Experiencing the Lenten season in Palestine is unique. It carries with it incredible feelings of closeness and concreteness as one visits sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem — the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected. Yet, those feelings of closeness are easily swallowed up by a sense of separation and forsakenness as one considers the current situation.
In the recently released Kairos Palestine Document, Palestinian Christians take this situation as their starting point in challenging theological interpretations of those “who use the Bible to threaten our existence as Christian and Muslim Palestinians,” trying to “attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our rights.”
Though Easter and its celebration of resurrection and new life defines Christianity, in a place like Palestine the season of Lent always seems more appropriate. Lent is a time of preparation in expectation for Easter. It is a time marked by fasting and other acts of penance with the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving signifying the pursuit of justice toward God, oneself and one’s neighbour.
With restrictions on movement and the denial of freedom of religion, this sense of Easter celebration delayed and Lenten season prolonged characterises much of life in the 'Holy Land.' Indeed, as Palestinians remember more than 40 years of occupation and more than 60 years of Nakba (catastrophe), the ongoing experiences of dispossession and justice delayed are all too real.
Palestinian livelihoods continue to be devastated as more land is being expropriated for the construction of a 430-mile or 700-kilometre barrier that has little to do with security and terrorism, built not on the 'Green Line' but instead on Palestinian land. As it cuts deeply into the West Bank, the Wall forms the borders of what some call 'reservations', isolated islands of land on roughly 40 to 50 per cent of the West Bank where Palestinians are confined.
Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. (Luke 2.10)
For Christians, the words from Luke’s gospel hold the core of our faith: that God so loved the world that God came into the world in Christ to be born in our midst to embody hope and new life. During this sombre time of Lent, we look to Jerusalem and wait with eager anticipation for signs of new life.
Yet, even as we wait, do we listen to the voices of the children of Jerusalem today who still wait: for justice, for peace, for basic human rights, for a sign that the world hears them, trapped behind concrete walls and locked into tiny enclaves? When they hear the words of the angels: “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” they wonder when this promise might include them, too.
What does it mean for us to proclaim this “good news?”
Does it not mean that we stand with all those who are oppressed and held captive to fear and violence? That we remember that God once chose to come into the world as a poor, vulnerable child to lift the lowly, set free the oppressed and bring new light and love? That we believe in this Word made flesh who proclaimed that every child deserved love, justice, hope and a fair share of the blessings of creation?
Does it not mean that we receive with confession and repentance the calls that continue to come from our Palestinian sisters and brothers for a just peace?
This past December, Palestinian Christians launched the Palestinian Kairos Document, “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering” (http://www.kairospalestine.ps/). Inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and written 24 years after South African theologians published their Kairos Document, more than a dozen Palestinian church leaders and theologians from various denominations co-authored the document as a “cry of hope in the absence of all hope,” addressed to Palestinians, Israelis and “Christian brothers and sisters in the Churches around the world.”
In addition to challenging theologies that legitimise violence and dispossession, it points out the mission of the Church “to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events,” and to “stand alongside” the “oppressed.”
The Palestinian Kairos Document issues an invitation, asking the question to Christians around the world: “Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?” It urges Christians to “take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.” It favourably notes that some Palestinian civil organisations, as well as international organisations and churches, support boycotts and divestment as a form of nonviolent resistance to the occupation.
The Palestinian Christian leaders describe a message of “love and living together” to the Muslims and Jews of the Holy Land, condemning “all forms of racism.” The Palestine Kairos call is for a “common vision, built on equality and sharing, not on superiority, negation of the other or aggression, using the pretext of fear and security.” It is only in this manner that “justice and security will be attained for all.”
During this time of Lent, there is still a word of hope that resists the dispossession and the injustice. Especially for Palestinian Christians — those communities of resistance formed with the conviction that the purposes of God and the demands of justice will not relent — the words of John’s Gospel still challenge and comfort: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
Zoughbi Zoughbi, the director of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre, echoes this hope. Zoughbi often talks about how the Palestinian people are walking the “Via Dolorosa” or the “Way of Sorrow” — a path of 14 “Stations of the Cross” through Jerusalem’s Old City that ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christians remember the path Jesus walked on his way to the crucifixion. “It is only that we do not know at which station we are along this path,” Zoughbi says, “but we know that at the end there will be resurrection and new life.”
This is the new life that all Palestinians hope for — a new life born from a peace that knows justice in this broken land.
May the voices of our Palestinian sisters and brothers that are so often dismissed, silenced and dehumanised speak loudly to us this Lenten season, providing both a meaning and a challenge for Easter.
(c) Timothy Seidel works as director for Peace and Justice Ministries with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) USA. He was a peace development worker with MCC in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2004-2007 and a contributing author to Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Cascadia Publishing, 2007). This can be purchased through Ekklesia here: http://tinyurl.com/ybmerxz MCC continues to struggle with how to respond in Palestine and Israel in ways that best serve the cause of justice and peace for Palestinians and Israelis. Learn more about MCC’s work in the current issue of MCC’s magazine, A Common Place (http://acommonplace.mcc.org/).