What does the Lord require? Reflections on the Holy Land
Tuesday, 6 September 2016
| Shane Fenwick
'They cannot take away my smile!'
These were the astonishing words uttered by Aziz, a Bedouin man, who graciously shared his story with myself and eleven other international delegates. Our interfaith delegation, on behalf of Christian Peacemaker Teams, had stopped by the Bedouin village of Al Faqueet to learn about their history and the challenges they faced on a daily basis.
What we heard and saw was nothing short of horrifying. Despite having lived on the land for centuries – and with documentation to prove this – their village had been deemed ‘illegal’ by the Israeli government. As a result, it had been demolished 101 times in the past six years. That’s roughly one demolition every three weeks. An entire village of men, women, and children, building temporary wooden shelters or tents, only to have them razed over and over again. In spite of this, Aziz and the other villagers spoke of their great love for the land and their determination to peacefully resist the injustice they were facing.
Unfortunately, this was not an uncommon story as we travelled throughout Israel-Palestine. Later that day, we were to visit the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert. Due to an Israeli settlement being built close by, they too faced the ugly prospect of demolitions. Just a week later, as I sat in my comfortable room in Sydney, I would watch heartbreaking footage of local villagers being arrested as they sought to halt part of their village being bulldozed.
Another Palestinian village in the South Hebron hills, Susiya, faced a similar fate. Home to around 450 people, it had been denied access to running water and electricity. Demolition orders had been placed against every single shelter. A thriving Israeli settlement could be seen a short distance away. An Israeli military base stood on the edges of the village. As we sat with the leaders of the community, they shared with us the stories of their daily struggle. Intimidation from soldiers, violence from Israeli settlers, and a fear of what may happen to their village. I vividly remember walking past a small memorial to a young girl who had been murdered by Israeli settlers. They had snuck into Susiya under the dark of night, setting fire to the tent she had been sleeping in. Nonetheless, the people of Susiya stood in resilience and hope, refusing to either move or respond in retaliation. ‘This land is my blood’, one of the elders of the community told us, ‘my family has lived here for centuries’.
For many Palestinians, one thing became clear. To exist was to resist. To merely live a peaceful existence was a revolt against the powers of death and violence which sought to dehumanise, deprive and destroy: a constant military presence, night raids, check-points, the partition wall, hostile settlers, demolitions, sieges, lack of access to water and electricity, racial profiling, tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets. This was daily life. What I witnessed with my eyes in the Holy Land seemed anything but holy. Amongst all of it stood the question: where was God? Who possesses the divine right to the land? Whose ‘side’ is God on? As I continue to reflect on my time in Israel-Palestine, the words of the prophet Micah come to mind.
‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8)
Ancient Israel, in unfaithfulness to Yahweh, had neglected to fulfil their divine vocation in the world - to be a people set apart who would embody, in the midst of violent empires, the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. In witnessing this, Yahweh did not hesitate in placing judgement on his people. Far from being a divine cheerleader of empire, Yahweh would make clear – time and time again – what he required of his people. In Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (1989), Palestinian pastor and theologian Naim Ateek outlines the changing concept of God throughout the Old Testament, as seen in the prophetic tradition. Over time, there is a relocation of interest away from nationalism and land to an emphasis on justice, righteousness, and mercy. God isn’t simply another pagan god who sanctions all the actions of a particular people. God desires justice, peace and flourishing for all peoples. God desires shalom. Ateek writes:
For it is not the land that carries a blessing to the people, but faithfulness to the God of justice, righteousness, and mercy. It is true that the land of Israel-Palestine has been singled out as host to great events in history, but I do not believe that it is intrinsically more holy than other lands. If God has done great things here, God has done great things everywhere. If God loves this land and its peoples, that is a sign – a sacrament – that God loves each and every land and its peoples. The whole earth is the Lord’s. This is all God’s world. The whole world should be holy. It is all sacramental. (110-111)
Ateek goes on to point out that this trajectory is completed in the person of Christ Jesus – the very image and likeness of Yahweh. In Jesus, we see revealed a God not beholden to any nationalistic agenda or conquest, but rather one who opens up his redemptive mission to all people. So, whose side must God be on? God is on the side of peace, justice, and righteousness. Where there is injustice, God stands with those pursuing justice. Where there is violence, the spirit of God animates those embodying peace.
How, then, do we respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I don’t suggest for a moment that there is a clear-cut answer. Nor would I claim that one side is completely innocent, and the other completely guilty. Violence has been perpetrated on both sides of the divide. However, we must be aware of where the power imbalances lie and where much of the cost of the conflict is being borne. Thus, we must ask the question: what are the obstacles to peace and justice?
If we are to genuinely seek an answer to this question, and if there is to be peace in the Holy Land, we must all practice what Thomas Nagel calls ‘double vision’ (The View from Nowhere, 1986): that is, we must be able to see the world from the eyes of the other, of those who are across the divide. In order to have this capacity, Miroslav Volf argues that we must first be able to step outside of ourselves. Second, in doing so, we can cross the existing social boundaries, moving into the world of the other and hearing and seeing life from their perspective. Third, we must incorporate these stories into our own world. And finally, we must repeat this process. When we possess such double vision, we are then able to acquire a ‘common language’ (Exclusion and Embrace, 1996, 253). Then, and only then, can we begin to honestly judge the situation, identify the obstacles that lie in the way of justice and peace, and then act.
Such a view may seem idealistic, even impossible. But, I’m heartened by those I encountered in Israeli-Palestine who possessed such double vision; a willingness to step outside of themselves and embrace the other. Those like Zoughbi Zoughbi, director and founder of the Palestinian Conflict Transformation Centre, who insisted that his ‘enemy is a friend in the waiting.’ Or Palestinian nonviolent activist Ali Abu Awwad, founder of Al Tariq, who told us that it was not stones, guns, or bombs that were his best weapons, but rather the humanity of those deemed his enemy. Despite the reality of violent oppression, I met countless people who displayed enormous courage, hope, resilience and a drive not to give into hatred. People who, like Aziz, would peacefully resist with a smile. Perhaps it is in those moments that we witness something of God’s shalom.
Shane Fenwick is a young Christian from Sydney who is deeply passionate about theology and its implications for discipleship, mission and engagement with a hurting world. He is a case manager with Mission Australia as he undertakes his Master of Theology through Charles Sturt University.
Photos: Shane with Aziz (main photo); the village of Susiya; and the village of Umm-al-Hiran.