Monday, June 11, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 25
June 11, 2007

Some of you will have already seen this but because I believe it is such a powerful description of the paradoxical nature of the situation in Palestine, I include it here. Pastor Russ Siler has been serving the English Speaking Lutheran Congregation in Old Jerusalem for the past four years and is now returning to America. His occasional epistles have been both inspiring and deeply disturbing. This is his final letter from the Middle East.

9 June 2007

It is almost as if I am returning to school after a summer break, preparing to write the obligatory essay on what I did over my vacation. Save for the fact that this term stretched out for four years, it was truly a break—a world apart from that which most people in my home country experience on a daily basis. Here is a world in which one is not free to travel where one wishes. It is a place not of freedom, but of restrictions—not of liberty, but of oppression. As my wife Anne and I prepare to leave this land which has been our home these past few years, I wish that I could package this segment of our lives and make it available to you in such a way that you could see, feel, hear, smell, taste, and touch the things we have. Then you would be as overwhelmed by joy, sadness, elation, and despair as we are. But I cannot. All I believe I am capable of doing is telling you what I will miss and what I will not miss as we return to the United States.

I will miss the beautiful homes left to us from a magnificent past, with their arched windows and ornate porches and high ceilings. I will not miss the piles of rubble and rebar which mark demolished Palestinian homes—more than 15,000 of them since the Occupation began, most on the flimsiest of pretexts by the Israeli army or municipal authority—where I know lie crushed under each one a family's dream of a place of their own.

I will miss the magnificent countryside, littered with rocks and hills of every size and description, and the rugged landscapes that Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Jesus, Peter, and Andrew hiked through. I will not miss the monstrous Wall, barbed wire fences, dirt mounds across unpaved village access roads, and ugly, prison-fortress-like crossings and terminals, ubiquitous in their barbarity. I won't miss them, because Israel presents them to you as dire necessities for their security, indeed, for their very survival, while we see the truth of Israel's reality which is to carve up Palestine into ever tinier clusters of humanity whose religious, cultural, societal ties are so slashed into disconnected ribbons that a nation is impossible.

I will miss ever so much the innocent smiles and playful giggles on the faces of the children—Israeli, Palestinian, international—all over the place. I will not miss the heaviness dragging on my heart like an anchor, as I realize how very soon that playful innocence will fall victim to fear and hatred, to bigotry and racism.

I will miss the steady stream of visitors—vacationers, pilgrims, seekers, tourists—that arrive like clockwork at our 9:00 am Sunday worship in St. John's Chapel. I will miss their delight at being in the Holy Land—many of them first-timers, but many more veterans of the land—their eagerness to meet Palestinian Christians whom, they soon learn, have been a vital presence here for the entire life of the Christian Church, and their openness to listen to narratives of the deadly conflict that the rest of the world seldom hears. I will not miss the busloads of tourists whose guide takes them to Bethlehem for a quick peek at the Church of the Nativity, then hurries them back to Jerusalem, because, "It's dangerous in the West Bank."

I will miss the witness of the courageous Israeli and Jewish women and men—Machsom Watch, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Women in Black, and all the others—as they tirelessly seek to stand in solidarity with people who seek justice and to educate those who wonder what unspeakable things are being done in the name of their beloved religion. I will not miss those coarse voices who violently insist—to the detriment of intelligent dialogue, discussion, disagreement, debate, or dissent—that any person who dares to criticize Israeli policy is either self-hating or anti-Semitic.

Perhaps, however, more than anything, I will miss the thousand times a week I hear ahlan wa salan—Welcome—singing out with genuine warmth from face after face of those who are desperately eager to let me know that, regardless of appearance, religion, or nationality, I am their brother. I have no doubt whatsoever that, were one of these persons to be down to his last piece of bread, he would beckon me closer and say, "Come, sit, eat!" What I will never miss are the questions spontaneously emerging from these same warm hearts, "Why does America treat us this way?" "Why do they help Israel oppress us and take our land?" "Will you please tell Mr. Bush that all we want is to be treated fairly; we only want justice." I will not miss these questions because I think they are harsh or prompted by bad intentions, but because I have no answers which will make a whit of difference to my sisters, to my brothers who are so baffled by the way our country treats them.

Some of you have asked what I will do when we return to the States. At this juncture I can only grin broadly and say "Retire!" We do know there are challenges and adventures awaiting us; we just don't know what or where or when. The only certainty in my mind—No. Make that in my heart—is that I will continue to speak up and to speak out. My friends here would understand if I did not. They would softly comfort me, "We know how hard it will be." The problem is that I will not be that easy on myself. I cannot see the tears in my brother's eyes without tasting the salty bitterness in my own mouth. And I cannot swallow the bitter taste; I must open my mouth and let it out!

Thank you for your faithful willingness to listen and for your constant support. They have been life-giving! Peace!

Russell O. Siler, Pastor
English-speaking Congregation
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Jerusalem, Old City

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 24
June 4, 2007

One approaches even a semi-respectful critique of the life and work of Billy Graham with more than a little trepidation and a healthy heaping of hubristic self-awareness. Nevertheless, the opening of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina this past week does provide an invitation for reflection on the legacy of America’s most famous preacher.

You may have seen the photo of, according to most polls, the most admired man in America, standing in front of his new library, flanked by three ex-presidents and his son, Franklin. Billy himself looks strikingly weak and must use a walker to aid his mobility. 88 years have taken their toll on this once impressively vigorous preacher. The New York Times reported that a number of laudatory speeches were made including the keynote address given by President George H.W. Bush who stifled a sob as he praised Graham as “the humble farmer’s son who changed the world.”

Certainly a case can be made that Billy Graham had more of an effect on the shape of American Christianity than any other religious contemporary, including the plethora of popes who reigned during Graham’s working years. I suspect that some of you will remember your own experience at a Billy Graham Rally when, after an hour or two of arousing hymn-singing, emotional praying and convictive preaching, the invitation was made to turn your life over to Jesus, the only savior of the world, and be born again.

And so you did, as did I…along with all the members of my Luther League youth group. While “Just As I Am” was played repeatedly over the public address system, we went down to the stadium floor that warm Los Angeles night and knelt before a gently smiling volunteer. Hands were laid upon our heads, prayers were invoked, a small tract on eternal salvation was shared and we returned to our seats convinced that our lives were irrevocably changed.

Adolescence is a temporary condition, of course, and our fervor waned, replaced with a piety seasoned by the ambiguities of passing time and acquired reason. For millions of others, however, a kind of spiritual adolescence remains. Easy answers to complicated questions continue to be welcomed today just as they were by those voluminous crowds who filled the arenas and stadiums for The Rev. Billy.

His message remained fundamentally unchanged over his tenure, altered only with a timely anecdote or poignant testimony of one more sinner saved from the fires of hell. Graham’s God is deeply disappointed in His creation offering one final solution to the problem of sin’s hold on humanity: “This is what Jesus Christ did for you. You and I are guilty before God, but Christ paid the penalty for our sins by dying in our place. And now our sins can be completely forgiven—all of them. The Bible says, "He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). Ask Christ to come into your life today, and trust Him alone for your salvation. Then thank God for forgiving you of all your sins.”

The theme, of course, wasn’t new. But Graham honed it in a manner that made sense to the masses. Just as the Apostle Paul before him, Graham spent little sermonic time on the life and teachings of Jesus. It was the gruesome, bloody death of the only son of God that captured the imagination of this preacher. (Mel Gibson’s recent entry into religious filmmaking was a highly successful, if theologically repugnant, cinematic extension of Graham’s recurring message.) Over and over again, Graham focused his considerable oratorical skill not on the physical needs of this world but the promised rewards in the next. He claimed to be removed from politics but there hasn’t been a president in the last 50 years Graham couldn’t count as a devotee. His commiserating with Nixon, secretly taped, over their shared perception of the “stranglehold” the Jews had over the media was an embarrassment that only his enormous popularity allowed him to weather. The bigoted remark left many wondering whether it revealed the vestiges of a Southern upbringing or the inherent anti-Semitism of Evangelical Christianity. By and large, however, he successfully remained aloof from political issues. Many found this laudable. Some of us see it as a profoundly sad shirking of Christian responsibility.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is to be applauded for its extensive charitable activities although, quite frankly, a considerable amount of financial resources seem to be spent on simply perpetuating the association, as a quick perusal of the BGEA website will make disturbingly clear.

Billy Graham’s fragile condition and dramatic decline is a poignant reminder to all of us that even the powerful must one day forego their prestige and privilege and join the incalculable crowd who has gone before us. Despite his failing health, Graham appears certain, and certainly proclaims, an even better world awaits all those who agree with him.

The certainty of Graham’s religious convictions is impressive to be sure but being certain should never be confused with being correct. One can’t help but wonder how different the world would be now if Graham’s considerable skills and enormous resources would have been employed less as a disciple of Paul and more of a disciple of Jesus.