Seeing life through the eyes of the ‘other’

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While the horrible news of 100 people dying from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza this week, even as Gazan missiles fly into southern Israel, may seem like a faraway matter, events in the Middle East often have local repercussions. Just last week, my fiancee and I were rushing off to a Fourth of July fireworks show at San Jose’s Almaden Lake after grabbing dinner in Santana Row when we noticed a crowd gathered at Stevens Creek and Winchester boulevards flanked by a sea of red, white, green, and black Palestinian flags.

At first, I was struck by the irony of the protest’s timing. As we Americans celebrated our nation’s independence, Palestinians are still decrying their inability to establish a state nearly 21 years after the Oslo Accords were set to pave the way for Palestinian self-determination. Yet I later learned that there was more to the story. The event was a candlelight vigil held to commemorate Muhammad Abu Khdeir, whose cousins lived in the Silicon Valley community of Los Gatos.

For the few people who haven’t heard, Mohammed Abu Khdeir is a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who was kidnapped and burned to death on July 2. Six Israeli Jews from the Jerusalem area were arrested in connection with the crime, and three of them were later released after the others confessed to the deed. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the crime as “abhorrent” and said the suspects will be “dealt with to the full extent of the law.” The kidnapping and killing came just two days after the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, had been found near the West Bank village of Halhoul after they were kidnapped June 12.

Israeli officials suspect that Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, allegedly Hamas members, carried out those crimes. The Israeli military has responded by bombing the daylights out of Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, causing more than 100 deaths and hundreds of more injuries, and militant groups in the Gaza Strip have sent a slew of missiles into southern Israel and even the Jerusalem area. That’s not to mention the mass arrest of Palestinians and raid of institutions in the West Bank leading up to the finding of the teens’ bodies, or the mass rioting that took place in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat following Abu Khdeir’s death. Amidst all the madness, many Israelis are living in fear of rocket fire, and dozens of Palestinian civilians in Gaza are now dead as a result of Israeli military gunfire.

Much of this feels like déjà vu following similar Israeli-Hamas battles in Gaza in 2008-09 and 2012. Both of those operations led to mass casualties in Gaza, and the deaths of several Israelis as well, and fear among southern Israel residents following the launch of Gazan rockets, but no real clear “victory.” It’s easy for Americans to become jaded about the situation, which comes after one failed peace talk after another, but last Friday’s vigil in San Jose was a reminder about how such incidents often hit close to home.

Tampa, Fla. residents also found this to be the case after Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s cousin, Tampa resident Tariq Abu Khdeir, was beaten unconscious by Israeli police.  While some have debated whether Tariq was involved in the surrounding protests (which Tariq denies), a video of the beating makes it apparent that police used excessive force. Various Israeli news sources indicate the officer may well be indicted.

Personally speaking, these incidents are close to my heart for other reasons as well. I lived in East Jerusalem from 2002-03, and occasionally visited the Beit Hanina and Shoafat neighborhoods where these incidents occurred. A friend from St. George’s Cathedral who lives in Beit Hanina noted that one of the missiles from Gaza came close to hitting a Jewish settlement that isn’t too far away from her East Jerusalem neighborhood. As the violence continues, and pundits predict that a ceasefire does not appear to be in sight, not nearly enough media reports have noted that brave individuals are seeking to cross barriers and show empathy. A handful of reports have noted that some of Abu Khdeir’s and Fraenkel’s family members have exchanged condolences, and that Tag Meir — a coalition of groups that oppose hateful graffiti on various holy sites — brought hundreds of Israelis to visit the Abu Khdeir family so that they also could offer condolences as well. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian youth involved in the Kids4Peace program, took risks for peace following the violence by gathering together for a communal meal.

It’s also been encouraging to read some blog posts from Jews and Muslims here and abroad advocating for peace. Those include a recent article published in the Huffington Post from Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida calling for both sides to seek peace for the sake of the children, and another article from J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben Ami, proclaiming  that there have already been “Enough Tears and Bloodshed.” (The latter article was written before all the madness of the past week.) A Ynet article from a Palestinian principal in Israel similarly has called for “Sane people on each side” to unite.

Meanwhile, Israeli poet Eliaz Cohen has come up with the idea for a ‘Hunger Strike Against Violence’ next Tuesday, July 15, in conjunction with Muslim fasting for Ramadan and Jewish fasting during the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates five tragic events in Jewish history. The event is being promoted in the U.S. by the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center as well as The American Muslim online publication. One would hope that many people participate in this day of fasting, and that Christians would pray for peace that day as well.  For these atrocities, along with the the fears and injustices that foster them, stem from matters of the human heart, and require a God-sized solution.

