The following is an expanded version of a sermon I gave at United Christian Church of Austin on Sunday, August 22, as part of our “God at the Movies” August film series (I added back in some of the material I cut for time purposes). I offer thanks and credit to the Rev. Anna Kreisle for the opportunity to preach and for choosing the documentary, “Mayor.” Please forgive formatting issues, especially with my photos; I’ve been wrestling mightily with WordPress for weeks.
Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-8
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, Oh God.
Good morning. My name is Jenny Veninga, and while I know many of you here and probably lots of folks online, I haven’t had the chance to meet some of our newer members and guests during these pandemic months of virtual gathering. I’m proud to be a member here at United Christian Church of Austin, and I am consistently grateful for you all, my spiritual family. Rev. Anna asked me if I might be interested in offering reflections based on this week’s film given that Palestine is a place dear to my heart, and working for just peace in that region is an ongoing commitment for me. I’m thankful for this opportunity to be with you all this morning.
In preparing these reflections, some recent personal experiences kept coming to mind. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain in a local hospital this past summer through an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education program here in Austin. In some ways, this focus on the spiritual care of individuals and families felt like–and to an extent, was–a narrowing of care and attention to the exclusion of larger global issues and international needs. Yet at the same time, I also felt that those focused and intimate experiences of care and empathy echoed global calls for these same things, and of course, no encounter ever takes place completely outside the larger social and economic systems that shape them.
In this tension between interpersonal and global, I found myself re-asking questions that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, but now from a new perspective with insights gained from chaplaincy. What, for example, does it mean to witness the pain and suffering of another person, or another people? How are we called to respond? And what does caring really entail in light of that witness? How might compassion and empathy on personal and interpersonal levels connect with calls for social justice?
These are honest and ongoing questions for me, especially as I seek to recognize my own limits and better discern my vocations as a minister, an educator, and a human being. We can’t do it all, a lesson that I struggle with daily. At the same time, I do believe that we as Christians are called to care for our neighbors near and far, and that working toward just peace in Israel and Palestine is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.
But approaching this topic is, well, difficult. The mere phrase “Israel and Palestine,” or the common but inaccurate descriptor, the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” can feel downright overwhelming. The long history of the region and Western involvement in it is complicated and dizzying, and I’m still humbled by my own limited perspective as an American and all that I still have to learn. The topic is also an obvious political lightning rod, which can feel too risky, especially for liberal Christians who are rightly concerned about maintaining relationships with our Jewish partners and decrying the historical—and current—antisemitism of the Christian Church. And today it can also feel strange to focus on such a specific—and tiny—place in the world when our hearts are breaking for so many other people and places, including the Afghan people (especially women there) and those closest to home in the midst of this deadly third surge in Covid-19–and so, so much more.
But feeling deeply about suffering and injustice in one place does not, I believe, preclude us from doing so about another. And despite the risks involved, and the many other peoples and places tugging at our hearts, it’s a topic that we can’t continue to ignore. And my message today, as it relates to both our Scripture reading and the excellent documentary that Rev. Anna has invited us to watch for this week, is that Palestine–and the global struggle for just peace there–matters. It matters because ancient Palestine is the land in which Jesus lived and died and proclaimed his message of liberation for all peoples. It matters because as Americans, billions of our tax dollars go to funding the Israeli military which fuels the Occupation of Palestine. It matters because justice for Palestinians is intersectional, as it is bound up with justice for black, brown, and indigenous peoples here in the United States. It matters because as Christians, we are called to be in right relationship with our interfaith siblings, including both Muslims and Jews. It matters because people like Musa Hadid, the Mayor of Ramallah featured in the film, deserve human dignity.
Indeed, as film critic Carlos Aguilar writes: “‘Mayor’ doesn’t feature an impassioned speech detailing the Palestinian people’s ardent plight for freedom because it doesn’t need one.” The documentary gives us a glimpse into the daily life of Mayor Hadid, a Christian, as he navigates his responsibilities as the leader of a city in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. If you had the chance to watch it, you know that it’s not an ordinary documentary, and it is certainly not an “ordinary” film about the “conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians. American director David Osit follows the mayor over a year, mostly in 2017, and what we see is both mundane and boring, on the one hand, and terrifying and shocking on the other. “How do you run a city when you don’t have a country?” becomes a central question of the film.
