Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela

The Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ Statement on the Passing of Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela

We mourn the passing of our former President and leader, Nelson Mandela. Although Madiba was of a great age, his death marks the end of an era. The people of South Africa and the region are filled with love and sadness.  We also express our condolences to his family and friends, in their grief. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) of Central and Southern Africa wish to express our deep sadness at Madiba’s passing. At the same time, our deep admiration, respect and gratitude for Mandela’s life and the legacy that he has left not only South Africa but also Africa and the world.

“Freedom is in your hands” is a line from a well-known freedom song sung during the dark days of apartheid. Millions of South Africans stood up to the violence and brutality of the apartheid state and to the degradation of official racism.  Nelson Mandela was our leader, and it did seem that freedom was in his hands. Mandela’s human and spiritual qualities lit the path to genuine liberation. He was steadfast in his refusal to accept a lesser status for black people, steadfast in his refusal to hate white people, steadfast in his determination to bring about freedom and equality – liberating all of us, black and white. He was a man of rare magnanimity – of “great spirit’’, responding with forgiveness and reconciliation to provocation and suffering.

Nelson Mandela led with strength, grace, humour, and humility. He eschewed the riches that some take from high office. After stepping down as President, he focused his energies on developing and supporting the most vulnerable, the children of our nation.

This is a difficult time for South Africans. We will have to face our future without the calm, guiding presence of Mandela. We may feel uncertain, anxious, and even fearful. Mandela would not want this for us.  He would want us to reach out to each other, to stand together to meet the challenges of our future.

We recommit ourselves to the central challenge of our time – to continue Mandela’s struggle for equality and freedom. The Religious Society of Friends has long recognised that social justice is the basis for peace among people. We view the massive inequalities in wealth, not only in South Africa but also Africa and the world, as a dangerous threat to peace and stability. Genuine freedom includes the freedom to develop our full potential as human beings. Extreme poverty does not allow this and so the wealth gap must be tackled to allow for genuine social development.

We honour Mandela’s vision of a country at peace with itself and recommit ourselves to realising this in our life time.

Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela, our Madiba!

6 December 2013

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Friday prayers – Christian Peacemaker Teams – Nelson Mandela

Friday mornings are quiet in Ramallah, like Sunday mornings used to be in Britain. Today I got to go along to the mosque for Friday prayers around 11.30. A visiting Quaker friend and I were taken along by Saleem, whose wife works as a part-time administrator for the Quakers here.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God. And I learnt at a workshop at the recent international conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem that “Islam” means submission to God (Allah) and that, broadly-speaking, anyone who submits to God is a Muslim.

So it felt right to join my Muslim brothers in prayer, to bow to God along with Saleem and everyone else, and to kneel and prostrate myself with my forehead touching the carpeted floor. Would that it were as easy to submit myself to God inwardly as it is to submit myself outwardly.

Apart from occasional references to Muslims and the Quran, I understood nothing of the sermon. If I come to Palestine again for any length of time, I shall want to make a serious attempt to learn Arabic.

Christopher Hatton, a British Quaker who has been living in Hamburg for ten years, appeared just as I was about to set off with Saleem for the mosque. Christopher came along with us. He knows some Arabic, but I don’t think he understood much more of the sermon than I did.

Christopher was on his way to Hebron. He is about to begin his third stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Palestine. CPT aims to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance to injustice.

A couple of years ago Christopher served with CPT in the South Hebron Hills. One of their tasks was to observe the goings-on at “flying checkpoints” which were being set up on the roads by the Israeli occupying forces. The Palestinians, mostly shepherds going about their work, were treated less violently when CPTers were watching.

Christopher is now going to spend five weeks with CPT in Hebron, where a growing population of Israeli settlers is harassing the Palestinian inhabitants. The harassment is worst on Saturdays, when settlers, with the protection of Israeli soldiers, go on the rampage through the market. I plan to visit Hebron next Saturday and may get to witness that

When Christopher and I got back from visiting the mosque this morning, I opened up my laptop to show him some photographs. There was the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

I remember watching on TV when he walked out of prison in 1993. Few Nobel Peace Prize laureates deserve the prize as much as he did. After spending 27 years in prison (all but the last year or two on Robben Island), he negotiated a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, offered white South Africans reconciliation and forgiveness instead of retaliation and retribution, and voluntarily relinquished power at the end of a five-year term as president.

