Palestine Trip – Day Three

Again I woke up early, around 5 am, though not as early as yesterday. I find that I really appreciate this time in the morning to sit by myself to read and pray. I have a poor habit back home of slowly waking up in the morning and not having such a good schedule. I think the discipline of this working in community has been healthy for me.

We packed our bags and had a brief meeting to brief for the day’s agenda. Our plan is to attend a session at Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, then take a bus out to Hebron.

We took a light rail train to Sabeel, where we joined a session with a delegation from Europe connected with the Friends church. Several folks were from Scandinavian countries and a few from Spain and Belgium. There was a presentation by Cedar, one of the founders of Sabeel, which is an ecumenical theology center, focused on Liberation Theology, the study of how theology can speak specifically to the oppressed and the need for liberation and hope here on Earth, not simply waiting for it to be given in Heaven.

Cedar told us the story of her childhood in Haifa, and how originally the different groups of Palestinians lived there in peace. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living in community until the Israeli government pushed them out in some of the early ethnic cleansing, forcing them out of their homes with violence. They then moved to Nazareth as refugees, but were again harassed by the military. She told us about how the “Naqba,” (which again means “Catastrophe” or “Calamity”) affected them not only with the loss of life and the assault on their psyche, but also how it was an assault on their theology. Cedar and her family were Palestinian Christians, and they struggled with being told that the Old Testament called for their punishment as the just result of God choosing Jews to live in Israel and that they as Palestinians had no right to live there. Part of the mission of Sabeel, which she helped found, was to correct this misunderstanding of the Scriptures.

After Cedar’s presentation, we shared Communion. Communion has always been special to me, I think because it has been so de emphasized in the religious community I grew up in. Typically we celebrated Communion once a month, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to be skipped. This has continued to be the practice at the church I’m at currently. When we do. celebrate communion, it’s a highly individual affair. You take the cup and the bread, usually from a table set up off to the side while music is playing, then you return to your seat and take it silently by yourself. Instead, at Sabeel, it was shared as the cup was passed between each of us, one person serving and blessing the person next to them. I sat between two people from some of the other groups, one from Sweden and one from Belgium, and while it was incredibly awkward to work out a religious ceremony I had so little familiarity with the format of while also having a language barrier, it was also incredibly touching. The communion was part of a larger liturgy service led by Naim Ateek, a Palestinian theologian I’d heard about, but hadn’t been able to get ahold of any of his books previously. The service was powerful itself as he led the prayers in Arabic and they were recited back by all of us in our own language. I stopped praying at various times to just simply listen as the gathered voices responded. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Acts chapter two, when the followers of Jesus were gathered in an upper room to pray and began to speak in a variety of languages. The blessing of God was demonstrated not by how solidified they were as a group, but by splitting them off and showing they were supposed to be reaching out to the rest of the world.

After the service, we shared a meal together, and had some general time of conversation. When finished, we took the train back to our hostel in the old city. As I’m writing a few days later, I’m trying to remember if the next bit happened on this trip or if it was while we were traveling through Jerusalem the day before.

As we were crossing the street, an Israeli guard post was situated next to the crosswalk. An Israeli soldier was sitting there with an assault rifle pointed directly at the crosswalk, so anyone crossing the street would have the barrel pointed either at their back or their chest as they walked. This was as women, children, and elderly people walked by. I couldn’t decide what was worse, walking knowing it was pointed at your back or walking towards the post, staring down the barrel the entire time. This was the first time I had a gun pointed at me while here, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

We finally got back to the hostel to pack up and catch a bus out to Hebron. Because of the travel restrictions, we first took the bus to Bethlehem, then caught a Palestinian shared taxi from there to Hebron. There are other busses that will take a more direct route, but they will not allow Palestinians to ride, and as part of the solidarity mission, we do not make use of any service that is refused to them. Hebron is where we will be working for the next week, in the old city. Arriving at night was an experience in itself. Hebron itself is a large sprawling city, complete with skyscrapers and gigantic neon signs. But when we cross into the old city district, we find buildings that are over a thousand years old, looking very much like something from a movie set in the Roman Empire. Also known as Al Khalil, this is one of the hotspots of strife, with Israeli settlements built literally on top of Palestinian neighborhoods. Multiple checkpoints are required to be passed just to walk around the old city, and we’ll see plenty of tension in the coming week

Palestine Trip – Day Two

I woke up early this morning. I don’t know if it’s because it’s an unfamiliar place or because I went to bed unusually early (for me) last night. I spent some time in the sitting area reading and uploading photos from last night.