While the trauma and the injustice of the situation comes through loud and clear, the film also has a lightness to it, as both Osit and Hadid himself bring humor and even joy into what often feels like a bleak and depressing situation. One can’t help but laugh at the hilarity of the opening scene when Hadid speaks about how the santas will descend down the city’s Christmas tree, or when the city council is trying to decide what a new sign should look like for their new city “brand.” Should it be “We Are Ramallah?” or WeRamallah”? as in ToysRus? Hadid’s response elicits a dry laugh: “What the hell is city branding anyway?”
Ramallah, as is obvious in the film, is a city that has a lot to brag about and is a draw for local and international visitors. It’s home to a mix of notable landmarks: former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum, a giant statue of Nelson Mandela, the memorial site for acclaimed Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, and it’s not far from the distinguished Birzeit University and the Taybeh Brewing Company, the most popular (and excellent) Palestinian beer in the region. Ramallah has a sizable population of Christians—thus the Christmas tree at the beginning of “Mayor.”
As it turns out, I was in Ramallah briefly the same year that Osit was filming, though I was there months before Trump—against all American and international precedent—formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After a day visit to see a friend that July of 2017, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to my lodging in East Jerusalem that night by bus, even though it is just six miles north of Jerusalem. A crisis had unfolded at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, causing Israeli forces to increase security in the area and close some of roadways out of Jerusalem.
As seen in the film, checkpoints, already a source of humiliation for Palestinians, are often closed when tensions arise, or sometimes because the military just feels like it. I was able to get through the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem that night, but this, and other experiences like it, were poignant glimpses into what life under occupation must feel like. Of course, I always had my pretty blue American passport with me, which unlike for most Palestinians, gave me access to travel through all of the West Bank and Israel freely (barring closed checkpoints).
I didn’t understand this privilege or what “occupation” really meant until I had the opportunity to visit Palestine and Israel for the first time with a group of scholars in 2016. That trip was transformative. I saw with my own eyes what the words “occupation,” “separation wall,” and “settler colonialism” meant in real life there, and I couldn’t “un-see” what I saw. I returned to the region that following year to take a little Arabic through Al-Quds University–which, through no fault of my excellent teacher, I’ve almost completely forgotten by now but hope to study again one day, inshallah. During my second trip, I also spent time researching the ongoing collective trauma caused by the occupation and learning about Palestinian and Israeli movements for just peace.
What I saw on the ground in both of my trips closely corresponds to what the film, “Mayor,” depicts on the screen. The word “conflict” suggests two equal entities, but being on the ground there I immediately understood that there was no equality between Palestine and Israel, or between Palestinians and Israelis. Instead, the reality is an over fifty-year old military occupation which thrives on an imbalance of power.
In the film, for example, we see Hadid scanning the horizon and all he sees are Israeli settlements encroaching all around the city. “Even when they’re not doing anything, it’s suffocating,” he says. These almost exclusively Jewish communities are built on occupied Palestinian land and have been deemed illegal by international law. I had the opportunity to visit an organization called the Tent of Nations located on the Nassar family farm just southwest of Bethlehem, which seeks to build bridges between people, and people with the land. Despite the fact that this has been the Nassars’ registered farm for more than a century, the Israeli military and nearby settlers have harassed the family and repeatedly attacked the land (settlements ringed around the farm can be seen in the horizon in a photo below). Just this past May, around 1,000 fruit trees were destroyed by arson and the military brought bulldozers that destroyed trees in the process. Many settlements also have access to a surplus of water, resources, and exclusive roads, while the Palestinians in the West Bank routinely encounter water shortages.
And while the separation barrier, the enormous wall that divides Israel from the West Bank , makes only a subtle appearance in the film, it remains an indelible image in my heart and mind. Currently almost 450 miles long, the wall was built to reduce Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel, but has resulted in Palestinians being cut off from their own farmland and a de facto annexation of Palestinian West Bank land.
During my trips, I quickly recognized Palestinian homes by the big black buckets on rooftops designed to collect water in the event that it ran out. Life in Gaza is much worse, as few residents have access to clean water and electricity is often cut off due an ongoing blockade. Not only are resources restricted under the Occupation, but Palestinians often have little control over their own land, as testified by Hadid’s inability to build a sewage plant for his own city.
