The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer

Letter to God,  Advent II, December 7, 2014

Theme:  Peace

Focus: The Holy Land

Dearest God,

What a relief it would be ‘“if anger and hate were to be washed away” and peace be possible’! 

What a relief it would be “if mercy and faithfulness were to meet and justice and peace prevail” just as we recited in unison from our psalm this morning.

As I reflect on my own lack of interest in all things to do with the Middle East where conflict has been rife, divisive, and destructive for ‘lo now sixty five + years.

Sixty five years!  For the purposes of our worship service this morning, I realize that sixty five years is longer than I’ve been alive, give or take a few years.

Sixty five years of conflict! 

How different that must seem to those grounded in the experience of anger, hatred, destruction, and entrenchment and obvious lack of peace that is a fact of life whether you are a Palestinian or Jewish person living in the Holy Land.

Sixty five years means something quite different here in the Canadian context. 

To be sure, it’s a pivotal number.

Sixty five years makes me think of celebrations and gifts-golden watches, golden handshakes, the golden years-but, that’s here in our context where we can’t even

begin to understand what it must be like to line up for hours just to pass through the barricade that separates Jewish people from Palestinian-but that’s what many people have to do to get to their workplaces every day. 

We can’t even begin to comprehend the fear that would live in people’s hearts whose very livelihood require them to risk leaving loved ones alone at home and vulnerable for long hours every day.

And, so it is, I bring you my thanks, dear God, for being invited into a growing awareness, a sense of call even to respond to the perils of everyday living in the Middle East. 

This comes to me, this sense of call, not directly from You, dear God, nor through Jesus, nor through the Holy Spirit but rather, through my church friends, Sharon Copeman and David Cass.  For it’s Sharon and David who are far further down the road of their call’s and their responses to this sixty five years of anger, hatred, destruction, and entrenchment that lives in the hearts of both the Palestinian and Jewish peoples. 

Thank  you, God, for “making level the uneven ground and of the rough places a plain” in the hearts of all those who feel compelled to stand up, speak up, and act with mercy and forgiveness so that peace will be possible”; so that justice and peace might embrace. 

And then, O God, my thoughts turn to our reading from the gospel of Mark this morning and the sure knowledge that it’s not easy to be a prophet. 

Like Isaiah or John, the Baptist, or Elijah, John’s forebear, we, too, as messengers of God’s truth run the risk of being misunderstood, maligned, isolated, hated even for speaking truth to power.

No, it’s not easy to take a stand in a culture that can so easily and effectively mask pain, dilute compassion, and deluge us with distraction. 

This is our culture, particularly malevolent in its own way as the December light decreases and as we are tempted to bury ourselves in our busy-ness, our festive season ‘to-do’ lists.

Somehow, our culture insulates even my own awareness or acknowledgement that Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Holy One, the place I intentionally turn my heart in great anticipation during the season of Advent, is actually located within the bounds of the Palestine-occupied territories!

And yet, sometimes in those moments of stillness or ‘stuckness’, I wonder:

“Is there a voice in the wilderness crying? Maybe, maybe, maybe…..  

 

Dear God:

People ask how I ( David Cass)  became involved with this issue of Peace in the Holy Land.

  • Personally, I believe that I have been bothered by issues of injustice most of my life.
  • Growing up in the United Church, where the Methodists brought us the social gospel with its emphasis on justice issues, furthered my natural tendencies,
  • I remember having Sunday School handouts about Sid Gilchrist with his big red tractor.  He was a United Church missionary in Angola.  The message I got was that the Church helps people.
  • Later as a newly graduated civil engineer with a couple years of experience I went back to school at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.  Soon after arriving in Winnipeg, the Southern Indian Lake controversy erupted.  The Cree in northern Manitoba objected to Manitoba Hydro flooding their traditional fishing grounds and depriving them of their livelihood.  Our minister in Winnipeg was involved in supporting the Northern Communities as he had served in northern Manitoba as a young minister.
  • This controversy directly involved my Church and my professional engineering career and thus made an impact on me.  It was a social justice issue involving disputed land and resource ownership and displaced people.
  • This served as a good introduction for my involvement in social justice issues.

 

 

Dear God , people ask how the Church could be involved in the Palestinian Israeli issue.

