prophets, which Jesus reappropriated, and never more vividly than when he chased the money changers from the Jerusalem Temple courtyard.

I know that my friend, the Rev. Naim Ateek, who was canon of the St. Georges’ Cathedral (Anglican) in Jerusalem during our family’s stay there in 1992-1996, had much to do with this conference. I had the privilege of working closely with him while teaching in Bethlehem. More than anyone, Naim has tirelessly brought together Palestinian Christian leaders in Jerusalem all across the traditional gamut around a contemporary reading of the Bible. This is the mission of Sabeel, the Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, which he founded (see his Justice, and Only Justice)

Yet among all the mainline Protestants, those along the spectrum of historic Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics, all of whom gratefully acknowledged his efforts, there have also been many evangelical Protestants from several countries – like Tom Getman and myself. I mentioned EMEU, and there are many others in a fast-growing network of evangelicals who look back with gratitude to the pioneering efforts of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider in the 1960s. You would have to add to this list many Mennonites and Quakers (the historic “peace churches”) and evangelical spin-offs like the “emerging church” movement represented by Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity) and young activist/authors like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution).

I will write more about these issues, mostly because of the ignorance and hence, prejudice that surround them in most peoples’ minds. For now, I direct you to my piece on Christian Zionism in “Resources,” at the end of which you’ll find a list of books and a couple of amazing DVDs as well. We evangelicals, especially since the late 1970s, are guilty of much theological distortion, which sadly has resulted in fateful political alliances. I join many other voices in saying, “enough!”

In light of this week's broadly ecumenical manifesto, I'll end with “A Franciscan Benediction,” the chosen conclusion of the Bethlehem Call. In this precious time of Advent, waiting in our hearts for the coming of the Son, we gather hope – believing that even in Bethlehem, where Christ was born two millennia ago, his peace will change once again our broken, violent world.

“May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, at half truths and superficial relationships so that we may live deeply within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with tears to share for those who suffer in pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. And may the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus born in Bethlehem of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon us and remain with us always. Amen.”