Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Promoting the Justice of God

“Promoting the justice of God”

The following talk was given at Northern Virginia Mennonite Church on Feb. 27th, 2005

Being part of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq has led me to many “firsts”- first time in the Middle East, first time in a war zone, first time being targeted as “the enemy” due to being an American. Now the first time to stand before a religious community as a member of CPT and give a talk during a worship service. And I would have to say that I am more nervous about this “first” than I was about the others.

As a member of a silent Quaker Meeting one aspect of the Mennonite tradition I have learned to appreciate is that of looking to Scripture as a basis for one’s spiritual journey. And so it seemed appropriate to use a passage from scripture as the basis of this talk. The passage that I was led to use this morning is from the Letter of James.

This is from the first chapter of James, verses 19-22. “Each of you must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to be angry. For a person’s anger cannot promote the justice of God. Away then with all that is unclean, and the malice that hurries to excess. Quietly accept the messages planted in your hearts, which can bring you salvation. Only be sure that your act on the messages and do not merely listen to them.”

We did a lot of listening in Iraq with CPT and the stories we heard were not always easy to hear. And after hearing them I would often find myself becoming quick to pass judgment on others and quick to become angry. The first times I participated in human rights documentation was last September. We interviewed an Iraqi, Dr. Ammad, who had been detained by American forces in May of 2003. He was imprisoned for six months during which time he was subjected to many of the interrogation methods you are all too familiar with. He said that the people abusing him told him they were FBI (aside- but if you have read over the FBI documents recently released by the Freedom of Information Act on the ACLU website these people were probably contracted security pretending to be FBI). But in any case I was taking the notes as he described how they pulled out one of his fingernails. I listened as he described the beatings and showed us the scars. I felt myself becoming very angry at the thought of these horrible actions being done by my own countrymen and women.

After I left Iraq in December I spent several weeks with the CPT project team in Hebron in the West Bank. Another CPTer and I traveled to the Palestinian village of Jayyous (which is near Ramallah) to participate in an action related to the Israeli security fence. We stayed with a European NGO (EAPPI- Ecumenical Accompaniment Program for Palestine and Israel). They had interviewed a family that had just had their home demolished to make way for a new section of the security fence. I listened as they described the family watching the bulldozers level the home that they had lived in for generations. I again felt myself becoming judgmental and angry as I was told that the bulldozers being used were made in my country expressly for such demolitions.

Now I want to be clear that I’m not saying that only Americans and Israelis are capable of such actions. I have no doubt that at the same time I was listening to Dr. Ammad’s story there were people in America listening to the story of a family whose loved one had been killed by insurgents in Iraq or at the same time I was listening to the story of the home demolitions there were people listening to the story of a survivor of a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.

But the pattern seems to repeat itself over and over throughout history. Human beings listening to stories of abuse perpetrated by other human beings. Then speaking out against those abuses and feeling the surge of anger inside of them which can then lead to violent retaliatory action so that ”justice will be served”.

“Bringing them to justice” is the refrain no matter what side you are on. And it is a violent justice- the justice of and eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth. Is there no other way?

On thing that has been in my heart the most in these first months of being a part of CPT has been getting to know people (both within CPT and with other peace and violence reduction organizations) who have committed themselves to not giving in to anger when faced with injustice. But, and perhaps I am wrong, I have also experienced the sense that a number of these people have been affected by being exposed to so much violence and anger and retaliatory violence. Many I have experienced as being bitter- as if they have encased themselves in a hard shell to protect their hearts from exposure to the pain and suffering they live with daily. Others I have experienced as being burdened- as if they have absorbed much pain and suffering to try and lighten the load for those they live with daily.

Must these be the alternatives to a violent response to anger? James says that, “ A person’s anger cannot promote the justice of God.” No matter if we succumb to anger, harden ourselves against anger or absorb anger; none of these ways can promote the justice of God. But does that mean we are not allowed to feel anger? James says that we need to be slow to anger and that first we need to listen carefully, next to put some words to our feelings and then finally express our anger. But clearly he does not say “never become angry”. However he does say that our response to anger, no matter what form it takes, cannot promote God’s justice. So then what do we do with our anger? James says we need to turn that anger over to God and then, “Quietly accept the messages planted in our hearts”.

One of the most positive experiences I had during my time in the Middle East happened in that same village of Jayyous I mentioned earlier. We were part of a non-violent action that was jointly planned by Israeli peace activists and the Palestinian village council. The villagers have plenty to be angry about. The village is separated from its fields, olive groves and greenhouses by the security fence. There is a gate that is opened three times daily to let some (less than 10% of the villagers have permits) to go across and work their crops. Even more of a threat is that an Israeli colony (the Arabic word for settlement is also the Arabic word for colony) is expanding towards their olive groves. But rather than resort to violence or denial or shame as a response to their justifiable anger the village council worked through their anger and came out on the other side- the side of peaceful non-violent direct actions. In the action that I participated in that Friday in January over two hundred citizens of Israel (mostly from the Gush Shalom peace organization) along with some Jayyous farmers and about fifty internationals spent the morning planting olive tree saplings in the area that had been bulldozed as part of the expansion plan. The destruction had been halted, at least for the present time, by an Israeli court order (the colony is over ten kilometers on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, the UN recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank). After the planting they peacefully marched towards the security fence. At the same time after Friday prayers most of the village (about one hundred and fifty) along with about twenty internationals peacefully marched down the hill to their side of the security fence. During the weeks of planning the Israeli and Palestinian activists came up with the idea to negotiate a symbolic “crossing” of the security fence with an olive tree from the uprooted grove to be replanted in the village. It took an hour of hard negotiating with the hundred or so heavily armed Israeli troops but in the end three Israelis and one Palestinian took an olive tree across the barrier and gave it to the owner of the grove that had been uprooted (he did not at that time have a permit to cross the fence to work his lands).

It was a tiny thing- but it was totally peaceful and there was a sense of joy and celebration and much waving of hands in a spirit of friendship and peace between the Palestinian’s on one side and the Israelis on the other. And the press coverage of the event (both Palestinian and Israeli) was uniformly positive.

Here was a seed that can take root. Here were people working through their anger and coming out the other side committed to peace. Here were people listening to their hearts and listening to each other. Here a tiny part of the Peaceable Realm was created. Here was the justice of God taking shape.