On June 26th we had an interfaith dialogue for peace at Transfiguration Episcopal Church. Here is the link to the video that we have created of that event. Apologies for the bad quality of sound at some points. We may look into adding subtitles so that it is easier to understand throughout.
Link to Video on Vimeo
The coloring image on the front of your bulletin this Sunday, and at the head of this email, is taken from the abstract stained glass windows that surround our picture windows at Transfiguration. Last night I walked into the Sanctuary and the setting sun was casting a multi colored glow across the floor as it shone through our stained glass windows. I love the light cast by stained glass, it always makes me feel delight and joy.
I am looking for light right now. The tone of our politics, the violence of our culture and fear that our divisions are growing has me worried that we are in the shadows.
Two weeks ago a gunman shot 49 people dead and injured a further 53 in a Gay night club in Orlando, FL. He claimed he was inspired by the Islamic State, it is possible that he was also acting from a place of personal confusion and hatred. Details are still emerging about this man. The whole event hit many of us hard as we wondered who we are becoming.
The Monday after the shooting I prayed about what had happened. My journey as a member of the LGBT community, your Rector and as a person exploring interfaith dialogue came into focus for me and I started to plan this Sunday's service.
Many people have been criticizing the idea of offering 'thoughts and prayers' without action. But I wanted to explore the possibility of approaching 'thoughts and prayers' as a kind of action itself, by inviting people from different faiths to share their thoughts and prayers with us at Transfiguration, and in sharing sacred space with those of different faiths, to make a statement that we should be building bridges between us, not walls.
This coming Sunday we are inviting you into the safe space of our Sanctuary, in our familiar Eucharistic setting to listen to and talk with Noni Anzar, Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon and myself as we offer our thoughts and prayers about the Orlando shooting. Noni is a Muslim Educator from the Islamic Network Group (ING.org) and Ilana is the Rabbi Educator from Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City. I hope that listening to Muslim, Jewish and Christian perspectives on peace might help us all to process this event, and might be a sign of our solidarity with all people of faith who hope for peace.
I picked pride Sunday because it is an important day for the LGBT community in San Francisco, the LGBT community was targeted in this attack, and as an LGBT Priest I want to stand with a Muslim and Jewish colleague in solidarity.
Human beings make windows, but the sun was created by God. Think of our stained glass as a symbol for our various religious and social ideas, throwing light in multiple colors on the floor of our sanctuary, like a rainbow. Side by side these different colors represent the diversity of our gathering this weekend: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, female, male, gay, straight. There are many colors cast by many windows, but the light that shines through them is one light.
I hope to see you Sunday as we think and pray together, welcoming strangers as guests that we hope will become friends.
People seem sick and tired of thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting less than two weeks ago. As a life long Christian I am rather partial to a prayer, but I think I understand what is happening. It seems as though offering thoughts and prayers, while not acting to change anything, rings hollow.
There is the story of a teenager who listened to her father praying for a family who had just become homeless. The father told God all about the situation, about what help they needed, including noting that there was an apartment available for low cost, furniture at a discount in a local store, and a food program in a community centre that didn’t cost anything (but did need people to transport the food themselves). The father ended his prayer asking God to intervene in this family's life.
The girl was listening to her father intensely. At the end she got up and walked over to him and said, “if you give me your credit card and car keys I will answer your prayer.”
Prayers have to lead to action: in the political process, in trying to understand the lives of others, in breaking down barriers of prejudice.
But thoughts and prayers can be action also. Today I have invited a Muslim Educator and a Jewish Rabbi to share their thoughts and prayers with us during the first half of the 10:30am Musical Eucharist. We are reaching across the boundaries of ethnicity and religious difference and looking for the peacemaker in our neighbor. I am proud to stand in solidarity with representatives of other faiths who each have a message of peace for us today.
This is our action today, to think and pray with a brother and a sister from a different faith and seek to dispel, in some small way, the misunderstandings that exist between us, to seek to build a bridge and not a wall between our communities. Come and join us at 10:30am at Transfiguration Episcopal Church and find out where our thoughts and prayers may lead us.
