This is an unusual post. It happens that I was asked to lead the worship service in my congregation this Sunday (April 15th) and I had to prepare a sermon-message. This post is that message, so it’s somewhat longer than I would normally write. I would love to hear your feedback.
I was intrigued by Rev. Juanita’s invitation to the congregation to submit some of your “big questions” during Lent so she could offer a series of sermon messages based upon them. I found the series moving and thought-provoking. The lectionary is great as a basis for preaching for at a number of reasons. One is that it feeds you scripture passages that are sometimes difficult and you have to really wrestle with them to find the meaning, the word that this generation in this time and place needs to hear. It prevents you from preaching only on your favorite or most comfortable themes.
On the other hand, this invitation to submit “big questions” also takes the control over the theme out of your own hands and subjects you to questions that you might not have good answers to or wisdom about. So as this morning was approaching, I asked Juanita if there were any “big questions” she had received and had not been able to get to yet. Indeed, there was one really big question, that had four parts to it. Believing the question to be important, and unable to resist the challenge, I decided to tackle it this morning rather than build my theme on the lectionary readings that we have heard and sung already this morning. I thought it was important to hear the stories of Easter, but I won’t comment specifically on them.
The question is really a general question with four sub-questions or issues. The overall question is this: What is God calling our church to do to advocate for justice? The first sub-question is: What is God calling our church to do to advocate for justice for Palestinians, i.e. and end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The other three issues addressed advocacy around reducing greenhouse gases, seeking just and equal relationships with First Nations, and seeking a global ban on nuclear weapons. Big questions, indeed! The way the questions are worded carries an assumption that these are all things that we should be doing, and I am in agreement that they are all things that would be good to do. Since I only have one Sunday to cover these things I am going to focus on only the first issue, the Israel-Palestine question.
First of all I need to confess that I don’t actually know what God is calling this specific congregation at this particular time to do about any of these things. I think that answer best comes out of a careful discernment process that we engage in together. Perhaps that is something we should do. Perhaps our Board members would give this some thought, or maybe others who are passionate about these things might give leadership to help get us started.
But first I would like to reflect on some principles that are embedded in the life and teachings of Jesus. I will elaborate on them using some more modern language and concepts, that I hope might guide our thinking together about this, or might guide the nature of the actions we might choose. I’m talking about the spiritual practice of looking first at ourselves in order to be clear about the actions to which we are called.
I notice, for example, that there are few words attributed to Jesus in which he names particular issues of his day and takes a position on them. At no time does he condemn the Romans for their sometimes brutal occupation of his country. In fact he suggests that if a Roman soldier makes you carry his pack for a mile, then to carry it for a second mile unasked. Jesus never leads a march or a strike or endorses a rebellion, much as some wanted him to. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have helped us to understand how many of his actions and words were very political and would have been understood that way by the people who heard him, but they were rarely direct attacks. On those occasions when he criticized directly he was aiming at his own religious elite, the Scribes and the Pharisees.
What Jesus spent most of his time doing was preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God, teasing out a vision of what society would be like if God were in charge instead of Caesar (except the “instead of Caesar” is not stated). Crossan has shown us that on the same day Jesus’ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, Pilate with his chariots and legions would have been riding gloriously into the opposite gate. They did this every year at the beginning of Passover to show the might of Rome to any who might have ideas of revolution. The hearers of this story would have known that, but two millennia later we need scholars to unearth these facts for us. So in that sense, Jesus did not shy away from political action but what he was communicating was indirect.
The other thing that Jesus did all the time was to provoke his hearers with stories and sayings that would cajole or jolt them into a new way of seeing. He was concerned about the human heart and about knowing ourselves, looking inward and not just outward. His absurd parable about the person trying to take a speck out of his neighbour’s eye when he has a log in his own eye is a classic example. He is saying look inside first. Examine your own way of seeing things, your own heart, your own shortcomings before you set about to correct others.
So what would that mean for the question at hand – about how we might advocate for justice in Israel and Palestine? Here are a few of my thoughts about how we might first prepare ourselves to ask the question.
1. The first is to examine our own shadow. It was Carl Jung who first coined the term the shadow. And by that he meant the part of ourselves that is hidden, unconscious, in darkness – the part of ourselves that we disown, that we don’t want to acknowledge, that we might be ashamed of. The shadow is not evil in and of itself. Like the shaded side of a tree in the sunlight, it is simply the part of us that is not illuminated. We are fearful of our shadow side. And if we operate out of our shadow side without awareness or with willful blindness, then we may, indeed, be capable of doing evil even when we are not ourselves evil.
I well remember the quote many years ago, if not who said it. This person said that the things we most dislike in others are the things we most dislike in ourselves. In other words, we take the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge and project them onto others and then we condemn them. Therefore one of the skills of leadership that I was taught (and has been absolutely invaluable to me) was to own my projections. If I found myself judging someone else (that person is so arrogant), I was trained to look first at myself, to reel in my projection like a lure on a fishing line, and look at it to see if there was something of that characteristic in me. Am I being arrogant even in my judgment of the other person? It’s not fun to do that. It always involves some degree of pain. But it helps to keep me from doing harm and allows me to choose ways of dealing with the other that are more likely to be effective and life-giving.
