I was invited to preach for Epiphany and to share some of my experiences in Palestine as part of the message. Using power point, I incorporated many photographs from my time with EAPPI, many that I took and a few from the EAPPI library and two from Google Images.
Epiphany allowed me to focus on the Journey of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents, themes that readily echoed some of my experiences.
Here is my message with a few of the photos I shared.
Matthew 2:1-12 (They left for their own country by another road.)
Friends, Let us pray together.
“God of Abraham and Sarah, blessed in their old age by new life and promise, give us open hearts and minds to receive your renewing words from unlikely sources. God of Ishmael and Hagar, exiled and impoverished because of jealousy and anger, bring to us a word that challenges our sense of righteousness and still comforts us in times of suffering. God of frightened Mary and confused Joseph, help us to know that we will find angels, companions and vision as we walk through times of fear, accompanied by the faith of shepherds and Wise Ones who still reveal to us your Incarnate one. Bless the words and stories shared today. Bless us as we work to make your word of justice and peace real in our world. Amen”
For any of you who have visited Israel, seen Jerusalem, walked in Manger Square in Bethlehem, you will know what I mean when I say that having returned from what we call “the Holy Land” the once familiar stories from scripture take on new meanings, and bring to mind images, smells, sounds and emotions more vivid than before our travels.
Indeed it is often difficult to return in imagination to the crèche image of a stable rude and bare, once one has seen the ornate and even opulent “Church of the Nativity” or the “Milk Grotto”. There is such a huge distance between these two scenes.
What resonates with me about the stories we read of the Christmas manger, and the words of Isaiah that are told in Christian community as foreshadowing of the visits of kings and magi, the bringing of a new light to the people, is the backdrop of Empire, persecution, militarization and Occupation of the Roman powers. What one sees in visiting Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Palestine today, is a community affected by occupation, controlled movement and the powers of Empire.
As the bulletin cover suggests, if Magi were to try to come to Bethlehem today, their progress would be impeded by the huge, 9 metre concrete separation barrier that continues to grow around the edges of Bethlehem, sealing in its Palestinian population and dividing communities from agricultural land.
I want to speak to you today about the lives of the vulnerable, the ways that the common people of Palestine in The West Bank are struggling to live in the face of Empire, terror and violence, and the fear and reactive need for security at the cost of humanity that dominates life in both Israel and Palestine.
EAPPI photo- South Hebron Hills
From mid June to the end of September this year, I volunteered with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, under the auspices of the World council of Churches and on behalf of the United Church of Canada. I served in the South Hebron Hills, based in the town of Yatta, a city of about 70 thousand people in an entirely Muslim area of the West Bank.
The Hills of this region are the same hills referred to in the gospel accounts of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth in the ‘Hill country of Judea’… and when John is born he grows up ‘strong in spirit and he was in the desert (wilderness) until the day he began to appear publicly to Israel’. These South Hebron Hills are ‘John The Baptist land’ to me.
The Palestinian people, of this area, in the many small villages and hamlets of the South Hebron Hills, are mostly farmers and shepherds. They have lived by subsistence farming and by grazing their sheep and goats over the hills, for hundreds of years.
As they were able to prosper, some families began to have homes in the towns and to engage in entrepreneurship, to sell some of their goods in the growing centres of the region. But mostly, they continued to live on their lands.
Farther south, in the real desert territories, were the Bedouin peoples who were truly nomadic. They travelled along with their animals from oasis to oasis, grazing and moving, grazing and moving. This was their culture and their lifestyle.
When the State of Israel came into being in 1948, many Palestinians living in areas of what became Israel left their homes, left quite suddenly, to avoid the warfare that erupted. Most left, assuming that they would be able to return to their homes, when the fighting died down. Instead, what happened was that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees. Many of their homes were confiscated and given to the newly immigrated Jewish people, coming to a safe homeland after escaping the pogroms, and surviving the persecutions and the genocide of the Holocaust.
Yad Veshem- Holocaust Memorial Centre- Jerusalem
Many Palestinians who fled carried with them the large iron keys to the doors of homes they would never see again. These symbols of homes lost are passed down from generation to generation, along with the stories of distress and dispossession.
The Bedouins of the Negev desert area also soon found themselves being pressured to move. Because the desert bordered on Egypt and Jordan, it was a huge area and hard for the new State of Israel to keep safe and secure. The Israelis opted to move the Bedouin peoples out of the desert, and gradually to begin bringing Israelis to the desert, to ‘make the desert bloom’ and to grow food for the population of the burgeoning new state.
