Palestine Matters: Sermon Reflections on the film “Mayor” and More

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.

You can view a video of the original sermon (and Scripture reading) here.

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.

Separation Barrier, Bethlehem, 2016

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.

Black water tanks at Aida Refugee Camp, just north of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, West Bank, 2016

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.

Mondoweiss Article, July, 2021

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.

Hope painted on the Barrier Wall, Bethlehem, 2016

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. 

Amen.

Mayor Hadid gazing at the fountain (from “Mayor”)
“Resistance through Art” mural at the Jenin Freedom Theater,
Jenin, West Bank, 2017

Truth and Trauma in Texas

I seem to be on a 2-3 year schedule of writing blogs for this site, so it seems about time for a new one. It’s long, but I can’t help myself–there’s some stuff on my mind. If you want to read a bit more about why I’m writing now, check out the brief “About” section here on Veninga’s Smuler. XO

“Do his lips look blue to you?” my partner, Jack, asked me as our two-and-a-half-year-old toddler reached for a package of crayons. My adrenaline spiked as I moved the flashlight closer to Elliott and we both leaned in to take a better look. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just the lighting,” I responded. We looked at each other with momentary relief and I handed Elliott another sheet of paper as I googled “hypothermia” on my phone—just to be sure. He was fine, but it turns out that we were right to be concerned; tragically, multiple people died of hypothermia in Texas last week, including an 11-year-old boy.

Cemetery of used hand, toe, and foot warmers

When we were inspecting Elliott’s lips, we were about 36 hours into a blackout at our home in Austin, Texas, and at that point, we had no idea when we might get our electricity back. With no source of heat, the inside temperature in our house had dropped into the 40s amidst record-low temperatures for Texas (outside temps hovered around 9-10 degrees F for hours). We put blankets over the windows, dressed Elliott in three layers of clothes, put quilts around our water turtle’s aquarium, and nestled with our dogs to keep them warm. I was utterly grateful for the hand and foot warmers that I’d recently bought for what was supposed to be a cold marathon two Saturdays ago.

We used precious battery power on our phones to watch press conferences with city officials and representatives from the energy companies. We were grateful for the essential workers trying to fix the mess. But no one could tell us when our power might be restored. I know that others around the country dealt with weather challenges this past week, including my family and friends in the Pacific Northwest. I also know that people thrive in very, very cold places and live through very extreme weather. But Texas and Texans are not equipped for this extremity, and for many here it really did become a situation of survival.

In the face of uncertainty, my partner and I faced those critical decisions—the kinds that disasters often call for—that all involved risk. Should we accept a friend’s generous invitation for her to try to pick us up in her four-wheel drive vehicle and take us to her house an hour away? If we did, we’d have heat. But what if we get stranded with a toddler in tow, or my friend gets stranded alone? On the other hand, what if we stay and don’t have heat or water for another three or four days?  Should we try to leave for my mother’s house only 13 minutes away, where she has intermittent blackouts with short periods of electricity? But how will my 2005 Mini Cooper possibly travel the icy roads, and what if the power goes off at her house entirely? We finally decided that we would stick with the risks that we knew rather than the ones we didn’t, and just stayed put.

Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day by Vivienne Blake

It turns out that we were relatively lucky—our power came back on 48 hours after it had gone off, and we had water all week. And still, those 48 hours and a few that followed, were scary. I love adventure and have certainly chosen the riskier option more than a few times during my solo travels and justice work at home and abroad (and probably will again one day). But with my young child’s wellbeing on the line right in our own home, this felt different. Jack and I took turns doing all the usual toddler activities with him (reading, coloring, playdoh, repeat), and Elliott and I made an outpost “nook” in the closet of his room where we could snuggle, read, and keep warm. We found a box of my old children’s books and read the slim Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day again and again (which, with a bit of translation for gender inclusivity, is not a bad read).   

