Commentary

‘We didn’t think anyone in America cared’

Woody Allen is often quoted as saying that “Ninety percent of life is just
showing up.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a group that has been thanked so often for
simply showing up. The 39 bishops who participated in our annual Bishops’
Academy in Israel and Palestine in January heard it again and again. We
traveled there because of the long-extended invitation of Bishop Munib
Younan, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), a
church small in numbers, but deeply rooted in the area and engaging in
ministry of vital and strategic importance in the midst of the events that
constantly unfold in this region. The trip was almost cancelled as the fighting
in Gaza broke out less than two weeks before our departure, but it went on as
planned.

Our primary purpose was to “accompany” the ELCJHL — to be with them,
support them, learn from them … in short, to show up. The visit was more
than simply lip service. Bishop Younan told a group of ecumenical guests at
dinner one evening: “Accompaniment is different from solidarity. You can be
in solidarity and still sleep in your own bed!” Our hosts were clearly worried
that our own beds would be both tempting and justifiable as war broke out.
The fact that we chose to come anyway turned out to be a powerful statement
that was not lost on them.

The trip didn’t make any of us foreign policy experts. We were church, not
politicians. We worshiped, prayed, sang, and shared bread. And we made a
significant pastoral visit in deep ways. The leaders — pastors and ministry
leaders — were buoyed to know people from North America were interested
(five bishops from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada also traveled
with us). When we spent time with the people — sharing meals in homes of
congregational members or visiting the schools and ministries of the ELCJHL
— we heard this sobering comment frequently: “We didn’t think anyone in
America cared about Palestinians.”

The Palestinian Christians feel under siege. Because they are Palestinians,
they endure the same restrictions on movement and living options as all
Palestinians. If you aren’t an Israeli citizen or a Jerusalem resident, movement
through the checkpoints is problematic at best and sometimes forbidden.
Jerusalem has lost a substantial portion of its Christian population, and
across the entire country Christians comprise only 1.5 percent of the
population. This is an alarming drop in what had until recent years been a
strong presence of all three Abrahamic faiths in this land. Though alarming, it
is also the case that Christians are positioned to play a significant role in
events as they unfold because of their international connections.

Perhaps this connection of Palestinian Christians with other Christian people
around the world could be a significant factor in changing the current course
of events. In that land, there are signs that Christians have facilitated such
bridges. Bishop Munib Younan is respected by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian
leaders alike. And locally, the Lutheran schools we visited are a mix of
Christian and Muslim young people who have learned to live together well.
They respect one another’s traditions, and they share a love of this land. They
watch with both alarm and hope. In one discussion, after a student made a
strong statement hostile to Israel, another student — a Muslim — was quick
to respond, “No! They’re people too, just like us.” But the tension is real, and
the life experiences are distant between Palestinian and Jew.

Though we went to visit the Palestinian Lutheran church, we didn’t spend
time only among Palestinians. We also went for the purpose of raising our
own awareness of the issues and positioning ourselves to better advocate for
peace in that land. To those ends we had arranged a broad, balanced agenda.

We were hosted by an Israeli cabinet minister and the whole group — or parts
of it — spent time with the ministries of foreign affairs, tourism, and interior
(which there means security, a huge issue). We met with the Chief Rabbinate
of Jerusalem, overseen by two rabbis. We toured with Israeli guides who
educated us about settlements, large areas of housing the Israelis have
established on the West Bank in areas designated for the Palestinians. Most of
our group attended a Shabbat service at one of two local synagogues.

What did I bring home from the trip? First, we were told we strengthened the
ministry of the church there, now and in the future. We came away deeply
committed to the necessity of using our voice to insist on a political solution
that gives respect and dignity to both peoples — two states, a shared
Jerusalem, and an end to the occupation of all designated Palestinian areas,
which include the West Bank and Gaza. The United States has substantial
influence in the area, and I choose to believe ours is a democracy that works
well. The voices of people of conscience and conviction can be heard by those
who make our nation’s policy decisions on our behalf.

Finally, I came away convinced that this area is a holy land and was reminded
that God hears the prayers of people’s pain and their yearning for peace and
justice. This is the land to which the Prince of Peace chose to come. It may be
that it continues to be holy not only because it’s where world-changing
events happened 2000 years ago, but also because it continues to exist in the
midst of crossfire and conflict.

Pastor Mitri Raheb, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, reminded us
that this land of Palestine has always been crisscrossed by superpowers —
the Egyptians, Hittites (Turks), Assyrians, Persians, and Europeans. In the eyes
of Palestinians, the Jews who began streaming from around the world to
establish Israel in 1948 are occupiers of their land, particularly in the West
Bank, which was to have been Palestinian. Jewish people believe theirs is an
equally historic claim to the land. Therein lies much of the depth of the
conflict.

And God chose this peripheral land to be a holy place, just as God has always
asserted divine presence with those peoples on the margins.

Today the challenge of making human community whole is nowhere greater.
This land is not simply a tourist destination; it’s the locale for divine drama.
And in ways I still don’t fully understand, I think it’s important for us to show
up.

Peter Rogness is the bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America. He returned from a trip to the Middle East on
January 16.