Matthew 23:1-12

Empty Words and the Power of God

By Anita Fast

Nearly ten years ago now, I went to live in what remains of historic Palestine, now often called the West Bank, which has been Occupied by the Israeli military, and a growing number of Israeli civilian settlers, for forty years.  I did not go as a political activist, but as a Christian, with an organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams.  CPT, an ecumenical initiative begun by the Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren, is an experiment in non-violent transformation of violence and hostility with the power of God’s all-encompassing love.

In 1999 I arrived in Hebron full of hope and the sincere desire to do good, determined to live what I understand to be one of the central commitments of my faith tradition: an unswerving commitment to peace, nonviolence and sacrificial love.  Three years later I left with the same commitment, a more tempered concept of ‘hope’ and a deep unease and uncertainty about what peace, nonviolence, and sacrificial love mean.

It was no longer clear to me that what I had set out to be, a peacemaker, was indeed what I had been.  The words of my close Palestinian friend, Nisreen, dug deep into my conscience: “I want to live in peace”, she said, “but I don’t trust this word anymore.  It is a big trick and a dirty word.  Talking about peace makes me very angry – more than anything else.  Before it was making me laugh.  So it is better to say that I don’t want to live anymore.  And I really start to envy the people who have been killed.”

Indeed, many times throughout my stay in Hebron, Palestinian people would approach me on the street, read the label on my hat or armband, “Christian Peace Team” and ask with contempt, “Peace?  Where is the peace?  There is no peace here.”  I would quickly agree with them and try to explain that this was why I was there – in order to attempt to help bring peace to that desperate land – but these exchanges most often left me feeling convicted by the same Word of God as that which spoke through the prophet Micah: “They have led my people astray, crying “Peace”…!”

The words of Peace before which Nisreen would rather die, are words that hold out the promise of something longed for with every ounce of our tired and battered bodies, only to discover that they are a smoke screen for ulterior motives, lies which play on the hungers of our hearts.  Indeed, the prophets indicted in Micah’s diatribe, are using the term only to reassure those who pay their wages, claiming that ‘all is well’, when all is well only for the powerful ones.

Now I don’t want to be a party-pooper, but it does make me pause in the midst of my own celebrations after the election of Barak Obama to the US presidency.  The election of Obama is historical and exciting and hopeful on many levels.  Yet it is precisely because of this that we need to listen intently to the words of Micah all the more.  To a lesser or greater degree, Empires will always build their cities with wrong and protect their interests with blood.  They will always offer charismatic, upbeat, promising words to assure their citizens that they are doing what is right and good and necessary.  Empires are like that.

So when we see the bumper-stickers sold to bolster the Barak Obama campaign – with the name “Obama” with the ‘O’ written as a peace symbol; or his name followed by John Lennon’s famous words “Give peace a chance”, we might want to pay attention to the days and months and years after the celebrations fade, and the marginalized are left to sweep up the confetti: are the lives of those suffering the injustices leveled against them by the world’s superpower any different?

Words of peace when there is no peace are so dangerous because people want so desperately to believe them – this is what made being a pseudo-prophet so profitable.

And so, even I, for whom peace and peacemaking are central commitments in my life and theology, feel ambiguous about the term.  To be honest, sometimes I wonder whether our litanies and prayers for peace and justice do more to placate our guilty consciences than they serve to move us to action.   It is easy to point fingers at politicians and leaders who pad their speeches with language the voting public wants to hear, but what about the disconnect in our own lives between our ever-so-eloquent religious language and the nitty-gritty choices we make every day?  Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading today can be heard as a reminder to practice what we preach, to do more than wear our prayers for peace as long fringes and broad phylacteries, symbolic of our piety and faithfulness, but ultimately empty if they are not part of an active life of service.

Pursuing peace beyond the words will not leave us comfortable Christians comfortably Christian.  And yet, at the same time, we must engage the ambiguities of such a commitment.  Believe me, the world is not going to cheer for the Christian peacemakers who come to save the day.  In Hebron, many Israeli soldiers and settlers called me and my teammates ‘Nazis’, seeing our care for Palestinians as evidence of our deep hatred of Jews.  During talks I gave in Vancouver about the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams I was frequently challenged by voices who wondered how I dare stick my Christian nose into someone else’s business after all the destruction Christianity has caused in the world.  It seems to me that forsaking even grandiose visions of peacemaking is crucial in a world still bleeding from multiple Christian grandiose visions.

Indeed, I believe that real peace, which is as much, if not more, a gift from God as it is a project, is only to be made within our willingness to be powerless, and to allow the power of that powerlessness, which is the power of God, to do the transformative work.  When Micah juxtaposed himself with the prophets of a false peace, he stated clearly that unlike them, he was filled with power, with the Spirit of God, with justice and with might – and that power, that justice and might, was a word of truth in the face of wrongdoing, not an army, nor numbers power, nor even the majority of votes.  A weak and fragile word – the power and justice of God.

In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus spoke about the sort of ideals his followers were to embody, he warned against calling anyone teacher, instructor or father precisely because the power manifested in the Kingdom of God is one of humble servanthood where we engage the world and its complexities with a spirit of humility – willing to be weak and foolish in the eyes of a world which uses violence and war to bolster its mission.

