Notes to My Travelers on Our 15th Solidarity Tour
When you read this, I will be in Jerusalem traveling with 18 people in Palestine and Israel after a three-year COVID hiatus. We have now surpassed 250 people from within 60 miles of Fort Wayne who have traveled with me in my 15 “solidarity tours” since 2002. If I am to be honest, it’s been these tours that have helped us to build a vibrant Indiana Center for Middle East Peace because, as we say, “once you see, you can’t unsee.”
So it’s important in our pre-trip meetings as well as at the beginning of the tour, we relate to our travelers certain principles that will guide our experiences throughout the tour.
- We have come for many reasons, wearing different hats. Some have come as Christian pilgrims, others because of their interest in history and/or politics, others for social justice; most have come for a combination of different reasons. For whatever reason we’ve come, something has drawn us here, to this place at this time, and so we want to move intentionally throughout our time together, aware of the people, places, feelings, we are experiencing.
- As you well know, these “solidarity tours” are unlike 98% of “holy land tours”; we not only see the holy sites but we engage with the people, hear their stories, make friends, explore ways to be in meaningful solidarity with them – Jews, Christians, Muslims, political, religious, and NGO leaders –working for a just peace.
- In preparation for our trip, we read the 2009 Kairos Palestine document as well as the 2020 Cry for Hope written by the Palestinian Christian community but adopted widely throughout Palestine by other religious groups and civil society. They give voice to the urgency of their need for international support in resisting the Israeli settler colonial apartheid system being imposed through a military occupation.
- They urge us to “Come and See, Go and Tell.” So that is what we’ve been doing during these 15 “solidarity tours.” We come and see and listen, not as tourists, but as witnesses, as partners with our Palestinian friends, both Christian and Muslim, as well as Jewish and other voices of conscience.
- And so we continually ask our travelers throughout the tour, “How will you ‘Go and Tell’ now that you’ve come and seen?” “What shape will your going and telling take?”
- You will also see the holy sites of three monotheistic wisdom traditions here – Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. And since most of the travelers are Christians, they will be sites associated with their own sacred stories, ones they’ve read about in their Scriptures, talked about in their classes, and, for pastors, even preached about regularly in their sermons. And our travelers will have varying reactions to them – some will be inspiring, some will be off-putting, and other reactions.
- I remind us that the land is “holy land,” the sites are holy because of the devotion of the faithful over the centuries – we are the ones who sanctify the land or desecrate the land. So the beauty or the gaudiness or the uplifted spirits or the spattered blood associated with a place is in our hands, on our hands.
- So at each of the holy sites, we try to look beyond the site itself to the experience of the faithful, for good and for ill, what has drawn pilgrims here, and even ourselves, to this place for millennia. Not the place but the experience, the psychology associated with the theology. I often think of Mary Magdalene’s song from Jesus Christ Superstar as a commentary on how the faithful over the centuries have tried to capture how they feel about Jesus in the land of his life and ministry,
"I don’t know how to love him, what to do, how to move him
I've been changed, yes really changed
In these past few days, when I've seen myself, I seem like someone else.”
- And so we come. And we’re gentle with the places and the people’s attempts at devotion because we know we, like them, “don’t know how to love him.”
- A couple more notes about the Bible stories. First, even after two millennia and more, we’re still learning what the Scriptures are trying to teach us. We’re still growing into their depths. Jesus is a Palestinian Jew, arrested for insurgency, who dies at the hands of the state while in custody (think about that as we in Fort Wayne talk about building a bigger jail), an unholy marriage of religion and the state. The seemingly innocent stories from his ministry, for example, around the Sea of Galilee, are really severe critiques of an unjust economic system that exploited fisherman and others in the fishing industry by Herod and, by extension, Rome.
- Which leads to my final comment about Bible stories. They cannot be divorced from the present political context of the Palestinian Christian (and Muslim) community, the “Living Stones.” The State of Israel relies heavily on Christian tourist dollars and so has created an entire industry, a cynical propaganda industry, around the holy sites, where Christian pastors and their groups come on their busses, stop at the sites, read their Bibles, sing their hymns, and then move onto the next site, without meeting, much less engaging with, the local Christian community, their sisters and brothers in Christ. It is my contention, that this more progressive “don’t-bother-me-with-the-politics” kind of pilgrimage is more damaging than the more overt Christian Zionism of those on the Religious Right because it reinforces a latent unconscious Zionism too often prevalent among Christian pastors and in most Christian churches today.
- Even more insidious, as Ben Gurion University’s Jackie Feldman points out in his paper, Constructing a shared Bible Land: Jewish Israeli guiding performances for Protestant pilgrims:
During biblical tours, Jewish Israeli guides and Protestant pastors become coproducers of a mutually satisfying performance that transforms the often-contested terrain of Israel–Palestine into Bible Land. Guides’ emplaced performances of the Bible grant a signiﬁcance to visitors’ movement that constitutes the visitors as pilgrims. The professional authority of the guide is increased by his or her position as “reluctant witness” to scriptural truth and facilitated by historically transmitted practices of viewing, classifying history, and orientalizing shared by Protestants and Zionists. By examining guiding performances of orientation to biblical sites, I demonstrate how Zionist and Protestant understandings become naturalized while marginalizing Palestinian Arabs.
- These tours, and their retelling of the biblical stories, fail to name the sin inflicted upon Palestinians today by Israel, the new Rome – “domination,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonial political system,” “matrix of control,” and more. Thankfully, human rights organizations, not only Palestinian but Israeli (Yesh Din, B’Tselem, and others), as well as international (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations own reports, and others) are finally identifying the Israeli regime as “apartheid.”
- Personal, social, and political liberation lay at the heart of Jesus’ message and any retelling of his story today without this message not only does him a disservice, but in fact betrays him all over again.
So pray for us as we travel, send us positive energies, with the hopes that, like the 250 of our travelers who have gone before, we humbly listen to the Living Stones, learn from them, and now that we’ve come and seen, find our own ways to “Go and Tell.”