A person who avoids getting to know his or her own shadow, is one who is more likely to hurt others. Sometimes an entire country can see itself only positively and can refuse to look at its own dark side. That country is in danger of doing great evil to those they see as the enemies of light. They compare the best of their own culture or religion with the worst of other cultures or religions. I won’t mention any names.
So when we look at the players in the Middle East conflict, we need to look first at ourselves and whether any of the attitudes or beliefs held by those who are, in our view, “doing evil”, are also resident in ourselves. Some of us side with the Palestinians and decry the oppression by the Israelis. Others see the Palestinians, or Arabs or Muslims generally, as terrorists and the Israelis as the innocent victims of these extremists.
2. A second piece is to look at the element of fear. One of my mentors named Speed Leas, said that people who are frightened are more likely to frighten others. I would add that people who are afraid of being hurt are more likely to hurt others. The role of fear is implicit in my first point, since we naturally fear to peer into our own dark side. But fear may also be based, at least partly, in reality, in history. The obvious example is that of European Jews under the Nazi’s. Of course Hitler didn’t do it all himself. He had plenty of anti-Semitism to work with throughout Europe and North America, including Canada. In spite of all that I have read and seen about the horror of the holocaust, I can still scarcely imagine the multigenerational wounding, the terrible feeling of powerlessness and the determination that something like that must never happen again.
I can understand that the nation of Israel, which was created by the United Nations in a sea of Arab hostility, would want to build an invincible military machine. And I can understand its fear about the creation of a Palestinian state led by people who did, and some still do, declare their ultimate desire is to drive Israel into the sea. I can understand the impulse to strike back with overwhelming force when rockets from the Gaza strip rain down on their towns and villages. I am not saying this is right, wise or just, only that it is understandable.
I can understand the fear and anger of Palestinian people who have been and are being forcibly removed from land that their families have occupied for centuries because Israeli settlements need room to grow. I can understand their fear and resentment of being cut off from their workplaces that they need to feed their families. I can understand the fear and frustration at facing soldiers with guns at checkpoints everywhere. I can understand that fear and that resentment, and, yes, that anger.
3. The third thing is closely related to the first two. That is the observation that people who are fearful can, in response to an enemy, become more and more like that same enemy. Two of my good friends offer workshops on brain fitness and as a result they are very up-to-date on the latest scientific research on the human brain. In one study, researchers did brain scans on a large number of subjects. One of their findings is that the brains of people holding extreme right wing views show a lot of activity in the parts of the brain associated with fear. It is easy to see that in its response to the events of 9-11, as their leaders were claiming that the enemy “hated our freedoms,” the American people, in their fear, allowed or supported the elimination of many of those very freedoms they were defending. The use of torture was condoned after decades of condemning its use in other countries. If the Muslim extremists categorized Americans as evil, many Americans (and Canadians) have characterized Muslims as evil. We become the mirror image of our enemy, yet we don’t see it.
The Jewish people were the victims of a terrible abuse of the power of a state. In their determination never to be in that position again, there is a real danger of their becoming the dominating, oppressing power. I do not in any way, equate the modern state of Israel with that of Nazi Germany, yet the changes can be subtle. I’m not at all sure that if the tables were turned and the Palestinians were to be on top, that they would be less inclined to react the same way.
At the same time I am disturbed that the longer this situation goes unresolved, the more Palestinian land is swallowed up by expanding Israeli settlements. I wonder what the motivation is to reach a settlement when that is what is happening. That in itself may be reason for advocacy. I do believe that sometimes it is important to name the evil even when we do not condemn the evildoer.
It would be good for us who wish to advocate for justice to reflect upon what we ourselves fear, and how that fear sometimes distorts our actions and the way we treat others. We do this self-searching, not to induce guilt in ourselves, but to bring about a state of humility and honesty as we attempt to discern the path forward.
4. I do not have time to explore every nuance of this question, nor am I qualified to do so. So I will conclude with a fourth suggestion. Juanita has several times in her messages quoted former moderator Peter Short when he said, “Behind every face is a soul at work.” Jesus did not use those words but he clearly treated people as if that were so. He did not condemn. He listened. Sometimes he named the evil action that was being done, but he did not name the person doing the action as evil. On the cross, he asked God to forgive those who were doing the nailing. He knew that behind the faces of each soldier was a soul at work.
I believe that when we oppose something that is wrong, but we do it in a way that condemns, a way that brands the other side as evil, that does not acknowledge the humanity of the other, that mimics the other’s fear based tactics, then in the long run we are ineffective. We end up simply polarizing. We are not heard when the other side cannot recognize itself in the language we are using, or when we denigrate the real, legitimate needs that underlie their actions. Underneath every wrong behavior is some legitimate need. If we acknowledge and address that need, then change is much more possible.
What is God calling this congregation to do to advocate for justice in Israel-Palestine? I don’t claim the wisdom to answer that question for the congregation. As a congregation we can’t take on every issue that needs attention. But we can and do take on some. So part of our discernment has to do with which issues we are called to take on and, after careful dialogue, discern together what God is calling us to do.