The moment when the music stops and the lights go up is always jarring. Some people are tired and just happy to leave. Some feel like it ended too soon and wish the dancing would go on all night. Some, standing on their own, scan the bar to see if anyone they flirted with that night is still there. Some realize they are hungry and make plans to go and get bad food from the all night pizzeria or burger place. Some hug their friends and say goodbye, ready to head into the night. I have been there many times. I cannot imagine adding a man with an assault rifle and hand gun into the scene.
As I listened to the radio over the last few days the moment of the club closing played over and over in my mind and I remembered being a young gay man trying to make sense of who I am. I have danced in a gay club until it closed at 2am on many occasions. I have gone with my friends, I have gone to try and find love, I have gone to celebrate, I have gone with my partner, and I have gone to try and figure out who I am and how I fit into this life.
One of the radio journalists found a young man who left just before the shooting started, went home, fell asleep, and woke up to the terrible news the next day. He went straight to the hospital to try and find out what happened to his friends. He wound up translating for family members who could not speak English and needed him to help them understand what was going on. There was more than one parent who discovered that their child was both dead and gay in the same instant. Hearing that, driving along the freeway, I began to cry.
Responding to this most recent tragedy is beyond me right now. I am not sure what to say or do. Listening to some of the political responses has been painful. Having been in America for five and a half years and having witnessed multiple shooting incidents I now feel numb. In the UK when a similar event happened decades ago, when I was a child, gun laws were passed, an amnesty took place, I recall my father turning in his hunting rifles and our air guns. We never much used them, they were locked away at home, but we gave them up anyway.
Why is it so hard to do that now? I know people will say that it was a madman, inspired by terrorists who did this and not the gun itself. But I think that the assault rifle that can fire 45 rounds a minute gave this man's madness greater impact.
People will also say that the club would have been safer if the patrons were armed, but the killer got passed two people with guns on the way in. Also, I am pretty sure that someone intent on mass murder is going to be more effective at using a weapon than a regular person on a night out who doesn’t expect to encounter a killer between cocktails. The argument that a more armed country would be better than a less armed one makes no sense to me, unless we were all trained to Jason Bourne levels of gun competence in high school and treated every night out as though it were a scene from the Wire.
So what am I left thinking? Well recently I have been exploring my ‘center’ more in response to my experiences of conflict in Israel. What I have discovered in my ‘center’ is that following Jesus is my most foundational value, and that being a priest is how I have chosen to exercise that value. So this is what I return to when faced with the unthinkable. Return to the teaching of Jesus and be a priest.
Being a priest crept up on me in Gospel Preview today. We never got to the Gospel, we just talked, sharing our fears and anger. The conversation became deeper and deeper until we realized that we had passed over a threshold into a place of real truth telling. I tried to hold the space open for everyone to participate and safely. We didn’t solve anything, but we talked, and listened and were heard.
On Sunday last I preached a sermon about safe spaces - and noted that these were not ‘comfortable’ spaces, but spaces where we felt safe enough to encounter difficult feelings in a way that helped us to grow. At Gospel preview this week we talked openly and safely. It seemed to flow from our desire to follow Jesus and I felt as though I was exercising the gifts God gave me in my priesthood.
This blog entry is now a bit of a rambling collection of my responses this week, but I want to offer one thing before I close. find a safe space and talk. Talk to someone you love and feel safe with about how this makes you feel. Talk to Monica, Fran or I in a pastoral conversation. Talk to your family about anything you have not told them yet but need to talk about. Talk to your partner or husband or wife about how you feel about them. Talk about the politics of this with your local representatives. Talk to someone who you disagree with profoundly and try to hear their point of view without becoming angry or dismissive, then try to tell them what you believe and create a space where both of you can talk and be heard. Nothing is served if we keep quiet right now. So it is time to Talk.
Israel has many Arabic residents, most of whom have Israeli citizenship, East Jerusalem has many Arabic residents who do not have citizenship. Those without citizenship simply have an Israeli ID card. I will leave it to another blog to try and explain why that is. By contrast, just 7 miles to the south, Bethlehem resides inside the West Bank. Arabs who live here have Palestinian ID, not Israeli ID. Bethlehem is separated from Jerusalem by a security barrier.
