Thursday, December 4, 2014

Impossible Advent -- 5,900 miles

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

In September 2007, I arrived in Jerusalem to begin three years of service with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. I worked with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, learning about the struggle of Palestinian Christians for unity and justice in the face of division and oppression.

During my time in Palestine/Israel, I saw houses bulldozed because the families living in them were Palestinian. I saw Palestinian families dragged from their homes, evicted by the Israeli military police to make room for Israeli settler extremists. I saw grandmothers pushed down by soldiers at checkpoints; saw unarmed children arrested, beaten, and intimidated; saw live ammunition fired into a crowd by Israeli soldiers; saw the evidence of blatant and systemic violence with no accountability for the perpetrators. One Palestinian friend was jailed for months with no trial. His crime? Organizing nonviolence in the West Bank.

I came back to the U.S. angry, angry and determined to work for justice, to change the ways in which the U.S. supports this awful situation with money and bullets and guns. Determined to change the ways that our institutions, including our churches, make money by investing in companies that help make this oppressive situation possible.

It's about 5,900 miles from here to Jerusalem. And for the past few months, ever since I saw photos like this ...

... not from the West Bank but from Missouri, the thought that has been rolling around in my head has been:

"Why the hell did I travel 5,900 miles when I could have just hopped in a car for a day?"

Palestinians were even tweeting protesters in Ferguson -- where, as it turned out, the police response was modeled after Israeli military policy -- to give them tips about dealing with tear gas.

5,900 miles away. 

And now, another black man killed by the police...and another...and another.  

5,900 miles.

I'm so grateful for my experiences in Jerusalem and surrounds. I learned so much, not only about the situation and the work of Sabeel and its allies, but about myself, about structures of power, about building community. 

But then, 5,900 miles later, and here are the images of militarization.  Here is the disproportionate violence with no accountability. Here are the immoral investments in racist infrastructure.

As usual, much more articulate people than me are writing about this. Rev. Amy Butler, my preaching professor and now the senior pastor at the Riverside Church in New York, traveled to Ferguson to learn from the protesters and wrote about her experiences -- even as protests in her new home of New York erupted over the Eric Garner (non)verdict -- here. My seminary colleague and friend, AhnnaLise Stevens-Jennings, wrote about her own experiences as an African-American woman engaged in conversations about race here. At American University, students organized a protest and faculty and staff stood in solidarity with them. And the most powerful theological response I saw yesterday was from Rev. Jeff Hood:
"I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
It made me think -- that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
I think the church should be saying the same thing -- that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society."
So I won't repeat things here that are being said, more eloquently and powerfully, by others.

What I will say is this:

We are in the season of Advent. And for many in the church--and I would include myself in this--Advent has a tendency to be a warm and fuzzy time, a time of nostalgia and decorations and hot cocoa.

And yet the stories of Advent are stories of a place 5,900 miles away, in an occupied land groaning under the weight of oppressive political structures, violent policing, and economic injustice.

We sing "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie;" but last time I was in Bethlehem it was anything but still: fighter jets thundered overhead, practicing for an assault on Gaza.We sing "In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan," distancing ourselves from the actual land from whence our Christian narrative emerged. We sing "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel;" and I'd challenge you to travel 5,900 miles and witness those who are locked in captivity, often with no trial, right now.

Our first gospel reading in Advent (Mark 13:24-37) tells of Jesus speaking to his disciples while sitting on the Mount of Olives -- where I lived in Jerusalem. The second gospel reading is John baptizing in the river Jordan, calling for repentance, in an area now under complete Israeli military control. John the Baptist appears again in the third gospel reading, being challenged by religious authorities from Jerusalem. And then the fourth reading, an angel visiting Mary--Mary, who far from a wilting maiden, is the voice crying out to a God who "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly"(Luke 1:52) -- in Nazareth, now a majority-Arab city in the state of Israel whose growth is restricted by racist zoning laws.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

And then I glance at my news feed, 5,900 miles away from that place, and there it is, in the U.S., in our cities, and in our neighborhoods.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

Jesus who is saying, "I can't breathe."

Ask people where they have seen God in a particular day, and they are likely to tell you that they saw God in a beautiful sunset, or in the kindness of strangers, or in a moment of quiet reflection. And those are all good and true and beautiful places to see God.

But, as impossible as it seems, in Advent we look for God in the midst of the blood and the tears, in a world aching for justice and wholeness.

We are looking for Jesus there. Here.

And if faith is about hoping for the advent of the impossible, this impossible Messiah who comes to "lift up the lowly" and "fill the hungry with good things," to use Mary's words ...

... then maybe folks like me, who sound a lot more like the "proud" and the "powerful" and the "rich" of Mary's song, ought to be a bit less cozy and a bit more uncomfortable about celebrating this season of impossibility.

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