False Prophets of Peace
A Sermon by the Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird

October 22, 2000
Seattle First Baptist Church
Ezekiel 13:1-16; Matthew 5:1-12

 

As most of you know Lance and I lived in Bethlehem during 1995 and 1996.  Last Friday night at the church coffeehouse I read a poem that I wrote this past April when I was again visiting the Palestinian town of Jesus' birth.

In the pre-dawn I lie awake

When breaking the silence comes the voice of the muezzin

A call to prayer

And while his voice carries over the sleepy city

The bells of the church begin to ring

The morning call to prayer

A new day is beginning

It is not yet light, but soon

And I am alive

Still resting my head on the pillow

A gift of grace

The gift of life

A call to prayer

Thanks be to God.

 I'm sure it has not escaped your notice that in the last few weeks the gift of life has been forcibly taken away from many in the land of Israel/Palestine.  And in speaking those words I imagine that what springs to mind for many of us is a graphic portrait of a young Palestinian man with blood on his hands, for surely the murder of the two Israeli soldiers, Vadim Norzhich and Yossi Avrahami, was brutal and horrific.  But just as horrific is the image of 12 year old  Muhammad Al-Dura huddling behind his father in sheer terror and rightly so, for it was only a moment later that an Israeli bullet shot and killed him.  "Caught in the crossfire" our newspapers told us.  And what of Farid Nasara, 28 shot in the stomach by Israeli settlers, or Wisam Yazbaq from Nazareth, or Sara Hassan, just 18 months old or Muayad Jawarish, 14 from Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem, shot in the head while walking home from school, backpack still in place.  What of these and the over 100 other Palestinians who have lost their lives.no longer to be awaked by the voice of the muezzin at the mosque or the peel of church bells?  And how to account for the 3000-4000 injured, children shot in the eyes, journalists shot in the foot, and the list goes on.   Do Israeli tanks, missiles, helicopter gun ships with live ammunition--what the UN calls "excessive use of force"--count as 'crossfire' too?

 I'll venture a guess and say that this latest eruption of violence in Israel/Palestine came as a surprise for most folks here in the United States.  How, we wonder, could this happen?  After all, there is the "peace process."  We saw the handshake of Rabin and Arafat on the Whitehouse lawn.  Hasn't the situation improved since 1993?  Call me a pessimist, but my answer is no.  In fact, in my opinion, the current level of tension and conflict in Israel/Palestine has not come in spite of the "peace process" but because of it.  The process that began with the Oslo Accords has failed, because any plan for peace between two parties that does not address the injustice done to one by the other cannot hope to succeed.  Noted Palestinian-American Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University,  has written  that the Olso peace process was misreported and hopelessly flawed from the start, and now it has entered its terminal phase of  violent confrontation,

disproportionately  massive  Israeli  repression, widespread Palestinian rebellion and great loss of life, the vast majority of it Palestinian."  Said goes on to say  "after seven years  of  steadily  worsening  economic and social conditions for Palestinians  everywhere,  Israeli  and  US policymakers persisted in  trumpeting  their successes, excluding the UN and other interested parties, bending the disgracefully partisan media to their wills,  distorting  the actuality into ephemeral victories for 'peace'".

A "peace," in other words, that is really "no peace."

 The Biblical prophet Ezekiel would have understood completely.  His call was to proclaim the word of God to a people whose nation was in crisis.    A people who believed in the goodness and strength of their country.   A people who were tired of hearing bad news all the time from their leaders.  And so, when Ezekiel came around preaching that Jerusalem would be besieged by Babylon  folks really didn't want to hear it.  Instead they listened to the prophets on the state payroll who assured them that all was well.  Today's stinging lesson from Ezekiel is addressed to these false prophets of peace.  God is against them, Ezekiel warns, because they have uttered delusions and lies.  They have misled the people saying, 'peace,' when there is no peace.

