A Cry of Hope in the Absence of Hope

Anyone who has followed the Israeli government’s macabre dance of non-negotiation and play-acting the role of eternal victim, while humiliating, jailing, murdering and robbing Palestinians of their land, can only adopt the stance of those “complaint psalms”—the ones where the supplicant shakes his fist at the Yahweh for seemingly preventing justice from flowing down like a river.

Writing in the Israeli daily, Haaretz (September 27, 2011), Israeli Martin Buber scholar Yael Stemhell, wrote: “We, the Jews who live in Israel, participate each day, each hour, in the denial of basic rights to Palestinian citizens, in the perpetration of the settlements and the occupation.” She likens the Israeli resistance to giving a state to the Palestinians (which means, essentially, granting them the full range of human rights guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and codes of human decency) to those Southern US whites who resisted granting the vote to American Blacks. She alludes to the “chains of hatred, fear and the racism that grips the state of Israel” and the “paranoia that paralyzes us, that blocks all possibility of realizing a solution.”

It is also distressing and dispiriting to listen to the pontifications of the American religious right who twist themselves into pretzels by trying to identify the “kingdom of God” with an ethnic state for Jews alone, completely forgetting the suffering and agony of Christian Palestinians. How’s that for a bitter paradox? The American religious right imagines that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was the Big Move in God’s Grand Chess Game. They think they know precisely how God is working in history—and claim that they have received directions to support Israel-no-questions-asked because they know how the end times will unfold, square by square, move by move.

It is the Palestinian Christians that I want to focus on now. There used to be around 400,000 living in Palestine when the state of Israel was created in 1948. Today there are less than 80,000, divided into various Christian denominations, with the majority being Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. I want to share a few excerpts from the remarkable document, “A moment of truth: a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering,” published by Kairos Palestine in 2009. Now over ten years old, this document is still worth an attentive read to illuminate dimensions of the Palestinian struggle often missed by secular commentators. Indeed, it could have been penned yesterday.

They begin: “We, a group of Palestinian Christians, after prayer, reflection and an exchange of opinion, cry out from within the suffering of our country under the Israeli occupation, with a cry of hope in the absence of hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land, inspired by the mystery of God’s love for all, the mystery of God’s presence in the history of all peoples and, in a particular way, in the history of our country, we proclaim based on our Christian faith and our sense of Palestinian belonging—a word of faith, hope and love.”

This document proceeds through ten sections, with sub-points (1.1, 1.2, etc.).The opening section, “The reality on the ground,” begins with a poignant text. “They say, ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). These days everyone is speaking about peace in the Middle East and the peace process. So far, however, these are simply words; the reality is one of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, deprivation of our freedom and all that results from this situation.” They speak of how the “separation wall erected on Palestinian territory, a large part of which has been confiscated for this purpose, has turned our towns and villages into prisons, separating them from one another, making them dispersed and divided cantons.”

They speak of the ravaging of their land by Israeli settlers. They speak of their daily humiliation. They speak of being subject to checkpoints as they make their way to jobs, schools and hospitals. They speak of the restriction of religious liberty, their lack of freedom of access to their holy places. Jerusalem is out of bounds. They speak of the refugees, most of whom are still living in camps. They speak of thousands of prisoners, who languish in Israeli prisons.

They cry out that “Jerusalem is the heart of our reality. It is, at the same time, symbol of peace and sign of conflict. While the separation wall divided Palestinian neighbourhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims….Their homes are demolished or expropriated. Jerusalem, city of reconciliation, has become a city of discrimination and exclusion, a source of struggle rather than peace.”

They also proclaim that if there was no occupation, there would be no resistance.

One of the most powerful and deeply moving sections is found in the second one, “A word of faith: we believe in one God, a good and just God.” The sub-section is labelled, “Our land has universal significance.” I want to underscore these words: “We believe that our land has a universal mission. In this universality, the meaning of the promise of land, of the election of the people of God open up to include all humans, starting from all the people of this land. In light of the teaching of the Holy Bible, the promise of the land has never been a political programme, but rather that prelude to complete universal salvation. It was the initiation of the fulfilment of the kingdom of God on earth.”

I do not believe that being Christian, Jewish or Muslim depends on a land base. For me, this would mean that the modern nation state, now called “Israel,” created by western Europeans as payment for the murder of millions of Jews, would be a land open to all of its original inhabitants: Muslims, Jews, Christians and secular persons. It would be a place where everyone could come freely to Jerusalem to pray and to learn. One can hardly achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East, perhaps anywhere, when the Palestinians are made to pay for the sins they did not commit. Why should they be history’s scapegoats? Is not the identification of “Israel” with a particularistic nation-state a form of idolatry?

The Palestinians shout out: “Our land is God’s land, as is the case with all countries of the world …. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war. It is God’s land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love.”

They spell out what they mean by “injustice.” “It is an injustice when we were driven out. The West sought to make amends for what Jews had encountered in the countries of Europe, but it made amends on our account and in our land. They tried to correct an injustice and the result was a new injustice. Furthermore, we know that certain theologians in the West try to attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our rights …. The ‘good news’ in the Gospel has itself become a ‘harbinger of death’ for us. We call on these theologians to deepen their reflection on the Word of God and rectify their interpretations so that they might see the Word of God as a source of life for all people. Our connection to the land is a natural right: it is not an ideological or a theological question only. It is a matter of life and death….We suffer from the occupation of our land because we are Palestinians. And as Christian Palestinians we suffer from the wrong interpretation of some theologians.”

They declare: “We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their huma rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this imago in the Palestinian living under occupancy. We declare that any theology seemingly based on the bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in human beings living together under both political and theological injustice.”

Palestinian Christians “proclaim the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace and dignity.” They urge us to understand that: “The cruel circumstances in which the Palestinian Church has lived and continues to live have required the Church to clarify her faith and to identify her vocation better. We have studied our vocation and have come to know it better in the midst of suffering and pain: today, we bear the strength of love rather than revenge, a culture of life rather than a culture of death. This is the source of hope for us, for the Church and the world.”

I will conclude with the remarkable words from section four, on “Love: the commandment of love.” “Love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or my sister. However, seeing the face in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression. The injustices against the Palestinian people, which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted….Christian love invites us to resist. However, love puts an end to evil by walking in the ways of justice.”

A recent image of a Palestinian woman standing calmly with hands in a makeshift sink in her bombed out kitchen, bricks and debris scattered around, the ceiling ripped apart, speaks deeply to me of the love that resists for a new day.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.