Lee Weissman, an Orthodox Jewish blogger who lives in Southern California, touched on this in a recent post, comparing the human condition to that of storks. He noted that the stork is called a “chasida” or kindly one in Hebrew, yet it remains a non-kosher bird. Rabbis have concluded the reason for this is that storks are kind to each other, but vicious when faced with outsiders.

“We are storks,” Weissman goes on to write. “We are nice people. We are great to the people around us. We are chock full of the values of mercy and kindness and generosity until we are faced with ‘the other.’ Then all bets are off.”

He pledged to show empathy for Palestinians by getting to know the names of Palestinian victims and by speaking out against those who speak ill of them among other means, and he urged other Jews, Christians, and Muslims to do the same with those who they perceive to be “the other.”

This can be a difficult task, for sure, particularly in light of the long list of Palestinians who have already died, but it’s a challenge that’s worthy of pursuing. As I reflect on my own Christian faith, I’m thankful that God was willing to love me, although I was “the other,” and that God was willing to offer His love through sending Christ, who could fully relate to my humanity. God, through Christ, saw the world through human eyes — through eyes like mine. I must similarly follow this example of divine empathy, so I can truly love my neighbor as myself.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike all must recognize that even as God has compassion on us, we should have compassion on others who are made in God’s image. May we put these principles into practice, with God’s help, even as we pray for peace. In the words of Turkish author Harun Yahya: “Palestinians and Israelis are the lineage of the prophets. Brothers should not fight, but they should make peace and live in tranquility.”

 

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BDS and its moral implications

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Giant rock-like chunks of concrete and sticks of Rebar sat jumbled in a giant rubble heap next to the home of the Salem family in the summer of 2007.

Earlier that year, the Israeli military had ordered the demolition of the family’s home – not for any crime they committed, but because the family had failed to obtain a building permit, a nearly impossible task for most Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. The home was one of several slated for demolition in al-Walaja, a village that was split by the “Green Line” between Israel and the West Bank in 1948. Nearly 60 years later, much of the village was being surrounded by the new “separation barrier” under construction by Israel, leading to the demolition of several structures in the area.

I’ll never forget the response of a Muslim resident of the home as I joined a delegation from Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, which was rebuilding the residence.

“Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’” she said, as we were taking a break from the construction job. “I try to teach my children not to hate.”

She was showing an unimaginable amount of grace, given that her family had watched a foreign army destroy their home. But that does not mean there is no desire for accountability on the part of the Palestinian people.

After all, more than 27,000 structures throughout the Palestinian territories have faced similar fates since 1967, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Sadly, an iconic American tractor company has come to play a major role in these human rights atrocities. Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar has become notorious for providing the Israeli military with the equipment to destroy these homes, and one of its vehicles contributed to the death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie in 2003 when an Israeli soldier drove over her with a Caterpillar D9R armored bulldozer after she stood in its path to block the vehicle from demolishing another Palestinian dwelling. Caterpillar officials have defended their actions in the past, saying the vehicles are being sold to Israel through the U.S. government-run Foreign Military Sales program.

This weekend, the Presbyterian Church USA is contemplating taking a major stand against Caterpillar and several other companies like it as commissioners at its General Assembly decide whether to divest from companies that have provided the Israeli military with equipment that has been used in oppressive ways against Palestinians.

Those include Motorola Solutions, which provides communication technologies for the Israeli Defense Forces, according to the Huffington Post, and Hewlett-Packard, whose products were used to coordinate the blockade of the Gaza Strip and whose biometric scanners are in place at military checkpoints.

This comes on the heels of the United Methodist Church’s decision to divest from security contractor G4S, because of the company’s involvement in human rights  violations in the Israeli prison system and in the military occupation of Palestinian territories.

While some pundits have labeled such efforts and other aspects of the Boycotts, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign to be anti-Israeli and therefore anti-Semitic, others are quick to say such measures are merely about addressing human rights violations against Palestinians.

As barbs are traded back and forth among pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups in these matters, it’s important to remember the human side of these issues – how people like the Salems are directly affected.  It’s too easy to get lost in the politics and forget about the individuals who are involved.

At the same time, if the BDS movement is to be effective, proponents need to have the best intentions for both Israelis and Palestinians alike. BDS tactics should never be used as a means for punishing Israelis but rather as a corrective and restorative action to promote dignity and human rights.