And then, like all good preachers, Ezekiel gives his hearers an illustration.  It is like when people build a wall for protection, but in this case the wall is poorly built with holes and a shaky foundation.  And then these spokespeople come along and say 'what a great wall' and they fill the holes with spackle and paint it white to create the illusion that the structure is sound and without flaw.  Commenting on this illustration, theologian Joseph Blenkinsopp writes, "the situation is familiar.  We know that appearance is not reality, but we hope that if enough people accept the appearance, it will somehow become reality; and indeed, it does become reality for us.  Unfortunately for us, however, reality does not always cooperate..the storm clouds gather, the deluge strikes and the wall is washed away, together with its veneer.."

 The Oslo Accords are our whitewashed wall.  Does it surprise you that in the post-Oslo period Israel has continued and even accelerated its unilateral practices of
changing "facts on the ground"-all illegal under international law.   These facts include:
- the confiscating of an estimated 2,200 Palestinian identity cards,
- the demolishing of Palestinian houses in the occupied territories - Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem issued 141 demolition orders in East Jerusalem alone and carried out 19 in 1999 and demolished another three by the end of August 2000;

These facts include:
- harassing and interfering with the work of Palestinian institutions providing essential human services, despite promises to desist;
- the expanding of illegal settlements by Israel in territories occupied since 1967 and denying  Palestinian refugees (there are about 4 million) the right to return;
-and repeated closures restricting movement of Palestinians and their access to the Holy Places in Jerusalem

 And these are just some of the highlights of what we have been calling "peace" for the past seven years!

And yet, even as our whitewashed wall crumbles we try to cover it with more paint.we insist that the U.S. is a neutral party able to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians despite the fact that we give Israel billions of dollars every year and U.S. companies make a killing selling weapons to Israel.  We convince ourselves that we are a country interested in democracy and justice for all people, and yet despite evidence to the contrary Madeline Albright asserts that it is Israel who is "under siege," and last week our Congress passed a resolution that blames outright the Palestinian people for all the violence of these last days.  At least one person I elected in the primary will no longer be getting my vote come November 7th.

 Yesterday I received and e-mail from my former colleague at the Middle East Council of Churches, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, who is the United Methodist Liaison in Jerusalem.  She wrote a lengthy letter-let me share some of it with you:

I called Zoughbi Zoughbi at, the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, to see if I could meet with him this morning to get an assessment of the situation and to find out what needs were existing in the community.  The first topic, though, was the attack the evening before.  It was no dream.  In fact, Zoughbi told me that one of the homes hit in Beit Sahour belonged to his cousin and her family.   I met Zoughbi and other staff members in his office and listened as they began to describe the damage done in Beit Sahour (the village next to Bethlehem).  The Center was sending a team to view the damage and make calls of support.  Zoughbi asked if I would like to join them.  I went, but I have to admit I was a bit anxious.

As we drove.house after house had most or all of their windows blown out.  Many of the homes had huge holes in them where bullets or shells had gone through walls.
We came to one home and there was a large group of men gathered around something. I asked if I could see.  There in front of them was a pile of the remains of the various shells and what looked to me to be small rockets that had hit this house.  I picked up one which had a black casing and was about three inches in diameter, about 18 inches long.  Another was bright yellow and about one inch in diameter and six inches long.  Another looked to be a circuit box, as if it was part of a guidance system.  On all of them the  specifications were written in English.

As I stood holding the largest one, one of the men quietly said to me, "This is the gift of your government to Palestinian children."  "I know,"was all I could barely whisper, as I looked from the casing to his face with tears in my eyes.  I've never felt so ashamed of being an American as I did in that moment.

As we went to enter the homes, at each door someone greeted us and said, "Please, welcome, come in."  We walked through inches of glass and debris. At one home, in the center of the house, a one-inch hole went through the refrigerator.  In an olive wood factory, one rocket had come through the window in the back and had exited the shop at the front.  Some people's cooking gas canisters had 2 - 3 inch holes in them.  One scene, though, will stay with me for a long time.  Under the parent's bedroom window were the cribs of their twins, utterly filled with huge shards of broken glass.  In the middle of one remained a baby bottle half-full of milk.  A similar pile of spent shell fragments were gathered outside the bedroom door.