I was staying in Bethlehem with a Palestinian Christian family for a few days at the end of my tour to get a picture of what life was like under occupation. They wanted to take me to their church, about 8 miles from Bethlehem. It was in Jerusalem, across a checkpoint. It was going to be an enlightening morning.
My host has Palestinian ID, his wife is an "Arab of '67" (that is what her husband calls her because her status was affected by the outcome of the 6 Day War in that year), she has Israeli ID. With this difference in ID status they face different sets of restrictions on their movements. For example, she cannot stay more than one night a week in Bethlehem without risking losing her Israeli ID card. He used to face a curfew in Jerusalem, being required to return home to Bethlehem before 7pm, this meant he could not stay with his wife. A few years ago a family reunification act relaxed the rules on the curfew so that he may now stay with his wife overnight in Jerusalem. This relaxed curfew only applies to Palestinian men over the age of 40. In addition, she can drive in Jerusalem, he cannot. It took me a while to understand all of this but they patiently explained it. If you are confused, you are in good company.
There is some benefit to his wife being the only one who can drive in Jerusalem. As we approach the checkpoint in Bethlehem they change sides and she begins to drive us to church. She gets out some sunglasses, large ones that cover her regular glasses. I think nothing of it, like I think nothing of the blue and white fluffy dice that hang in the windshield.
My host begins to explain, ”the soldiers seem to go easier when women are driving.”
“She wears the sunglasses because they make her look more like a Jewish lady. The dice are the colors of the Israeli Flag."
His wife adds, "it makes it easier sometimes."
We sail through the checkpoint today without being stopped. My host asks me not to tell anyone because people will think things are easier on them now and that anyone reading my blog will think there is no need to challenge the security barrier or checkpoints.
I am amazed he feels the need to say it, as though the inconvenience of checkpoints, living in a separate house from your spouse and not knowing whether you will lose rights for sleeping with your husband isn't indignity enough.
A few days later there would be a bomb on a bus in a suburb of Jerusalem near to one of the checkpoints. I went back to visit Bethlehem a few days later and had to go through a checkpoint with my hosts. The glasses and fluffy dice didn't work any more. Being stopped and having your car searched by armed soldiers is something I won't forget in a hurry.
A moment of personal insight occured for me on Monday afternoon. Let me be honest, my time in Israel was not restful, it was quite tiring, with long days in hot weather, but more importantly a lot of emotionally challenging information to process.
I had intended to write to you all as it unfolded, but I gave up on that on day two. A few thoughts have dripped out over the last two weeks, but nothing coherent and sustained, I have just felt uncertain as to my position on the situation in Israel and Palestine. Who is right and who is wrong? What should we do in the face of injustice that both sides have experienced over many generations and in the last few years? Friends and colleagues seem to want me to say what I think, but I am just uncertain as to what I think.
In addition, the passing of my Grandfather, which I am not ready to talk about more fully just yet, added the extra complication of Grief.
So uncertainty and grief combined to leave me feeling what I will call ‘stunned’. One dictionary definition of being ‘stunned’ tell us that it means to: astonish or shock (someone) so that they are temporarily unable to react.
That is how I have been feeling.
On Monday I got a chance to begin unpacking my experiences with one of the pastoral resources I use to care for myself. One session won’t be enough! There was just too much to talk about. But by the end of the session I had a direction.
“Find the centre from which you want to respond to all that you have experienced.” It was great advice! So, what is my centre? Well I am working on that in my own prayer time at the moment. It begins with the teaching of Jesus, who I reconnected with strongly on this trip. It moves from there to reconciliation, and away from any attempt to wield power. That is all I have for now, but I am going to keep working on it.
