How can there be unity in our nation today?
January 22, 2017

How can there be unity in our nation today?

Passage: Matthew 4:12-23

A few weeks ago I laughed at how relieved I was during my sabbatical of not having to preach during the presidential election - with all its rancor and contention. Well… on Friday Donald Trump was inaugurated, and millions of America felt for the first time that they have a champion in the White House. On Saturday protestors around the world marched in opposition to the president. And here it is on Sunday, and I’m in the pulpit preaching! It’s no news that the results of this election have revealed a political and social division within the US unlike anything we’ve seen for decades.

But – as is often the case – when I turn to the scripture readings assigned for this day I’m amazed at how they align themselves to our circumstances with such wisdom. They speak of hope and unity in the face of fear and anguish.

But what do we mean when we speak of unity in the church? Surely unity doesn’t mean that everyone is in agreement about everything. First of all, that’s impossible. Second of all, we have a word for religious organizations that claim absolute agreement on everything. We call them “cults.” As diverse people, with diverse experiences and backgrounds, diversity amongst us is inevitable and, I would say, desirable. Our differences can reveal a truer insight to the complexity of this life.

But if unity doesn’t mean uniformity, does it mean that when we’re in church we have to avoid anything controversial, such that coming to church feels like Thanksgiving dinner with intolerable relatives, where the whole objective is keeping the peace? We can’t do that. If we do, it’s saying God and the church have no interest in the very things that people are most passionate about. And what are we left with? a kind of bland Christianity whose chief virtue is politeness. No, the church must interact with the things that really matter, that really stir our passions, and engage the world around us.

But how are we supposed to get there?

I believe that true unity in the church is found where there is a shared commitment to pursue the Kingdom of God with integrity – by which I mean – a community of people honestly seeking to conform our lives to the heart of God, with the full realization that it will be costly. And when I say “costly” I don’t merely mean “time, talents, and treasures.” I mean it will sometimes cost us our opinions, our values, our preconceptions about who God is and what God requires of us. It is a Christianity that says, “God, do what you will with me. I trust you with my life, even though I know that every time you ask me to lay part of it down, I will want to resist.” But how, dear friends, do we enter in a truer union with God and one another if we insist on doing so by remaining just as we are?  How selfish that would be – and how foolish – to sit in our corner and wait for everyone to join us there.

So this morning in our Episcopal Church, as we think about unity in America today, I’d like to tell you the story of a secular Jew and a faithful Muslim in Israel and the unity they have found. Why do I tell their story, and not some American Christian story? Because, the emotions and circumstances in our nation today are nothing compared to the fear and violence that has divided the Israelis and Palestinians for so long. And if they can find unity, then there is no reason why we can’t do so as well.[1]

Rami Elhanan was born in Israel, the son of an orphaned survivor of Auschwitz. As a young man he fought in the Yom Kippur War where he watched his friends die. By the time it ended he was cynical and hopeless and wanted nothing to do with religion or politics. He gave himself over to work and family. But in 1997 his fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, was blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber, and he could no longer hide in the bubble he’d created for himself.

Bassam Aramin is a Muslim Palestinian who spent seven years in prison for attacking Israeli troops as a teenager. In 2007 his ten-year-old daughter, Abir had just left school when she was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.

Should these two men have each retreated to the bunkers of their own grief and vengeance, the world would certainly have understood. But that is not what happened. Bassam and Rami “first met in 2005 at a small gathering of former fighters – both Israeli and Palestinian – who wanted to form a partnership for peace.” Their friendship started there – a remarkable thing, really. And it became a friendship of such substance that when Aramin’s daughter was killed a couple years later, he turned to his Jewish friend Elhanan, knowing he had lost a daughter of his own. Together the two of them attended the Bereaved Families Forum where both Israeli and Palestinian people share their stories of family members who have been killed in the conflict.

And it is this concept of storytelling that is a central tenant in their movement toward peace - this willingness to listen to another’s story which shatters their own caricature of “the other,” and instead reveals another human with legitimate grievances, pain, and desires. And until we can see and honor the legitimacy of a person and their story that is quite different from our own, then unity will not thrive. There will be no true peace.

