Wednesday, May 18, 2011


In March I returned from a trip to Palestine, my third.  A friend asked "Where did you go?"  "Palestine," I said.  "But, there is no Palestine," she replied.  "Yes, there is.  I was there.  Didn't you get my postcard from Bethlehem?"  "Oh, I've also visited Bethlehem.  It's in Israel."  "No," I said, exasperated, "it's separated from Israel by a 30-foot Wall and the IDF."  So it went, as we talked past each other.
I don't think I convinced her - not even with the pictures of the Wall, the checkpoint, the soldiers.  To Nina, to most Americans, and, I fear, to the President, there is no Palestine and there are, therefore, no Palestinians deserving of the same freedom and dignity enjoyed by Israelis…and by us.
But, I know better.  I have met the Palestinians, broken bread with them, prayed with them, stood with them as they faced the soldiers, listened to their stories.  And everywhere – from Hebron to Jenin – I listened to their outrage at our February veto of a UN Security Council resolution that, echoing international law and our own U.S. government position, would have declared illegal the Israeli settlements that command nearly every Palestinian hilltop and called for the resettlement – to Israel - of the half million Israeli Jews who live in them.  I also experienced how the possibilities of the Arab Awakening swirling around them had seeped into the psyches of young Palestinians and filled them with hope and a palpably fearless defiance – not just of Israel, but of Fatah, Hamas, and, yes, us…of all the powers that be that had for so long deprived them of their human dignity.  From them I heard one word over and over – Hurriya!  Freedom!  
This combination of hope – of achievable possibility – and fearlessness is powerful.  It has created what IDF spokesman Brigadier-General Yoav Mordecha has called "a very different reality" in and around Palestine.  There is a whiff of Morocco's "Green March" and our own Freedom Riders in the march of unarmed Palestinian refugees toward the barbed wire and guns…and home…beyond the border between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights at Majdal Shams.  And there is an echo of Gandhi in the non-violent "White Intifada" that seems to be taking hold in the towns and villages of the West Bank and even Gaza.
Speaking of the border breaches at Majdal Shams, one Israeli military analyst said "A barrier of fear has been crossed."  He meant that the unarmed Palestinians who stormed the border - and those who demonstrated around the West Bank and in Jerusalem - no longer fear the IDF or the consequences of their actions.  The Arab Spring has reached Palestine...and Israel, and, among Palestinians, courage has replaced fear. 
In Israel, however, fear has been replaced by panic.  Discipline and dignity, it seems, is crumbling in the face of a qualitatively new situation and increasingly giving way to the sort of mob action displayed by the IDF in any number of now viral videos.  The scenes of the killings at Majdal Shams ( and the beatings of unarmed youngsters – many of them Israelis – at Nabi Saleh ( conjure up memories of Kent State and a police riot in Chicago.  And, once again, the whole world is watching.
One has the sense of an unraveling in progress - of a formerly confident, increasingly less democratic Israeli state and of the impotent, hypocritical stance of the U.S. vis-a-vis the conflict.   Both countries are increasingly isolated and in retreat as September approaches, when, Israeli and American protestations aside, the United Nations will recognize a new independent state of Palestine. Then what?  A denouement is approaching.  Knowing better than us what will happen in the next weeks and months - and, more importantly, what may not happen - George Mitchell has thrown in the towel on a failed policy based on a fantasy that there is no Palestine worth talking about and that its non-people can continue to be ignored.
The cognitive dissonance between that fantasy and the reality I have seen with my own eyes threatens insanity.  And policies based on insanity threaten disaster…for us, for the Palestinians, and for the Israelis.  For the sake of us all, Mr. President, please wake up.  Please shake free of the fantasy.  Please do what reality demands.  Our peace depends on it.