Building permits can be few and far between, as I heard from so many Palestinians in Jerusalem, so it can take years to construct new homes. The Israeli military also routinely orders the demolition of Palestinian homes, and to add insult to injury, they either have to pay for the military to do the demolition or do it themselves. Many Palestinians have been evicted or live under the threat of being evicted from their homes based on false settler and military claims to their homes and land. Much of the devastating violence between Hamas and Israel this past summer was spurred by the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families in Sheik Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
After seeing this and so much more during my trips, I knew I wanted to continue my involvement in working for just peace in Palestine and Israel, so in 2020, I was grateful to have the opportunity to join the Steering Committee of the Palestine-Israel Network of the United Church of Christ, a group of clergy and lay leaders which advocates for peace and justice in the region. Right after I joined the group, we started working on a Resolution for the UCC General Synod, which took place just last July. I’m so pleased that our Resolution, a “Declaration for a Just Peace between Palestine and Israel,” passed at the General Synod with an 83% majority, and among the endorsers of the Resolution was our own United Christian Church of Austin’s Social Justice Team.
Key to the Resolution is an emphasis on Palestinian human rights, naming the continued oppression of Palestinians as a “sin,” which we describe as a structure of apartheid not unlike that in South Africa. Our description of the situation, as well as the actions that we call for, are based upon what our Palestinian partners themselves have so urgently articulated in proclamations such as Kairos Palestine’s A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith and Hope from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering (2009) and Cry for Hope: A Call to Decisive Action (2020). We certainly encountered resistance to including the words”sin” and “apartheid” to describe the situation on the ground, and we’ve some gotten criticism of the Resolution since then. But we’ve also received a great deal of support and we’ve been grateful for those who have exercised the courage to witness for and endorse the Resolution.
What I, and the group articulate, is that the oppression of the Palestinian people is a matter of theological and political urgency. What I saw there, from checkpoints to miles of separation walls to the Israeli settlements that are encroaching on Palestinian olive groves, are all a sin. Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer said the same of Nazi racism—it was a status confessionis—a situation in which only one position is in accord with the confession of Christ. In Israel-Palestine, there is also only one situation that is in accord with the Hebrew Prophets and the Gospels: which is to end the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians, now.
At stake, after all, is human dignity. For me, one of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Hadid is meeting with a group of German politicians who are stressing diplomacy and dialogue without recognizing the imbalance of power. Hadid, with his quiet but demanding presence responds: “It’s about dignity. When it comes to the dignity of yourself, it’s not acceptable. . . When we feel that we are not treated as slaves and they are masters, we are ready to do everything. But when I have to take off my clothes in front of everyone…under the threat of [a] weapon, it is about dignity.”
“It’s about dignity.”Mayor Musa Hadid
Hadid’s quiet determination to maintain his and his city’s dignity even amidst an inhumane system, manifests throughout the film as subtle but powerful acts of creative resistance. The lighting of the Christmas tree, the Easter parade, and Hadid’s ultimate success in getting his lighted fountain to flow, are all acts of freedom and hope. What more powerful gospel is there than Hadid’s call for the residents of Ramallah to “remember to make space for joy until we get freedom and independence.” When I was in Palestine, I learned that samud was central to Palestinian life and future. Often translated as “steadfastness” or “perseverance” in English, samud is a Palestinian way of being, and it is rooted in struggle and dignity. In a place where “existence is resistance,” samud can show up in joy as well as struggle.
The PIN Resolution outlines multiple ways for individuals and churches to take action in the spirit of samud, ranging from listening to Palestinian voices on their situation, examining our interpretations of Scripture and liturgies, supporting American, Palestinian, and Israeli groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights), Rabbis for Human Rights , Churches for Middle East Peace, and other ecumenical and interfaith organizations which work for just peace, to lobbying our own government to restrict military aid to Israel until international law is respected.
There are also many amazing documentaries, accessible resources online, and literature about Palestine—including celebrations of Palestinian culture and identity. When I was in visiting, over and over again, Palestinians said that the most important work we could do was here in the U.S., first through economic boycott and divestment, and second, through simply telling their story. If you’ve learned anything new through watching “Mayor” or through our conversation today, I invite you to simply pass it along to a friend or family member. These simple acts of witnessing can be a powerful catalyst for change.
The prophet Isaiah was writing after the early Jewish community returned from exile in Babylonia, but things were not as they had hoped. Still, they are promised joy and praise rather than despair, cities that are renewed rather than devastated, and inheritance rather than disgrace. In their own land, they will find everlasting joy. This is the promise given by God to all peoples—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestinians and Israelis. But is us—all of us—who, in the spirit of Isaiah and Jesus who later echoes the prophet’s message, are anointed to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim freedom for the captives. It’s up us to resist that which prevents this human flourishing and to help bring about the conditions where all peoples can live with freedom and dignity, where Musa Hadid’s blazing fountain flows freely throughout that beautiful and broken land.