Sunday, July 5, 2015

Fight Violence with Love (and Citizenship)

1. Berlin in a Heatwave
From ISIS video, per Huffington Post

ISIS vows to topple Hamas in Gaza, uproot 'state of the Jews' - Middle East - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News 

Arriving in Berlin for the first time, I'm knocked sideways by this summer's 'african heatwave' and startled by Lebanese and Vietnamese restaurants in a neighborhood that could pass for the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The cab driver relishes the heat, mentioning that it "seems like vacation" when it gets so hot, so humid, so quickly.  The trees are green, lush and leafy.  The air is perfectly still, heavy and stifling.  Berlin on the fourth of July.

By Brandenburg Gate
Hard to imagine any other Berlin on a day like today.  Hard to imagine the Berlin of Kristallnacht.  The Berlin of Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky and his burning synagogue.  The Berlin of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church.  The Berlin of Hitler.

But news out Syria, Tunisia, the Middle East...and the madness is closer, more real than I'd like my children to know.  Huffington Post reports on an ISIS video, supposedly showing a mass execution in Syria.  And Haaretz reports on an ISIS promise--to 'topple' Hamas in Gaza and 'uproot the state of the Jews.'  My first prayer is for the friends I've made in Israel, in Palestine, over the last decade.  I pray for their safety, for their warm and committed hearts, for their families and lovers and friends.  God, have mercy.  Have mercy on every last one of them.  Keep them safe and make them bold in goodness.

My second prayer is something more akin to confession.

It strikes me that ISIS is rising in the ashes of my country's failure, even ignorance.  I confess complicity in our war-making madness in the Middle East.  I confess that I could have done more and might have said more to oppose the first Gulf/Bush War and then the second Gulf/Bush War.  We knew these incursions were about bravado and oil, but "we the people" let them go on with barely a whimper.  And that's something I confess.  I believe in a bigger God than I let on.  And I seek to practice discipleship, not sweetness.  I failed my God, my Teacher, my world.  The American Church did too.  I feel an unsettling kinship with those German Christians who sat still, who did too little, during the '30s and '40s.  If Jesus insists on discipleship, why do we so often refuse to follow?  And what might forgiveness and grace mean for us now?  Where do we go from here?

2. Israel and Palestine

And now ISIS is breathing hatred and ugly, wretched violence.  Feeding on the toxic seeds my country has sown into the soil of the Middle East.  Burning with distrust.  Setting their awful sights on Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank.

How can I not appreciate the fears of Israeli friends, kind people who simply want to live and pray and grow in peace?  I have to acknowledge their profound concern for the gathering madness to their north, east, south.  What next for their Holy Land?  What next for their children?  What kinds of walls will be built to make the gentle safe?  What kinds of weapons will be employed to outmaneuver the enemy?

I'm proud of what our United Church of Christ has done this week, proud of the resolution divesting from companies profiting from occupation and human rights abuses.  I believe in the work we're doing together, in the careful listening, in the theological commitment to solidarity with Palestinian friends.  We look at the last five, six, seven decades--and we see the occupation (and everything that comes with it) as a terrible, moral, human rights crisis.  We've acted, out of concern, in solidarity, to divest.  But what next?  Beyond divestment, where will new ideas come from?  Where will new visions appear?  

In the very real world of ISIS and hatred, of settlers uprooting Palestinian trees for sport, what does peace even mean, or reconciliation, or justice?  Two states side by side: is that even possible anymore?  And if not, what else?

Last November, our Santa Cruz delegation met with Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour, a passionate, experienced and articulate voice in the West Bank.  And Sam described the process he's been through over the last decade, and his suspicion now that a 'two state' solution is probably impossible.  Given unabated settlement activity, given global politics, given all of that--Sam suggested that Palestinians might want to give up on the 'two state' idea and focus instead on a serious "civil rights movement."  A vision of a single, democratic, constitutional state--in which every human being counts, in which every human being is equal before the law, in which every human being votes.

Sam Bahour in the West Bank
I'm remembering Sam's witness today.  And I'm thinking about ISIS and the madness within and beyond the Holy Land.  And I'm wondering if what's really, REALLY needed isn't just that: a single, democratic, constitutional state.  In which every human being is equal before the law, in which every human being votes, in which citizenship means concerted commitment to the common good.  If Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, Christians and Muslims and atheists and all the rest--if they could turn their sights toward such a project, wouldn't that be the greatest barrier to madness and ISIS and the bigotry of settler-mentality?  Wouldn't an Israel-Palestine alive with a different kind of peace movement, a different kind of citizenry, a united people under constitutional law, be the most effective antidote to nationalism and apocalyptic religiosity in the region?

What Sam Bahour's vision requires, of course, is a full throttle shift: from the old politics of division and difference to the revolutionary politics of citizenship and empowerment.  It requires a civil rights movement of the most significant kind: binding occupied Palestinians to committed, daring Israelis; going deep into the spirituality and sacrificial practices of nonviolence; imagining a prophetic (!!!) alternative to Netanyahu's "fear first" vision and ISIS' "one way only" future.