Holy Land Trust Executive Director Sami Awad gave a brilliant assessment of BDS tactics in the Israeli-Palestinian context during last year’s Impact Holy Land conference in Philadelphia, as seen at the 51-minute mark in the following video.

He notes that many Israelis are particularly sensitive to boycotts because the Germans started boycotting Jewish products prior to the Holocaust during World War II. He stressed that BDS should never be used as an end in itself to punish Israelis, but should be used as a wake-up call to lovingly make them aware of injustices.

“It has to come from a loving, moral approach to tell our brothers and sisters that we love them; something is wrong; they need to change …” he said. “If it’s coming out of hatred and resentment, then that is not nonviolence, no matter what tactic you do.”

In that vein, one aspect of the BDS movement that might not be so effective is the academic and cultural boycott. While it’s true that these types of boycotts were helpful in ending the horrific system of Apartheid in South Africa, it’s important to remember that there are some substantial differences between the situation in the Holy Land and in South Africa, even if the “Separate and Unequal” status being granted to Palestinians is similar to that given to the blacks who suffered under Afrikaner rule.

Unlike the Afrikaners, Jews have some degree of natural connection to the lands they are occupying by virtue of their ancient ancestry and their faith heritage, just as Palestinians have a connection to the region by virtue of it being their homeland. (This by no means excuses the human rights abuses that have resulted from the military occupation of the West Bank.) In addition, Jews have suffered immense injustices throughout the world over the years, both in Europe and the Middle East, culminating in the Holocaust during World War II, and this has resulted in a strong sensitivity about anti-Semitism.

When non-Israelis call for a boycott of culture and Israeli scholarship, it’s understandable how this can be misconstrued as anti-Semitism. Instead of advocating for a boycott, peace advocates would be wiser to engage with Israelis through academia and the arts to call for a more just society, as these can be powerful tools for changing hearts and minds. I can personally attest that I gained much perspective by interacting with a visiting professor from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University while I attended the University of Southern California, and I think he gained some perspective from hearing about my interactions with Palestinians in the West Bank as well.

By contrast, there is no redemptive value in supporting companies whose goods are used in an oppressive manner. Along those lines, the Presbyterian Church USA would be wise to divest from companies that are contributing directly to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. But musicians who are pressured into not performing in Israel may way want to think again. Why pass up on having a huge platform for speaking up for speaking up for peace and human rights?

In any case, the BDS movement will do the best job of making their case to the world by focusing on restoration rather than retribution.

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A new quagmire

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I must admit, I’ve found myself simultaneously disgusted and amused with the way both U.S. and Russian leaders have handled the crisis in Syria.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are sounding like hawks; many Republicans are saying, let’s “Give Peace a Chance” and Russian President Vladmir Putin is scolding Obama for talking about invasion without UN cooperation. The right-wing Washington Times, which would probably claim that the sky is orange if the Obama Administration said it was blue, has blamed chemical gas attacks on Syrian rebels, reflecting a viewpoint touted by Putin and Syrian President  Bashar al-Assad. The hypocrisy everywhere is almost palpable. In the words of the late great rock band Chagall Guevara, it seems “we’re living in Escher’s world.”

As absurd as the deliberations over Syria’s fate have become, the crisis is no laughing matter for the Syrian people. More than 100,000 have died in the gruesome civil conflict, and U.S. airstrikes, no matter how “targeted” they are, will certainly result in more civilian deaths. In fact, recent reports have noted that Syria has moved its political prisoners, such as journalists and democracy advocates, to potential “target” areas.

President Obama may have the best of intentions in his desire to prevent the use of chemical weapons, but it’s hard to believe his assertion during his Aug. 31 speech that there is any “clear objective” here. After all, deterring the use of chemical weapons is far easier said than done. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said this week: “I believe to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or principle is not a strategy.”

All this is not to say that apathy about the situation in the Levant is the answer. U.S. leaders are right to be cynical about the role of Syrian ally Russia in removing chemical weapons from Syria, but some solution must be reached. As Gates said during a forum in Dallas this week, the U.S. would be wise to push for Assad to be labeled a war criminal and arrested rather than to push for an invasion.

Ultimately, the U.S. should seek the backing of the international community — particularly those Middle Eastern countries surrounding Syria. Unfortunately, most of those countries don’t trust the United States to be a fair broker in its dealings in that part of the world. Even democracy activists in that region note that the U.S. is the ally of Saudi Arabia — which has a human rights record that is equally as egregious as Syria’s — and the U.S. formerly served as an ally of the brutal Mubarak regime in Egypt as well. In addition, our leaders have hardly been even-handed with Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, U.S. officials did nothing when the Iraqis used poison gas to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988 during the Iraq-Iran War, blaming the attack on the Iranians instead. The Iraqis were U.S. allies at that time. A few years later, the United States embarked on the first of two invasions in Iraq following that country’s invasion of Kuwait. Given all the flip-flopping of allies and general hypocrisy concerning Middle East policy, most inhabitants of the region see the U.S. as a bully, not as a bastion of justice that can legitimately police that part of the world.