Miraculously, no one was killed in Beit Sahour and only about ten people were physically wounded from flying glass and pieces of the shells. Emotionally, though, it's another story. Thousands of dollars of physical damage was done and an incalculable emotional toll was taken.  Another American from the Mennonite Central Committee was with us.  He and I talked as we walked back to the car about what we were feeling.  Neither of us could look the families and people gathered with them in the eye.  As Americans we felt embarrassed and ashamed.  Person after person asked us, "Why does your Mr. Clinton not see this as disproportionate use of force? Why can't you criticize Israel?  What they're doing is wrong.  The violence could end tomorrow - just remove the occupation army from around our towns and villages.  How do you think of peace when fragments of rockets are laying in your child's bed? "

It is interesting to me that the prophet Jeremiah, Ezekiel's predecessor also critiques the false diviners of his day.  In Jeremiah chapter 6 we read,  "for from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying  'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace."

 The wounds are open and sore.  What will we do?  Jesus said, blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted; blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.   Theologian Leonardo Boff, declares that the "church cannot be indifferent to the justice or injustice of a cause nor can it be silent in the face of obvious exploitation of people.   Because of the church's ideals and origins (the dangerous and subversive memory of Jesus.), its mission is revolutionary."  Jesus, you'll recall, said that he came to proclaim sight to the blind, release to the captives and justice for the oppressed.  Why is it then that so many people seem to believe that the Christian faith is some private, individual affair with little to say to the world's violence?  Is it because in our worship we have remained silent in the face of injustice or allowed the systemic violence in our culture to continue without resistance?  To be peacemakers is not an optional part of the Gospel, it is rather, the very heart of what it means to follow Christ.  And by peacemaking, I do not mean the passive or passive-aggressive avoidance of conflict.a repressive "let's just keep the peace" mentality, but the peacemaking and peace-building to which Christ calls us sometimes demands that we speak up and shake up the status quo.

 Palestinian Lutheran pastor Audi Rantisi asks the question:  "Why is the (U.S.) church so quiet? I do feel the church should speak up . ... I do feel the church is one church.We are one body of Christ and we should love one another, care for one another."  Another Lutheran pastor, Mitri Raheb wrote, "At a time when everybody in losing hope in this region, we believe that now is the time for healing and constructive actions. It is our deep belief that in a time when all are losing hope we need to hold on to the hope of resurrection especially in these dark days of death. We thank God for all the friends who have been continuously calling us and sending us messages of support. It gives us hope to know that while we are silenced, there are those who are articulating our voice. We would like to take this opportunity to ask you to continue to keep us in your thoughts and prayers and to continue your struggle for a just peace for all God's children in this region."

 What then will be the legacy of the American church--of this church--to the children of Israel and Palestine?  Guns and bombs?  Helicopters?  Blame and threat? Indifference?  Or do we have something more to offer?

 The Rev. Naim Ateek, the director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Theology Center in Jerusalem (who by the way will be speaking at our Wednesday dinner on November 15th) issued an appeal to "all people who believe that peace based on justice is the only answer to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict" to do several things: To hold prayer services, to urge governments to put pressure on Israel to end "the massacre" and to insist that United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 * which call for an end to the occupation * be implemented, and to ensure that media portray "the truth of the current situation ... with honesty and objectivity, and without bias."

 Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, suggests that our objective be "to set before God why all these troubles took place and to ask what we have to do? Why did the
Palestinians revolt?" he asks.  "To say: enough to promises and to the delaying of promises.:"  Haven't we learned in our own context that justice too long  delayed is justice denied.

 Our protective wall is crumbling; and just beyond the wood and brick, the half-truths and self-deceptions there are wounded people in need of healing.  And in the light of day, in the midst of the rubble, O God, in the midst of the bullets and missiles and rocks we see you weeping, calling us to prayer: a prayer that justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream;  a prayer that peace may truly come for our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine; a prayer that we ourselves might be made whole.

 Amen.