But if we were lucky, so many more, including our family and friends were not. Some struggled without heat for days after we warmed back up. Even after electricity has returned for most Austinites, water is still unavailable for many and a boil-water order remains in effect for some parts of the city. Food shortages have resulted from stores closing or not receiving deliveries. Reports are starting to come in about how many deaths resulted from this storm, but the grim reality is that we won’t know that number for a while. And though this crisis almost caused me to forget, we are still in a global pandemic.  

On Thursday, the day after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) gods allowed our power to come back on, I ventured out on foot in search of some milk for Elliott. I was surprised to find that our nearby Target was open. I trudged in, unshowered for days, wearing my partner’s enormous ski jacket and a backpack for transporting whatever I could find.

I was taken aback by my own feelings as I walked into Target. Box-store lights blazing, people casually looking at clothes, the corporate capitalist wheels spinning—it all felt surreal after holing up in our living room all week trying to meet our basic needs and keep our family safe. As I stood there looking at the barren shelves, I tried to resist any comparison to the experiences of deep suffering that I study in my research on trauma as a theologian and scholar of religion. But I couldn’t and still can’t let the thought go: we Texans have experienced collective and individual trauma this past week.

Empty shelves at Target


Ignoring the reality or the effects of trauma, as psychologists and so many survivors have long told us, doesn’t actually help anyone, and can instead harm survivors and the larger collective. As a white, middle-class woman with a home and a deep network of support, I do not intend to suggest that I somehow know what it feels like to be in a constant state of survival, under long-term immanent threat, or to have personally experienced traumatic violence that cannot be integrated into my understanding of the world. At the same time, I do believe it is possible to use the language of trauma to describe an experience and also place that experience in perspective. Doing the latter can help to ward off slipping into harmful appropriation of others’ deep suffering or exercising hollow empathy that falsely claims to know the pain of another.

My Grandmother’s Hands by
Resmaa Menakem (2017)

The word “trauma” was originally associated with a physical wound caused by an external source, a kind of violent attack upon a vulnerable body. We know now that trauma is not just a physical phenomenon; it can and does affect our emotional, rational, and spiritual selves. The old model of the human being as a composite of disparate, separate parts, furthermore, is inaccurate and has itself blinded us from the real ways that trauma persists through generations, especially through the body. (I’m learning more and more about this lately, especially in relationship to whiteness and racism, as I am reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem.) An understanding of trauma as an external force can also be problematic as it can limit us from considering the systems that enable and foster trauma, particularly among those who have historically been marginalized or have been made invisible altogether.  

Where Is God? by Jon Sobrino
(2004)

Indeed the wounds—the trauma—in my home state this week reveal larger systems, values, and attitudes at play before the temperature even began to drop last weekend. In his book, Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino describes the devastating 2001 earthquake in El Salvador and other similar disasters as “bearers of truth,” and “x-rays” of a society, which bring to light inequities and injustices that were present long before these particular events ever occurred.

In the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has of course been such an x-ray, revealing with bright, clear light, the undeniable fact that just about all of our institutions and systems rely upon the vicious lie that some lives matter more than others. We needn’t look further than the statistics on how the pandemic has disproportionately affected black and brown people, not only in terms of contracting and dying from the disease, but now also in terms of getting a vaccine.

The x-ray taken while over 4 million Texans huddled in the dark this past week has reminded us of truths that aren’t new, but have appear in new forms. They will continue to reveal themselves in every crisis and every disaster until we can learn to do things differently and to realize the ways in which our priorities are malformed under the influence of white, hetero-normative, patriarchal hyper-capitalism. We should have learned these lessons one year into a global pandemic (if not way sooner), but here we are again. So, here are just a few of the obvious truths that I can think of. There are many more, but this is a start:

The most vulnerable among us are the those most susceptible to trauma. Wounding can and does happen to anyone (my own post-crisis collapse these past days is a case in point). But it is also true that disaster disproportionately affects those who have fewer resources to prepare, respond, and recover. The hardest hit this week are those without home, are housing insecure, or have limited access to stable electricity or clean water to begin with. Every single time there is a “natural” disaster—a fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, a storm, not to mention a pandemic—those who have the fewest resources suffer the most. Shouldn’t we be asking why particular individuals and communities are vulnerable to begin with? We know that racist economic, housing, and health care policies have over time mean that people of color disproportionately experience these realities. But we have to keep asking the questions, and then, act as if the answers actually matter to us.