No doubt it helped that F.W. de Klerk and other leading white politicians recognised that the writing was on the wall for South African apartheid. They had the choice between a negotiated transition to majority rule and a likely bloodbath.

When will Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers in the Israeli coalition government realise that the writing is on the wall for Israeli apartheid? They have a choice between a two-state solution that does justice to Palestinian aspirations (and that has to include recognition of the right to return of refugees from 1948 and 1967) and a long battle against Palestinian resistance which could eventually result in majority rule in a single democratic state.

But perhaps the real question is: How much longer will the world tolerate Israel’s apartheid policies and their oppression of the Palestinians?

Use and abuse of the Bible

Participants have enjoyed (or endured) an intensive second day at the Sabeel conference. The conference is being held at the Notre Dame Hotel in Jerusalem, just across the road from the Old City. The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre is celebrating its 25th anniversary. So this afternoon we acknowledged the important part played by national and regional coordinators of Friends of Sabeel.

The theme of the day was “The Occupation of the Bible”. Four one-and-a-half hour sessions were interspersed with meals and coffee breaks. The four sessions were entitled: “Biblical Authority”, “The Occupation of the Bible”, “The Bible and the Occupation of Palestine”, and “The Land of Promise”.

This was a day of theological discussion, which suited me fine. I’ve read enough theology and participated in enough Bible study sessions over the years to be able to follow the discussion with interest.

One of the speakers, Nancy Cardoso Pereira, a Methodist minister from Brazil, said that we need more than good theology to challenge Empire. Of course, she’s right. But we do need good theology. Bad theology is likely to cause us to make a bad situation worse. Good theology helps us to open ourselves to the guidance of the Spirit, keeps us on track, and enables us to source the strength that we need for the long haul.

A lack of theology, which I often find amongst Quakers, is little better than bad theology. So I make no apology for writing about theological issues.

Each of today’s sessions had the same format: a panel of three speakers, each of whom spoke for 15-20 minutes and then responded briefly to each other before questions were taken from conference participants.

Of all the speakers, David Mark Neuhaus impressed me most. He was born into a Jewish family in South Africa and converted to Catholicism when he was 26 years old. He became a Jesuit priest and is now secretary-general of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic Vicariate in Israel. He took part in the panel discussion on “Biblical Authority” together with Nancy Cardoso Pereira and Gary Burge, an evangelical theologian from the USA.

Before discussing the question, “In what sense is the Bible authoritative?”, David Neuhaus stressed that Jesus had authority. Unfortunately, we are tempted to turn authority into a hegemony of violence and destructiveness. However, the Bible is authoritative because it teaches each of us how to speak about God, our self, and our community.

Revelation may be given to us as we read the Bible. The Bible gives us answers to the questions: “Where do I/we come from?”, “How should I live today?”, and “Where am I, where are we going?”

We shouldn’t attempt to use the Bible as an instrument with which to impose our vision on the world. Instead of using the Bible for self-justification, we need to open ourselves to being challenged. We are likely to recognise that we’re not living up to what we profess. “The Bible humbles us.”

The doctrine of “sola scriptura” carries the risk of seeing clarity in biblical texts where none exists. We should read the Bible together in community. The Bible can’t be divorced from tradition. We need to relate to the Bible as we read it. There is a need for authoritative teaching which attempts to change the march of history and serves the people of God.

The world shuts us off from the flow of the Holy Spirit. The flowing of the Holy Spirit is blocked by our blindness and deafness.

We are all the time in a kairos moment (a moment of crisis and opportunity) and need to live in an awareness of this.

Jean Zaru was one of the panellists in the early afternoon session. She had been given a permit to enter Jerusalem at the second time of asking. Nevertheless, she was held up at the Qalandia checkpoint for two hours.

Jean voiced some Quaker affirmations: “All of us have indwelling divinity.” “All of us are special.” “All of us are equal.” She told us of her involvement in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Palestine/Israel was always a taboo subject. What is the point of dialogue, if it doesn’t affect how we live?

David Ben Gurion, who was the first prime minister of Israel, said: “The Bible is the sacrosanct title-deed to Israel.” The Jews claim a divine right which trumps all human rights.

Jean said: “We are one world. We either transform it together or blow it together.”

