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.

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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.

“Peace!” “Peace!” But there is no peace.

The streets in the centre of Ramallah are crowded and bustling. Cars make slow headway because of all the people in the road. There’s no question of striding out, if you want to walk anywhere. That didn’t matter to me too much when I went shopping this afternoon. I didn’t really have a particular destination. I was just looking for a shop that sold fresh milk. I found a couple of shops that had long-life milk and bought yoghurt and eggs in one of them. I then found a shop selling fresh milk, but it was from Israel and I prefer to support local, i.e. Palestinian, producers. Fortunately I spotted Palestinian fresh milk a little further along the shelf. Mission accomplished! I now have milk for my tea again.

Living here in Ramallah, one might imagine that this land is at peace. But one only has to read the right news sources to realise that there are so many human rights abuses going on daily that the situation cannot be described as “peaceful” by any stretch of the imagination. People have their land confiscated, their houses demolished, their olive groves vandalised. They face lengthy delays and harassment at checkpoints, if they have to go to work in Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel. Many people are not allowed to leave the West Bank or Gaza at all. This quite often results in families being separated. Hundreds of young men are languishing in administrative detention, i.e. detention without trial, in Israeli jails. Now and then a demonstrator is killed by a “rubber” bullet or dies from injuries sustained three or four years ago.

Three news items have struck me especially today.

Most shocking, perhaps, is the news that the municipal authority of Jerusalem, which rules over occupied East Jerusalem as if it were part of Israel, has posted demolition warrants on 200 apartment blocks in two Palestinian neighbourhoods. The owners of the buildings have 30 days in which to register their objections. If the apartment blocks are eventually demolished, more than 15,000 Palestinians will be made homeless.

Meanwhile, the construction of houses continues apace in Israeli West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law. One wonders whether the Israeli government is intentionally trying to sabotage the current peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not going out of his way to make a two-state solution viable. On Sunday he announced that once “security fences” have been constructed along the borders with Egypt and Syria, a “security fence” will be built along the border between Jordan and the West Bank. He is reviving plans that were scrapped ten years ago because of international pressure. He claims that Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley need to be protected from Syrian refugees across the border in Jordan. Israel clearly intends to maintain control of the border between the West Bank and Jordan, so that any Palestinian state would not have control of its own borders.

At present the Palestinian Authority (PA) really only has control over Area A, five separate “cantons” in the West Bank, which Palestinians describe as “Bantustans”. The PA is responsible for the administration of Area B, villages and agricultural land around the major towns, but Israel has control of security. From time to time the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) carries out military training exercises in Area B. This may involve “simulating” the taking over of a village. Amidst gunfire and shelling the village is overrun by soldiers, who have no regard for the local inhabitants. It has even been known for soldiers to burst in and take over a house, causing great distress to the people living there. Several villages south of Nablus have been warned that such exercises will take place on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week.

Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of the Quaker Meeting in Ramallah, writes in her book, “Occupied with Nonviolence”: “The Oslo Accords presented the world with misleading images of peace and we were left with a difficult and hard reality on the ground. The international media referred to the Accords as historic because they brought peace and reconciliation. I often quote the words of the prophet Ezekiel who speaks of false prophets, ‘Because they misled my people, saying, “Peace”, when there is no peace’ (Ezekiel 13:10).”

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.