At the same time, we should not remain aloof and “let Allah sort it out,” as Sarah Palin callously proclaimed on her Facebook site. It appears the Assad regime has violated international law, so there needs to be an international response to this issue. Given that Britain and most other U.S. allies are not interested in invading Syria, perhaps we should all put our heads together and try to come up with a more creative solution to this quagmire.

The situation in which the U.S. finds itself regarding Syria is messy, but of course, things are even messier for the Syrian people. The lengths to which people have gone to brutalize their enemies — beheadings, tearing out others’ organs, etc. — make this one of the most horrific conflicts occurring in the world today. Some of the Syrian rebels are affiliated with Al Qaeda, and both sides have committed brutal atrocities, so it’s not a good-guys, bad-guys situation. Further complicating matters, the Syrian government has tended to protect religious minorities, including Christians, and many Christians in the region are understandably nervous about the outcome of this revolt.

People of faith should pray for our leaders and hope for what’s best for Syria, for this is no simple matter.  Not only does it sit in a strategic part of the Middle East, but it’s the home of many important ancient historical sites to Christians and Muslims alike and most importantly, is home to millions of people who are made in God’s image. May the Lord give wisdom to all who are involved in working for a just peace in that country during this perilous time.

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An unforgettable day

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As I scanned the myriad 9-11 tribute messages on Facebook this week, I was struck by memes of the Twin Towers coupled with the words “Never Forget.”

After all, who could possibly forget that day or what they were doing when they heard the news of the plane crashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania? I was working as a reporter at the Tracy Press at the time. I recall being awakened at about 7 a.m. PST by a phone call from my mother, who notified me of the terrorist attacks after my grandmother had heard about them on the radio. I ended up heading to an impromptu prayer service at my church that morning followed by a very full day of reporting.

This week, I glanced at several of the articles that appeared on the cover of the Tracy Press on Sept. 12, 2011. Nestled next to images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers was an article by my colleague, Ben van der Meer, titled “Tracy reels from strike,” while I had written an article headlined, “Locals pray for peace.” Our summer intern Megan Knize (who really was acting as a full-fledged reporter at that point) penned an article about the way the tragedy impacted local Muslims in our community.

Many of the quotes in these articles are striking. In the article I wrote about a prayer service at First Presbyterian Church attended by Sikhs and Christians, Pastor Mike McLellan of First Presbyterian proclaimed: “I imagine most of us were awakened this morning by our alarm or clock radio. We were also awakened from apathy and humdrum by visions and sounds that we didn’t think possible.”

It’s interesting in retrospect to think how prophetic this turned out to be — how the United States dramatically shifted from an attitude of post-Cold War isolationism and prosperity to Middle East engagement after this incident.  Wars followed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the U.S. is foolishly also contemplating an invasion of Syria. Then, there are also the recent reports of the National Security Agency spying on thousands of Americans as well as the creation of the Homeland Security Act and tightened restrictions at airports. One can only guess whether any of this would have happened had the Sept. 11 attacks not occurred.

Jim Bush, who was then director of the interdenominational Tracy Ministerial Association, also hinted during that day’s Tracy community prayer service of the wars that were to come as he stated: “I can’t help but be reminded of the Day of Infamy that happened just short of 60 years ago.”

He went on to make an intriguing statement: “We knew at that time (during the Day of Infamy) that God would use all things for good — even World War II.”

Rev. Bush predicted that good things would similarly come of the Sept. 11 attacks. Looking back, I think one positive aspect of 9-11 is that it made many of us more aware of our Muslim neighbors.

One immediate positive outcome of the attacks was a joint statement released by a few Christian pastors and the Tracy Islamic Center — and authored by my pastor, Fr. David James — that called upon all people of good will “to pray for peace, an end to terror and a just recognition of the needs of all the peoples of the world.”

Former Tracy Islamic Center president Abdul Wahid was quoted in the Press as saying, “We strongly condemn (the 9-11 attacks). We pray for those who would be affected by this.”