On Easter Sunday, the San Francisco Night Ministry celebrated the third anniversary of its Tenderloin Open Cathedral, an ecumenical open air Eucharist, where every Sunday for three years - rain or shine - spiritual bread has been broken with a regular congregation of fifty or so and physical food shared with over a hundred.  It is a place where people have been baptized, wed, and changed.
Last week, we inaugurated a new service, an Open Cathedral in the city's predominantly Hispanic Mission District.  And, now, we can say "OC Mission is up and running!" 
It was 5:30 last Thursday, May 12… bright and sunny.  Ron, our usher emeritus, was waiting as Monique, our UCC minister, and I arrived at the BART at 16th and Mission.  So was an eclectic crowd – black, white, and brown; old and, mostly, young; speaking English and, mostly, Spanish; some busily hurrying on, some lolling about on the metal benches and circular stone stoop around the station entrance.  We knew all would be well, for Moses was there to welcome us, too.  After we told him what we were about, he promised to return and, indeed, dropped in – and, out – at various times during the service.
To be sure, most kept their distance, only a few, it seemed, listening at all…except, that is, for Mark, a young – and big – African American who listened intently and with growing curiosity, as I read the Psalm and, then, Gospel in my deep voice which startles some.  As Monique began to preach – to no one, it seemed - he began to wave the service sheet and shout about sin and hell.  I went to quiet him down and received instead a sermon about Leviticus…about how I "should not lie down with other men," about how "you know what you are" and, "if you don't change, you'll burn in hell." 
Putting down the microphone for the moment, Monique joined us.  Mark explained how his life had been a mess and turned around at some local evangelical church where – not his words – he learned to fear God, to be judged, and to judge.   Monique, in turn, explained our non-judgmental theology of a God of love.  As she did, he calmed down.  They promised to continue the conversation after the service and he quietly walked off to the side.
Then, a funny thing happened.  Maybe it was the unexpected  noise, the overheard conversation…but, as Monique continued the bilingual sermon,  as Ron passed out the bilingual service sheets, people started to come – black, white; Anglo, Hispanic; a few with kids in tow.  The interest turned to reverence, as Monique broke the bread.  And, as we began the Lord's Prayer, our circle numbered more than a dozen, strangers holding hands, praying together in Spanish and English.
There were still more – newcomers, old friends Monique knew from the street – as we shared the bread and wine.  Monique gave an extra- large piece of bread to the disheveled barefoot woman who kept repeating loudly "I'm hungry!" - responding, I couldn't help but feel, to yet another persistent widow.  And, passing the cup, I've learned to say – and mean - "Sangre Cristo."     
It came time for the dismissal.  I hadn't given thought about what to say in Spanish.  All that came out was a loud, simple, and heartfelt "Vaya con Dios!" 
We all did…but not before sharing what little physical food and drink we had – a case of sodas and that blessed box of Bob's donuts.  It wasn't much.  It wasn't enough.  But, oh, how the little boy beamed, when I produced that chocolate covered donut…how grateful the lady who returned for seconds and thirds.
Little knots of people gathered for continued conversations – old friends of Monique's who promised to return; a newcomer, a troubled young lady raised Roman Catholic who, upon learning that Monique and I had shared her background, asked about Baptism.  Names and phone numbers were written down, promises made to see each other next week.
The sun was still out.  We had done our "thing." It was time to" go with God."  We did, waving to each other and to our new friends – as we went our separate ways.  Crossing Mission, then 16th, I found a new spring to my step.  About a block away, outside the now-closed Chinese market, I passed a lady who had shared our bread and donuts.  She said "Thank you."  "See you next week," I replied.
It's a start.


