Israel and Palestine: Message to Canadian Anglicans

Over the past ten days, suicide bombings in Israel and armoured invasions in the Occupied Territories have galvanized the attention of people around the world. For some the impact has been limited to rising prices at the gas pumps. For others these events have built to a crescendo of anxious perplexity, as they try to find some sense in the tidal wave of images, assertions, and interpretations that flood the airwaves and fill the newspapers. Some see Israel as a nation under domestic threat from terrorists. Others see the Palestinians as a people under threat from the terror of the state of Israel. In the midst of the confusion, fear, and violence that threaten to explode onto the world stage, I invite members of the Anglican Church of Canada to take seriously the biblical call to peace with justice.

That call is not a new one. It is rooted in the experience of our Hebrew ancestors: in the God who defied the slavers of Egypt to liberate the Hebrew people; in the stern proclamation of the Hebrew prophets whose witness to God’s justice remains fresh and topical in the maelstrom of terror and counter-terror that seems to define our world; in tragic encounter of Jesus with those in authority, an encounter that led to his death by torture. But for people of faith, the call to peace with justice is rooted most deeply in a promise. For Christians in the Western traditions, that promise has been the focus of recent days, as we have celebrated the Easter power of God to overturn the outcomes of the unjust, to bring new life in the face of death, to restore communion where communion has been shattered, to refresh earth’s bruised history through the power of the Love that brought earth into being. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not simply the events of the past. They are the dynamic of the present and the promise of the future.

This tradition of peace with justice, of cooperating with God in a mission that seeks the world’s healing, prompts the Anglican Church of Canada to bear witness to the struggles of persons, communities, and peoples for a sustainable and peaceable life. It is a tradition we share with our Christian partners throughout the world. We stand with the Palestinian people in their struggle for justice because that is God’s call to us. In doing so, we do not stand against our sisters and brothers in Israel, who share with us the covenant of Abraham, the liberation that God worked through Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and the promise of a peaceable kingdom. Indeed, together with them, we stand against a world driven by hate, fear, and violence.

The history of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people is complicated by the actions of governments over the past century and more. The British promise in 1916 of a Palestinian state has not been fulfilled. The principles by which partition was to have proceeded, brought forward in 1947 by the United Nations, have not been realized. The uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948-49 and again in the wake of the 1967 war, and the legacy of despair that has resulted for their descendents, is a deep offence against God’s justice.

What has emerged instead is a state, Israel, whose armed forces are experienced by many as an instrument of terror, and a people, the Palestinians, whose desperation has led increasingly to acts of violence that have themselves offended against God’s justice and created obstacles to peace. Tragically, in all this, what has been overlooked is the overwhelming majority of Palestinians whose struggle for peace has been humane, and the many Israelis whose quest for peace is undermined by the distorted assertion that the only path to peace is littered with the bodies of the innocent. Attacks against civilians, in Hebron or Jerusalem, by the state or by a suicide bomber, cannot lead to peace.

Since 1967, Israel has illegally occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. In the wake of the Israeli war of independence in 1947-49, the homes, orchards and settlements of Palestinians became the spoils of war. The right of Palestinians to return to their lives in those places has not been recognized by the State of Israel, and the territories annexed have not been returned.

Moreover, in the current hostilities, the besieged enclaves of Palestinians have been prevented from receiving humanitarian aid. Ambulances have been turned away, health care workers have been harassed, homes have been destroyed, and the streets are filled with death and death’s servants. Terror in Jerusalem feeds terror in Ramallah. Terror in Beit Jala feeds terror in Tel Aviv. Fear cannot cast out fear, and violence cannot bring an end to violence.

Our church’s response to these events, some of them recent, some of them almost fifty years old, has taken three forms. The first, partnership, brings us into solidarity with the yearning of fellow-Anglicans and fellow-Christians in Israel and in the occupied territories. The Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Bishop Riah, is among our partners in the Episcopal Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. St. George’s College in Jerusalem is a ministry of the Anglican Communion at which a number of Canadian clergy and lay people have served. These are the flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters who serve Christ in the midst of violence and terror. They are part of the household we share with one another, and with God in Christ. In the Anglican Communion, and in the ecumenical church, there is no “us” and “them”. Their life is bound up with ours in the unity of the Body of Christ.

The second, prayer, makes clear our conviction that people are not simply fodder for history, but partners with the God who creates history, fosters its freedom, redeems its folly, and works without ceasing for its healing. In prayer, we reach out to welcome God’s grace and God’s way, to stand in a relationship with God that encourages and strengthens us to stand in relationship with our sisters and brothers.

The third, advocacy, joins our identity as citizens to our identity as people of partnership and prayer in the Anglican Communion. Throughout the communion, such advocacy takes different forms in different circumstances. For Bishop Riah in Jerusalem, advocacy is immediate. With other Christian leaders from the other traditions that make up the Middle East Council of Churches, he has gone to Bethlehem as a witness to peace with justice. In the midst of great violence, he has acted not only with the courage of his convictions, but with the physical courage by which he is able to stand firmly in the tradition of Jesus and the prophets.

In the Anglican Church of Canada, advocacy has largely taken the form of bearing witness to governments and other leaders, and expressing publicly the call of our faith to peace with justice. The actions of General Synod and its councils, and of the House of Bishops, have taken up this tradition of advocacy. Reading through the record of that advocacy from 1967 to the present, I recognize the names of leaders – lay and ordained – who have called the church to understanding and action. And I recognize that, throughout that record, there is a consistent theme: that as citizens who are also people of faith, we have a responsibility to engage in public witness – to government, to public leaders, to our neighbours. Perhaps as important as the witness beyond our walls, however, is the witness within them. A recurring theme in the record of our advocacy has been the call to our own members to prayer and to a renewed sense of partnership with those who are put at risk by the violence or oppression of others.

This week, I wrote the following, in a letter to the Editor of the National Post:

The current violence in Palestine has deep roots, but Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in defiance of United Nations resolutions is at its heart. The Anglican Communion has, since 1948, expressed concern for peace in Palestine, and the Anglican Church of Canada has expressed a similar concern in resolutions of General Synod. The United Nations, beginning with Resolution 194 in 1948, has been consistent in calling for justice for all the residents of Palestine. These resolutions challenge, not sovereignty of the state of Israel, but the use of the power of that state to uproot the Palestinian people. Our church and our tradition abhor violence. But peace without justice is as much a tragic illusion now as it was in the time of the prophet Jeremiah: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6.14)

When Israel withdraws from its illegal occupation of Palestine, when Palestinians are free to return in peace to their homeland, when civilians are no longer the targets of terror, either for suicide bombers or government tanks, then healing will begin. Any other path will simply entrench violence and death as the norm for this generation and many generations to come.

I believe that peace can be achieved, and I invite you to pray for that end. I believe that our partnership with other Anglicans, Christians, and people of faith can be one of the instruments by which God works for that peace. And I believe that justice can be our goal, for Palestinians and for Israelis. We do not choose which of God’s people we will love; we choose the God who loves. I believe that the God who loves, who is revealed in Jesus Christ, requires us to speak truth to power, and to advocate just solutions that will bring lasting peace. I invite you to bring your love, your work, and your prayers to the churches where you gather, and to the world in which you serve.


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