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Plenty of news stories leave me feeling bothered; this story also left me sad. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. Of course, I cringed to see yet another media example of Christians that only adds fodder to an already contentious situation. Beyond that, though, I realized that I was sad for those American Christians who are going over there and taking it upon themselves to “fulfill scripture”:
“One of the volunteers, Mike Clayton, a former preacher from Seminole, Okla., reads out of the Bible from Isaiah 61:5: “The son of the foreigner will come and tend your vines.”
Then he adds: “Well, a few days ago, myself and my son got off a plane … and I got to watch as I handed my son … a pair of pruners, and I took a picture as he walked out there. He fulfilled scripture. … Is the Bible true? Is all this happening? I saw it with my own eyes.”
With all due respect to my well-intended fellow Christians, I feel compelled to point out that Jesus already fulfilled scripture; in fact, the verses in Isaiah 61 just prior to the verse the grape-picking dad quoted are the ones that Jesus repeated when he started his ministry.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4: 16-20)
It troubles me to picture these Christian volunteers cheerily working in the settlement vineyards, sincerely hoping that each bucket of grapes gets us all one step closer to the Messiah’s return, while all around them, the land and the people within it call out for justice and reconciliation. All around them are people living in captivity to the cycles of violence and oppression and fear that grip Israel and Palestine. All around them are opportunities to enter into the complexity of that land and its people, just as Jesus did. All around them are scattered the Palestinian Christians whose churches and witness are dwindling under overwhelming opposition, who wonder why the global church seems to care so little.
Picking grapes is a lot more appealing and straightforward than the messiness–and danger–of working towards peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But what’s missing is the cross. What’s missing is the sacrifice that is part and parcel of following Jesus. Yes, we ought to live in gratitude and praise of what he has already accomplished, but to be his disciple is to know him not only in his triumph but also in his suffering. The Jesus we seek to follow is the Jesus who was willing to suffer for the sake of others. To be a disciple of the one who asked us not only to love our neighbors as ourselves, but also to love our enemies, will and should sometimes lead us to places where we wish God would simply take away the cup that is before us.
To follow Jesus without ever landing in those places is to subsist on cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer put it:
“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
This week Friday marks the ninth anniversary of the death of my friend Beth’s cousin, Rachel Corrie, a 23 year old American peace activist from Washington state. Rachel was killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer as she stood in front of a home in Gaza as part of a nonviolent direct action to protest the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military. While four adults and five children huddled behind their garden wall, fearing the inevitable destruction of their home, Rachel tried in vain to stop it. A verdict is finally expected this spring in the lawsuit that her family has brought against the Israeli military. Rachel wasn’t doing what she was doing in Jesus’ name, but I detect stronger echoes of Jesus’ life and mission from her story than I do from the vineyard volunteers’.
I know that along with many others who have gone on study tours to Israel and Palestine with Marlin and Sally Vis, I have been changed by the faces and voices I was exposed to, changed by the people who shared their stories from all sides of the conflict in that land. Stories of living in the refugee camps in the West Bank, stories of coming to live in Jewish settlements, stories of emigrants whose parents survived Auschwitz and whose children were killed by suicide bombers, stories of Palestinian Christians whose entire communities have fled the Middle East. Not many of us are called to stand in the way of bulldozers, but all of us can try to understand and listen a little better, all of us can try to resist the oversimplification that only serves to exempt us from having to do anything about the situation. I wish I could say I’ve done more about it than I have, ever since the complexity of it all really came to a head for me on that day in Jerusalem when I got into a heated debate with some of my fellow travelers and ended up crying into my falafel sandwich. Meanwhile, I will keep asking for God’s freeing forgiveness, forgiveness for every last human being on whom Jesus looks and says, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And that includes me.