Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Many people have asked me about my trip to Israel and Palestine, and even asked that I speak about it. I’m glad to hear of their interest, as this is very important to us as Christians but we have not paid much attention to it as a presbytery. However, I am still processing the experience, and I doubt I will ever be resolved enough to be able to give a succinct report of what I saw. Instead, at least for now, the experience will shape my perspective on life, and how we as God’s children are to act in the world. As we try to find ways to respond to the tragedy in Turkey and Syria, we yet look for glimpses of hope.
There are a few things that are quite clear to me (at least for now!). People refer to my trip in different ways, and this reflects the many ways we perceive this birthplace of Abrahamic faith traditions. Also, what we see and understand is greatly impacted by the persons we entrust to help interpret the land, and our own background that give us lenses that focus and filter our perceptions. (Now that I think of it, isn’t all that true of our faith formation?)
So, for instance, though I was instructed to tell the Israeli immigration officials that I was a “pilgrim,” and folks have asked me about my pilgrimage, it didn’t feel like a pilgrimage to me. While I and many others have referred to this land of Jesus as the “Holy Land,” I am uncomfortable to confess that I didn’t sense the place to be all that holy. Being the child of a politically active family did lead me to see things through a political lens, yet I continue to struggle with the stance that our denomination has taken, though I am deeply troubled by the political situation there, which is worsening from day to day. Having been raised with a very deep appreciation for the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people’s response to so many tragedies and persecutions over the centuries, I could not simply condemn what is happening in Israel as “apartheid,” though the only tears I shed came out of disappointment for a people I have always considered as moral exemplars of justice and compassion.
My response to the controversy over what to do and say about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has always been two-fold. First, we Christians have no right to judge other people’s use of their faith as justification for persecution, especially if we dare to judge Jews, who have been victimized the most by those who claim to follow Christ. Second, anti-Semitism is always present, from microagressions and unspoken biases to bloody massacres all over the United States and the world, and I can’t see providing any fuel to allow that evil to grow. I have been told that once I got there and saw what was happening, my mind would be changed. This did not exactly happen. As troubled as I was by the worst aggressions against the Palestinians, I still remember (and was reminded at our WinterFest opening session) that people who claim to be Christians have been responsible for multiple genocides all around the world. And as focused as the Presbyterian Church has been on Israel and Palestine, I saw almost no presence on the ground; the Christian churches who were seen as peacemakers were Lutheran and Mennonite.
So how are we to respond? How can we contribute to peace in this troubled crush of religious passion and vengeance?
I now realize that this was my most basic goal of the trip. I have felt that the people of this land, those who were singled out for favor and calling by God, represent the first and last chance for God’s realm of peace to be realized. If we who all look back to Abraham as called by God to be our spiritual father cannot heed God’s pleas for justice, peace, and reconciliation, how can we ever expect to see shalom? What approach will further the cause for God’s peace, and how can our faith in Jesus Christ guide us?
Throughout my course, I questioned our leaders about how to work for peace in this land. They were:
- Huda Abuarquob, a Palestinian Muslim peace activist and Regional Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace (https://www.allmep.org/), an umbrella NGO with mostly Jewish leadership,
- Marcie Lenk, a Jewish woman from New Jersey who moved to Israel as a young adult but came back to the US to earn a PhD in early Christianity at Harvard, and
- Stephanie Saldaña, a Christian writer and journalist fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She has lived for twenty years in Syria and Palestine and has studied with a shaykhah (the feminine form of sheikh, which among other things is used to describe a Muslim religious teacher).
All three women are devout in their faiths, have studied at Harvard, and two of them, Huda and Stephanie, have been Fulbright Scholars. They have different opinions and approaches to the troubles of the land in which they live, but what they have in common is a commitment to reconciliation through dialogue and mutual respect. While their efforts may not be incendiary or spectacular, they liken themselves to leaven, being that little speck of yeast that raises the whole loaf, even if some purists would try to rid themselves of it.
One organization they agree to support is called the Bereaved Families Forum or The Parents Circle Families Forum (https://www.theparentscircle.org/en/pcff-home-page-en/). This is a group of parents who have lost loved ones to violence, and simply tell their stories. They have gone into schools in Israel and Palestine, and organize an annual service of remembrance on Israeli Memorial Day; thanks to COVID they have moved this event to Facebook and Zoom, so the 2022 service was viewed by 200,000 people around the world. (You can still view the service by clicking here; towards the end Huda speaks, as well as a most powerful message by Israeli activist Yuli Novak.) By simply telling their stories, they have changed hearts, faced threats of violence, and provided safe space for dialogue and peacemaking.
As I write this, I realize that I may be attracted to this approach because it is similar to the approach some of us have tried to take towards racial reconciliation here in the United States. While the dominant approach in the PC(USA) towards anti-racism is mandatory training, some of us who have been doing anti-racism training for decades prefer an approach that is less quantifiable but possibly longer-lasting: that is, sharing our stories so that we can see God’s child in each other. Like the yeast in the widow’s bread, like a dozen scraggly disciples of Jesus, like the tiny oft-occupied land of Israel, God often chooses the small, faithful efforts to further God’s plan of salvation for the world. As in this quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Let us live as thoughtful, committed citizens of the kingdom of heaven, in whatever circumstance that confronts us.