In Palestine last year, I began a faith journey of learning to share powerlessness. In Jesus God became human. Thus God was powerless like us, therein was Christ’s power, “power of powerlessness” as Dietrich Bonheoffer put it. In the mission of the church, are we not also sent into the world to share powerlessness?
I served as a volunteer for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) from the end of August until the end of November, 2003. It is a program of the World Council of Churches which was launched in response to an invitation by the churches in Jerusalem. The churches in Jerusalem gave the wider churches an opportunity to journey together with them on the road to peace. Ecumenical Accompaniers (as volunteers in the program are called) work for three months with Palestinians and Israelis. I joined 19 Ecumenical Accompaniers from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States. We were placed in Israeli and Palestinian communities and organizations to live with them and to share their life in the state of a low level war.
In my case, I lived with two clergy persons, a Norweigian and an American, in a farming Palestinian village called Jayyous in the occupied West Bank, and shared the life with the separation barrier – the concrete wall in some places and the wire fence in others. The fence in Jayyous created an immense difficulty for the villagers, because it separates them from their field, green houses, orchards, and olive groves. In other words, they were separated from livelihood. There were two gates that in theory enable farmers to go to work. Children also went to school through the gate. But the openings were irregular, and everyday created an explosive atmosphere between the farmers and soldiers who control the gates.
We went to work in the field with the farmers and shared the difficulty created by the barrier and occupation. Also we took turns to watch the gate openings in order that the peace would be kept between farmers and soldiers. The gate watch was also human rights watch. I did gate watch most of the time.
One day, we waited for two hours for soldiers. Children were already late for school, and the day was getting shorter for harvesting. Olives, their main crop as precious as gold, were overripe and drying up on the trees. Mohamed, one of the farmers, looked at me and my cell phone and demanded, “Call Jesh ( soldier in Arabic).” He didn’t know that I had no access to the Israeli military. I felt bad for being so powerless. I felt I was betraying my friends. As far as he was concerned, foreigners were supposed to fix things that needed fixing. We, from Europe and North America throughout in the recent history, accepted proudly the role of the designated fixer-uppers of the world. So, we feel badly when we can not fix what needs fixing. In other words, we don’t know how to share powerlessness, because we think we are blessed with power and know-how to fix things for others. But in the meantime, we confess that God only is almighty, and yet he became human and lived among us. How does this belief fit in in our self-designated role?
The sun was high and scorching hot and the situation looked hopeless. Another day lost and the crop ruined. Women bunched together and started to cry. Louise, a visiting Danish journalist and an accompanier, joined the women and cried with them. Hearing this a British volunteers of a solidarity organization said: “That must have been the most healing thing that happened to those women – sharing tears.” But men don’t cry. I wished we could.
What hinders us to share powerlessness is our passports and technology. Maren, another accompanier and a medical student, was riding an ambulance with her Palestinian colleague. She flashes her passport at the check-point, and the soldier just waves them on. She was proud that she could help in emergency. But her Palestinian colleague said: “I wanted you to see the difficulty and delay we face everyday when it is only us (Palestinians) in the ambulance.” On another day, soldiers were late again. So I phone HAMOKED to find out what’s the problem. HAMOKED is an Israeli human rights organization who keep up-to-date and minute-by-minute information about check-points and gates to help Palestinians cope with and prepare for difficulty they may have to face in the course of their daily work. The representative at HAMOKED said: “I will call you back as soon as I find out what the problem is.” A second later, an Israeli jeep pulled up, and the gate was open. It was a coincident. Abdul Karim, a man on a donkey, gave me a thumb-up and said: “Thanks, you did it again.” “No, I didn’t.” It was a pure coincidence. But he didn’t hear me. A foreigner did his magic bit, again.
People of Jayyous were incredibly gracious to us. I had heard about Palestinian hospitality but their kindness surpassed all imagination. But towards the end of my stay, I began to notice that it was not always the case with some older men and women. They were never rude, but kept respectful distance from us. I can still see this old man, for example, who always came with a donkey cart, in a traditional kaffiyeh head-cover and a worn out dress jacket. He always sat silently on a boulder near the gate and patiently waited for the soldiers. I tried to engage him a few times sitting next to him. But he ignored me as though I wasn’t there. I could feel his embarrassment. Why can he not go to his olive trees handed down from generation to generation for centuries without help? Why does he have to depend on the foreigners?
I saw the same humiliated eyes in a soup kitchen in Montreal. While many seemed have given up and servile, some of them looked disdainful. I saw the same eyes in the feeding camps in Ethiopia in 1985. They were proud farmers. They arrived near death starving, because they stayed home too long trying everything, in the end selling all possessions, to feed the family on their own. They are still proud but defeated, looking humiliated. I am reading too much into their stoicism? I don’t think so. Why? Because I know the humiliation of having to depend on other people’s charity.
It was in 1945 in Japan. We were all dying of starvation, because the war totally destroyed infrastructure. I was desperately hungry and Americans gave us food. Was I grateful? I should have been. But the only thing I remember is overwhelming feeling of humiliation. Sincere appreciation occurs in the relationship of equals. This is why unaffected giving and receiving are difficult among strangers. We have to be friends, brothers and sisters, first.
I am not saying that we should not help others. Jesus fed thousands, healed the sick, drove out demons, and raised the dead. But the central message of the Gospel is that God came to be like us and lived among us in Jesus. His healing act was a spontaneous reaction of one human to another in the community of love. It was an act of solidarity not an intervention. I think about the violent history of the Middle East and the role played by the West. Think about the twenty centuries of persecution of the Jews by the Christians to begin with, and the colonization and humiliation of the Arabs in the last few centuries. I now realize that there has been too much imposition and not enough solidarity. There have been several shaking of enemy hands in front of smiling Presidents.. Foreign interventions always are calculated acts to benefit mediators. There have been too many tit-for-tat of violence that benefitted foreign powers and violence always begets more violence. I read Dr. Seus’ “A cat in a hat.” as a sad metaphor of foreign intervention, including many misguided good deeds of the missionary movement.
Let us not go to the trouble spots of the world and impose our solution any more. Let us share powerlessness of the suffering people first. That is the Christ’s way.