Meanwhile, the article by Megan Knize on local Muslims gave voice to others who were critical of the 9-11 attacks, including a former resident of Afghanistan, who correctly — and angrily — concluded that the Taliban had a role in the terrorist activities. The article also included warnings from local experts that both U.S. Muslims and people of color in general would likely be harassed as a result of national anger over the attacks. This statement also proved sadly prophetic, as Sikhs and Muslims alike were targeted in attacks by disturbed individuals in the coming days. Sikh-American gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodh, who was mistaken for a Muslim, was shot to death outside his store just a few days later.

Now, that 12 years have passed since that horrific day, I would expect that many Americans would have a more educated view of Muslims. But sadly, there are a lot of untrue negative stereotypes lingering out there. I just stumbled across a website this week with a skull superimposed in front of a mosque emblazoned with the words “Bare Naked Islam.”

“It isn’t Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you,” the site proclaims, while featuring links to various articles that demonize Muslims.

Florida pastor Terry Jones’ attempted stunt to set ablaze nearly 3,000 kerosene-soaked copies of the Qur’an on Wednesday is similarly sickening.

While these are extreme examples of Islamophobia, I regularly hear comments from my friends that demonstrate that many of us have much to learn about the nuances of Islam. Not all Muslims are the same, and most Muslims were appalled at the actions that occurred on 9-11. Unfortunately, it’s the crazies who tend to get all the media attention.

Thankfully, there’s some good news out there, too. I’ve been blessed during the past couple of years to be involved with a group called Abrahamic Alliance International, which offers educational courses on “Loving Muslim Neighbors” at churches and hosts Muslim-Jewish-Christian service events that benefit the homeless and hungry. As I have been seeking out articles online to place on the alliance’s website, I have learned there are many who are engaging in similar activities throughout the world — including many fellow evangelicals.

I hope there will be more opportunities for dialogue with other children of Abraham in the months ahead and that this would be one of the ways that God could use 9-11 for good. As I engage with people of different faiths, it challenges me to think more about my own faith in Christ. It would be wonderful to have more opportunities to discuss my faith in Jesus with my Abrahamic “cousins,” even as I continue to learn more about wholehearted reverence for God from Islam and more about the roots and background of my faith from Judaism.

As we mourn those who died during 9-11 and celebrate the heroism of those who gave their lives to save others, I hope we Americans can once again experience the short-lived unity that we shared during that time. Even 12 years later, it seems we have much to learn.

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At a loss …

The news coming from the Holy Land is so distressing right now. More than 100 people have died in the Gaza Strip … and what for?

Certainly, Israeli officials had to do something when missiles were flying toward southern Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But as always, the response is drastically over the top, and there are likely to be far more Palestinian casualties than Israeli ones. I fear for the families of Gaza, many of whom already have found themselves caught in the crossfire.

I really don’t know what Hamas leaders were thinking. What on earth are they accomplishing by firing missiles into Israel? Were they really delusional enough to think they would win a fight with Israel or think that Egypt would back them, or did they just assume that Israel would overreact as it always does, and hope to win sympathy with the people when civilian casualties start piling up? I tend to think it’s the latter. Regardless, they haven’t shown much care for their own people by goading Israel into this conflict.

At the same time, most people in the West fail to understand to understand the motives for the Palestinians of Gaza. Its people are trapped inside one of the most densely populated places on Earth and could on any given day get caught in the crossfire of Israeli pilots or warring Palestinian factions. Graffiti from different militant groups covers structures throughout Gaza City similar to gang graffiti in urban parts of the United States. Gaza’s residents also are forced to smuggle goods from Egypt through unreliable tunnels that are subject to being bombed or just falling apart because they are structurally unsound.

I still count the Gaza Strip as the most depressing place I’ve ever visited, with all its poverty and violence. What Israelis continually fail to understand is that one can’t bomb a populous into submission when they have little or no hope already — when they are continually living in fear and when injustice becomes a way of life.

And yet I also recall how the light often shines the brightest in the world’s darkest places. I have so much admiration for the staff at Al Ahli Arab Hospital, the hospital run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem in Gaza City, as they regularly risk their lives and their sanity to help their neighbors in need. The hospital director, Suhaila Tarazi, has relatives in the U.S. and could choose to live a far more comfortable life, but she has followed God’s call to serve her neighbors in that challenging region. When I visited the hospital occasionally in 2002 and 2003, its social worker lived in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, and he recounted how his neighbor’s son was decapitated by Israeli gunfire. Yet despite the challenges of life in that place, he regularly made a lengthy commute to the hospital each day to serve Gaza City’s residents. These people are heroes, and their stories need to be known.

