Why this trip?
Going on a religious pilgrimage to Israel was never really a priority for me. I have a vivid imagination and the stories of the bible lift off the page and find form inside my head. So whenever anyone asked if I would go I politely said no or changed the subject. After 18 months of dialogue with christian ministers and jewish rabbis I was offered a chance to go on a trip sponsored by the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) of San Francisco. This would be a trip with civic leaders trying to find out more about the social and political life of modern Israel. I am going to write about that more fully in a later post, but for now I wanted to say that, if I was in doubt about the benefits of saying yes to this trip, the first full day laid them to rest.
Stories that wound and heal
Over 18 months I have been thinking about my christian faith through the lens of discussions with local Rabbis. Our Jewish hosts came with us to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. This was incredibly moving. How do we tell the story of Jesus death? How is it heard by others? What does it sound like to Jewish friends and colleagues when they hear us reading the stories that say they killed Jesus? For me the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is about how we can all fall victim to the temptations of power, and the cross itself provides a critique of power itself. But to Jewish ears it often feels like an accusation, still, after 2000 years. I talked to one of our Jewish leaders, Abby, and to Rabbi Doug on the steps of the church. It was a moment that I will remember for years to come. Precious beliefs for one group can be damaging to others if not understood and contextualized carefully.
Power in Israel
Half way through our tour of the Old City and Christian sites we took a detour to the Shalom Hartman institute for a lecture on the conflict in modern day Israel. Dr Micah Goodman opened by telling us that we didn't have time to be polite, that the conflict was so urgent we had to ask him direct questions. "Don't worry about being rude," he said, "there is no such concept in Israel."
The presentation was from an undeniably Jewish perspective, but it was honest and vulnerable. It raised many questions for me and our speaker was a brave and imaginative thinker and addressed many questions in the course of his talk. It was the best presentation about the conflict I have heard to date.
In essence Dr Goodman talked about power, it's use and abuse. The Jewish people had been powerless for much of their history, this had led them to acquire a deep seated fear of persecution that has often been realized Now they had a degree of power in a nation state, what were they to do with it? How might they balance a need for self-defense with a desire to respect all human life? Dr Goodman told us that the fear is not generated by the violence of Palestinian protest, but amplified by it. As the Israeli people defend themselves the methods they use are humiliating to the Palestinian people. Ancient Egypt was a powerful metaphor in Dr Goodman's talk: how do we leave Egypt (become free from slavery and persecution), without becoming Egypt?
Fear leads to humiliation and humiliation to violence which feeds the fear. This cycle feels impossible to resolve. Dr Goodman hoped that in time the Jewish people might reflect on what it means to move from powerlessness to authority whilst fully recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He hoped that successive generations may find new ways to conceptualize a peace that can move beyond the cycle of violence.
So in my busy day of prayer, discussion and personal reflection I encountered two narratives in which precious truths for one group could become oppressive to another.
The cross of Christ is a symbol of sacrifice and powerlessness that has been used as a weapon to abuse the Jewish people in the darkest moments of our history. That being said, I love it: it shapes my faith, and it helps me to analyze and understand the use and abuse of power, but we must be careful with it. Applied carelessly the lessons of the cross can create more pain, not healing.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict starts with a desire for safety, and becomes a cycle of retribution. The desire for safety is understandable, but the cycle perpetuates is destructive to all involved. I wish I had more wisdom than I do to offer about the experiences of my day. The only thing I have to offer is gratitude that the juxtaposition of these experiences created space for new insights.
As the day ended I was also reminded of our episcopal approach to irreconcilable differences. When things look impossible to solve, when we have a situation in which one person has to lose for another to win, our episcopal faith invites us to try and look for a third way forward. I hope we can find it.
The Last Stop of the Day.
At the very end of the day, suffering from the spiritual indigestion I mentioned above, we made one final stop at the Western Wall. I wrote my prayers down on a piece of paper and folded it up, posting the paper into a crack in the wall, I prayed.
It was remarkable, I felt unselfconscious, not even noticing one of our hosts taking a photo. The wall, it's great age, and the thoughts of my day made a heady combination. putting my hand and forehead on the wall my prayers flowed free and sweet, I felt at peace.
From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.