Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Al-Araqib: Spirit in the Desert

We sit under a simple blue tarp slung across a makeshift frame and gaze out across the hot Negev desert to the nearby cemetery of Al-Araqib. The cemetery and the tarp are all that remain of this once vibrant Bedouin village. Or more precisely, they are the only structures that remain, as the heart of the village beats on within the families who continue to cling to their ancestral land despite the destruction of their stone homes, their olive orchards, and their fields of winter wheat.

It has been almost two years since that day in Al-Araqib, one of the Bedouin communities I visited with the Peace and Justice Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the summer of 2012. At that time, the Israeli police had destroyed the village over 40 times. Today the count stands at over 70.

The Negev has been tended and loved for centuries by the Palestinian Bedouin people who know its ways, and even hold deeds to its lands. But Israel perpetuates the false myth of Bedouin people as homeless wanderers. Israeli officials hope that eucalyptus trees will hide the destruction wreaked as 40 000 Bedouin are displaced from the Negev into towns set up just for them (“for their own good”). An eerie echo of Bantustans (South Africa) and Reservations (North America) lingers in the air. Apartheid, anyone?

Things have worsened since our visit. Up until a few weeks ago, the cemetery in Al-Araqib was left untouched, so the families could flee to its protective confines when the bulldozers and guns arrived. The dead protected the living. But not anymore. Israel has just ordered the destruction of ALL structures in Al-Araqib. Now the dead are desecrated along with the living.

A network of support has grown around Al-Araqib over the years, with volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights and other human rights groups (Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular) engaging with the villagers in replanting wheat and olives, rebuilding the tarp, resisting the bulldozers, and allowing themselves to be arrested for acts of non-violent resistance. But despite court cases and resistance, the demolitions continue mercilessly, horrifyingly. I cannot imagine my home being demolished even once, or my loved ones pushed, hit and threatened. Where do they find strength?

As I listen to Sheik Sayah Al-Turi of Al-Araqib that summer afternoon two years ago, the sun begins its descent toward a distant hill. The Sheik’s adult son gets up, quietly picks up a container of water and heads out beside the tarp. He does not drink despite the wretched heat – it is Ramadan – but instead washes hands and face. Then, he spreads a mat and begins to pray in the direction of Mecca.

I watch the son as I listen to the father. The young man’s eyes focus on his land as his spirit focuses on his God. I cannot help but be drawn into prayer myself. One of my companions, another Catholic school chaplain, quietly cries. There is pain here, but there is also deep communion, and with it a profound sense of the Holy Spirit.

If the Holy Spirit is understood as the divine presence that sustains all life, then it is under attack in the Holy Land. The Holy Spirit suffers in the Negev, the West Bank, and especially today, Gaza. The slaughter of the people of Gaza, imprisoned behind walls built by Israel, is simply incomprehensible in its inhumanity. But Gaza today is only the most public and violent testimony to the ongoing suffering of the Spirit in the Holy Land.

Throughout Palestine, an onslaught of illegal settlements, foreign trees and military vehicles disrupt the harmony of the land and its peoples. Greed and fear drive destruction and desolation, as Palestinians are harassed, detained, abused, and killed. Al-Araqib is one suffering community among many.

If the Spirit is behind and within every creative act, and connected to the very essence of life, then actions that undermine life become attacks on the Spirit itself. For Christians, this has deep connections to Christ. As we destroy people, land, water and air out of greed – and yes, we are complicit when we do nothing to stop violence – we continue the crucifixion of God (and our brothers and sisters) with an assault on the Spirit. We are slowly suffocating the ruach or breath of God in our world.

We must speak louder, much louder, for justice and peace. The Spirit calls us to give voice. The horror – in Gaza, in the Negev, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Al-Araqib, as in so many other corners of the world – begs our attention. We are all interconnected, all living with each other. No one is irrelevant, not even a small desert community holding tenuously to life in a distant land.

Friday, July 18, 2014

From My Backyard: God, Evolution and Sacrifice

It's been awhile. Coursework and comprehensive prep for a DMin overwhelmed my writing time for a few months, but oh how good it is to be able to follow my heart in my writing again! Hope you enjoy this too.

Fifteen billion years after the original ‘Flaring Forth’, I sit in my backyard and read about the development of the universe while I breathe its oxygen, listen to its birds, absorb the energy of its sun, and turn the pages of a book made from the dead cells of trees whose origins are the same as mine.

I am reading The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, and reflecting on the way in which all things are related. According to Swimme and Berry, as elements of the universe we are collectively going through a process of evolution that started from an initial event (the Flaring Forth). All things are connected through the web of relationships that spun out from it.

I do not often reflect on the story of the universe quite honestly. I just live in it. Yet the story matters. Stories bond us to each other and the world, while opening up space for creativity and movement within the embrace of truth.

In seeking out the Christian story, we have often limited ourselves to either the written text of scripture or the dogmatic history of the Church, and not looked far enough into the bigger, cosmic story. The universe story provides a forgotten yet all-encompassing backdrop to our thoughts, actions, prayers and relationships. This is deeply embedded within our scripture. God was there, in the beginning.

Some Christians struggle with the concept of evolution, worrying that somehow it dispenses with either God or evil. It does neither, instead demonstrating the larger, longer trajectory of existence spoken of so profoundly in the bible.

In a world threatened by climate change and the degradation of ocean, field and forest, the universe story deserves our attention more than ever. We have choices to make here. In this evolutionary journey, we travel with our whole planet, all of us together. Many things may damage our planet and the interconnected web of life, but only one creature may do so willfully. Only one creature may exercise evil. This is the human difference.

Fortunately, there is a flip side to human nature. Within humanity resides God’s gift of love, and the ability to embrace sacrifice for the greater good. Just as one system will sacrifice energy for another, our future can only materialize if we choose to sacrifice on a personal level for the good of our planet. One system feeds another. Oil is burned – sacrificed – to make a car run. Everything has its price. What will we pay for all life?

Christian theology offers ancient wisdom about the emptying of self for the world (Philippians 2). Acting for the sake of the other – whether human, animal, or vegetable – offers a way forward in the example of Christ. And in fact, acting for any of these is acting for all of these, including ourselves. By living more simply and containing our greed, we give ourselves a future. Standing up against the pollution wrought by tar sand oil excavation, or the clear-cutting of forests, or the greedy extraction of other natural resources translates into standing up for a future where water is drinkable, air is breathable, and life is sustainable. We live only in relationship to each other and to our planet.

According to Swimme and Berry, “the loss of relationship, with its consequent alienation, is a kind of supreme evil in the universe” (78). We must dare to choose the necessary sacrifices to maintain our relationship with the world and with God. If we do not, the story of the universe will continue, but the chapter on humanity will shortly come to an end.