She explained that Christian Zionists are fiercely pro-Israel, but anti-Jewish. They want Israel to take over the whole of historical Palestine in order to hasten the second coming of Christ. But Jews will then all be killed, unless they convert to Christianity.

The later afternoon session about “The Land of Promise” was also interesting. Here are a couple of thoughts from Yohanna Katanacho, the Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible School: Israel abuses scripture to claim, steal, and exploit the land. According to the Gospel of John, the Spirit of God is everywhere and is not confined to one place. The Holy Land is everywhere.

Life under occupation

The afternoon began with a film documenting daily “life” at the Qalandia checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. An Israeli activist took it upon herself to spend each day for about eight years filming what was happening at the checkpoint.

We saw crowds of people in the “cattle pens” pushing to get through the turnstiles, which are reminiscent of the machines which are used to remove the feathers from chicken. Once through the first turnstile, you have to put whatever you are carrying onto a conveyor belt to go through a scanner as at an airport, and walk through an arch to be scanned yourself.

Then you have to show your passport or ID card by placing it up against the glass screen which separates you from the Israeli soldiers who decide whether or not to let you pass through into Jerusalem. If you are an international or a Palestinian with a valid permit you are allowed to go through a second turnstile. There is then a third turnstile at the exit from the checkpoint.

Workers who need to get to work in Jerusalem or further inside Israel face delays of up to two hours. Or they may even be refused entry into Jerusalem. They are likely to lose their jobs, if they don’t turn up for work, or if they are too late too often.

The film also showed scenes of would-be worshippers, including elderly women, being forced to wait for hours in the hot sun during Ramadan.

After the film, Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting, talked to us about the violence being done to Palestinians in the occupied territories. The direct violence, such as the shooting of two Palestinians at checkpoints last week, is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a great deal of structural violence, which is economic, political, cultural, and religious.

The response of many Palestinians to this oppression is to withdraw into themselves (“inner emigration”), to accommodate or adjust to the situation as best they can, or to manipulate the system to their own advantage by fair means or foul. And those who have family connections in the USA or elsewhere may literally emigrate, if given the chance.

Jean advocated nonviolent resistance as the Christian response to oppression. Jesus’ way was to oppose evil without becoming evil oneself. He preached the reign of God, which is free of domination. “Struggle changes us. It gives us life. … It not only transforms us, but also makes us transforming people.”

The second of three speakers was a human rights lawyer working with the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. There are 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 15 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, nine of whom are being held in administrative detention.

Prisoners can be kept in administrative detention for six months at a time. But the detention order can be renewed indefinitely, sometimes for as long as eight years. Detainees are not charged and their lawyers are not allowed to see any evidence which may (or may not) justify their incarceration.

According to international law prisoners who have committed crimes in an occupied territory must be imprisoned within that territory, not inside the occupying country. But all Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis are held in jails within Israel. This means that family members are often not able to visit them, because they are not able to obtain the permit required for entry into Israel.

What can we in the West do? Campaign for a boycott of G4S, which provides security in Israeli prisons and interrogation centres, and at checkpoints.

The third speaker was Sam Bahour, managing partner of Applied Information Management, a Palestinian business which provides “professional and independent consulting and research”. Sam explained how Israeli control of Palestinian infrastructure restricts economic development.

Palestinians who are experts in particular fields, but who live in other parts of the world, are not allowed to enter Palestine. Israel controls all the borders, including those between the West Bank and Jordan and between Gaza and Egypt. The journey between Ramallah and Bethlehem – only about 20 miles as the crow flies – takes about 1 hour 45 minutes because of the circuitous route: south to Qalandia, east to the Jordan Valley, south towards the Dead Sea, and then west to Bethlehem. And there are three checkpoints on the way.

Sam told us about his daughters’ reading of history and prediction of the future. There was the “Catastrophe” of 1948 when many thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes. Palestinians have been trying in various ways to reclaim their homeland ever since.

War and armed struggle hasn’t worked. Appealing to international law hasn’t worked, because the superpowers turn a blind eye to Israeli violations. Negotiations with Israel brought the Oslo Agreement which has allowed Israel to entrench the occupation and further colonise the West Bank. The “facts on the ground” created by Israel make a two-state solution virtually impossible.

So, Sam’s daughters say, we will let Israel have everything, the land and the people. We will then campaign for our civil rights within a unitary state. It may take some time. But we will win.

