Donald Mead, a retired economist from Michigan State University and PC(USA) ruling elder who now volunteers with Presbyterian World Mission in the Middle East/Europe office, visited Israel and Palestine this fall on a Sabeel Witness Visit. The trip was Mead’s eighth visit to Israel/Palestine in the last 15 years, and he’s been traveling to the region since 1957.
The international team of travelers included Mead and four additional American Presbyterians, along with people from Sweden, France, Germany, Britain, Australia, and others from the U.S. Sabeel’s founder, the Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, led the group on a tour of traditional Holy Land sites while helping participants, as Mead says, “understand the impact of the occupation.”
“The occupation of the West Bank has been going on for nearly 50 years now, and it continues to dominate day-to-day life [for Palestinians] in so many dimensions,” he says. “It impacts everyone—their ability to move, to go from one place to another, in terms of the efforts of the Israeli government to control access to land and to life in general.”
Mead says Sabeel tracks the number and location of checkpoints, or access restrictions, placed by the Israeli government that hamper access to workplaces, medical facilities, schools and farmland. “Many [checkpoints] that were there before are still there,” he says. “And new ones are being added, so it’s getting increasingly difficult to move around.”
The Witness Visit coincided with an escalation of tensions in the fall of 2015, which resulted in a number of stabbings by Palestinians and retaliatory attacks by Israeli forces. Mead believes the violence is a “clear reflection that Palestinians are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their hope for a just outcome to the conflict.”
For Sabeel and others “fully committed to non-violence,” Mead says it is getting more difficult to make the case that peaceful challenges to the spread of the occupation will be successful. “A commitment to non-violence has not paid off for them,” he says. “And that makes it difficult for them to hang on to those long-term commitments.”
Although Mead says he has seen the situation deteriorate and become more confrontational over time, he continues to be impressed by the ways in which Palestinian Christians have maintained their strong commitment to a response based on non-violence.
“In walking alongside such people, we seek to let them know there are many around the world who understand their plight,” he says. “We affirm our belief in the work of restorative justice, providing hope to those being harmed—a hope that includes a wish that God’s love may flow freely to encompass all who are involved in the conflict.”
Below is the full text of Mead’s reflection on this trip:
Faith, in the Midst of Conflict
I have recently returned from a wonderful and challenging ten days in Israel and Palestine, listening to and walking with people engulfed in a conflict that has swirled around them for decades. As I think about the ways in which faith matters for those good people, I am reminded that Paul talks about faith, hope, and love, affirming that the greatest of these is love. It may also be true, though, that love is the one which is the most difficult to sustain, in situations of conflict. In fact, it may be that, when the going gets tough, love and hope are equally at risk of falling by the wayside. In such situations, we are often pushed back to faith, which may be the channel through which the Holy Spirit flows, sustaining our hope for a better future and perhaps even enabling us to love those with whom we differ.
On Sunday two weeks ago, the group with which I was traveling worshiped with the Greek Orthodox Church in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. The large church was filled, with men, women, and children of all ages. The worship service was long; we came in after it had been going for a while, and stayed for more than an hour until its completion. Much of the liturgy was sung, led by a vigorous choir but with active participation by all in the congregation. After the service, we met with the priest, who told us that attendance in the worship services has remained strong.
These are people living under the thumb of an occupation that has severely constrained their lives for nearly fifty years. They are now on the front line of an on-going border conflict, with a new wall being built which will eliminate their access to a significant piece of land owned by the people of their community. After the service, we joined a group of parishioners in walking to a place where the bulldozers were at work that Sunday morning constructing that barrier. It was a peaceful protest, an expression of their faith that God will ultimately bring a just outcome to a difficult situation where two sets of people each claim a certain stretch of land. It surely would be hard for them to love the person driving the bulldozer, the Israeli police watching from behind the trees to make sure things did not “get out of hand”, or the authorities sending those workers there to do that work. Can the people of the village really hope for a good and fair outcome? Their faith is the context that sustains them as they wrestle with such questions.
And what is our role in all of this? Does our faith matter, in our response? We surely cannot resolve all injustices taking place around the world. But our faith does teach us that the injustice of occupation is contrary to the will of God. To the extent that we are able, we are called to challenge such injustice, or at least not to be party to supporting and helping finance it. In challenging our government’s support of these activities, we provide hope to those being harmed, a hope that includes a wish that God’s love may flow freely to encompass all who are involved in the conflict. For us, as for them, faith is the grounding from which both hope and love spring. May it be so.
More of Mead’s writings can be found on his Presbyterian Peace Fellowship blog.