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Reflection on the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

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Our Superintendent, Revd Cathy Bird, reflected on the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in her sermon last Sunday 29th October 2023 at Heaton Moor United Church. Here is the sermon in its entirety for you to read, and the associated readings from the Bible.

Psalm 24 vs 1

The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;

Psalm 99 vs 1-5

He LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he! Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!

Luke 19: 1-9

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.' So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. Zacchaeus stood there and said, 'Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.' Then Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.

Matthew 19: 16, 21,22

Someone came to Jesus and said, 'Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?' Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Matthew 22:34-39

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus a question to test him. 'Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, ' "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."

As part of the Circuit's engagement with Black History month last week we hosted the acclaimed documentary film After the Flood.

The documentary shows how the 18th century Church became embroiled in slavery and justified its involvement in the trade, and it explores the lasting impact, and what that means for Christian reconciliation today. find out more about the film here After The Flood – Movement for Justice & Reconciliation (mjr-uk.com)

The emphasis of the film and of our conversation following it was how to achieve restorative justice in the wake of slavery's legacy, recognising that churches have a particular calling to engage in this task – not only because of our historic complicity in it, but because healing, forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation – the things that are at the heart of restorative justice – are central to the Christian gospel. In the summer, a report of the Archbishops' Racial Justice Commission described the work of reparations as being a journey from lament to action, and there's no doubt in my mind that the Church can offer prophetic leadership here because repentance, and restitution are basic theological concepts. In the New Testament, when the rich man in the Gospel of Matthew asks Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. It's not so much that rich people can't be saved, more that if you gain something at someone else's expense, you have to put that right, pay back, make amends. We don't know whether the rich man did what Jesus had asked of him, but in the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus the tax collector responded to Jesus, deciding on the spot to give half of his wealth to the poor and, if he had cheated anyone, to pay back fourfold what he had taken. The film encourages the Christian community to recognise the need to go beyond benevolence – which we are usually verygood at – and rather to seek out and acknowledge and address those power imbalances that are part of the legacy of slavery and a colonial mentality.

As we enter November, the month of remembering, the film also prompted a conversation about the power of memory in the processes of restitution, reconciliation and forgiveness. The need to talk about the graphic and brutal realities of slavery and the assumption of white privilege and power is necessary if these things are going to be consigned forever to history. True justice demands that recognition be given to who people are, to their particular circumstances and to their stories and histories. And of course we see the legacy of this 'writing people out of history' in the world today – in racism, in anti-semitism, in islamophobia, in genocide. The ongoing Impact of colonialisation and the fact that it's' legacy has never really been dealt with can be seen in so many places, personally, locally, nationally and globally.

The church's own, internal, struggle, and that of individual Christians to address injustice and inequality in our structures and cultures and attitudes is one thing, and we are still very much on that journey. Justice for, dignity of and solidarity with those who are subject to bias and prejudice and discrimination are at the heart of how we are recognising we need to move forward. But what might restorative justice look like in the place that is at the forefront of our minds at the moment – in Israel and Palestine?

We've already heard that the Christian gospel demands that if you gain something at someone else's expense you have to offer reparation, to seek to put things right, to restore balance and fairness. And implicit within those stories of Zacchaeus and the rich man, is the idea that such restoration requires giving something up.

So, for example, if the British Government were to acknowledge it's own historical part in the mess that is happening right now and recognise that it has continuing responsibilities in the land that is called Holy, we would be hearing a very different message from the one we are hearing which seems to overlook the facts – so well articulated, I have to say, by the UN Secretary General – that what happened on October 7th did not happen in a vacuum. British involvement in carving up the land after the first world war and neglecting to consider thewishes of the historic inhabitants of the country, the Palestinians – that is a significant part of the history that fills the vacuum.

Britain took control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire during the first world war, and the intention was that it become designated as a place in which a safe Jewish homeland could be established. Although the historic Balfour Declaration contained assurances relating to the rights of those already living there, a memorandum in 1919 is rather revealing, and a quote from it is displayed in the Museum of Palestinian History in the Walled Off Hotel near Bethlehem, "In Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country..... Zionism, be it right or wrong is more important than the wishes of 700,000 Arabs."

Yes, we can and must express disgust at the attacks by Hamas on innocent Israeli citizens, and align our voices with those who are condemning those actions and the ongoing situation with hostages and so on.

And we can also express our disgust that the oppression of the Palestinian people has gone unnoticed, unreported and ignored by the international community and the press for many many decades. That is also a significant part of the history that fills the vacuum.

Yes, we know that Jewish people have been subject to genocide and hatred and we need to educate ourselves and understand more about that and how it impacts upon the world today in terms of anti-semitism and anti-semitic attacks.....

And we also need to be able to recognise that what is happening to Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli political system is both state sponsored terrorism and genocide and we need to be able to call out what has developed over the last years, quietly and almost by stealth, as being a system of apartheid. And we need to be able to do that without it inciting hatred against Jewish people, many of whom have been at the forefront of condemning Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank over many years. These things are also part of what has filled the vacuum.

Yesterday on a march in Manchester, Christians walked alongside Muslims and Jews in calling for a ceasefire and justice in Gaza.

