PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 5

After doing a photo essay yesterday on Facebook, it is back to blogging today, to sort out what was a day of intense emotion.

As it is Sunday, and we are a group from the New England Synod visiting our Companion Synod, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land, we set off early for worship.

Our group headed to Redeemer Lutheran, in the heart of Old Jerusalem, and split into two groups. Half went to worship with Redeemer’s Arabic-speaking congregation in the main sanctuary and the other half went to the English speaking service. Since I have already worshipped with Lutherans on four continents in four different languages this year, I said I would go wherever the smaller group went, so I ended up worshiping with Redeemer’s English-speaking congregation.

The service, however, was not small. It was packed to the gills. Overflowing. As in standing room only. I guess it is hit and miss — some days they have a lot of visitors and others just a few people. During the service, we were asked to pray the Lord’s Prayer in our native tongue, and it sounded like Pentecost. It was a standard Lutheran service — ELW setting 6. The sermon was good and the singing robust.

Pastor Christine Ballanger Smith.
Pastor Christine Ballanger Smith.

After worship and a joint “tea hour” between the two congregations, we had a wonderful visit with the ELCA missionary serving in Jerusalem, Pastor Carrie Ballanger Smith.

She explained to us the ELCA model for mission — accompaniment. Accompaniment means that the ELCA and its staff walk with God’s people in solidarity, encouraging interdependence and mutuality. It is not “the Americans” coming in and setting the agenda but rather listening to the indigenous community and providing whatever we can to facilitate a healthy church community with their guidance.

Currently, there are 2,500 Lutheran Christians in the ELCJHL, Palestinians who trace their roots back to the time of Christ. However, the impact extends far beyond that small number. The ELCJHL, as I wrote earlier, is known for its excellent schools, at which both Christians and Muslim Palestinian youth are educated together, in a coed environment.

They provide witness not by proselytizing the Muslims but rather by peace education. Their goal is that the 3,000 students in Lutheran schools in the West Bank learn as boys and girls are treated as equals. The hope is that they will be able to “convert” anyone with extremist tendencies to develop a sense of moderation and understanding to promote peace making.

Bishop Younan once did a calculation that because of the depth and breadth of the work of the ELCJHL in their schools, they have had an influence on one-fifth of all Palestinians in the West Bank. That is a profound impact for a church of only 2,500 members.

Pastor Ballanger Smith reiterated what the bishop had told us. She emphasized that the story told about Christians leaving because of persecution by Muslims is not true. Christians who leave Palestine are not doing so because they can’t live in peaceful communion with their Muslim neighbors but because of the economic disparity that results from living in an occupied land, where they have so many freedoms removed because of their ethnicity.

One of the things we discussed was extremism. Pastor Ballanger Smith and her husband, who works with an ecumenical group of Christians in Jerusalem, said that one of the big challenges that both Israel and Palestine face is the problem of extremists, and it is important to note that there are extremists who are Muslims, Jews and Christians in Jerusalem and Israel, who all have designs on it for their own personal agendas and it is vital to move beyond extremism and hatred.

That is one of the reasons one should always refer to the people who are native as Palestinians because the use of the word “Arab” in this context becomes a pejorative that pursues an extremist agenda to classify people rather than recognize this as their homeland.

Soldiers can be found everywhere.
Soldiers can be found everywhere.

One of the points that they made that hit me was that the problem is not that Palestinians and Israelis intractably hate each other. The problem is that Palestinians are oppressed by a military occupation of the land they once owned. The injustices that result in different treatment because of one’s race are apparent and painful. No one wants to be oppressed. Segmenting people by their race is wrong.

On the other side, most Israelis simply don’t understand the oppression. They have never seen the injustices of what life is like on the other side of the wall. They are taught to be fearful and to attribute all of the limits to the need for security. It creates distrust, It makes relationships hard to form.

We were urged, as Lutherans who want to be faithful to what we are learning, to advocate for peace and fair treatment of Palestinians back in the U.S. because what the U.S. says and does makes a huge difference and our voices matter.

After taking all of this in, we had lunch at what Tariq, our guide, said was the best hummus place around. I say second-best — the place the night before was better — but it is a contest I enjoy! The meal, which included salad, falafel and pomegranate juice, was filling and superb.

We then wandered through the Old City, checking out a place for spices, coffee, and some incredible dessert that was like cheese meets pasta meets ooey gooey goodness with pistachios on top. Its called knafeh, and I highly recommend it.

Topographical map of the city of Jerusalem with the Second Temple intact.
Topographical map of the city of Jerusalem with the Second Temple intact.

We then headed off for a quick tour of the Israel Museum, where we saw a huge topographical map of the city of Jerusalem with the Second Temple intact. It gave a good feel for where things were in the biblical times, and I appreciated the perspective. It reminded me of the huge map at Gettysburg, where you get the feel for the battle, and I’m glad I saw it.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are also housed in the museum. It was incredible to see this amazing piece that showed us the written word from thousands of years ago — the second-oldest surviving manuscripts of Hebrew Scriptures. We were able to see the Book of Isaiah. It was astounding.

From there we ventured to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead, honoring the Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need.

I have been to a lot of Holocaust memorials in several countries as well as four concentration camps. I am always struck by the different focus each one has. In this one, a couple of things carried profound impact. One was a sculpture or diorama that pictured the Jews entering the showers at Auschwitz, then disrobing for showers, then the horrors of the masses being gassed and finally a depiction of them carrying the bodies out and putting them in the ovens to burn.

I have seen the ovens and the showers in several camps … but I have never felt the impact that display provided. The goal of the curator was to remind us that it wasn’t “6 million Jews” but 6 million individual murders. That hit home hard.

I learned more about the resistors to the Nazis within the camps and ghettos than I had before, and I was moved to see Schindler’s actual list of those he saved from death, as he was honored in the Righteous Among the Nations.

One aspect that was different than any memorial I have ever seen was how less nuanced they were about the role of Christians in justifying or ignoring the Holocaust as well as the fact that the pope did nothing to prevent it and basically was co-opted in collusion to avoid attacks on the church. They laid out the simple truths of what the church did to look the other way in the face of this terror and how at some points they actually aided and abetted Hitler.

Sometimes, I think we try to cover up things with niceties and to be honest, 80 percent of all clergy said nothing as Hitler and his apologists focused hatred on specific groups based on their ethnicity, demanded loyalty above all else from those who were members of the Party, took control of the media for purposes of propaganda and sought to rework the justice, education and foreign service to their ends.

By going along or looking the other way, they became complicit in the atrocities that followed as the slippery slope of marginalizing a people based on race, religion and sexual orientation fell into the deep pit that became acceptance of the unthinkable.

As a pastor, it was a stark reminder that I cannot remain silent in the face of similar injustice. It is yet another time when the words of Santayana ring through my ears. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I left Yad Vashem reminded once again to never underestimate humanity’s ability to do the unthinkable and my responsibility to seek to be righteous among the nations as well when I am able, and to speak up for those who are being oppressed and hiding in the shadows — at home and abroad.

Silence in the face of injustice is complicity. It was then. It is now. I just need to know what side of history I want to stand on.

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