And the irony of it all – or perhaps the promise of this upside-down-bend-all-the-rules sort of Kingdom we pray to “come”;  the word from the prophet that grabs us by the scruff of the neck and forces us to see, to really see, the destruction leveled in the wake of our false words and selfish motives – this power and justice from God that tears down all we know and love in-so-far as it is built with wrong –  ends up being the very word of life for us and for our world.

Let me tell you a story.  One afternoon, I was walking through the old city of Hebron where our Christian Peacemaker Team apartment was located.  Hebron’s Old City remains fully occupied by the Israeli military.  CPT regularly did patrols of the area because incidents of violence between Israeli soldiers or settlers and Palestinian civilians are common.  As I was walking through the market with some other teammates, a young Palestinian boy came up and motioned for us to come with him.  We followed him to a corner of the market where a group of six or seven Israeli soldiers in flack jackets, helmets, and machine guns strapped around their shoulders, were holding a group of ten Palestinian teenagers spread eagle up against the wall.  One soldier was holding a lighter up to a Palestinian boy’s hand, but quickly put it away when we arrived with our cameras.

One of the soldiers, a commander, approached me and pulled me aside.  “I want to show you something”, he said.  I had had a few conversations with this soldier before, and he remembered me.  He pulled out of his pocket some calendars that the Palestinians had had with them.  They had pictures of Palestinian flags, guns, and resistance fighters on them.  “See?” said the soldier.  He was wanting to point out the violent feelings and aggression of the Palestinians to justify his actions as against a people not deserving to be free or treated justly.

“Yes, I see”, I responded.  “I am aware of such violence.  But do you think that treating these young men in this way will make them hate you any less?  They are human beings.  Do not take away their dignity.  That is not the way to battle the violence they may harbour against you.”  By the grace of God the soldier listened.  Within a few minutes, the Palestinian teenagers were allowed to stand comfortably and shortly thereafter given back their id’s and released.

And another story: again I was out on patrol, but this time I came across a Jewish settler who was praying outside the site where Abraham and Sarah are buried in Hebron.  Three young Palestinian boys, probably no older than 5 or 6, stood about thirty feet away and threw stones at the praying man.  They were acting out of a story of enemies, of “us vs. them”, living in the place where it is obvious what you do to those you hate, or those who oppress you.  And so I stood in between the young Palestinian boys and the Jewish man.  And I said to the boys in very broken Arabic, “Do not throw stones.  This man is praying.  We all pray to the same God”.  The boys stopped.  They smiled, intrigued perhaps by this foreigner who tried to speak in their language, and came over to me with the curiosity inherent in young children.  “To God?” said one of the older boys.  “Yes,” I nodded.  We stood together for a while longer, and after the man had finished his prayers, the oldest boy approached him and shook his hand.

Weak and fragile moments.  Anything could have happened.  Nothing was certain, and perhaps nothing but the grace of that very moment came of it all.  Yet those were moments when I can only hope that my tentative cries for peace did not lead anyone astray, but injected a glimpse of humanity into an otherwise inhuman situation.

If nothing else, what I learned in Hebron was that until we suffer with those who suffer; weep with those who weep; look deeply into the eyes of the Other – even those we deem enemy, crossing the boundaries that have kept us separate from their pain, peace will remain an illusion, a polite way of saying “don’t rock the boat”, a comfort to those who are comfortable and a sham to those who are suffering the wrongs which make peace impossible.

In Israel and Palestine, those building bridges of peace were those who consistently and courageously refused to be kept apart in a world of Otherness.  Israelis and Palestinians, together with growing numbers of Internationals, marching across military checkpoints to dismantle the barricades which imprison Palestinians in their villages without water, food, or medical supplies; growing numbers of Israeli soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories; International volunteers walking with Palestinian children on their way to school past soldiers and settlers who threaten them with guns and stones; Palestinians inviting Jews to their homes so their children know more of Judaism than the armies and politicians who threaten them; Israeli and Palestinian mothers and fathers whose children have been killed by soldiers or suicide bombers, meeting together and speaking out for real justice and lasting peace so that no more parents are left to weep over an empty bed.

Peacemakers, all of them.  Weak and fragile words and actions for the sake of a more livable world.

I speak of my experiences in the land of Palestine, of Israel, but we don’t have to go across the globe, or even across town.  We can begin on this very day to see the faces of those forbidden us, forbidden our eyes and forbidden our hearts.

And so, when I hear the victory words of Barak Obama “We will change this country and change the world” I can’t help but feel a little bit of a shiver run down my spine.  The United States of America has all too often spoken of changing the world, and the methods of Empire have far too often left countries and lives in ruins.  Yet in the background we can also hear the words of another African American who set out to change his country and the world, and whose nonviolent struggle made the events of these past days possible: Martin Luther King Jr.:  “Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live — men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization — because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.”

And the gift of peace which God holds out for us begs to be opened, slowly, carefully, with courage and perseverance in the midst of ruins and splendor, humility and expectation for the coming of the reign of God.

Copyright 2008 Anita Fast. Used by permission.