Strangers Into Neighbors Into Friends

The US and Palestine — A Challenge for the Church

[Our friend and much-respected pastor of the North Manchester Church of the Brethren, Kurt Borgmann, received a Lilly Grant for a sabbatical.  As part of the grant, both pastor and congregation agree to explore an issue/question of their choosing.  Kurt decided that his three months would be dedicated to the question, "Who is my neighbor?"  Kurt invited me to be the first of the three months of guest preachers at North Manchester COB and focus on Palestine and Israel. Many of you have heard these stories  before, but now I've given them a new context.]

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.

John 15.12-17

I’m very grateful to Kurt for his invitation to kick-off these months of guests you’ll be receiving during his time away. Kurt and Rainer, Al Hohl and Carole Baker traveled with me to Palestine and Israel in 2017; Joy Stifler has also traveled with me. And I’m so happy to hear that Carrie Newcomer performed here last night; she and her husband, Robert, also traveled with me a few years ago. We’ve shared programs with Katy Gray Brown at Manchester University, and I received last night the kindest note from our friend, David Waas, welcoming me back – this is my third time here. Kurt’s assignment for us while he’s gone, to go deep into the question asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” in an increasingly polarized country and complex world, and he wanted me to focus on the Middle East.

As you enter West Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem international Holocaust Museum, you walk down a long, stark, cement hallway, turn into the first exhibit tracing the history of Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s which led to the murder of 6 million Jews and 6 million others. The first panel in the entire museum is a 1936 quote from exiled German journalist Kurt Tulchosky, warning of the threat of National Socialism, “A country is not only what it does but what it tolerates.”

And as you enter into Bethlehem you pass through a 30-foot-high cement wall surrounding the now ghetto-ized “little town,” built by Caterpillar machinery paid for with American dollars. On the wall, next to a gun turret and a skunk water cannon Israeli soldiers use to rain chemically-treated water down on Palestinian children in the playground below, a 5-foot high piece of graffiti painted on the wall with black paint, “A country is not only what it does but what it tolerates.”

So today I want to share with you three stories exploring the question, “What won’t we tolerate anymore?” – in our country, and in Palestine and Israel, too – and do that in the context of Kurt’s sabbatical question, “Who is my neighbor?”

ONE. Story #1. Washington DC. A couple of months ago, I was in the nation’s capital for a conference. On our free days, we walked among museums, monuments, and memorials – the Smithsonians, WWII; Washington; Vietnam; Korea; Martin Luther King, Jr. As we walked from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial, we heard a veteran tell a group of students, “Freedom isn’t free!” Okay, but he meant something different than we mean. Since at least the Goshen Conference in 1918, the Brethren have reaffirmed a number of times, including your 1970 Annual Conference, passed overwhelmingly with 88% of the vote (754 Yes, 103 No) the Brethren Statement on War – it’s very clear:

 “All war is sin…. We declare again that our members should not participate in war, learn the art of war, or support war. War or any participation in war is wrong and incompatible with the spirit, example and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Your church’s position is a prophetic challenge and a courageous witness to all the rest of us who claim to follow Jesus.

One of the days we spent in the National Museum of the American Indian. We viewed each tribe’s intricate, multi-tiered map of the universe, their dances and rituals, their origin stories with eagles, ravens, bears, buffalo; corn, maize, and wheat – the sacred in all things. But I was saddened, too, by other maps showing where these tribes had been dispossessed of ancestral lands at our government’s hands, broken treaties, and the Trail of Tears.

And on Ash Wednesday we were first in line at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There’s an exhibit, “Making A Way Out of No Way!” – how African Americans survived and strengthened their communities in the midst of racial oppression. But there was also this poem by Langston Hughes, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943”:

You tell me that hitler // Is a mighty bad man. // I guess he took lessons // from the Ku Klux Klan …

Cause everything that hitler // And mussolini do, // Negroes get the same // Treatment from you …

I ask you this question // Cause I want to know // How long I got to fight // BOTH HITLER AND JIM CROW!

Just change the names; this could have been written yesterday. For the sake of all that’s good in humanity, “What won’t we tolerate anymore?”

TWO. Story #2. Back to Palestine and Israel. Bassam Aramin is a 46-year-old Palestinian Muslim and Rami Elhanan is a 67-year-old Israeli Jew yet they call themselves “dear brothers, bound together by violence.” In September, 1997, Rami and his wife’s daughter, 14-year-old Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. And in January 2007, Bassam and his wife’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back and killed by an Israeli soldier.

They are part of the Bereaved Parents Circle, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, who have lost children to violence. Their goal – to not add any new members. Bassam is a devout Muslim who understands his speaking as the will of God; Rami, a non-religious Jew, says that speaking to groups is the only way he’s able to get out of bed in the morning. “We’ve swum in a sea of blood and an ocean of emotion; we need to share the land, we’re tired of sharing graveyards.”