Climate change is already happening and horrible things will keep happening to us unless we make some really radical changes. Now. While it may not be clear that climate change was “directly” responsible for this particular “extreme weather event,” we know that human-induced climate change has caused unprecedented heat waves, floods, and droughts in recent decades. The first full summer after I moved back to Texas after living in California, we had over 100 days above 100 degrees F. Summers were hot growing up in Central Texas in the 1980s and 90s, but they weren’t like that. And the massive and devastating fires in California and the Western U.S. in recent years can be linked to drought conditions and unseasonably warm temperatures.

As is old news now, my Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, at first blamed this week’s blackouts on frozen wind turbines, though they only comprised a fraction of the energy that Texas had planned to use this winter, and accounted for a small percentage of the power loss. The state typically relies on gas, coal, and nuclear energy for the majority of its winter energy, and none of these sources provided enough resources to keep us warm. And nevermind that wind turbines can operate smoothly in cold climates. I’ve seen them.

Inter-dependence, not independence, is the only way to ensure that this kind of trauma does not happen again. I’m a fifth-generation Texan and I love my state. But the go-it-alone mindset of the Lone Star State is part of what went wrong this past week, as of course it has been for the United States especially under the Trump regime. As I learned last week, our main electric grid basically operates separately from the rest of the country and thus has no oversight from the federal entities.

Elliott and me reading in our closet nook while Senator Cruz was flying to Cancun

On Wednesday, when millions of Texans were shut out, former governor Rick Perry said that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” I need not wonder if Governor Perry sat in the cold for three days to be able to make that statement. We now know Senator Ted Cruz certainly did not; he was on his way to vacation in Cancun when I was sitting in a closet with Elliott reading Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day and patients were being evacuated from Austin’s St. David’s Hospital because they lost water and heat. What we need are systems of mutuality, solidarity, and collaboration locally and nationally–and we need to reject those which operate on isolation and corporate greed. But again, I am stating the obvious.

Austin Mutual Aid exchange center in downtown Austin

The real success in this story is the ways in which neighborhoods came together to care for their own needs in the height of crisis. I was absolutely amazed by the creativity, compassion, and generosity extended between neighbors over the course of this week. The Buy Nothing Facebook group in my neighborhood transformed into a vibrant source of mutual aid, starting with the sharing of vital information and developing into a way for individuals and families to voice needs and offer the resources that they could. Diapers, food, tools for turning water meters off, breastmilk, and so much more were offered and received, and others with reliable transportation enabled the sharing of resources. Austin Mutual Aid is doing the incredible and complex work of getting resources to the people who need it most.  If our state officials refused the need for, and value of, inter-dependence, the hyper-local has not.

Power is now restored to the majority of Texans and water is slowly starting to drip through faucets again. I’m utterly grateful to have power and running water, and I give thanks for the support of friends and for the tirelessness of all those essential workers who got us back to this place.

The snow has melted, and today the high is 70 degrees (it’s Texas after all). Yesterday I took down the blankets from the windows, hung up my pug’s winter jacket, and put all of our well-worn layers of clothes in piles to be washed (not now, though). It’s easy to collectively forget an experience that no one wants to remember. But the truths revealed by the storms in Texas remain, even when the power is restored and we are back to wearing shorts. We cannot let this happen again.

My street on Tuesday, February 16 (left) and on Sunday, February 21 (right)

Who Are We? (a rejected op-ed)

It’s been almost three years since I wrote my first blog here. Many classes taught, research projects started (some finished, some not!), and one baby later–here we are for a second go. I submitted a simpler version of this commentary to the Austin American-Statesman this week, but it wasn’t published. So why not make it a blog?

Reverberations continue from President Trump’s July 14 tweet calling for four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” At a rally in North Carolina last week, Trump’s supporters chanted “send her back,” after the President criticized Somali-born American citizen, Rep. Ilhan Omar. Trump attempted to disavow the chant by saying that he tried to stop it. The video of the rally, however, clearly shows otherwise. Before the rally, Trump tweeted “Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful. If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!”

