Year A, Proper 13
August 3, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You are gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. You are loving to everyone and your compassion is over all your works. You uphold all those who fall; you lift up those who are bowed down.” That is a vision of paradise from the 145h Psalm.
I need to speak with you all about the war in Gaza this morning. I don’t want to, but I really don’t think I have a choice. Palestine, the war there, has dominated every news cycle since those kids were abducted and murdered in the West Bank a few weeks ago. Gaza, Israel and Hammas… it is on everyone’s mind. And oh! How overwhelming it all is, the incredible volume of information, opinion and deep, deep loyalties, identities, hopes, dreams and histories involved… it is a topic that upsets everyone who pays it any attention. Why does it upset everyone? Because so much of what goes on in Palestine is simply upsetting, no matter what side of what fence you find yourself. So if you are upset about all of it, good. What a human response! It is the most appropriate response any of us could have in light of the tragedy upon tragedy unfolding in that raw, bruised corner of our world.
In the very best of times, even in the stretches of relative peace in the region, there are few topics that are more divisive than the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Since I have been back from vacation I have had more pointed conversations about this topic than anything that has been in the news in my threeish years among you, and from the broadest range of opinions I have encountered within these walls. So when rockets and artillery shells are passing each other in the air, the atmosphere of debate is down right incendiary. And that is here, half a world away, with no need of an Iron Dome or a hand dug basement to shelter in. There? I can only imagine that the fear and the rage, righteous and otherwise are blinding. So let’s start there, with the knowledge that there are deep feelings pointed in very different directions right here in this little community. The fact that the first vigil here in Eugene just happened yesterday is a sign of just how divisive this topic is.
And yet there is a gaping wound on this Earth, a festering sore in the body of humanity precisely in the place where the imaginations and identities of three of the world’s great religions are forced by history (God, perhaps) to intersect. We cannot ignore the suffering of the people of Palestine, the people of the Holy Lands. We cannot ignore or worse, dismiss, the suffering of Jews, Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. What kind of Christians would we be if we forgot the land that that our spiritual ancestor Moses was led to, that David consolidated, that hosted the Temple’s cycle of construction and destruction, that Isaiah and the prophets lamented, that, with the Blessed Virgin birthed God incarnate, that Jesus walked, upon and healed upon and fed upon with the apostles, from which Mohammed ascended into heaven? We can’t forget; we can’t ignore it. The Holy Lands is sometimes called the Fifth Testament by Christians who travel there, because walking around the actual foundation of Jericho, swimming in the actual Sea of Galilee or wading in the actual but not very mighty or cold waters of the Jordan River, seeing the actual road to Emmaus, it brings our holiest stories alive in very real ways. That place, that place built upon wondrous, holy imagination, a place that has birthed and sustained civilizations, including our own, a place steeped in an abiding knowledge of the presence of God Almighty among us, be it in the Holy of Holies, in the very Body of Christ, or the place where the Prophet fully and completely joined his God in the company of the Archangel Gabriel, that holy and wondrous place is collapsing under the weight of hatred and violence. We cannot stand by and let the bloodshed continue unlamented, uncontemplated, unprotested.
I am not here to defend the State of Israel or Hammas. Any partisan opinions I have are irrelevant. Besides, I doubt that many of us this far from the events know enough to speak intelligently about the details of this most recent flare up let alone the painful history of the past 70 odd years of Israel’s existence. I certainly cannot. I am, however, as your priest, here to contemplate the morality of the situation, to consider what is right and what is wrong in light of the incarnation, life, ministry and crucifixion of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. You know, a simple task…
In this case, however, I think it is a pretty simple task, and when we apply one of the most basic tools of 20th century theology, then it becomes, to me, quite clear. Who has heard the term “the preferential option for the poor?” What does it mean? ____ Most basically it means that God in Christ is most present in those who suffer; God prefers the suffering, and our duty as Christians is to prefer, to stand in solidarity with, to serve those who suffer most. It is sourced across the scriptures, but most obviously in Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The term was first used by the Superior General of the Jesuits in a letter to the Jesuits in the Central and South American Provinces in 1971, a horrible time/place in history, and was amplified in the work of Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff and many others, founders off a thread of theology called liberation theology. Over and over it reveals that God is mst present, is most visible, is most active in the lives of the suffering, the powerless, those in every conceivable form of poverty and depravation.
If we survey the landscape of Palestine, it is alarming clear who has the power and who does not. Israel has the power. Palestinians, particularly those in the occupied territories, do not. Gaza is one of the poorest, most densely populated pockets of humanity on the planet, cut of from the rest of the world by blockades of the land, sea and air by Israel on three sides and Egypt to the south. They have no freedom of travel, trade is virtually impossible, poverty is rampant, and they live under constant surveillance and the constant threat of one of the best equipped and best trained military forces in the world, backed up and supplied by the most powerful military the world has ever seen, our own.
I am not saying to choose the side of Hammas in this fight. Choosing sides is half the problem in such intractable, generational, ethnic conflicts. What I am saying is that Jesus Christ gravitated to the least of these. He chose Galilee over Rome. He invited tax collectors, petty collaborators into his inner circle. He brought prostitutes in close. He eschewed the confidence and favor of the conventionally powerful, of the empire and the powerful collaborationist elements in the Temple and Royal households. We are called to do the same, to gravitate to the deepest suffering, and right now in this conflict, that is in Gaza.
Napoleon is famously reported to have said, “God favors the side with the best artillery.” Patently untrue, God favors no side in any war. God favors the victims of war, and is found wherever there is weeping, suffering, dying; and right now, the volume of despair amongst the people of Gaza is as great as anywhere in the world and that it is happening very precisely under the boot of a vastly superior power. History never treats the vastly superior power well, not in the long-view, not in God’s time, at least. Our hearts should be breaking for the people of Gaza. Mine is.
For whom did your heart break in Soweto in the 70s and 80s? The South African governement? For whom did your heart break in the Bogside on Bloody Sunday, Derry 1972? The British Paratroopers? For whom did your heart break on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965? Bull Conor and his police forces? In Nanking 1937? On the Salt Marches with Gandhi in 1930? At the Homestead Strike in 1892? For whom did your heart break?
Our hearts should break for every child who spent time this past week in an air raid shelter or a darkened basement. Our hearts should break for the cancer patients who can’t move themselves to safety when the rockets or tank shells begin to land. Just as our hearts should break for every Israeli private and every al-Qassam irregular who cried his or her self to sleep last night, the right of every soldier everywhere, crying them selves to sleep as much for what they suffer as for the terrible things they are doing to each other. Our hearts should break for everyone being broken in this war. And the volume of suffering happening amongst the people of Gaza, a people living a life of utter depravation should make everyone’s heart break. Christ’s surely is, for Christ is always with the oppressed just as He lived and promised. AMEN.