Maintaining core values in the midst of madness

Earlier this evening a close friend sent me these comments:

“Thank you for recording your observations, thoughts, insights. As an outsider, I find the situation in Israel/Palestine truly tragic. The picture you have drawn has done nothing, I’m afraid, to make me feel more hopeful about the future and makes me even more convinced of the basic evil of the Israeli policies. I’m grateful to you for the regular reminders in the midst of this of the core values that must be present if there is ever to be a way out of this.

“I dare say that you will never be the same after this sojourn.

“I was glad to see that you had visited Amos Gvirtz. He really is an inspiration. … Jean Zaru and Kathy Bergen are also known figures to me. Thank goodness there are such people, and the many others you have mentioned, in the midst of this apparent madness.”

I met Jean Zaru today at long last. Our paths haven’t crossed before now, although we have both been involved in the Friends World Committee for Consultation (the network of Quakers around the world), and in the World Council of Churches. Whilst Jean served on the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, I have only attended the WCC Assembly in Harare in 1998 and the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica, a couple of years ago.

We are both ecumenically-minded Quakers with a commitment to working for justice and peace through active nonviolence. So we share fundamental core values. But there the comparison ends. I am a white anglo-saxon male and have lived pretty much all my life in northwest Europe. Jean is a Palestinian woman living in Palestine.

It is one thing to talk and write about peace, justice, and nonviolence whilst sitting at home or in an office in Evesham or Brussels. It is quite another thing to practise active nonviolence whilst living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

If I get upset about the local college hosting an Armed Forces Day event, I can go along to the event and distribute an open letter to the principal of the college, without fear of being arrested or punished. Jean has done nothing as provocative as that, nor committed any crime, but she cannot travel to Jerusalem, which is little more than ten miles away, without a permit. Although she is due to speak at the Sabeel conference this coming week, she has been refused a permit and has had to put in a second application. If she succeeds in obtaining a permit, she will still face questioning at the checkpoint at Qalandia.

If Jean wants to visit her children and grandchildren in the USA, she cannot travel via Tel Aviv. She has to make an arduous and stressful journey to Amman and fly from there.

Jean is fortunate compared with many of her compatriots. Many young Palestinian men are sitting in administrative detention in Israeli jails. Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and in Area C in the West Bank risk having their homes demolished. Bedouin families are being forcibly removed from their villages and put into “concentration towns” in the Negev. Palestinian farmers are subjected to harassment and are sometimes attacked by Israeli settlers who are rarely brought to justice. When boys throw stones, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) respond with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Part of the madness is the damage done by the occupation to the Palestinian economy. This has been quantified in a recent World Bank report. If the Palestinian economy were allowed to thrive, the Israeli economy would flourish as well.

Israelis as well as Palestinians would benefit economically as well as enjoying greater security, if there were a just peace agreement, bringing an end to the occupation, and recognising the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis. How long must we wait until the majority of Israelis wake up to this and demand that their government agree a fair peace deal? How long will the Palestinians have to suffer under occupation?

How long can the international community acquiesce in Israeli oppression of the Palestinians? Not long, if more and more of us demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinians who are suffering under occupation and the Israelis who would also benefit from a just peace.

Meanwhile, we should thank God for all those people, Palestinians such as Jean Zaru, and Israelis such as Amos Gvirtz, who are maintaining core values in the midst of this madness.

The light within

I begin each day by reading from “Peacemaking Day by Day”, a book of daily readings published by Pax Christi in 1990. After nearly 20 years of use, my little book has fallen apart into two unequal halves, but it is still useable. The reading for today, 16 November, is from the Tales of the Hasidim:

A young rabbi said to the master, “You know, when I study and when I join others in great feasts, I feel a great sense of light and life. But the minute it’s over it’s all gone; everything dies in me.”
The old rabbi replied: “It is just this feeling that happens when a person walks through the woods at night, when the breeze is cool and the scent in the air is delicious. If another joins the traveller with a lantern, they can walk safely and joyfully together. But if they come to a crossroads and the one with the lantern departs then the first must grope her way alone unless she carries her light within her.”

We Quakers are convinced that we each – everyone, not just Quakers – carry an “Inward Light”, a divine spark, within us.

