My kind of religion

I’m about half way through reading Jean Zaru’s book, “Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks”. She tells of the suffering of Palestinians since the “Catastrophe” of 1948, and focusses in particular on the wholesale violations of human rights under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 1967.

Jean Zaru is the Presiding Clerk of the small group of Quakers in Ramallah. She is well respected in the ecumenical world, having served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

In the first chapter of her book she writes:

“For forty years, I have been walking that edge where the spiritual meets the political. For me, the two have always been integrated. My spirituality is rooted in the human dignity and human rights of all people, and the sacredness of Mother Earth. I feel compelled to work for a world in which human freedom and dignity can flourish. Spirituality can bring life and vibrancy and imagination to my struggle, but of course I recognize that the mixture of religion and politics can also fuel the most extreme and violent acts and lead to systems of self-righteous repression.

“Many activists mistrust religion and spirituality, sometimes for good reason. But each of us finds ourselves engaged in the work for peace and justice because something is sacred to us – so sacred that it means more than convenience or comfort. It might be God, or the Spirit, or the sacredness of life or belief in freedom. Whatever it is, it can nurture us.

“Many people want religion, but they want it in its place apart from their business, their politics, their luxuries and conveniences. My own experience is that religion cannot be lived except with one’s whole everyday life, and what cannot be humanly lived is not religion. Religion involves commitment and relationship, and relationship is action and engagement in the real issues of life. But there is no relationship without love, only waste, strife, madness, and destruction. Love makes it necessary to find the way of truth, understanding, justice, and peace. My kind of religion is a very active, highly political, often controversial, and sometimes very dangerous form of engagement in active nonviolence for the transformation of our world.”

This is the kind of religion that the world needs, a religion that unites people in a struggle for peace, justice, and sustainability, and in the celebration of life.

Religion is too often divisive and destructive. I saw this during the Troubles in Northern Ireland where religious division led to bombings and shootings and people being driven out of their homes. Somewhere amongst all my slides I have an image of a boarded up florist’s shop in Lurgan. The sign over the shop said: “Say it with flowers!”

Now I see the destructiveness of divisive religion in Palestine/Israel. Of course the religious division is bound up with political, economic, and cultural divisions, just as it was in Northern Ireland. Religion is used to justify taking away people’s land and building illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Whilst talking about peace talks, the Israeli government continues with the construction of houses for Jews only in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian houses are regularly demolished. The Israeli government wants to establish Jewish control over the whole of Jerusalem and is in effect annexing much of the West Bank, leaving half a dozen “Bantustans” under the administration of the Palestinian Authority.

Don’t get me wrong! I don’t want to give the impression that all Israelis are bad and all Palestinians are good. As Tolstoy said, the line between good and evil passes through every human heart. It is the policies and actions of the Israeli government that I object to. Acts of violence are committed by both sides, but it is not a symmetrical conflict. Palestinians are subjected to systematic violence and oppression, whereas Israelis may occasionally be the victims of more-or-less random acts of violence.

If the conflict is waged with weapons of violence, Israel will win easily because of overwhelming military superiority. Many Palestinians – with the support of Israeli activists – are therefore choosing to conduct a nonviolent struggle for justice. They need our support.

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