I know God has a better plan for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I don’t think they are doomed to kill each other forever, despite what some modern-day “prophets” within the church may predict. After all, who knows the mind of God, and who knows the future? While many matters of biblical prophecy are hard to interpret, other parts of the Bible are clear, such as Jesus’ prayer to love one’s enemies and His pray that God’s kingdom would come and will would be done on Earth as in heaven. We must consider these matters first and foremost when we think and pray about what’s going on in the Middle East.

I believe in a God who can provide hope to the hopeless, as I’ve been a recipient of Christ’s grace in the past. And my prayer is that the people of the Holy Land would be able to experience that as well. It certainly beats and the status quo!

God longs for the people of the Holy Land to experience that grace, too. That’s what He years for.

Remember what Jesus said?

 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35)

Then, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem in Luke 19 and  states: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

You can hear Jesus’ heart in these words, and surely He is still passionate about the people of the Holy Land today, as He is passionate for all people.

The Israeli and Palestinian people need our prayers right now, not our rhetoric. I get weary of looking at comments on social media sites from those who are apologists for one ethnic group or another. Instead, let us follow the example of Jesus, who walked through Samaritan country even when it put Him and His disciples at risk. He reached out to his natural enemies and rebuked his disciples when they wanted to call fire down on Samaritans who did not welcome Him.

My prayer is that Christians here in the West would make His life their model as they ponder the headlines in the coming days and as they keep the people of the Holy Land in prayer.

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The perils of manipulation

It’s hard to know where to begin regarding the events in the Middle East within the last two weeks.
There’s a part of me that can’t help but feel gloomy, particularly on behalf of the Christians who live on the other side of the world as I ponder the repercussions of a B-movie (actually, F-movie is probably a more apt description) preview that not only portrays an image of the Prophet Mohammed, but depicts him as a violent and somewhat clueless bisexual child molester, flying in the face of what is written in the Qur’an and the hadith. But it’s also refreshing to see many folks out there attempting to change the narrative, despite the handful of extremists in both the West and the Middle East who attempt to use the current crisis to manipulate others toward violence and prejudice.

I’m not sure what the creators of this film were hoping to accomplish, though it seems they could not possibly have anticipated it would lead to the deaths of multiple people, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, following protests in a dozen countries. I’m not sure if they realized that it had the potential of setting back U.S.-Middle East relations and Christian-Muslim relations in such a huge way.

Regardless, it’s really disheartening to see what has transpired during the past couple of weeks. White House officials and U.S. policy experts expect tense relations for quite some time. That’s not to mention the added persecution that Christians living in the Middle East are likely to experience, as news reports indicate the backers of the film were Coptic Christians who live in the United States. Though Coptic Church leaders in the U.S. and Egypt have disavowed the film and rejected its message — and Muslims and Coptic Christian leaders stood together in Los Angeles to oppose the violence and the film — it’s hard to know whether people who live in predominately Muslim countries will accept their statements.

Some people in the Middle East have sought to use this situation to manipulate the public for their own ends, particularly those who carried out the attacks in Benghazi, as U.S. intelligence sources say it now appears the attacks were premeditated and that there are signs of al Qaeda involvement. Regardless of whether the attacks were planned for that day, there is no doubt that they used protests against the anti-Islam film to their own designs.

Several politicians also have taken advantage of the situation. Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, in a sermon during Friday prayers in Gaza City, called on the U.S. administration to apologize for the film, according to Egypt-based Al-Ahram. Haniya said the film was the result of “a Jewish-American-Crusader alliance to ignite a war on Islam and sectarian strife, particularly in Egypt,” according to the Egyptian publication.

I really don’t see what the U.S. administration has to do with this film. Perhaps, Haniya’s mentality is representing the rift in traditional versus individualistic social values that Leena El-Ali describes in an article written for Common Ground News this week:

“In Western societies, individual rights are accorded the highest value. Yet the average Muslim outside the West cannot understand why a government would not intervene to stop something so self-evidently appalling. In his or her mind, this question is linked to the role of government – rather than religion. But to the Western mind-set, it cannot possibly be a function of government, so it must therefore be a problem of religion.”

At the same time, I have to believe that Haniya is at least partially using the situation to manipulate the masses to boost his own political stature.

There is plenty of manipulation going on over on these shores as well. Steve Klein, a militant anti-Muslim, appears to want violence to break out between Christians and Muslims in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which noted how he bragged about fighting breaking out at a high school when his group passed out anti-Islam leaflets. He never seems too brokenhearted about the violence that occurred following the film, acting as if it merely aims to prove his point.