The days since Osama bin Laden's death Sunday before last have been disturbing.  They have brought to mind all that we lost.  The chants of  "USA!  USAUSA!" were an especially jarring reminder of our blood lust for mindless revenge that, ten years ago, destroyed that too-brief sense of shared mourning and community after September 11 and silenced in our throats that unasked question that still haunts the nation: "Why do they hate us?"  The answer, I fear, was plain to see on our TV screens.
There again were the parade of colonels thrilling us with the nuts and bolts of how skillfully we "took out" "Geronimo;" the chorus of discredited officials using one more killing to justify moral abominations such as "enhanced interrogation," Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and unjust, aggressive war; the crowds of twenty-somethings, too young to remember a pre-9/11 world, too self-absorbed to think of the handful of young Americans still hunkered down in Afghanistan
 I find myself sitting in sadness for all that occurred these past ten years, the lives lost, the opportunities squandered, and our continued triumphalism that enables us to go wherever we want to do whatever we want, to celebrate our power, and never to have to ask that fateful question: "Why do they hate us."  In his moment of triumph, the President said that "if we set our minds to it, Americans can do whatever we want."  Yes we can, Mr. President…but should we? 
All of which begs the question – What should we be doing in this "post-Osama world?"  Instead of dancing on the grave of one dead man, we should be concentrating on improving the lives of the many millions of Arabs who for centuries have suffered humiliation at the hands of a triumphalist and exploitive West.  We should recognize that it has been that humiliation that Osama bin Laden and other purveyors of violence have appealed to.  And, in this vein, we should recognize that, as Chris Matthews said last week, "You can't kill all the would-be terrorists.  You have to kill the reasons they want to be terrorists."
Our security rests not on our military prowess, not on our demonstrated ability to kill, nor on our doubling down on the "war on terror."  It rests rather on our ability to demonstrate our support – our tangible support – for democracy and the desire for dignity in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and, yes, Palestine.  Peace in and with the Arab world requires doubling down on our support for the Arab Awakening sweeping that world.  And it requires doubling down on our efforts to extend that peace – a peace with dignity and justice – to the people of Israel and Palestine.  We must deny the terrorists the fuel for their fires of hatred.
We must also tend to our peace at home.  If we are to live with a forward-looking confidence, we must put aside the fears we have allowed the terrorists to plant in our souls…fears that have given rise to unwise and unworthy policies, have led us to forfeit our very liberties, and poisoned our discourse.  As John said in his Gospel, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love."
 Above all, we should seize this day as an opportunity for long overdue reflection on where we have been this past decade, on where we are going, and on what we will and will not do as Americans and as people of faith.  At long last, can we not ask the unasked questions: Why do they hate us?  Why do we hate "them?"  Why are we so fearful?
Might I suggest that we reflect also on our response thus far to the death of this one man – Osama bin Laden.  How should we respond?  I think, in this regard, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, got it right:
Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end. In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred."
In a more general sense, Martin Luther King, Jr. also got it right:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Finally, might we turn this day to the reflective task to which Father Lombardi and Dr. King point us?  Might we consider what our calling to peace and reconciliation requires of us?  A good place to start might be the prayer for our enemies in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead us and them from prejudice to truth; deliver us and them from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in Your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before You; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN"

This first appeared in the Vallejo Times-Herald May 13, 2011


On March 8, I returned from a two-week pilgrimage to Israel and occupied Palestine (i.e., the West Bank and East Jerusalem), my third trip to the area.  It was emotionally devastating.
I travelled in the company of some thirty Northern California members of Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian Christian liberation theology group based in Jerusalem ( that is headed by The Rev. Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest and graduate of CDSP.
Our trip was a little different from the average Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The average pilgrim flies into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, gets on an Israeli bus, drives up the coast to the Galilee, across the Galilee to Nazareth and Capernum, down the ethnically-cleansed Jordan Valley, and up through the Judean Wilderness to Jerusalem.  Such pilgrims see lots of sacred sites, but meet not a single Palestinian, and return with the same one-sided view of Israel/Palestine he or she left with.
Ours, however, was a pilgrimage to experience the truth of the current situation in Israel/Palestine and to witness to it.
To that end, we travelled from Mount Hermon on the occupied Golan Heights, where we met with Druze villagers cut off from their families in Syria, to the Negev desert in Israel's south where Bedouin villagers are struggling to save their homes from demolition.
And across the West Bank we experienced pain at every turn – the shuttered shops in Hebron, the empty ones in Bethlehem, the farmers in Qalqilya and Jayous cut off from their fields, the sullen streets of the refugee camps, the still-open wound of a decade-old massacre in Jenin, the stench of tear gas in Bilin.  And, everywhere, the gleaming white hilltop colonies, home to half a million "settlers;" the myriad checkpoints; and the looming obscenity of a 30-foot high wall.
The pain was perhaps most pronounced in East Jerusalem's neighborhoods where we met with Palestinians whose homes were being demolished in Silwan and, in Sheikh Jarrah, where elderly Palestinians were living in a tent beside their home now occupied by young Israeli religious extremists.  Even the dead, we learned, were being dispossessed.  In the Muslim cemetery of Mamilla - across the street from the American Consulate – graves were being desecrated to make room for an American-financed "Museum of Tolerance."
My sense of profound sadness and moral outrage was blessedly tempered by our encounters with young Palestinians and Israelis.  Among the former – from our young host in Arbour refugee camp to the exuberant actors in Jenin's Freedom Theater to dear Lubna, a future leader of a truly free Palestine – the hope they drew from the Arab Awakening now sweeping the Middle East was downright contagious.  So, too, was the hope I found in young Israelis unwilling to trade their souls for land or patriotic myth – the high school senior facing imprisonment for resisting the draft; the Jewish kids from Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah putting on a puppet show for dispossessed Palestinian toddlers; and Michal, who, asked on a bus in the Negev about the appropriateness of the term "apartheid," replied "It's time to call it what is."
Yes, it's time.    
This first appeared on Episcopal News Service March 30, 2011