They say things difficult to hear. Rami is an Israeli military veteran, whose father-in-law was a prominent general. Yet he and his wife blame Israel for their daughter’s death. “What have we Jews done to cause the kind of despair that would cause a young Palestinian man to blow himself up in the middle of a market? At least the killer of our daughter had the decency to kill himself. The killer of Bassam’s daughter spent the night at a club.” Bassam was imprisoned for seven years for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers. He says, “My daughter was killed under Israeli policies approved by the United States, shot by an AR-15 made by Bravo Company, Hartland, WI, with a bullet supplied by the US Army, by a soldier wearing a uniform made in America.” … Global militarization funded by America. “A country is not only what it does but what it tolerates.”

Rami and Bassam often ask their mostly young audiences about the 450 mile-long, 30 feet high cement wall Israel has built around the West Bank. “Who is really occupied? Who does the wall really enclose?” There are many kinds of walls, and it’s difficult to see beyond them – our prejudices and fears and blind spots. That’s why they say, “We continue to bang our heads against these high, hard walls to create cracks of hope.” So again I ask: In the name of God, “What won’t we tolerate anymore?”

THREE. Story #3. One of my dearest friends in the Holy Land is three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, retired Archbishop of the Galilee, Abuna (Father) Elias Chacour. In his book, Blood Brothers, he tells how all the Christian families of his little village in the Galilee were exiled in 1948 and how the Israeli military destroyed their homes. He became a priest and began a Kindergarten in a village outside Nazareth. The Kindergarten grew into a grade school, then a high school, now with over 2000 students K-12, Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Jews learning what it means to be fellow citizens together.

Abuna says it is a moral obligation to not only focus on our own tribes, our families, our nation, even our religion, but instead be caretakers of the earth, caretakers of each other, “the human race as a beautiful mosaic of complementarity.” And he says, “I have one great problem, and his name is Jesus Christ.” It’s not difficult to love a friend. You don’t need to make peace with a friend. You can only make peace with an enemy. It is not natural to be a peacemaker, we don’t want to love those who hate us, not natural to love someone different. Jesus is a problem for us who choose to follow him. We have to change.

There are no easy answers, no cookie-cutter solutions, it’s messy. But we can choose to love in spite of fear. How can we do the hard thing, what is not natural for us to do? How do we do what we don’t want to do but know we should do, must do? “I have one great problem, Jesus Christ,” Abuna says; he continues, “and I have one great power, Jesus Christ.”

Kurt has said you’ve already begun – you’re an Open and Affirming church, you’re partnering with a Baptist church in El Salvador, taken into membership a person on death row in Oklahoma, sponsored a Guatemalan family seeking asylum, and more. Yet Kurt also said that you’re intentionally pushing yourselves outside your comfort zones and asking, “Who are our neighbors in our local community we have ignored or avoided, neighbors across culture and language and social class?”

“Who is our neighbor?” is the exact question we should all be asking in our country. In hindsight, we see what can happen incrementally, step by step, when fear, intolerance, divisiveness slowly seep into the national discourse of a country. Martin Luther King said the privileged and powerful never voluntarily give up their power, not without strong resistance. So on this Mother’s Day, first celebrated as a day of peace and to address public health issues, it’s important to ask:

When will we stop tolerating our government’s bloated military budget, with political leaders falling all over each other to increase it, a macho American Christian militarism?

When will we stop tolerating $3.8 billion dollars annually to Israel to support their apartheid militarist regime?

When will we stop tolerating so-called news sources stoking fear, that ply lies calling it truth, playing to our worst angels?

When will we stop tolerating hate speech from our political and religious leaders and on our airwaves?

When will we stop tolerating racially gerrymandered congressional districts that not only violate the rights of Black Americans and other people of color but also violate the spirit of the Constitution?

When will we stop tolerating those who want to sanitize our nation’s difficult history about race and sex, keeping us from an honest reckoning with the past so that we can begin to create Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community”?

When will we stop tolerating activist courts and male politicians intruding into the sanctity of a woman’s conscience interfering in decisions about her own health?

And when will we stop tolerating the Religious Right’s attempts to erase the wall of separation between church and state to establish a de-facto American Christian theocracy?

“Love your enemies,” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We can choose to love those who look different, live different, love different. We can choose to live in peace. We can choose to love in spite of fear. The world will tell us it’s crazy to live this way and it is. Crazy, but if we do it right, we are the real radicals. Jesus our problem, Jesus our power. And it’s the way that Strangers can become Neighbors can become Friends.

So for the love of Jesus, for the love of Jesus, what won’t you tolerate anymore?

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