Even though the Bedouin did not have ‘homes’, the desert land was their home. They felt deeply connected to the land that they viewed as a gift from Allah. Groups of Bedouin found places to settle, to buy land from Governates in the West Bank, at this time under Jordanian rule. And so, the Bedouin began to have ‘homes’, permanent tents, animal pens, gardens, schools and the other trappings of a more settled lifestyle. Nomads no more.
After the Six Day War, in 1967, Israel became an Occupying Power in the West Bank. Today, 64 years later, the occupation continues, and the loss of homes for Palestinians and Bedouins continue at an alarming rate.
As Israel seeks to build communities and homes for its growing population, it is confiscating land and annexing territory in the West Bank for settlements, gated enclaves for Israelis, with security forces to keep Palestinians out. This policy of settlement is a direct violation of the Geneva conventions and has been denounced by nearly all member countries of the United Nations, including the United States.
EAPPI photo- Karmel Settlement beside Umm All Kher, Bedouin village
There is an undeniable need for a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people. What has happened though in the years of defending the land and transferring their people to Palestinian land in The West Bank is that the land base for a home, ‘ a state’ for the Palestinians is become less and less viable.
Map from Palestine Israel Action Group, Ann Arbor Friends Meeting.
In the name of security, Israel destroys homes in Palestinian villages. Because large parts of the West Bank are under Israeli military and civil control, they will not grant building permits to Palestinian families, even when the family may need to make their homes larger to accommodate more children or a married son and his family. If any structure is built without a permit, it is subject to a ‘demolition order’.
So the bulldozers come, and homes are destroyed,
EAPPI stock photo-Dkaika, Palestine
And lives are disrupted, and children cry
Aftermath of settler arson attack on Palestinian home in Susiya
and gardens are uprooted and olive trees are burned.
The magi were warned to not return to Herod. They went home by another way. Returning to the land through the desert and over the wadis into what is now Jordan and continuing east to their homelands. I returned to Canada, by travelling through Jordan as well. And it was indeed a safer and more simple journey than going home via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From my group of EAPPI friends, 10 of the 30 who left Israel via Ben Gurion were subjected to intense airport scrutiny, due to having spent time in the West Bank. Seven of these people were strip-searched, and had items confiscated. The EAs were only carrying the stories of what they witnessed about the treatment of Palestinians home to their communities. No gold, no weapons, only stories of suffering. Perhaps these stories of injustice are the true threat that results in the need for control which masks fear.
The Magi went home by another way… perhaps to protect themselves, but also to protect the innocent young child in whom they saw such potential. Herod too, perceives the child-king’s potential and it frightens him to the core. The story we often gloss over, that is the sequel to the sweet images of Christmas, is Herod’s rampage that slaughters the innocent children under age two. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
There is much weeping in Palestine. Weeping against the militarization in Israel that steals the lives of young men and women, weeping against the home demolitions and loss of life, livelihood and land for the Palestinian people, weeping in Israel over the rocket fire and acts of destruction committed by the desperate and the unheard and the enraged fringe of extremists in some Palestine communities, weeping for the future of children in both Palestine and Israel who grow up believing only that the other hates and wants them dead.
But there are voices of hope, and courage and comfort and solidarity as well. And those stories refuse to be silenced. There are many activists in the Jewish Israeli community who are challenging the exclusionary motif that God promised the land only to the Jews. Rabbis for Human Rights has written extensively that if the Israel does not treat its neighbours with justice and righteousness, that the promises of God are not deserved. There are many voices in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian community who believe that this land can be home to all, with justice and peace.
Women in Black demonstration in Jerusalem
This land is the place where God called Abraham, the forefather of Jews, Christians and Muslims, this is the land of the Temple of Jerusalem;
it is that land of Jesus, birth, death and resurrection;
it is the land where Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven.
The land itself is home to the Bedouin.
It is spiritual home.
The ways I travelled this summer were not straight.
And the road to a peaceable Kin-dom will still have twists and turns.
Road to Yatta from Susiya, Palestine
And I do not claim to know the final destination.
The parties of the conflict, the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Christians and Muslims and Jews of this area known as Palestine and Israel, must make a way in the desert for God’s word of peace to take root.
Photo from google Images
This is the blooming of the desert that will be most pleasing to God; this joining of God’s children in the land called Holy, but so embroiled in unholy violence.