The Mount of Beatitudes
A hightlight of my trip was listening to Paul Fitzgerald, a Jesuit Roman Catholic Priest and President of the University of San Francisco, reading the Beatitudes. We were close to the place where it is thought Jesus delivered the sermon on the Mount. This moment came toward the end of the formal tour. I still had five days of my own itinerary to come and a stop in London to follow, but by this point we had been across much of Israel and had visited the Palestinian Territory for one day.
Before he read, Paul invited us to remember people we had encountered on our trip so far and assoicaite each with one of the Beatitudes. It was a gentle, helpful prompt and all the invitation I needed to drop inside myself and listen to the memories of our trip.
Reading from Matthew 5:3-10, Paul reminded us of all the people we had met and the experiences we had, and gave us a sense of just how profound the words of Jesus could be. The Beatitudes are not just wisdom for Israel/Palestine in the first century, but the 21st Century also. They still resonated.
It was a reminder that Jesus’ understanding of life reached beyond the local, to the universal.
As I write this, I am on the flight back from London to San Franciso. I want to repeat the exercise that Paul led and include the subsequent 10 days. So much has happened it will be difficult to capture it all, but I want to think about the Beatitudes in the light of everyone I met and all that I experienced.
The Poor in Spirit
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.
While on our way north in the second half of our tour we stopped at Yemon Orde, a youth village and one of Israel’s most innovative educational institutions. It specializes in integrating new immigrant youth into Israeli Society. We met Susan Weijel there and found out about their work with Russian and Ethiopian youth as well as those from other backgrounds. Many of their youth were in the country without their parents or were orphans. These young people fulfilled the idea of being poor in spirit, and yet optimistic about the future. One youth who had grown into a remarkable woman through the program was Batya Shumeli (see picture below ). She was from the Ethiopian tribe of Jews who had made ‘Aliah’ (their journey to Israel) in the 80s and 90s. She spoke honestly about the difficulty of cultural integration. She was radiant and wise and made me think about what the Kingdom of Heaven might be like.
Those who mourn
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Reduced to tears by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, I began to get a deeper understanding of the grief felt by the Jewish people, and their existential sense of being under threat. The last room of the museum, where records of all those known to have lost their lives in the Holocaust are kept, left me speechless.
A week later I could not help but be moved by the pain of the Palestinian family that I stayed with in Bethlehem, and of other Palestinians, who lived with loss every day. In creating a nation for Jewish people and then maintaining its safety, Israel’s security policies have meant loss and humiliation for Palestinians.
These two competing griefs are at the heart of the conflict. I was deeply sympathetic to both and cannot see how each may be comforted. I hope they will.
Ending my trip in the UK I did not realize I would experience my own grief, as my Grandfather passed away on my last full day in England. By some cosmic arrangement I was able to join my family in prayer, conversation and at dinner on that day. I found comfort in their presence. I pray for comfort for those who grieve in Israel and Palestine.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
We were humbly served by our guide and our guard. Yashai and Ruven (see picture below) were quiet and unassuming but made everything flow seamlessly. Yashai was balanced, gentle, informed and delightful. He was very popular with our whole group. It was sobering to need an armed guard and Ruven was slow to get to know people, but by the end of our trip he was a friend who had kept us safe and together.
When thinking of the meek I also am reminded of the server at the American Colony bar who made me a drink one night. He was a Palestinian with a work permit, he avoided controversy but talked discreetly about the security situation. You may have heard in the news that it was the same night on which a bomb exploded in a bus in Jerusalem.
Finally, my host in Bethlehem had a son who was living in Bethlehem and working three jobs in Jerusalem in order to support his wife and raise a son. As a Palestinian male he was not permitted to drive in Jerusalem and daily wrestled with living inside the ‘security barrier’ (see picture above and to the right) and navigating check points. I had a deep respect for his quiet dignity.
These people all deserve the earth, or at least a homeland.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
After the formal tour ended I stayed on to get a contrasting experience, I stayed with Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem to experience life under occupation and I went to Hebron on a dual narrative tour, meeting with settlers and displaced Palestinians. I noted that there is a dark side to believing that your cause is righteous. Sometimes you are unable to see the dignity in other people and are willing to reduce them to the place of opponent. ‘Satisfaction’ for some of the settlers felt like a zero sum game, in which the Palestinians had to lose for them to win. I do not believe that this will lead to peace and it made me sad.