We’re so used to hearing President Trump utter offensive speech, that I fear most of us with the privilege to do so will forget about this latest episode. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley obviously will not forget about it. Neither will Americans of color, women, and other minorities who are inspired by their leadership and their courage, nor will those for whom the words “go back” feel personally violent and exclusionary.

As the Statesman’s Juan Castillo pointed out in a column last week, Trump’s call for these public servants to “go back” evokes painful memories—and current realities—of racism and xenophobia experienced by Mexican Americans in Texas. In reality, the only group of Americans who have authority to ask others to “go back” are indigenous peoples. As Democratic representative Deb Haaland aptly wrote, “My Pueblo ancestors, despite being targeted at every juncture — despite facing famine and drought — still inhabit this country today. But indigenous people aren’t asking anyone to go back to where they came from.”

At the center of this latest debacle, and current debates about immigration—is the question of who “we” are as a nation. This tiny word, “we” has a history of bringing people together to unify, but it has—and continues to—divide and exclude. Where there is a “we,” after all, there is a “they,” and where there is an “us,” there is a “them.”

At various points in our history, Germans, Irish, Catholics, Chinese, Jews, Japanese, and Muslims have all found themselves among the many communities which have been excluded from the “we.” The traumas of slavery and segregation linger, and as author Michelle Alexander reminds us, the “new Jim Crow,” mass incarceration–which disproportionately punishes African Americans–attests to the fact that white America still maintains a hold on who can be a part of the “we.”

Not only is this racism and nativism contrary to American democracy, it also flies in the face of the Gospel of Jesus, which Trump and most of his supporters claim to follow—including the 69% of white evangelical Protestants who approve of the President’s performance. Jesus, a Middle Eastern person of color—and a refugee—taught a message of hospitality and welcome that ran counter to the oppressive political system of the Roman Empire. His own Jewish tradition taught that “You shall not deprive a resident alien . . . of justice” and that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I suspect that Jesus and his contemporary followers would find little room in Donald Trump’s version of the “we.” In fact, I’m fairly certain the President would feel threatened by the brown-skinned Jewish Palestinian prophet who called for a community that sought to bring people in rather than send them out. Christians and Christianity have all too often failed to live up to this inclusive vision by using their (our) texts and traditions to foster subtle and overt anti-Judaism, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Unfortunately, Trump and some members of his evangelical base also reject legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitism, claiming that they are defending Jews.

This support is, in reality, anti-Jewish, as it relies on a Christian Zionist theology that ultimately regards Jews as pawns in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. And it makes invisible the injustices of the occupation of Palestinian lives and land—practices deemed illegal by international law. Just this week, Israel illegally demolished dozens of Palestinian homes in a Palestinian-controlled neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Yet Trump’s appeal to his base, and the theology that supports it, equates criticism of these injustices with antisemitism. We all—Jews, Palestinians, Christians, and Americans—lose in the end when just criticism of power is silenced.

At its best, however, Christianity repudiates these and other attitudes and practices that diminish human worth, including what evangelical scholar Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sins” of slavery and racism, and what a 2018 pastoral letter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the “evil of racism” that persist in the U.S. today.

In that letter, the Bishops encourage their readers to take seriously the words of Pope Francis that no one should “think that this invitation is not meant for him or her.” As Americans, our invitation is to speak out against those who seek to make our “we” narrow and exclusive, and to speak for a vision that is pluralistic, expansive, and strong enough for critique. Contrary to what Trump tells us, only then will we be a truly free, beautiful, and successful nation.

 

Precocious Testimony

I’ve never written a blog post in my life. I’ve thought about it before, but it has always felt overwhelming and a little self-indulgent. But today on a rainy run in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, I decided that now is the time. There are those times, after all, when we don’t feel “ready” to speak, to write, to witness. But in some instances, we just have to do it anyway. This first one is a little long.

For the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of what it means to “witness” and “testify” to an event, an idea, a truth—questions I’ll pursue in “Veninga’s Smuler.” Today I was reading a moving essay by trauma theorist Shoshana Felman on education and crisis, in which she talks about the possibility that all testimony has to be precocious, in that it is always spoken before the testifier is ready. Felman references reflections by nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé:

“It is appropriate . . . to talk about it now already, much like an invited traveler who, without delay, in breathless gasps, discharges himself of the testimony of an accident known, and pursuing him . . .  Should I stop here, and where do I get the feeling that I have come relatively to a subject vaster and perhaps to myself unknown—vaster than this or that innovation or rites or rhymes; in order to attempt to reach this subject, if not to treat it.”

So I’m talking about things—both brokenness and joy—now, already, before I’ve got it all together and figured out. Chances are, I won’t ever have it all figured out, and maybe that is something to celebrate. The occasion (to use Kierkegaardian language) for this precocious attempt at testimony is a recent trip to Palestine, which was only two weeks but had the impact of a lifetime. I’ve struggled with how to begin to talk about my experience there—how to witness to walls that divide and demean human beings, as well as to resilience of spirit that can and should give us all hope.

What, after all, does it mean to witness to the pain of another? Can we do it justly? How can we offer authentic and constructive testimony when language seems to fall short? What does it mean to stand in solidarity with another?

These are the kinds of questions that I’ve been dreaming of writing about. In this blog, I hope to write about them, and others. Some things might be a bit less intense but not less important: my pug, Bubba/Buber, the most active turtle in the world, Elvis, attempts at a vegan life, the joy of snowcones, the nervousness that ensues every semester when walking into a new classroom.

The title of the blog invokes my beloved Søren Kierkegaard, whose 1844 Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, or Crumbs) was one of the first books I read by the Dane when studying in Copenhagen in 1998. In some ways, we are always thinking and living in fragments. Bits and pieces of insight, love, joy, pain, here and there. Recently, Kierkegaard scholars have been translating smuler as “crumbs” rather than “fragments,” and I like that, too. The crumbs testify to what we leave behind in the wake of our everyday lives—the crumbs of freshly baked bread, of spontaneous thoughts on a notepad, of an argument with a lover. Crumbs come from living.

They also remind me of St. Edward’s dear Ed Shirley, who we said goodbye to almost exactly four years ago. At his wake, his friends and family witnessed to the funny and profound “Ed crumbs” that he always left behind. And thankfully, we keep finding them.

My hope is to blog twice a month, maybe more and maybe less, on these crumbs. One of my favorite jobs was a semester-long stint as a weekly columnist for my alma mater’s newspaper, the SMU Daily Campus. In this blog, I hope to revive something like that. I’m a minister without a regular place to offer sermons, but I’m hoping that writing publicly can also be a kind of pulpit.

There is much to lament in this world of ours. There is much to voice righteous anger about, much that should trouble us and shake us to the core. I feel angry these days. There is also undeniable love, hope and humanity in the midst of all this brokenness. And humor, and funny things.

When I was in Palestine, I had the opportunity to visit the Tent of Nations, a peacebuilding organization affiliated with the Nassar family farm just outside of Bethlehem. The Nassar family has experienced tremendous loss at the hands of the Israeli government, which has destroyed hundreds of trees and repeatedly threatened demolition of the whole farm. But the Nassars, and the land which they tend, remains committed to life and to just peace. A few years ago, virtually all of their trees were destroyed, except one. They called this strong tree the “Steadfast Witness.”

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Today I witness to the strength of that one tree, to the enduring spirit of just peace, and to the possibility of testimony, even before one is ready. I invite you to come with me on this journey of reflecting on the fragments and crumbs of our lives. I end with part of one of my favorite poems from Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude,” (1977) which includes an image of weaving together ordinary-sacred “fragments,” that has always given me goosebumps.

 

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow- colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow
original domestic silk, the finest findings
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and the dry darkbrown face of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
forming underneath everything that grows.

Let the turning of the fragments, the crumbs, the scraps begin.