Closer to six am, the Muslim guests at the hostel came out and began to gather before the sound of the morning call to prayer began. I took the reminder to say an Our Father, but I couldn’t decide if it was rude or intrusive to basically hang around while they were praying,  particularly since the group in this room was all women, the men having gone outside. So I went back to my room. Laying in the dark, I listened to the call. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but there was something so beautiful about it I could not quite describe. I have struggled over the last year with my own faith, feeling less of the clarity

Later I returned to the sitting area to read again and a gentleman who was also staying at the hostel struck up a conversation about what I was reading (Solus Jesus by Emily Swann and Ken Wilson) and that led into a fascinating conversation about what the Quran says about Jesus which from his telling included far more detail than I previously understood. The conversation then turned to  the United States and how it treats Muslims. He shared with me experiences of harassment and suspicion he’d had both in the United States as well as in Arabic countries, feeling like he was not accepted anywhere. He was from Manchester, England, so I found his perspective particularly interesting since he had such a wider experience in both the west and the Middle East.

Breakfast was served at the hostel and it was amazing. There were stacks of fresh flat bread served up with different sauces I didn’t recognize, as well as some fresh vegetables and jam. The rest of the team wasn’t up yet, so I when I sat down, I was joined by an Arabic man who was there from France. He said he was here visiting his sister and her family. They sat at the table next to us, and carried on what seemed like a wide ranging conversation that seemed to shift between Arabic and French. Again, I found myself fascinated following conversation I couldn’t understand, watching the facial reactions and gestures and tones. One woman stopped to ask if I spoke French, and I had to admit I didn’t but was still watching. (I realized I probably seemed a little creepy, but I couldn’t think of what else to do!)

The rest of the team woke up and we started with morning reflection and reviewed the plan for the day. Today is essentially our training and orientation, setting a foundation for the rest of our time here. We’ll be taking a tour of Jerusalem with a group called Grassroots Jerusalem, and then meeting with a representative from Military Court Watch.

The Grassroots Jerusalem tour is not your standard sight seeing tour. Instead, they describe themselves as a political tour. We went through the city of Jerusalem while the guide explained the history and context of the Palestinian oppression in the region. We visited the Palestinian neighborhoods that were stolen from them in the initial push, then traveled to see where segregation was affecting their current neighborhoods, saw several Israeli settlements and the security that was being established there, and finally we visited the Mount of Olives to look out over an area where Bedouins are being pushed out to make room for further expansion and Israeli settlements

The history of how the Palestinians have been oppressed has been a particularly jarring lesson for me. During some of the initial push to establish Israel many of them were forced out of their homes while others were killed in mass. Called by the Palestinians the “Naqba” which roughly translates to the calamity or the catastrophe, Entire villages were wiped out. I found the book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe particularly helpful here. He is an Israeli historian who argues that this push to remove the Palestinians was ethnic cleansing by the Israeli forces. On the tour, we were told how many of the Palestinian families that were pushed out locked their doors and have held onto their keys as a reminder of the hope that they will one day return home. When we drove through their former neighborhoods, I noticed several of the houses were covered in Israeli flags. I cannot imagine the hurt and anger that would come from having your family home stolen, somewhere that you, your parents, and your grandparents had lived, that you would have expected to pass on to your children. Instead, not only was it stolen, but it’s now covered with “Patriotic” symbols of those who stole it from you.

On our tour, we saw several times the Wall of Exclusion that was built by the government in 2000. Ostensibly, the wall is meant as a security measure, but it didn’t actually separate the communities, and Israeli settlements continue to push past the wall with little risk to themselves. What the wall has accomplished is to shut down traffic and trade through some of the Palestinian neighborhoods and restrict jobs. At one point, we traveled on the Jericho Road, mentioned in the Gospels and one of the oldest trade routes that had been still in use in the modern age. Unfortunately, that road is now blocked at one point by this wall.

We stopped at a convenience store by the wall and encountered one of the most emotional moments so far for me. The owner was originally from the Palestinian village of En Garem which was ethnically cleansed during the Naqba. As our guide was telling us about some of the villages, he reached up and took down a map from the wall of his shop. It was the map of his family’s village. I couldn’t help but be struck by this notion of a man coming into work every day and looking at the map and remembering his home. He told us that the key to the mosque had been saved by his family, but the mosque itself had been shut down by the government.