But let’s be clear, this pathway to peace is very costly. It is risky and frightening for us to be willing to question the caricatures we’ve depended upon to justify our disapproval and mockery of “the other.” It is costly to admit that the other side has a legitimate perspective.

For the Israelis, it is often an enormous stumbling block to see beyond the myth that the Jews “were a people without a land and Palestine was a land without a people.” Rami says of his own people,

“Most are not ready to accept that there was a Nakba [the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948]. They don’t understand the Palestinians pain because they don’t want to know. And they don’t want to know because if they did they would have to acknowledge their own responsibility and wouldn’t be able to continue acting as if nothing had happened.”

Likewise, until he heard their stories, Bassam never understood the power of the Holocaust on the Israeli psyche.

“Israelis talk about the Holocaust all the time,” he said. “Oh, my God, it is everywhere! It’s part of the education. But I’ve realized that, even if the Holocaust is used as propaganda to teach hatred or fear, the fear is real, and we need to teach the Palestinian people about the Israelis’ trauma….

“I think our main enemy is the [their] fear. It’s part of their consciousness. When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background. If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Picking up on this theme, Rami says,

“At the end of his life my father became involved with the Bereaved Families Forum. At one meeting an elderly Palestinian whose son had been tortured and died in an Israeli prison said he didn’t believe the Holocaust had actually happened. Everyone got angry at him, but the exchange made me realize: What do Palestinians know about the Holocaust? No more than Israelis know about the Nakba. So I said, ‘Let’s teach Palestinians about the Holocaust and Israeli Jews about the Nakba.’ The Bereaved Families Forum began to take groups of Palestinians to visit Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, and when these Palestinians looked at the photos of the concentration camps, they started crying. My father was amazed that Palestinians could cry about the Holocaust. This completely changed his worldview.”

And that is what we are after.

Amazingly, when these groups gather, they avoid talking about the details of a political solution. It’s not that they don’t see its necessity. It’s simply that when they are together they differentiate the politicians’ work from their own. Their work is to be partners in peace – to offer an alternative narrative and to prove that it is possible to care for one another. And the principle way they do this is by hearing each other’s stories and dismantling the fear of “the other.”

And as I said earlier, if this is possible in the Middle East, how much more so should it be at home in America – especially for us who claim the name of Christ?

Like Simon and Andrew we are called to drop our nets - and for us today - that means the nets of our prejudice and fear. And we are called to risk discovering the stories of our brothers and sisters who hold different explanations for what’s happening in our country and different solutions for its recovery. Our first step is not articulating a political solution, but softening our own hearts with a willingness to hear the life story that long preceded our neighbor’s point of view. For such is the pathway of those who follow Christ – the Christ who left the comfort of his own home to join us in our humanity. There is a sickness among us, but we have been called to join the Christ who came “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

Do not sequester yourselves with those you agree with. Neither abandon your principles and your passions. I only ask you to open yourself to a deeper passion: to discover and love your neighbor as God does by listening to your neighbor’s story.

If you are interested in exploring ways St. John’s can foster this kind of discovery and deepening compassion, please contact me. For in the months to come, as our nation faces a deepening estrangement, it will be my priority to help us to listen - not to each other’s political rhetoric and intransigence - but to those experiences that have formed us and brought us to where we are today. Only through compassion and understanding can we hope for the wisdom that will take us beyond the boundaries of our dogmatic arrogance.

Along the way I am committed to praying regularly for President Trump … and for those who oppose him. I will pray for their good, for our nation’s good and all its inhabitants, and for the welfare of the world.

[1] The details of this story, and all quotations, are found in an interview with the two men (Saramin, Bassam and Elhanan, Rami. Interviewed by Judity Hertog. “An Unlikely Friendship,” The Sun October 2016, Issue 490). Their story can also be found in a short documentary “Within the Eye of the Storm” found on youtube.

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