On the first of many of summer’s scorching hot Sunday Birmingham afternoons I stood in one of the multitude of worldwide protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Along with the crowd I chanted demands such as “Hey Netanyahu, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” We also sang conciliatory choruses like “Gaza, Gaza don’t you cry, Palestine will never die,” and “Jewish people are our friends but occupation has to end!”
Of course, the conflict between Palestine and Israel has become an evergreen issue, only visible to Americans every four years during election cycles or when, as in the past weeks, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), equipped with roughly four billion of our annual tax dollars, terrorized the people of Gaza and the rest of occupied Palestine.
The words “conflict” or “war” or “clash” are really just words designed to cloud the issue. Since 1948 the success of the ongoing Zionist project has displaced many millions of Palestinians and created an apartheid state, with the government of Israel, along with US support (in opposition to the international community) attempting to force the hand of Palestinians to recognize an ethnic and religious state in Israel while those few able to remain on their land receive the scraps from the table.
And so, surrounded by a rainbow coalition of Arab-Americans, Black, Latino and white, we stood together shoulder to shoulder decrying Israeli aggression and US support (yes, we called out Joe Biden by name).
Earlier in the day, our church, along with a worldwide community of believers, celebrated Pentecost. This was originally a Jewish holiday marking the beginning of the wheat harvest, fifty days after the firstfruits. The significance of Pentecost for Christians, however, harkens back to fifty days after Easter (the resurrection being the firstfruits of our promised bodily resurrection to come).
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
And as the holy wind swept down on the speakers a curious thing happened. Something even more notable than the tongues of fire that were visible to a people who knew the story of the burning bush that appeared ot Moses by heart.
…each one heard their own language being spoken.
I’ll save what happens next (specifically that the church immediately becomes a collectivistic society, predating Marx’s ideas by 1800 years) for another post but something about that line from the narrative resonated with me when I heard it read from the pulpit this past Sunday.
Back to the Palestinian solidarity protest. In between chants and speeches that were readily understandable in my own language, in which participation was both meaningful and available, there was an announcement from the pickup truck doubling as a stage. A woman, whose diminutive height prevented me from seeing, even on my tiptoes, anything below the top her hijab, proclaimed in a loud voice:
“They have asked me to deliver this speech in Arabic.”
Well, then a curious thing happened on that sweltering Pentecost day in Birmingham. As she spoke, I could hear what was being spoken. No, I couldn’t miraculously understand Arabic in a moment. And no, the individual words were indecipherable to my Western ears.
But as she spoke, in those holy moments, with every conceivable barrier between us, from my inability to see, to make out the words, to my pallid skin tone to my Episcopalian theology to our varying experiences of gender, all the barriers were abolished. I could hear her cry for freedom. I could feel her longing for a homeland free of guided missiles and US-funded IDF soldiers. My soul could connect with her demands for justice on behalf of her people.
And so, for the second time on the day of Pentecost, 2021, I witnessed the prophet Joel’s words coming to fullness of life. Not only could I hear in a shared language that cries out for God’s help, but the daughters had prophesied.
I began to wonder then, and I suppose I’m still wondering now, what it means to celebrate the birth of the church in such a time as this. What is the church for if not for our brothers and sisters and nonbinary siblings? What is the church for if we don’t stand with those who are oppressed, whether they are Native Americans, South Africans, Iraqis or Palestinians?
Or are we so caught up in the tired narratives that teach us to fear the “other,” either somewhere out there or here in our midst? Will the white church in America continue to fall for demonizing those under the hand of an occupying, oppressive force?
I think there is a different narrative available. But it will take more prophesying, more truth telling, from our daughters, as well as from our sons. It will take the dreams of Boomers and the visions of Millennials (and Gen-z!). Living out the collective life of the church for the sake of the world means placing ourselves in solidarity with the oppressed and decoupling ourselves from those that defend empire wherever it may be found.
Let’s be honest, it will take a miracle to take these foolish words and make them concrete, material reality.
But strange things tend to happen with the Spirit of the Living God.