  • The Palestinian – Israeli issue is not a religious issue.
  • It is, as at Southern Indian Lake, a social justice issue, involving disputed land ownership and displaced people,
  • The United Church has been involved for a long time in different ways within Palestine.  For example, one of our former Moderators – Dr.  McClure – spent several years as a medical missionary in Gaza.
  • Today we don’t have a United Church mission in Palestine but through the World Council of Churches we are connected with the Middle East Council of Churches.
  • In the early 1960’s the United Church Observer sent its Editor, AC Forest, to Palestine and Israel.  Upon his return he preached one Sunday in my home church in Fredericton.  His description of the problems of the Palestinian population with loss of land and displacement made me say:  “Wow – that is entirely different from what I had read in the media.   Look what you can learn in Church.”
  • Again God, some ask why is the Middle East Council of Churches concerned with a place populated with Jews and Muslims.  Well the media don’t report that in 1948 Christians made up about 18% of the population in Palestine.  Over the last 65 years the Council is concerned that the percentage of Christians has dropped to 2%.  In Bethlehem that percentage has dropped from 90% in 1948 to 18% today.

 The United Church has acterd on this issue as the Middle East Council has asked us to become involved.

 Oh God, what is the basis of this conflict?

  • Again, this is not a religious conflict between Muslims, Jews and Christians.
  • It is a question of land and displaced people.
  • When the UN ended the British Mandate in November 1947.  The UN then partioned the country into two states and specified boundaries.  This was with the intention that an accommodation would be reached for Palestinians living inside the new boundaries of Israel. However, the Israeli side had relatively large numbers of people in armed militias.  They seized control, expanded the boundaries and forcibly removed the Palestinian inhabitants.  Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were forced out of Israel and into the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and into refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.  Another 50,000 were forced into internal refugee camps near Nazareth. 
  • In the 6 Day War of 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Israel seized Gaza, the Sinai and the West Bank.  The Sinai was returned to Egypt but most of the West Bank remains under Israeli control.  In Gaza two of the 3 land borders are controlled by Israel.  The third land border is controlled by Egypt.  The sea coast constitutes the fourth border and all access is under Israeli maritime control.
  • Thus Israel has control of the land base of Palestine and control of access to it.  Thus life is difficult for the Palestinians with respect to personal movement and the movement required for commerce.  This in turn leads to much frustration and reaction to the Israeli control.  This in turn has lead to increased restrictions on movement at many check points.  The apparent hope on the Israeli side is that the Palestinians will become frustrated and leave.
  • The Palestinians have become increasingly frustrated and some with outside connections have left for Europe, the USA, Canada and other countries.  The majority however have no means of leaving and are resisting as Palestine is their home and has been for thousands of years.  In addition they are Palestinian and are separate from the Egyptians, the Saudi’s, the Bedouins of Jordan and the Lebanese. 
  • From the Palestinian perspective, prior to 1948 Palestine was approximately 12% Jewish.  Now through international agreement Israel has been created and is firmly established but Palestinians are stateless in what was their own land.

 Dear Lord Why has there been no solution?  What can we do?

  • There has been no solution to the Palestinian – Israeli conflict as currently there is a large power imbalance between the two parties. 
  • This is why the United Church has responded to the call from Kairos Palestine through the Middle East Council of Churches.  The resolution at General Council in August 2012 called for concrete actions to support the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
  • The aim is to change international public opinion through these actions and thus to help address the power imbalance.  To this end the United Church has launched the Unsettling Goods Campaign to educate us and encourage us to take economic action by boycotting goods made in the occupied territories of the West Bank.  The ongoing SodaStream Boycott is part of this campaign.
  • This will be a long struggle.  This reminds us of the text we heard from Isaiah:

A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

 Dear God - Thank you for Advent!

  • Last Sunday was for HOPE.
    • A candle in the darkness to keep alive the Hope of a just resolution of this conflict.
  • This Sunday is for Peace.
    • We are called in the words of the Unsettling Goods Campaign to

 “Pray, Choose, Speak for Peace in Palestine and Israel.