Professor Dalia Fadila was quite simply a force of nature. She is the first female muslim president of any educational institution in Israel. Wrestling with traditional culture, expectations of male authority and the need to create excellent educational opportunities for young men and women in her school, Dr. Fadila was popular with our whole group. She has expectations and she is determined to fulfil them. She got the telephone number of at least four university leaders from the bay area desperate to work with her and help her satisfy her expectations.
Below is a picture of Professor Dalia Fadila, the first female muslim president of an institution of higher learning in Israel.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
We met a colonel in the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). This may be a controversial paragraph in my letter, but I found him to have a sense of mercy. He was committed to the security of Israel, but had a sense that living under occupation was deeply problematic for Palestinians. He believed that Israel could take down the wall tomorrow and not suffer deterioration in its security. He also believed that the IDF had to try and live up to international expectations of ethical engagement whilst still creating a secure situation for Israel. Perhaps he was very good at public relations, perhaps in the middle of a military engagement he would not seem so merciful, particularly for a Palestinian under occupation. I pray for mercy in this whole region.
My host in Bethlehem was another example of mercy. Whilst describing with excruciating honesty his experience of occupation, and at times being deeply critical of Israeli culture and actions (often describing these actions as harrassment), he was able to be complimentary to much that Israel has achieved as a nation in a short 67 years and described Israeli civil society as essentially just. I hope that this sense of justice soon extends to those under occupation, which is a blemish on the Israeli reputation.
The Pure of Heart
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Visiting the Hand in Hand School, an experiment in Arab Israeli side by side education, was a high point of my visit. It was pure in heart and intention and I loved it. Facing attack for its values by arsonists it remained deeply committed to bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together in education. I could see God in them, I hope that they see God present in their endeavours.
A student of the school runs in circles in front of our delegation in the picture below.
I also want to comment on Abby Porth, one of the trip organizers. Some people have suggested that my trip was a propoganda tour, and anticipating that it would be from a predominantly Jewish perspective. Understanding this I planned my stay so that I could remain five days longer and make my own investigation into Bethlehem and Hebron without the tour leaders oversight. However, I really do believe that Abby has an open heart and a desire that we experience Israel, warts and all, and form our own opinions. My sense of her integrity grew as the trip unfolded. She was willing to share honestly and engage in painful criticism of the country she loves by participants on our tour who were wrestling with their own sense of this conflict. I wanted to note her passion and intentions and my gratitude for them.
The other person I considered ‘pure in heart’ was my Palestinian hosts’ grandson. He was two and a half, and suspicious of me at first, but after a few magic tricks he took to me. We became firm friends!
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Peacemakers are needed in Israel. The most powerful example I met was Eliyahu, an Orthodox Jew who is sympathetic to settlers but also a determined peace activist. Along with a Palestinian guide, he arranges the dual narrative tour of Hebron. He was clear about his own hopes for Israel whilst also being very sensetive to their impact on Palestinians. He was very willing to see multiple sides of the situation and I hope that his vision of peace takes hold in Israel.
We also were priviledged to meet with both Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and President of Israel, and Nabil Shaath (pictured right), one of the Oslo Accord negotiators and former Foreign Minister for the Palestinian Authority. This priviledge was possible because for a short time the Mayor of San Francisco came to Israel and our tour merged with his. We would not have warranted these opportunities without that. Listening to both men, they yearned for peace, and both believed a two state solution was the best way to get it. There was less agreement between their presentations on how to move from where they are, to where they might be. But I believe that if their intentions are to achieve peace there is a chance it might happen. I hope this isn’t wishful thinking.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Everyone feels persecuted in Israel and Palestine, and all of them believe that their cause is righteous. I wish it were possible to describe a way in which these competing visions for Israel could be harmonized into one new reality, but it is hard to see how. We were told when we got close to Hebron that our dual narrative tour would be an example of ‘competing victimology.’ Honestly, I believe that each side has experienced persecution, from terrorists, from the IDF, from an international community that seeks to impose flawed solutions. I hope that the people of Israel and Palestine might be able to find ways of seeing the suffering of the other, rather than just their own and that this might lead to empathy and peace. Israel/Palestine could look very much like the Kingdom of Heaven if this were to happen.