3. Edward Said on Citizenship         
I'm half-way into Children of the Stone, a new book by Sandy Tolan (author of The Lemon Tree).  I can't recommend the book (unsettling as it is) enough.  As powerful as The Lemon Tree was, the new book is a beautifully and even painfully told story about children, occupation, resistance and music.  Most of all, music!  As important as politics are in resolving conflict (and Tolan insists that they are), this story points to music and the process of making music as an expression of reconciliation, truth-telling and justice.

Tolan is careful to resist the simple notion that 'we play together, we get along together.'  Instead, he offers a kind of critique of the Oslo Peace Process, suggesting the urgent need for equality, shared dignity and common purpose.  Music--vigorously pursued--seems to do that. 

It's a wide-ranging book, and Tolan turns to key figures along the way.  In Chapter Ten, he describes the important friendship between Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim.  A great Palestinian intellectual and Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia, Said found in Barenboim a sweet and supportive friend and an ambitious intellectual partner.  One of the finest conductors of his generation, and an Israeli Jew, Barenboim shared with Said a profound commitment to music and the arts.  And the two worked together to bring together Arab and Israeli musicians the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Weimar, Germany.  

Said and Barenboim discovered that music was crucial preparation and training for citizenship, for the hard work of reconciliation, for a way beyond "I-get-mine-and-you-get-yours" politics.  "The musical experiment at Weimar," writes Tolan (106), "stood for what Edward like to call a third way." 
The third way avoids both the bankruptcy of Oslo and the retrograde policies of total boycotts.  It must begin in terms of the idea of citizenship, not nationalism, since the notion of separation (Oslo) and of triumphalist unilateral theocratic nationalism whether Jewish or Muslim simply does not deal with the realities before us.  Therefore, a concept of citizenship whereby every individual has the same citizen's rights, based not on race or religion, but on equal justice for each person guaranteed by a constitution, must replace all our outmoded notions of how Palestine will be cleansed of the others' enemies.  Ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing whether it is done by Serbians, Zionists, or Hamas. (Said, "Israel-Palestine: A Third Way," 1998).
Tent of Nations, West Bank
Today, in a Berlin heatwave, I think I see what Edward Said was getting at, all those years ago.  "The bankruptcy of Oslo" is the bankruptcy of Green Lines and Separation Walls; it's the bankruptcy of separate school systems teaching different kids different languages and different histories.  And "ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing whether it is done by Serbians, Zionists, or Hamas."  

What Sam Bahour and his brilliant daughter are saying, what the mentors at Reut Sadaka Youth Partnership are saying, what Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin are saying--is that they see something bigger.  They see something more daring.  They see something that resists the madness and builds democracy: democracy in the law, democracy in the voting booth, democracy in schools, democracy across a holy land.  They see neighbors and strangers developing traditions together, growing to respect differences together, learning the arts of citizenship, leadership and negotiation together.  In my own little world, we talk about "public life," how important and essential it is to learn the tools and skills necessary for "public life."  I'm not really sure there is such a thing as 'democracy' without these skills.

Maybe you believe that, in the end, ISIS will only be undone by brute force, by American power, by fancy American war planes and computerized techno-wizardry.  But I don't buy that at all.  In the end, history's shone that brute force only unleashes more brute force...especially in the Middle East...especially where religion's involved.

What if a new kind of citizenship is the point?  What if training citizens becomes the point--in schools across Israel, in schools across the West Bank, in synagogues and churches and mosques?  What if all the children of the Holy Land climb the mountain together--the same mountain--and show the rest of us what hard work and democracy can look like? 

4. Footnote.

By the way, the outrage around the Confederate Flag across the American South is a reminder of how limited, how limiting, how devastating nationalism can be.  For generations, that symbol has stirred all kinds of hatred, while exempting the hateful from meaningful engagement and democratic involvement.  When my identity (vis a vis 'yours,' vis a vis 'an other') trumps all serious commitment to citizenship, nationalism weakens the democratic project in all kinds of ways.  And the center cannot hold. 

Berlin Graffiti
And we see that in the USA.  In some places, we're more interested in petty, self-interested agendas...and not committed enough to citizenship, servanthood, compassion and democracy.  We've yet to fully embrace broad-based organizing across diverse congregations, neighborhoods, unions and families.  We're turned on by angry sloganeering and the politics of blame and contempt (see Donald Trump and Sarah Palin); and we're lazy when it comes to thinking strategically about shared prosperity and acting together for a better future.

As tempting as it is to preach at our friends in Israel and Palestine, I remind myself that we have urgent projects ahead in California, Detroit, New York and the Deep South.  Will we teach one another the tools and skills of citizenship?  Will we cultivate an appetite for democracy?  Will we turn our hearts and minds toward the kind of life that strives toward the common good?  We're all living in holy lands now.  And the tasks before us all are urgent.