One of the most shocking things I heard this week was that someone had been arrested in Palestine for posting on Facebook 'there is no power greater than the power of God.' It was designated as incitement to hatred and the person who had posted it held for a couple of days.

A Muslim, quoting the Qu'ran, but it could just as easily have been a Jew or a Christian for whom that sentiment is equally central to faith. As Christians today we believe in the power of God to transform the world, we believe in God's reign of love and justice and peace and fairness for all people, but when Holy Scripture and religion are weaponised, we have to look quite hard to see where and how, indeed if at all, God's purposes are being served; its confusing.....where does it leave us as we try to make sense of what is happening in Israel and Palestine at the present? Should we take sides and if so which one – perhaps the best I can offer is to say that the side we are called to be on is the side of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God, which is justice and joy, the side of human rights, the side which speaks to us of the truth that the Earth is the Lord's and all that is in it.

For some people that might mean protest – in one way or another; it might even mean going non-violently against the rule of the land to make a point. Christianity has a long tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, history is littered with direct yet peaceful action, often rooted in Christian values and practice. And for some of us we might want to be thinking about that in the coming weeks as a direct response to what is happening in the Middle East. But whilst I'm not necessarily urging you all to take to the streets, what that situation forces us to acknowledge is that God's purposes for humankind are being subverted by human ideas, by prejudices, by apathy and our tendency to choose the path of least resistance, by ignorance, by unchallenged and accepted practices of conflict resolution which rely on the principle of an eye for an eye, or perhaps two eyes for one eye, or as the situation unfolds three eyes, or four or more.

To side with the tactics of Hamas's terrorist wing, to side with the terror perpetrated by the Israeli government? No, we side with all those who are seeking not to divide people, but to bring them together. We need to be holding leaders to account for what they are doing to God's creation – to people, land, society. And we have to believe that it is possible to do that in a non-violent way.

In the middle of the West Bank, the area designated and internationally recognised as a homeland for Palestinians, in the hills southwest of Bethlehem is a piece of land called the Tent of Nations – it is a farm which has been owned by Palestinian Christians for over 100 years – it grows olives, grapes, almonds, fruit trees, wheat and other crops but it has become much more than that.

Increasingly, the land finds itself surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements – which are growing daily to become small towns and encroaching on the land of the Tent of Nations – and in the midst of that, the Tent of Nations host thousands of volunteers from around the world all wanting to share in a mission to build a bridge between people and between people and the land, through education and learning, to build understanding and hope.

Countless times the ToN has been attacked by settlers and the Israeli army, thousands of trees have been destroyed, and thousands of pounds worth of damage has been caused. The Nassar family who own the land have been threatened with their lives several times.

Nevertheless, they hold fast to their motto "We refuse to be enemies" – they try to overcome the obstacles and the challenges, and the continuous destructions and the attacks on their lives in a peaceful nonviolent way based on their Christian values and trusting in God's justice. They have been recipients of the Methodist Peace Prize.

As a human race, we thrive on community and the notion of Ubuntu – I am because we are – yet what is happening in God's world at present makes it patently clear that other things are being allowed to take precedence, to undermine and destroy all that is inherently good and beautiful. How easily today do we continue to allow issues that are in the great scheme of things insignificant to hold sway over the bigger costlier issues, the love of God that is at the heart of our life and faith. The love of God which moves according to our needs and which demands that we treat one another with grace and dignity and fairness – and fairness by the way might not mean treating everyone the same, or equally.

For all of us it means we are constantly being called to ask questions about how we see God's purposes being best served within what we see and hear is happening. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees about the greatest commandment, he gave an answer which was very, very clever. In the OT book of Deuteronomy, the greatest commandment is quite clearly stated as
being to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and might. Yet Jesus' reply is slightly different; If he had been speaking in English we might be able to right it off as a slip of the tongue, but I guess he wasn't. The greatest commandment IS to love God he says, but not with the power of physical strength, not with the power of might – but with the power of our minds.

And then as Matthew describes the exchange, Jesus says that there is a second commandment, which is of equivalent importance – in saying, 'and a second is like it' Matthew doesn't just mean it is similar. He means it is inseparable. You can't isolate loving God from loving those around. Love of God and love of neighbour. Nothing else matters. With all our heart, soul and mind.

And that means approaching all we hear in the news and in social media, yes with our hearts.....which have undoubtedly been broken with images on TV of murdered and kidnapped Israelis and brutally slaughtered Gazans, all civilians, all helpless in the face of terror, whether it be perpetrated by Hamas or the Israeli government – and its important we don't allow ourselves to become numb, or to switch off the news because its too hard to face...... But it also means we can't receive everything unquestioningly – we are not called as people of God and followers of Christ, to be passive automatons, unquestioningly accepting everything and never bringing anything of our own experience or intuition or instinct; we are not called to believe that we must never ask questions. The way of Jesus was very much within a tradition of confrontation, and questioning; a tradition of getting involved, of looking around and trying to understand the situation of the world, and to change it when we see injustices being done and spoken.

So we pray for courage to be those who are prepared to take risks, to search for the facts among the various truths that abound, and to speak them, and to be those who are willing to take steps of faith to reveal those places where the law of God is becoming obscured by human laws and prejudice. And in our own discernment we hold onto the idea that the Earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it. Amen

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