He seemed rather nonchalant about the matter when interviewed by various publications this week. In his own words: “Do I have blood on my hands? No. Did I kill this guy? No. Do I feel guilty that these people were incited? Guess what? I didn’t incite them. They’re pre-incited, they’re pre-programmed to do this.”

Alleged filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who used the pseudonym Sam Bacile, has told the Wall Street Journal that the “Innocence of Muslims,” was “a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam,” and was not religious in nature. In a Sept. 13 CNN report, it appears alleged film director Nakoula felt a bit more remorse over the deaths that have resulted from the film than Klein felt.

Just as Nakoula was manipulated by Klein, the actors in “The Innocence of Muslims” were manipulated by the directors. Actors in the film said they were “grossly misled” about the intent of the film, which they were initially told was going to be called “Desert Warrior” and was set to take place 2,000 years ago. It was later dubbed over with references to Mohammed and Islam. Now, one of the cast members plans to sue the director over the film.

The public has been manipulated as well, with extremists in the Middle East using this incident to characterize Westerners as insensitive God-hating heathens, and some Westerners characterizing Muslims as freed0m-hating anti-West fanatics. The cover of Newsweek last week is a prime example of the media unfairly using the most extreme imagery to characterize an entire faith, with one man in a turban and another in a keffiyeh shaking their fists under the headline “Muslim Rage.” The photo teases to an article by former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who characterizes the viewpoints of the protestors who believed in punishing blasphemers as representing “the mainstream of contemporary Islam.”

Never mind the fact the fact that only a few thousand or so of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims were involved in these protests, as an article by Max Read satirically points out. Several Muslims had a field day when when asked on Twitter to respond to the Newsweek cover, using the hashtag #MuslimRage to list hilariously mundane complaints about everyday life, such as “when my mom got mad at me for putting a pudding cup in the microwave” or a woman wearing a hijab who complains “having a great hair day, but no one can tell, #MuslimRage.”

According to Cairo-based journalist Ashraf Khalil, that’s the response that most Muslims should have had to the ridiculous “Innocence of Muslims” film to begin with.

“I think many of us have seen this rage on display, so the rage is real,” he told NPR’s Audie Cornish. “The question is real. So I don’t know that the fun we all had with the Muslim rage hashtag really addressed or forwarded the debate any. It probably wasn’t the point. I think for a lot of people, it sort of restored their faith in the community, because, honestly, this should have been the response to this movie from the very start.

“It should have been mocked and then ignored. You know, nobody ever should have gathered for a protest about this. And as I saw, like, many of the protesters were vastly overestimating its importance and its reach. It was bait. And far too many people in the Muslim world took the bait. And that’s a 10- or 20-year project to figure out.”

Many of us here in the West have taken the bait as well. Even if violence has not erupted in the U.S., many folks have been duped into thinking that most Muslims want to commit violence against Westerners, leading them to demonize different people groups, cultures and an entire faith as a result.

Ironically, both Western and Middle Eastern extremists end up acting in tandem to accomplish these ends. As Bobby Ghosh put it so eloquently in Time magazine: “Collectively, these hatemongers form a global industry of outrage, working feverishly to give and take offense, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the U.S. as in the Arab world. ”

If only we could rise above all the noise, this mess and so many other disasters could be avoided.

In the words of the Isaiah, a prophet accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike:

“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” (Isa. 8:12-13)

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Thoughts on the Rachel Corrie verdict

Rachel Corrie (image from Rachel Corrie Foundation)

I could hardly believe my ears as I was hearing reports about the Rachel Corrie verdict on NPR last week. For the uninitiated, Rachel Corrie was a 23-year-old American peace activist who died in the Gaza Strip in 2003 when a bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier drove over her as she sought to block the demolition of a Palestinian home, according to fellow activists. The Israeli military claims she was killed by falling debris. After the Israeli Defense Forces cleared the soldier of any wrongdoing in the incident, Corrie’s parents brought a civil suit against Israel’s Ministry of Defense, seeking only $1 as well as accountability for their daughter’s death.

I can’t say that I was shocked by Judge Oded Gershon’s verdict, finding the Ministry of Defense not guilty. After all, this was an Israeli court ruling on the Israeli army. It was hard to believe the judge would be impartial, even if the court did find Israeli solider Sgt. Wahid Taysir guilty of killing British activist Tom Hurndall in January 2004. However, my jaw dropped when Gershon mentioned the reason for his verdict: “She (Corrie) did not distance herself from the area, as any thinking person would have done.”

Really? Any “thinking person”?

