Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Victim, the Vulnerable, and the Pretender to the Throne
Christians begin Holy Week on Sunday and will immerse themselves in texts that evoke the deeply contested geography of Jerusalem. Sadly, this is a geography often locked in time for many U.S. Christians. It remains First Century Common Era time, making invisible those who struggle for the peace of the city today. Even so-called Holy Land tours treat the city as a museum filled with curious artifacts of ancient and medieval piety. It is left to the daily press to remind us Jerusalem is no longer simply a Jewish city under Roman occupation, but a rich and volatile mosaic of Israeli Jews, native born and recent immigrant, Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, and small but vibrant communities of Armenian and Greek Christians struggling to bear witness not just to memory, but also to hope. To the many holy places recalling events in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are added equally holy sites for Muslims, chief among them the Dome of the Rock, and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
But today, as it has always been, Jerusalem is more than holy sites. It is home to people caught up in the seemly endless and conflicting narratives of vulnerability and victimization. For Palestinians, Jerusalem represents the increasingly elusive symbol of a Palestinian state with the eastern portion of their city as a national capital. But life in Jerusalem for Palestinians is increasingly the life of a victim, successive losses to Israel in 1948 and 1967 rendering them stateless, a people under occupation. Home demolitions and expanding settlements, the building of the separation barrier and life under harsh border controls that bar most Palestinians from entering the city or even visiting their holy sites create what Palestinians experience as the relentless “Judaizing” of their future capital, eroding what little hope remains for a viable state. Is it any wonder in the face of all of this that Palestinians distrust the peace process, especially one brokered by Israel’s chief foreign benefactor and military supplier?
The narrative of Palestinian victimization is real but, of course, it is not the only one, for along with it is the narrative of Israeli vulnerability. Rooted in a history of anti-Semitism at times nurtured by the very Holy Week texts Christians cherish, and culminating in the Holocaust, a narrative symbolized today by Yad Vashem, this narrative of vulnerability is fueled by continued terrorist attacks, hostile neighbors and, of course, the specter of Iran as a nuclear state. West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians, living under the boot of Israeli military occupation can be forgiven for finding this narrative of vulnerability bewildering, just as rockets from Lebanon or Gaza encourage many Israelis to view Palestinians as deserving victims.
Along with these narratives there is a third, that of fundamentalist Christian Zionism, which views the geography of Jerusalem as little more than a stage for the end times when Christ will return as the pretender to a heavenly throne situated in a new Jerusalem. Because a restoration of Israel in its ancient land is a crucial step in this narrative, Christian Zionism today panders to Israel’s narrative of vulnerability and is indifferent, not only to Palestinians’ narrative of victimization, but often to the very presence and witness of Palestinian/Arab Christians. In the end, of course, both Arab and Israeli are vulnerable and victim to a narrative that ends in a Kingdom dominated by Christ, rendering Muslims and Jews ultimately irrelevant. This narrative might be relegated to theological debate were it not for the fact that its adherents wield powerful influence in the United States Congress, warping U.S. foreign policy in ways that make real peacemaking difficult if not impossible. How else can one explain the harsh rebuke of Secretary Clinton and President Obama from members of Congress for vigorously criticizing Israel’s willingness to embarrass the vice-president of its staunchest ally during his recent state visit?
Today these three narratives benefit only short term interests. For the long term, they support continued occupation and gradual creation of facts on the ground that make a Palestinian state impossible, privileging injustice for the sake of security. They nurture dangerous despair and bitter resentment in an Arab population that will eventually far outnumber Israeli Jews trapped as perpetual and increasingly insecure occupiers in their own land. They render the United States impotent as a useful peacemaker.
Holy Week offers no political road map to peace. But it does call into question the presuppositions that trap us in these narratives. In Holy Week lordship is defined as servanthood. Vulnerability is embraced as the way to reconciliation. Victims ultimately become those graced with redemption. Perhaps in Holy Week we can view the competing narratives both compassionately and critically, reading contemporary Jerusalem as something more than an historical artifact or a contemporary mess. Perhaps we can commit ourselves to becoming acquainted with Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to be trapped by these deadly narratives, offering solidarity even in the face of intimidation by those who are served by the tragic status quo. Perhaps we can rekindle our own hope as a first step toward commitment, a commitment to follow the Way of Sorrows as the road to the Empty Tomb.