I’m currently reading “Dimensions of Prayer” by Douglas Steere, a Quaker who was Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. In a passage which I read this morning, he quotes Bede Griffiths:

“It is only in prayer that we can communicate with one another at the deepest level of our being. Behind all words and gestures, behind all thoughts and feelings, there is an inner centre of prayer where we can meet one another in the presence of God.”

I’m reminded of the meaning of the Hindu greeting, “Namaste”, explained by Ram Dass in “Grist for the Mill”:

“In India when we meet and part we often say, ‘Namaste’, which means: I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides; I honour the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honour the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us …. ‘Namaste’.”

How often are we able to honour each other in this way? Very rarely, I fear, at least in my experience. It is something that we all need to learn to do much more often: to see and honour the place of light and love and truth within ourselves and within the people we meet. We need to honour not only our “brothers” and “sisters” within our own church or faith community. We need also to honour our “brothers” and “sisters” in other faith communities and, perhaps especially, those who are not in a faith community.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, recognised a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, as his “brother” and wrote a short essay entitled “Nhat Hanh is my brother.” This was at the height of the Vietnam War and Thomas Merton was appealing to Americans to listen to the young Buddhist monk from Vietnam. Americans needed to recognise Vietnamese people as their brothers and sisters.

Now we who profess to be Christians need to recognise Jews as our brothers and sisters. And Jews need to recognise Muslims as their brothers and sisters. And Muslims need to recognise atheists as their brothers and sisters. In fact we all need to recognise each other as brothers and sisters. Then peace will break out and it won’t matter whether there is a two-state solution or a one-state solution or two states within a state in Palestine/Israel.

My copy of “Peacemaking Day by Day” has fallen apart at August 22, where there is another story from Tales of the Hasidim:

An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
“Then when is it?” the pupils demanded.
“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Sabeel

If you get off at the right bus stop on the way from Ramallah into Jerusalem, you will find yourself just a few yards from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre. “Sabeel” is an Arabic word meaning “the way”, a “channel” or “spring”. In this case “Sabeel” refers to the Way of Christian discipleship.

As well as the Centre in Jerusalem, Sabeel is “an ecumenical grassroots movement among Palestinians”, which “seeks to make the Gospel contextually relevant, and strives to develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation, and reconciliation for the different faith communities”.

I spent much of yesterday and today at the Centre in East Jerusalem, helping with preparations for the ninth international conference of Sabeel, which will be held in Jerusalem next week. Friends of Sabeel will be coming from the USA, Canada, Sweden, the UK, one or two other European countries, and Brazil. An unknown number of Palestinians will be joining the 180 participants who are expected from overseas.

Before lunch today a group of Friends of Sabeel from the USA arrived in time for the weekly communion service, presided over by Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest who is director of Sabeel. The Gospel reading was from Luke’s Gospel.

Some Sadducees, who didn’t believe in resurrection, asked Jesus what would happen in heaven after a woman had been married to each of seven brothers in turn after each one died. When she then also died, to which of the seven brothers would she be married in heaven? Jesus explained that people would not be married in heaven. And he went on to tell the Sadducees that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. Moses recognised God in the burning bush as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, implying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive.

Instead of a sermon, Naim Ateek shared some reflections on the two Bible passages which had been read and invited other people to share their thoughts. Naim highlighted the contrast between Muslim and Christian Zionist fundamentalists on the one hand and followers of Jesus, who focus on living a life of discipleship during this life, on the other hand.

Both Muslim and Christian Zionist fundamentalists focus on life after death. Muslim fundamentalists imagine that if they are martyred whilst killing their enemies, they will enjoy a life of pleasure and comfort in heaven. There was mention of the stabbing a day or two ago of an Israeli soldier by a 16-year-old Palestinian who had crossed the border from Jenin into Gallilee.

Christian Zionists seek to hasten Christ’s second coming and are not at all concerned about people, Palestinians in particular, who suffer injustice today. Their support for Israel’s Zionist colonisation of the West Bank is extremely destructive.

In contrast, Jesus’ option for the poor and his option for nonviolence form the basis of our discipleship. And discipleship is about how we live our lives in this world, never mind what we imagine might happen in the next.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Sabeel’s theology and praxis during next week’s conference.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult for Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories to take part. They need to obtain a permit for entry into Israel. Jean Zaru, the presiding clerk of the Quaker Meeting in Ramallah, is scheduled to speak at the conference. But she has been refused a permit. So she is having to put in a new application…