Being a Disciple
As I end my letter to you this month, I wanted to say that my own spiritual experience on this trip was powerful and personal.
I never really wanted to go on a spiritual pilgrimage of the Holy Land because I was worried that I would find that people had built a church and a gift shop on every street corner where Jesus was ever supposed to have done anything. That was in fact what I found, but I agreed to this trip because it offered me a different lens on Israel and Palestine. I deeply appreciated seeing the political, security and social context of Israel. I loved the opportunity to gain access to conversations that many people are not able to have about this region. Going to Bethlehem and Hebron were also great priviledges. This was the trip of a lifetime.
Our hosts also took us to many Christian holy sites and I found that indeed, a church and gift shop had been built everywhere that Jesus ever did anything. But I found that I didn’t mind it as much as I thought.
What I found most moving was just how profound the words of Jesus were and are. His Beatitudes described ancient Palestine so well, with all its complex ideologies and competative victimologies. He was insightful, but also generous and held out a vision of hope for a future full of peace. As I sat and prayed on the supposed location of the Sermon on the Mount, my eyes filled with tears and I was grateful for my teacher. I found myself becoming more deeply committed to being his disciple. And I wonder if any of you would like to go back with me some time soon?
Good intentions pave the way to... somewhere!
I had really good intentions to write a blog during my stay in Israel, I was going to write my thoughts down every night and post them for you so I could enter into a conversation about the experience. Well, as they say, 'how did that work out for you?'
Between spotty wifi, not having put a robust data plan on my cell phone and a program that has kept us to a challenging pace (to say the least), I did not get this done.
So here I am, on my quiet day in Jerusalem contemplating catching up! Not sure how to tackle the task, whether to do it chronologically or thematically, I think I may do a combination of both. So I am going to backdate some blog posts to the days that things happened and see how that works. If it doesn't make sense then I may do something different, but I want to have a go in any case.
I am going to review the notes I made as I went, and for each day write something. It may be based on questions I was asking myself that day, or it may be to do with a feeling, or experience from the day. At the end I will write up where I think I am. Let me know if it works out as a reader.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace.
When I broke this trip I knew it would mean I was celebrating my 41st Birthday in Israel. My birthday would also fall on Shabbat.
As Christians we have a sense of the Sabbath as a day of rest, but we don't really take it quite as seriously as observant Jews. On Friday night, after the third star could be seen clearly in the night sky, we were treated to a Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem. The traditional prayers were prayed, we broke Challah and drank wine together. It was a community evening and the start of the day of rest.
Earlier on, during his lecture on the conflict, Dr Goodman had talked for a moment about the concept of Shabbat. In Exodus we are told that Shabbat is a day of rest, as we imitate the creator. In Deutoronomy a new dimension is added. Shabbat is not just a day of rest, but a day to let go of control.
This idea hit me hard and began to take on a life of its own in my imagination. As we entered into Shabbat I contemplated the fact that I am on Sabbatical myself, sabbatical takes its meaning for the word Sabbath, or Shabbat.
What does this mean? It means that my sabbatical is a time to rest, but also to give up control. Back home other people have taken on responsibilities for the parish, Monica and Noreen working with Fran and Mike to make sure things keep going. I can worry a lot, it is hard to let go for me. It was wonderful to begin the first part of my sabbatical with an extended reflection on what sabbath means.
As we entered more deeply into the sabbath we were taken on an outing, to the desert where we toured Herod's palace at Masada and the Dead Sea. It was a wonderful way to spend a Birthday. We heard about the building of the palace on a mountaintop in the desert, and also how it was used as part of the Jewish resistance to Roman aggression centuries later. Finally I floated on the Dead Sea, a once in a lifetime experience.
My day of rest/birthday was busy, but very enjoyable.
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.