Jesus wept. Luke 19:41 is the shortest, but one of the most powerful verses in the Bible. Jesus continues to weep today - over the treatment of LGBTQIA+ persons in our denomination, the caging of asylum seekers under a bridge, the threat of climate change, and racism ingrained in our institutions.
Jesus also continues to weep over Jerusalem, as I discovered during my first visit to the Holy Land in 2012. That is when I came to fully understand the plight of Palestinian Christians who live under a harsh and unjust Israeli military occupation.
Our son Nick was living in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, Palestine, while volunteering at the Quaker Friends School. To reach his apartment, we drove a car with the right color license plates, so we could have access to the segregated roads Palestinians cannot use and get into the many areas of Israel and the West Bank that Palestinians may not go. As we crossed checkpoints and faced armed guards, we were confronted by the Separation Wall, sometimes called the Apartheid Wall, that also severely restricts movement of Palestinians, making them prisoners in their communities. We invited a few of Nick’s Palestinian friends to travel with us to Jerusalem, but they were not allowed there without a permit.
We were warned to use water sparingly. We saw clusters of black water tanks on top of buildings because water from Palestinian aquifers is now controlled by Israel, which strictly limits how much Palestinians can buy back from them. And they never know when their water may be cut off or for how long.
We met the librarian at Nick’s school, a Roman Catholic raised in Pennsylvania by a Palestinian father and an eastern European mother. Her church was preparing to do their annual walk on the path that Jesus took as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Except that it is now impossible to walk that full route from Bethany because the Separation Wall cuts off the path.
Nick told us he had recently helped a farmer pick olives. His farmland has been fenced off from the village where he lives by gates rarely opened by Israeli soldiers. He needed to pick all he could as quickly as possible, not knowing when he would be allowed to return to harvest this crop his family badly needs.
While traveling inside the West Bank, we were stopped at a flying checkpoint - one of many restrictive roadblocks within Palestine that are erected without warning by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers pointed an M-16 at us while checking our passports – all because Nick’s Palestinian friend was in our car. When we finally arrived at his family’s home, we looked up at the hillsides and saw the encroaching illegal Israeli settlements full of settlers – large cities built on the highest land of the West Bank, which was taken from Palestinians without permission or payment. It was March 30th, commemorated by Palestinians as Land Day, and we watched on their TV the scenes of protests taking place at the very checkpoint we’d been using. Palestinians were expressing their frustrations about all the land that has been stolen from them for Israel to colonize, 60% or more of the West Bank.
What I kept seeing was injustice everywhere! On their own land, Palestinians are not equal, and they do not have freedom. It broke my heart to see how brutally they are treated in the land of their birth. I returned home determined to help and prayed that I would find a meaningful way to do that.
Three weeks later I was a lay delegate to General Conference 2012, where I met volunteers with United Methodists for Kairos Response (UMKR). Most had traveled to Israel/Palestine, came home convicted as I had, and joined together in response to the 2009 Kairos Palestine Document. In it, Palestinian Christians plead for support from Christians around the world to help them gain their freedom. We are asked to pray, to meet with them during trips to the Holy Land, to share their stories, and even to take economic action by boycotting Israeli products made in illegal settlements and by divesting from companies involved in the occupation.
Finding this dedicated group working on issues related to Israel/Palestine was a spiritual moment for me. God had powerfully answered my prayer. Many times since then, I have felt God with me as I work on behalf of my Palestinian friends. I prayed, then stretched myself to say "Yes" when asked to lead UMKR’s Boycott and Divestment Committee, to lead a workshop at the 2015 RMN Conference, to serve on the Financial Administration Committee at General Conference 2016, and to travel to Chicago to meet with Wespath’s Principles Committee last fall.
Since I joined the UMKR Steering Committee, we have seen annual conferences adopt dozens of resolutions focused on many aspects of the Palestinian cause, including eight resolutions in 2018 that spoke for the human rights of Palestinian children and their abuse in Israeli military detention. Conferences have formed divestment task forces and requested our denomination not to invest in companies that are enabling and profiting from the Israeli military occupation, like Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard. At the 2012 General Conference, the United Methodist Church approved boycotting products produced in settlements.
Sometimes when we are doing all the work it takes to get church resolutions passed, we wonder if we are actually making a difference in the world or just talking to each other. The most gratifying moments in my experience advocating for Palestinian human rights have come with actions taken by our denomination's Pensions board, Wespath. Their actions to remove some offending investments from their portfolios, including blocking Israeli banks that fund the building of illegal settlements and the Wall, really got the world's attention back in 2016 when it was announced and still today. Just this year in January, Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow," applauded that landmark UMC action in her powerful NY Times editorial, "Time to Break the Silence on Palestine."
This year, we in UMKR are taking things a step further, asking UM money managers to not invest in sovereign debt (government bonds) from countries involved in occupations that have been named by the UN Security Council and International Court of Justice as violators of both human rights and international law.
Part of the joy of working in UMKR is being a part of a dedicated team that is advocating for Palestinian rights on so many fronts. United Methodists in the U.S. are contacting our legislators to object to the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem, to ask that U.S. funding for Israel’s military be stopped, to expose Israel’s recent law declaring it a state only for its Jewish citizens, and to protest Israel’s repeated bombing and devastating siege of Gaza.
We are also opposing laws passed in Washington DC and in U.S. states that say we cannot boycott Israel. Americans are guaranteed freedom of speech and we sometimes criticize the U.S. government, so why can't Americans criticize Israel’s government for their inhumane treatment of the people who were already living on the land when Israel was created?
Most of all, we plead for the healing balm of peace in Israel/Palestine, a lasting peace that will come only with freedom and justice for all those who suffer in that holy land.
I know that Jesus weeps with me, with the psalmist, and with Palestinian Christians who cry:
Lord, change our circumstances for the better, Like dry streams in the desert waste! Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts. Let those who go out, Crying and carrying their seed, Come home with joyful shouts, Carrying bales of grain! Psalm 126: 4-6
Compassionate God, be with all who work for a just peace for Israel/Palestine, guiding and strengthening their efforts. Thank you for colleagues in United Methodists for Kairos Response and MFSA who pour their hearts into relationships with those who are oppressed and who advocate on their behalf. May we repent of our sin of overlooking the least of these. Help all who suffer to know there is hope in Christ, our Savior. Amen
Lisa Bender lives in Harrisburg PA. She retired last year after serving as Executive Secretary to the Director of Connectional Ministries in the Susquehanna Conference for 18 years and was a General Conference delegate in 2012, 2016, and 2019. She is married to Wayne, a retired UM pastor. Their son Nick recently married a woman whose father is Palestinian.