Last week, I participated in a joint delegation to Palestine and Israel comprised of representatives from the South African Council of Churches and historic African American churches within the National Council of Churches. At one point, I found myself standing on what Muslims refer to as the Haram al-Sharif and what Jews call the Temple Mount.
This site, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, feels almost as if it is the center of the world because of its significance to our three faiths. Located between Gehenna, known as the Valley of Hinnom, it is said to be where the wicked go to atone for their sins, and the Valley of Kidron, through which Jesus walked to the Garden of Gethsemane.
It is easy to stand there as a pilgrim and dwell on the spiritual and biblical and historical nature of that place while remaining blissfully unaware of the tension, the disputes, and the explosiveness that surrounds you. Our delegation was one that allowed the power of the Holy Spirit to envelop us and to address the ongoing and deepening crisis that exists between Israel and Palestine.
Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, reminded us the land now known as Palestine has always been under occupation. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, British, Israelis, and others occupied these lands over the centuries. Even Palestinian churches have been occupied in the sense that the local Christians have been led by Christians from elsewhere.
Today, occupation controls every aspect of life for Palestinians. Settlements and checkpoints and roads demarcated only for Israelis mark the map. Water is controlled by Israel and is plentiful for Israelis but is hard to come by for Palestinians. Palestinians have an extremely difficult time getting permits from Israel to build homes. Usually, they cannot get visas from Israel if their spouses come from elsewhere.
Bethlehemites and most Palestinians are not permitted to travel to Jerusalem. A Nation State Law passed by the Israeli Knesset last year decrees only Israelis have the right to self-determination. An ugly wall erected by Israel and continuously patrolled by the Israeli military, coupled with an increasing number of illegal settlements hems Palestinians into an ever-shrinking space.
The situation grows ever bleaker. In the 20+ years I have been traveling to Israel and Palestine, I have returned home each time saddened that the situation has worsened. What gives me hope is the hope of the Palestinian people. Rev. Isaac told us that, yes, theirs is an ugly concrete wall but on the other side is an empty tomb. Hope is what we have today.
Rev. Mitri Raheb told our group that Israel has taken the wall from East Germany, apartheid and segregation from South Africa, and Native American reservations from the U.S. These tragic and self-defeating methods of population control have always proved to be no more than temporarily successful.
We met many who have resisted oppression and colonization with determination -- not violence -- and who live lives in a constant state of distress.
We enter now into the Season of Lent. I encourage you to find ways to forswear your participation, whether overtly or complicitly, in systems of oppression. It will be difficult to do, but it is what Jesus himself did. Our group visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and we entered the tomb of Christ. Afterward, we said to one another, “Good News! It was empty.”
Grace and Peace,
President and General Secretary
National Council of Churches of Christ