Perhaps, in accordance with Judge Gershon’s interpretation, Gandhi was not a thinking person either. After all, the Indian civil rights leader encouraged the Indian people to engage in civil disobedience, leading protestors to receive severe injuries by the British occupying forces in certain protests. Add Martin Luther King Jr. as another name to the list of “non-thinking persons.” For he organized freedom rides in which protestors’ buses were set afire and marches in which demonstrators became the target of fire hoses and police attack dogs, as they sought to protest unjust Jim Crow laws in the South. Both of these leaders put themselves in harm’s way for the cause of justice and urged others to do so as well. And how about the pro-democracy protestors who were killed in  Tiananmen Square in 1989 after standing up to the Chinese army? The list of fellow “unthinking persons” goes on and on …

Granted, all of these former protests were not taking place in a war zone like the Gaza Strip during the Second Intifada, where Corrie ultimately gave her life while joining with fellow protestors from the International Solidarity Movement. But like these great civil rights leaders, Corrie was protesting injustices, specifically military occupation and the practice of house demolitions, which happened regularly throughout the Intifada and continue to this day. In fact, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition declared 2011 was a record year of displacement, with the destruction of 622 Palestinian structures by Israeli authorities, including 222 family homes. A total of 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967,  according to ICAHD.

To me, these issues have taken on a personal nature. I’ve gotten to know a family whose home was demolished by Israeli authorities several years ago — not for military reasons, but because Israel sought to annex land into Jerusalem while avoiding annexing residents there — and I had the privilege of helping them rebuild their home in 2007. This was a wonderful family who taught their children to avoid hating their enemies, despite the unjust circumstances they faced.

Likewise, I’ve always been touched by Rachel Corrie’s story, as she died while I was living in Jerusalem in 2003. I had the privilege of getting to know several ISM volunteers who stayed at our guest house inside the St. George’s Cathedral close while I lived there, and I often was touched by their stories of their travails in the Palestinian territories.  I remember one ISM member who described how he was beaten badly by Israeli settlers and their security guards when he sought to protect Palestinians who were picking their olives. (Apparently, the settlers were trying to prevent this from happening at the time.)

While I sympathize more with the ideology of Christian Peacemaker Teams and Holy Land Trust, which use Jesus as their example when practicing nonviolent forms of resistance in the Palestinian territories, I always admired the men and women of ISM as people of courage.  I’m not sure what Corrie’s personal beliefs may have been, but I can’t help but think of the words of Christ when I think of the way she gave her life: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

The words of Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, following last week’s verdict struck me as powerful: “This is a sad day not only for our family, but also for human rights, for the legal system and for the State of Israel.” I liked how she included the “state of Israel” in that list. By doing so, she offers a sentiment that I have heard expressed by others, such as Holy Land Trust Executive Director Sami Awad: namely that oppression ends up enslaving the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

In the words of Nelson Mandella: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

All this talk of oppression isn’t to say that the Palestinians are the goods guys and the Israelis are the bad guys. There is plenty of blame to go on both sides, and acts of terror committed by some Palestinians and corruption among Palestinian leaders have done nothing to help their plight. At the same time, there is an enormous power differential between most Palestinians and Israeli Jews, and this must be recognized.

Hopefully, in time, Corrie’s death will not be looked by Israelis as “an accident she brought upon herself,” as Judge Gershon proclaimed, but as a selfless act by a courageous young woman who brought attention to injustices that needed to be addressed. And hopefully in time, Israeli military officials will be willing to face their own culpability — to admit that her death was not caused by falling concrete but by the driver of a bulldozer who was seeking to implement military policies, regardless of whether Corrie’s death was intentional.  The Guardian and several other publications have noted that there have been discrepancies in witnesses statements that were never reconciled. Likewise, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has criticized the IDF’s investigation in the past for not being  “thorough, credible and transparent,” as the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had promised.

For those who subscribe to the gospel, we declare it is in admission of guilt and acceptance of God’s grace through Christ that we find true freedom.

We are all capable of all kinds of atrocious acts.  As St. Paul sums this up in his letter to the Romans, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23). Corrie also touched on the universal truth of human fallibility in an email she wrote in Gaza as she witnessed atrocities there: “… I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature,” she wrote, though she added she was also touched by the dignity of the people she stayed with while in Gaza.

My hope and prayer is that the individuals involved in this killing will eventually take some ownership of the events of March 16, 2003 and that someday the Corrie family will find justice. I also hope the rest of us will not merely point fingers in self-righteous indignation, but will pray for restoration — as well as justice — for all who are involved in this incident and remember that we, too, are fallen.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

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