I can’t help but think of my own hometown, Marion. Imagine if it had been attacked in the middle of the night, our families killed or forced to escape. There’s a church there my parents and grandparents attended that sits empty now. I imagine us thinking about that church and a night that we’d been chased or shot.

After the tour, we returned to the hostel and had lunch. Our afternoon session was a presentation by a British lawyer from the group Military Court Watch. They work to monitor the military courts in the occupied Palestinian regions. Historically, these regions were captured by the Israeli government in the war of 1967. Per international law, they established martial law and military courts in the region. He explained that while this initial step was legal, per the same International Law that Israel had referenced in the establishment of these courts, this is supposed to be a temporary solution and comes with several restrictions, the biggest of which is that you cannot move to settle the area or take it as part of your own country. This was established by the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure nations would not have the motivation to go to war to expand their territory. Instead, the Israeli government has begun building Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territory. This has led to the arrest of thousands Palestinian children in an effort to protect those settlements. Military Court Watch was organized to monitor how those children are treated in the legal system. He described that they’ve found the military courts have been violating the rights of Palestinian children by refusing them legal counsel or the right to silence. The children are generally arrested in the middle of the night, with military police breaking into their homes to get them out of bed. They’re then bound by zip ties and generally blind folded and kept in the vehicle for a few hours before interrogation, where they won’t be given a right to a lawyer or speak with their parents.He stated that the systematic treatment of the Palestinian children they study constitutes an ongoing war crime.

It’s important to note here that this has been recognized by the international community. More than two dozen UN binding resolutions have been passed acknowledging that the treatment of the occupied Palestine region by the Israeli government is a war crime and should cease. Unfortunately, no action has been taken to offer sanctions or any concrete consequences for this continued violation of international law. The lawyer from Military Court Watch then pointed out that this has led added problems because the Russian invasion of Crimea or the Chinese attempts to expand into the South China Sea are in violation of the same law as Israel is violating, but because Israel has not been held accountable, it becomes difficult to hold Russia and China accountable, putting the US at increasing risk.

After the session was over, we returned to the hostel then got dinner. In our debrief we shared our reactions from the day, and I think all of us were feeling a little overwhelmed. I told them how I’d been feeling more and more frustrated with a situation that seems so completely broken. Despite the fact that I know I’ll go home in two weeks and I have no real risk to me because of this, I still feel deeply angry just thinking about this. I cannot imagine how a Palestinian living in this situation every day would feel. The fact that so many are taking that anger and working towards a constructive end, either with a group like Grassroots Jerusalem or through non violent resistance like the BDS movement gives me some hope.

Tomorrow we’ll finish up in Jerusalem and head out for Hebron. We’ve been told that Hebron is “the occupation on steroids” and represents one of the more tension filled hot points we will visit, so I’m both nervous and curious about what we’ll find there.

To learn more about Grassroots Jerusalem, visit their website here

To learn more about Military Court Watch, visit their website here

Why I left the Trail, and why I want to go to the Middle East

I’ve been home from the Appalachian Trail now for about four months, and I’m still working to settle back into a “regular” life. When you’ve spent months on end hiking up and down mountains, getting caught in the rain, and living a life of complete adventure, coming back to sitting at a desk eight and a half hours a day, commuting back and forth via car, and regaining weight at a rate that leaves one feeling like a beached whale much of the time is, for lack of a better term, a “downer.”

So why did I do it? Why not stay out on the Trail, or if I had to come home for the winter, why not take a short term job so I can plan on going back out to hike next summer? Why not take a temp job near a trail town so I could still get hiking in on the weekends instead of returning to my home in Kentucky, far enough away from the Appalachian Trail to make short excursions difficult if not impossible? For me, it all comes down to privilege.

“Privilege” is a loaded term, both in our current societal discussion and for me as a whole. I did not grow up in a wealthy or even firmly middle class background. While I love my family and my parents worked hard to provide a healthy environment growing up, and had a strong social net that helped them achieve that, we nonetheless certainly had our difficulties and struggles. So when I hear the term “white privilege” it can certainly bring a conflicted set of emotions to the forefront. Having periods of homelessness not to mention years with pediatric cancer in my life means I might balk at the idea of saying I am from a privileged upbringing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult though is that saying I was privileged does not mean I had it easy. It simply means I had opportunities and advantages that someone else in a similar situation would not necessarily have had.

