Plumb-lines and Politics


Photo:  A plumb line stands at the center of a mural outside of the Security Council meeting room at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

As people of faith, it is hard to look at this mural without recalling the vision of the prophet Amos:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’

Then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel;  I will never again pass them by …” (Amos 7:7-8)

A plumb line is an objective standard of truth.  It stands before the things of this world to reveal what is straight and what is crooked.  It distinguishes justice from injustice, righteousness from brokenness, stability from weakness.

When we, as people of faith, have injustice and crookedness revealed to us, what is our duty?  If we know of suffering, if we are being asked to help our brothers and sisters in need, what is our response?

Could the Lord be putting a situation before you saying, “what do you see?”

Refugees in Gaza

imageRobert Turner of UNRWA addresses the group.

Robert Turner has been on the ground in some of the most difficult humanitarian crises in recent memory. He has managed refugee relief efforts in Burundi, Kosovo and Macedonia, where he supervised the feeding of the hungry, the construction of shelters and schools, and the provision of water, sanitation and health services. In his current role of directing operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, he wants to tell the world about the humanitarian crisis that is now unfolding in that section of Palestine.

Since 2007, the Gaza Strip, which is an area about two times the size of the District of Columbia, has effectively been cut off from the rest of the world. Its land borders with Israel and Egypt are guarded by walls, razor wire and armed soldiers, while its western coast has been effectively blockaded by Israeli naval forces. An extensive system of tunnels to Egypt once allowed some goods to come in and out, but the regime change in Cairo has terminated the practice. Now, the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million people sits on the brink of food insecurity and will soon be completely dependent on assistance. A huge percentage of these people are refugees, Palestinians who were displaced by war and violence between 1946 and 1948. Forty-one percent of these refugees are unemployed. For young people, the unemployment rate is 56%. Because they are not permitted to export goods, Gazans are able to do very little to help themselves. “Until the blockade is lifted and access to Gaza’s traditional markets — the West Bank and Israel — is secured,” Turner says, “any sustainable recovery of the local economy remains elusive. The vicious cycle of unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency — and consequently the de-development of the Gaza Strip — will continue.”

The UN is doing what it can to help the people of Gaza, but financial resources are dwindling. Soon, difficult decisions will need to be made about who can be fed and who cannot.

Behind the politics — beyond all the posturing and negotiating and pontificating — are stories of people who are suffering in very real ways. Without a doubt, there are people in Gaza who want to do harm to Israelis. Hamas is in charge there. Rockets have been fired from there. But the vast majority of people in Gaza are simple, hardworking people who just want to work, to feed their families, and to give their children a future with hope. Robert Turner says that Gazans value education more than any other population he has ever seen. They want to better themselves. They want to create jobs, build opportunity, export goods and enjoy the simple right of economic self-determination that we take for granted.

The politics are complicated, but the human hopes are not.

Behind the politics, there are people… people who deserve a peace that is more than just the absence of violence.

Presbyterians and the Middle East

After talking about Palestinians on Monday and Israelis on Tuesday, we focused today on the history of Presbyterians in the Middle East. After a quick review of our denominational history in the region (which began in the nineteenth century), we turned to the current engagements that will be debated at the 221st General Assembly next month. Specifically, we talked at length about the merits and problems of “BDS”: the non-violent witness of economic boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

A recent example of BDS was approved in 2012 by the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA). At that time, commissioners approved a boycott of products produced within illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The other nations of the world have never formally accepted Israel’s seizure of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the “West Bank” areas of the Judean hill country during the Six Day War of 1967. Much of this land (the West Bank especially), includes some of the most coveted natural resources in the region. The occupation has largely smothered the economic viability of the Palestinians who live there. However, whenever the UN has called for the removal of Israeli defense forces and settlements from these lands, which are collectively known as the “occupied territories,” Israel has consistently ignored such resolutions. Some illegal settlements have expanded into factories and other economic enterprises. In 2012, Presbyterians affirmed that the biblical call to social justice precludes us from supporting the illegal exploitation of any person with our purchases or tacit acceptance.

This summer, the General Assembly will consider another aspect of BDS: divestment. Those who manage our pension funds and other investments have determined that three companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions) may be profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. These are, admittedly, more difficult cases than Israeli companies setting up shop in the occupied territories. These are legitimate, successful American businesses that offer a wide variety of products that have nothing to do with Israel. These companies make the argument that they cannot and should not be held responsible for the ways their products are used after they are sold. Such statements remind me a lot of the defenses offered by gun manufacturers. The corollary argument for Caterpillar, for example, would be: “our tractors don’t oppress Palestinians; our customers do.” Many good people find such arguments to be convincing. Others critics question whether these economic strategies will have any real effect on Israeli policy. However we frame the debate, there seems to be much less agreement over this type of BDS than was found for the 2012 boycott of illegally-produced West Bank products.

At the end of the day, we cannot control Israeli policy, nor can we dictate the decisions made in corporate boardrooms. What we can control is what we do with our own money. You may hear that these divestment decisions seem arbitrary, like they have come up out of nowhere. The truth is, they haven’t come from nowhere. These proposals are, in many respects, the logical conclusion of things Presbyterians have been saying for a long time, such as:
* that we should use positive, proactive strategies to achieve a just and peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East (something every General Assembly has affirmed since 2004);
* that we should pursue “phased, selective divestment” from companies that are unjustly profiting from illegal activities in the Middle East (which we first said in 2004);
* that the PC(USA) should only invest in companies engaged in “peaceful pursuits” in the occupied territories (first approved in 2006);
* that the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) should be empowered to achieve this goal (2006); and
* that we are “never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another” (Romans 14:13), and that we are called to “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:11) (let’s just say that these affirmations have been around a while).

As I see it, this debate is not really about Israel, or Palestine, or Caterpillar, or any other company. It is about us — about what we are willing to do, and what we can no longer do, if we really want to promote justice and stand up for God’s people. We have been talking about this kind of action for many years. Yes, there are costs to divestment. Yes, there are some lingering questions about whether it is the right action at the right time. But there is another way to look at divestment, one that was expressed eloquently by one of our speakers earlier in the week. A vote for divestment, he said, will not solve the entire problem. Far more will have to be done. But it would be a significant symbol — an overt swing for justice that would begin to “chip away” at a few of the stones in the road, a few of the stumbling blocks that litter and hinder the path to peace.

We have been talking about this kind of non-violent witness for at least a decade. Perhaps it’s time we took a swing — and see what God might do with it.

Who Will Stand With Me?

Today, we heard a very different version of the history of Israel. The same story that Palestinians call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) is reverently and joyfully described by Israelis as the “Aliyah” (homecoming). As wave after wave of Jewish immigrants left the horrors of World War II behind, they understood their journeys to the new homeland of Israel as the end of 2,000 years of exile.

Yotem Goren, a diplomat who currently serves as the First Secretary of the Permanent Mission for Israel to the United Nations, was born in Jerusalem. While he has spent much of his life in the United States, Goren clearly sees the world through Israeli eyes. As he addresses our class, he speaks with pride and confidence about Israel’s history of democracy, resilience, entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. It is, in many respects, a story of strength. But lurking just below the surface is a very different narrative. Israel describes itself as a small nation — one that can be toured by helicopter, border to border, in just 90 minutes. Its citizens are surrounded by nations who want them gone, who refuse to even acknowledge their right to exist. This perception pervades every statement, every response, every hope. Even here at the United Nations, within the halls of the tribunal that first gave them legitimacy, Israel often believes that it stands alone against a hostile world.

Israelis are acutely aware of the criticisms that are often pressed against them: questions about illegal settlements, about alleged human rights violations, about walls that encroach and policies that discriminate. But before they answer these questions, they press in return the one that hangs over their heads like a sword about to fall: “why can’t the countries of the world agree that we have a right to exist?”

In some ways, we Americans are set apart from the rest of the world. Without a doubt, and with good reason, Israelis consider us to be their most trusted and valuable ally. But even with us there is a bit of a distance or hesitancy — one that seems to come with always having to wonder where the next threat or challenge is hiding. They love us, but they are also leery of us. Aaron David Miller, a former State Department negotiator and a long term veteran of the peace process, paraphrases the message that Israel often sends to the United States as going something like this: “we value your support and friendship, we really do… but don’t #@!$ with us.”

As Gorem thanked our class and returned to his diplomatic duties, I thought about the difficulty of his political reality — the place of Israel in the world community. It must be very lonely, I thought, to feel so small in a world that seems so hostile — to wonder if even your closest friends will stand beside you when push really comes to shove.

So much of what is happening in Palestine, it seems to me, is rooted in this psychological and emotional question: who will stand with me?

A Home Loved and Lost

image [Thanks to Mark Douglas for this photo]

Today’s voice comes from Doris Salah, a YWCA UN Representative. Doris, who grew up in a Christian Palestinian household, remembers well the terror of being forced out of her home at gunpoint in 1948. After the United Nations partitioned Palestine into two distinct sections to accommodate Jewish immigration, Palestinians rejected the idea that they should give up their lands to solve the problems of Europeans. Israel, determined to defend its new homeland, pushed militarily into Palestinian territory. Families fled without any preparation. Soon, Jewish families who had just arrived from Europe would be escorted into abandoned streets to claim the house of their choice. Most assumed that whoever lived there had chosen to leave. Doris knows better. All of this happened 65 years ago, and still her people consider themselves refugees. “It has been a tough life,” she says. “It continues to be tough.”

Obviously, the politics of this story are complicated. But the truth of this story is beyond dispute, as is the personal toll it has taken on her family. Today, Doris lives in the United States. She values and admires this country. And yet, she wonders why America has not spoken more passionately for the cause of her Palestinian family… why we are quick to impose sanctions on places like Iraq and Iran, but we refuse to say much at all about some of the harsher policies of our ally Israel. Admittedly, the answer is complicated. At the same time, the details of Doris’ story are strikingly simple. How would we feel if someone took our home and never gave it back?

Despite her painful history, Doris Salah is a kind, gracious, humble and unassuming woman. While she does not understand why her people should compromise any more (she believes that giving up 78% of the land the UN promised them is more than enough), she is willing to consider the compromise of a two-state solution if it will bring what she calls “some measure of justice.” For the cause of peace, she is willing to give more. But as a Christian, she holds tightly to this assertion: “Christ came for the salvation of all… It’s hard for me to accept that there are some who are more chosen.”

It should be hard for us too. But it’s complicated. We haven’t even begun to talk about the Holocaust. There are many personal stories in Palestine…

Terror on our Doorsteps

Terror on our DoorstepsYesterday afternoon, after I checked into my hotel, I walked down to Lower Manhattan. I had seen pictures of the impressive building that now stands on the site of the former World Trade Center, but I wanted to see the architecture of the “Freedom Tower” with my own eyes. Even with all of the hype, it does not disappoint. And yet, despite the setting sun gleaming off the glass, and the beautiful blue sky and clouds beyond, the backdrop of terror that lies at its foundation is still fresh. Before September 11, 2001, we knew that terror existed around the world. But we usually viewed it at a distance — across a sea, across a border, across the world. On that fateful day, the terror came home to our doorstep.

While this was a new experience for us, it is much more commonplace for the parties whose homes are in the Middle East. Jews, Palestinians, the Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians all have stories of terror that hit way too close for comfort. Many of them have seen their homes destroyed. Some were even forced from their homes at gunpoint so that newly arrived immigrants could move into them and claim them as “abandoned.” Their wounds are much older than ours. Perhaps that has given them time to heal, so that these populations are more prepared than we are to move beyond the terror. Perhaps that time has just given those wounds more time to ache and fester. Either way, whatever future can be built in their homelands will have to be built on a foundation of terror that hit very close to home. And as I look up at the skyline of Lower Manhattan, I realize that we have a lot of catching up to do on what it means to have terror at our doorsteps.

Letter to First Presbyterian Church, Rocky Mount

Dear Friends,
It is with a mixture of sadness and joy that I write to tell you of a change that is coming. After much prayer and discernment, I have accepted a new call to the First Presbyterian Church of Concord, North Carolina. This morning, that church held a congregational meeting and unanimously elected me as their new Senior Minister. I will begin my ministry with them on August 1, 2014. My last Sunday in Rocky Mount will be June 29, 2014.
When I came to Rocky Mount in 2009, I was convinced that this was where the Lord wanted me to be. For reasons known only to God, your pastor nominating committee, which was prayerfully and capably led by Verna Gessaman and John Turnage, was willing to take a chance on an older seminary graduate who, despite his gray hair and worldly experience, was pretty green in ministry. I have always been very grateful that, after my leap of faith into a second career in the church, the grace of God allowed me to land here in this wonderful place with you. For the past five years, you have allowed me to be a part of your lives, sharing joys and sorrows, baptisms and weddings, tears and laughter. Some of the most precious memories I will take from this place will come from the funerals and memorial services of amazing men and women of faith. Remembering and celebrating those faithful disciples who raised you, loved you and showed you the way has been one of the great honors of my life. So, as I prepare to leave you for a new call, I am very aware that I will be leaving some amazing blessings behind.
Fortunately, there is also reason to celebrate. Despite economic strain and regional difficulty, this congregation has managed to thrive and even grow. You have just completed a successful campaign to renovate our physical plant and provide new opportunities for local mission. You have a dedicated, talented and faithful group of elders and deacons, shining lights in the community, who are ready and willing to lead. You are also blessed with a truly wonderful and gifted staff that will continue to minister to you and your families after I am gone. I thank God for allowing me the joy and privilege of working alongside such amazing, thoughtful and conscientious people of faith, and I leave with the peace of knowing that you are in very capable and caring hands.
Just as I felt God’s guiding hand leading me to Rocky Mount, I have felt it again in my call to Concord. When that church first contacted me, we were in the middle of our capital campaign renovations. The time was not right for me to leave, and I told them so. Their pastor nominating committee, however, was persistent and undeterred. Over time, I came to share their conviction that I am indeed the pastor God is calling to lead their church into a new chapter. As difficult as it will be for me and my family to say goodbye to the people of this church who have loved us well, I am convinced that the future is bright for the First Presbyterian Church of Rocky Mount. I say this because God has willed it to be so: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Really, in the end, all I can do is thank you. Thank you for taking a chance on me as your pastor. Thank you for allowing me to share your lives in good times and bad. Thank you for encouraging me, forgiving me, supporting me and being patient with me. But most importantly, thank you for sharing the walk of discipleship with me. I know that I am a better pastor, and a better person, for having known you and loved you.
Please know that, in the coming months, I will continue to pray for your “future with hope.” I ask that you do the same for me, Stephanie, Molly and Kate. And, as I have said to you so many times before, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”

In Christian hope and joy,
Rev. Peter Bynum, Senior Pastor