Dear God, (from Rev. Sharon Copeman)

How did things become so mixed up in that land we call Holy?  It doesn’t seem a very holy place when I think of all the terrible things that are happening there.  News reports are one-sided leading us to believe many Israeli victims are under attack, but if we look behind the stories the Palestinian death numbers prevail.  Palestinian homes are destroyed and destroyed again.  Checkpoints with armed guards slowdown or prevent Palestinians travelling from their homes to their places of employment.  Israelis travel freely.   God, how your heart must break!

I heard the story of Lia Tarachansky, a young Russian Jewish woman who moved to Israel as a child with her family.  When they arrived they were detained “for their own safety” because the supply of gas masks had not arrived.  Lia believed the air was not breathable because of the actions of the Palestinians.  There was no real danger, but fear was born in her.  Fear of the Palestinians.  She and her family moved into a settlement village, told that the homes had been abandoned.  In fact they had been confiscated.  There had been a Palestinian village there for many generations… children and parents and grandparents and great grandparents… many generations… now displaced… put into concentration camps in their own land… no longer their own.  God, how you must have wept!

But Lia grew up, and came to Canada to study.  In Canada she met her first Palestinian.  She had feared them all her life without ever meeting even one.  She was terrified - but she discovered this young Palestinian was just like her.  They discovered they need not fear each other.  They shared stories, and Lia began to wonder, and went back to the Holy Land to talk with old soldiers, and make a film, hoping to find a way toward peace between the Jews and Palestinians in your Holy Land.  God when Lia began her work, did it cause you to smile?

Holy God, when you led Moses and the Jewish people out of slavery, it was an act of holy love.  How you must lament that your love was misunderstood, claimed exclusively, and confined to a too small box!  Out of love, you freed all these from the sin and abuse of slavery… abusers were stopped and abused were freed… both in your plan meant to be restored to wholeness.  And when you led those ancient people into the Promised Land it was meant as an invitation into relationship with a people already precious in your heart.  That was acknowledged and peace prevailed for many generations.  But then the WW II happened - and the horror of the Holocaust!  We still live in the shadow of that horror.

The United Nations reports that  2,139 Palestinians, and 490 Palestinian children have been killed in this present struggle, and 64 Israeli soldiers, 6 Israeli civilians, and 1 Israeli child have been killed.  11,000 Palestinians and 3,000 Palestinian children have been wounded.  Up to 500,000 resident of Gaza have been displaced, and 20,000 homes in Gaza have been destroyed. 

This is the present situation which gives rise to the following statement from  Rabbis Alissa Wise and Brant Rosen, Co-founders of the Jewish Voices for Peace Rabbinical Council…  As we mourn all of these lives lost, it is important to ask ourselves honestly: how will we memorialize the dead? The only way to fully honor their memory is to put our grief in context.

To this end, we reject the narrative that views such tragedies as part of a cycle of violencebetween two peoples locked in interminable conflict. Rather, we believe they occur within an overall context of structural violence: i.e., an Israeli system of power and control over Palestinians.  

As JVP pointed out in our recent statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus declared intention to further entrench Israeli control over all of Israel/Palestine and pursue the collective punishment of Palestinians will bring neither peace nor quiet.

It is clear that allowing this oppressive status quo to continue will only mean more bloodshed, more grief, and more horror for both Israelis and Palestinians. If we are truly to honor the memory of all the dead in Jerusalem, we must redouble our efforts toward a future of equal rights and equality for all who live in the land. They end their statementWith hopes for a just peace soon and in our day,

Holy God, why do we ever think that reacting to violence with more violence will ever lead to peace?  Why do we not realize that there can be no peace without love, and there can be no love without forgiveness, and there can be no forgiveness without letting go of our hope for a better yesterday

Yesterday happened.  Palestinians were not the enemy in that horror.  They were simply the inhabitants of the land… and the villages.  The retelling of some of the yesterdays has been revised to create and maintain suspicion and fear between Palestinians and Israelis who want peace but are afraid to trust that it is possible. 

Today’s struggle in that Holy Land is not religious - it is political.  Israel is a land without a constitution, individual rights under the constitution do not exist.  When Palestinian homes are demolished there is no appeal process.

Holy God, I believe Lia’s hope is for that Promised Land to truly be a holy place, a place where all people will live in peace, and each will sit under their vine and fig tree, and none will be afraid.  This is my prayer, dear God.