By Tom Holmes
Commentators often use the term "therapeutic religion" when they describe activities of faith communities that are designed to heal and "prophetic religion" for activities meant to confront.
The event held in St. Giles' McDonough Hall on Oct. 19 was definitely an example of prophetic religion. The four speakers at the event, called "Responding to the Kairos Moment," were unapologetically pro-Palestinian.
The gathering, part of St. Giles' Beyond the Sound Bite Series, focused on a document written in 2009 titled, "Kairos Palestine, A Moment of Truth." The first sentence of Kairos Palestine reads: "We, a group of Christian Palestinians, after prayer, reflection and an exchange of opinion, cry out from within the suffering our country, under the Israeli Occupation …"
Three paragraphs later it declares, "These days, everyone is speaking about peace in the Middle East and the peace process. So far, however, these are simply words; the reality is one of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, deprivation of our freedom and all that results from this situation."
The first speaker was Rev. Dean Lueking, pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, well known in this area for his commitment to ecumenism and cooperation. In his summary of Palestinian history in the Holy Land, he made it clear that his critique of the state of Israel was in no way a swipe at the Jewish religion. In an email after the event he wrote, "My own ties to Jews and Palestinians, both here and in the Holy Land, date from the early l950s; I feel an obligation to make those ties count in every way given to me. In this regard, Palestinians, particularly my fellow Palestinian Christians who live daily with harsh realities, have little or no voice here. Mine may be small, but at least it's one voice amidst the cacophony that dismisses all Palestinians as violent terrorists."
Janet Settle is a member of the local, year-old Interfaith Group on Peace and Justice — composed of Christians, Unitarians and Jews — which helped St. Giles organize the Kairos Palestine event. Because she herself is Jewish, she acknowledged it is difficult at times to keep the state of Israel separate in people's minds from the Jewish religion. She added that many in her own tradition are critical of the state of Israel.
"I would not describe myself as 'comfortable' in my criticism of Israel," she wrote in an email following the event. "I feel that critique of Israeli policy and practice regarding the Palestinians is — comfortable or not — both an ethical necessity for me and a way of honoring the prophetic tradition in Judaism."
A Palestinian American who was born in Nazareth, Rev. Said Ailabouni, followed Lueking at the podium by telling his life story. Max Brown, also a member of the Interfaith Group on Peace and Justice, summarized not only Ailabouni's talk but his reaction to it.
"Personally," he said, "I was most profoundly moved by Dr. Ailabouni's personal reflection on the ethnic cleansing which his family suffered at the hands of Israeli military forces in 1948. His mother, father and young siblings, as well as his extended family, were forced to march three days to the border without food or water. In the process, a cousin was killed and his father was imprisoned. When they were finally able to return to their town in the new state of Israel, all of their possessions had been confiscated. Dr. Ailabouni made his presentation without any anger or bitterness. I went up to Dr. Ailabouni after his talk to say how sorry I was for the pain and suffering his family had unnecessarily and cruelly experienced but found I could not talk. If I did talk I was afraid I would start to cry, so all I could do was to stand there and shake his hand with tears weltering up in my eyes, as they were in his own eyes. He understood what I was unable to put into words and simply said to me, 'Thank you.'"
Dr. Pauline Coffman, an organizing member of Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA, characterized the hard-liners presently in power in Israel as "a persecuted people who are now persecuting others." She argued that an excessive concern for security has led the Israeli government to actions such as expanding settlements in the West Bank and building the security wall that makes Palestinians prisoners in their own land.
Janet Settle, the final speaker of the afternoon, listed ways people in the audience could act, including divestment of stock that enables the building of illegal settlements, pushing the media to devote more coverage to the Palestinian plight, adding the Palestinians to the prayers in your local faith community, calling your elected officials, and visiting the Holy Land to see what's going on for yourself.
Wayne Vanek, a member of the St. Giles Family Mass Community, had this to say after hearing the four presentations: "The scene in the video [shown by Coffman] of the U.S. giving so much money to Israel constantly reminded me of my realization that came about Syria. I could not understand how Russia could continue to give weapons to Syria and keep threatening vetoes in the U.N., when so many persons were being killed, many of them civilians. How could they be so stubborn and hard-headed? Then I realized that is how many people think of us in our tied-at-the-hip support of Israel. All our military aid and also our numerous vetoes in the U.N. seem illogically stubborn and hard-headed."
Mary Schleitwiler, also a member of the Family Mass Community, said, "Tragically, Christianity has come to be equated with Western militarism. Our government has spoken and acted forcefully against other countries who violate the human rights of their citizens. The glaring exception is Israel. That's unjust and unacceptable, and I intend to say so plainly to the people who get my votes."