Now for most of my adult life, this was not a debate that carried much meaning for me. I struggled through most of my adulthood just to get by. I first left for college at the age of 17 believing I had been “called” by God to serve in the ministry, attending a traditional Bible college to major in preaching ministry, however even with financial aid, I simply could not get by paying tuition, and I had to drop out. I was determined that I was still supposed to push forward on this path though, so I took a job initially washing dishes and unloading delivery trucks for the campus cafeteria. This allowed me to stay on campus and audit courses as a non traditional student. I was never able to complete an accredited degree, but I was still able to spend years studying the Bible and learning through a dedicated community. (This is also when I began to hone my cooking skills with the help of Brian, Chef Eddie, and the rest of the kitchen crew to boot) Eventually, I left the campus to pursue ministry, taking first a job as an associate preacher and youth pastor at a small country church in southeastern Indiana. After a year there, I moved to take a job working on a large staff in children’s ministry at a megachurch in northern greater Cincinnati. But even this was a struggle, as I repeatedly was laid off while working for churches, and never had a ministry job that paid more than the cost of gas and a portion of groceries. I continued to work full time jobs, usually in the food service industry, and usually for low wages, as I had to find jobs with little responsibility to allow a flexible schedule to be as open and available for these ministry positions as possible. In addition, to this, I began taking classes through another unaccredited training program to try to further my training.

All of this led to burnout. I was constantly broke and tired, and growing increasingly frustrated with God. I certainly didn’t feel privileged by any stretch of the imagination. I felt used up and wasted. Finally, after another layoff, I gave up. On the Church, on God, on my faith, all of it. So I took an opportunity to jump into a full time tech support job and never looked back. I pursued a more stable family life and 9-5 existence. I’ve detailed elsewhere how this eventually lead to my returning to my faith and eventually casting that 9-5 aside to pursue the outdoors, but even in this phase of my life I think I would have struggled with the idea of being privileged. I still made little enough money to barely pay the bills, constantly had to work to find affordable housing, and felt at all times that financial ruin was merely a car breakdown away.

Hiking gave me distance though. Especially in my first summer on the trail, I had time to finally get some sections of my life into a broader perspective. What’s more, I took the time to consider the absolute blessings I’d had in life. True, there were several struggles, but if it weren’t for the family and church support we’d had as I was growing up, the fortunate chances I’d received, and the hard work and upbringing of my parents, my situation could have been much much worse, and what’s more there was no connection between those opportunities and the work I’d personally put in. I definitely worked hard, but those unconnected opportunities made the difference.

On my second hike, this question of privilege became far more prevalent in my own thoughts and meditations. I spent a significant amount of time reading and learning about backgrounds outside of my own, putting a concerted effort into reading more non-white and even non-Christian authors to gain greater perspective, to say nothing of broadening my own social interactions. But I still came back to the issue that while I could certainly admit to some privileges in my life, I couldn’t help but also count all the disadvantages I’d also had. Then came the story of Esther.

Esther has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible. Setting aside any moral or spiritual lessons, it is simply good story telling, in a succinct passage you get a story of a young woman forced into extraordinary circumstances, and an entire people group saved because of how she reacted to those circumstances. But listening to the story again while hiking, I heard it from a different perspective than I usually had considered it before. Esther was a victim, pure and simple. She was as a Hebrew woman disadvantaged in her society both because of her race and her gender, she had little or no voice on her life, and because of her beauty she was taken advantage of, and forced into a life of captivity in a palace, where she was required to serve for the sexual gratification of a king she may have had no reason to love or respect. Indeed, despite marriage playing a central role in the story, love does not – nor would it have for any royal marriage of the day. Esther is merely seen as a package to display the power and influence of the king, she is treated as a mere object for the court’s amusement.

But the story isn’t about Esther fighting against her oppression, rather it’s about her using her privilege. Despite her clear victim hood, she still has privilege over Mordecai, her uncle, who even though as a male he has more autonomy in their society, and doesn’t have to fear his own abduction and sexual enslavement, does have to fear the execution pole of Haman. Esther is someone who utilizes her incomplete privilege to help someone else. The key theme verse of the story is Esther 4:14 “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” 

Privilege, be it white privilege, financial privilege,  does not make you the bad guy, nor does it mean you are living the easy life. