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Written by Reverend Cody J. Sanders – November 7 2023
Reprinted with permission from Baptist News Global
Photo by Mohammed Ibrahim on Unsplash

I’ve known churches that have been on the frontlines of every concern of justice, congregations in which you could well assume nearly everyone is voting for the same candidate at the top of the ticket, churches in which no controversial topic is off the table and anything can be discussed, argued over, advocated for … except Israel-Palestine.

That’s the one topic for many congregations where silence is easier to keep than risk being divided along rather unfamiliar lines, as the divisions don’t run along typical political party rifts or between usual theological camps, and it is a concern that doesn’t easily map onto other commitments of peace, justice or geopolitical opinion.

‘It’s complicated’ is not justification for inattention

A few years ago, I was privileged to spend 10 days in Israel-Palestine learning about the political history and contemporary life in the region alongside a group of other pastors. We visited very few of the archaeological or holy sites. Instead, we spent time with Israeli and Palestinian journalists and scholars, Palestinian and Israeli mothers who have lost children in the conflict, an Israeli rabbi and Palestinian peace activist duo who bring Israelis and Palestinians together in the desert to meet one another face-to-face (often for the first time).

We learned about daily life from education reformers who are placing Palestinian teachers in Israeli schools and Israeli teachers in Palestinian schools, and from a Christian family who runs the only halfway house in the entire country for Palestinian men released from prison (which they started in their own small apartment).

We spent time in the home of an Israeli settler in the West Bank and listened to her justification for living there. And we stood on the edge of Gaza and heard the painful story of a neighborhood community riven when Palestinian and Israeli neighbors were forced apart and half the neighborhood razed, leaving lifelong friends separated by a wall and without reliable contact.

We heard the story of an old man — a Palestinian-born Israeli citizen — who, as a child in 1948, witnessed his village bombed into oblivion. He grew up to become the archbishop of Galilee.

One thing became extraordinarily clear after those 10 days of intense conversation: With the one exception of the West Bank settler whose rhetoric was violent and filled with rage, every other Israeli and Palestinian who spent time with us on that journey was filled with both mournful pain over the violence and inequity of the status quo and an active hope (not optimism, but hope) for the possibility of a more peaceful, just and equitable society for Palestinians and Israelis.

I learned more in those 10 days spending time with people face-to-face in the place they live and love than I’ve learned before or since. And the experience made my political understanding of Israel-Palestine even more complex.

I know a lot of us don’t know about the history, the politics, the place, the people. “It’s complicated” seems to give us rhetorical wiggle room to get ourselves out from under the weight of the conflict. But it’s not enough to name the complicated nature of the situation. We must learn together how to hold complexity without becoming immobilized by it.

One thing we must always do is counter the antisemitism and Islamophobia that rises in severity within the U.S. every time violence in Israel-Palestine escalates. And while this is essential, this falls short of addressing the horrors of the war now raging.

Our grief will humanize us, the ungrievable will condemn us

We are convicted as Christians and condemned as humans by those whose lives we are unwilling to grieve.

I am concerned about what it is doing to our souls and the collective consciousness of many of our congregations to sit in worship every Sunday singing hymns and praying prayers and reading sacred texts, often without a single mention of the heaviness of the situation in Israel-Palestine we all know is there but are silent in addressing.

Convincing ourselves the complexity of the political situation has a nullifying effect on our call to mourn the thousands of dead children whose bodies are piling up is a symptom of our own dehumanization. We can be uncertain about what it will take to end the violence in the long term and still be resolved that the intensity of this violence must end in the immediate term. We can be unsure how the geopolitics of the region will be worked out toward peace-rooted-in-justice (or even whether it will be) and still get unstuck from our aversion and avoidance by really seeing what is happening to other human beings and being moved to corporate expressions of lament.

Our collective grief can contain the death of Israelis brutally murdered in their homes and neighborhoods alongside Palestinians being bombed in unrelenting slaughter. This is not to say something banal, like, “There are many good people dying on both sides.” It is to say there are many people dying. And dying horrible deaths.

Until we can hold corporate grief for the multitude of the world’s victims, we are hindered in even approaching our own sacred texts with a spiritual honesty that is near to our actual experience in the world. Biblical stories like Hagar and Ishmael being cruelly sent out into the desert to die until the Holy One appears upon hearing the boy’s cry (Genesis 21), Rachel’s bitter weeping, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more (Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:18), Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2), and even the state execution of Jesus on the Cross will remain cold words on a page, detached from daily life, meaning very little at all to us in our flesh and blood lives if the flesh and blood lives of others being torn apart by violence doesn’t provoke our grief.

Our inability or unwillingness to grieve these deaths only leads to further immobility, and we can’t afford that. Whatever futures are possible are dependent upon our abilities to grieve the loss of lives often far removed from our own. Our relationships to the living and to the dead shape our relationships with possible futures.

Grief is not enough. But for those who may feel stuck, unsure how to approach the violent realities taking shape at present, grief is a place to begin.

Our grief may lead us to compassion. It may lead us to outrage. It may lead us to pursuits of justice. Whatever else it does, our grief will make us more human, better able to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), more capable of acting in love toward those with whom we disagree — possibly even our enemies (Matthew 5:44) — and more likely to undertake our pursuit of peace-rooted-in-justice from a place of deep connection to the pain, suffering and longing of others.

Cody J. Sanders serves as associate professor of congregational and community care leadership at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minn. He is the author of several books on religion and ministry.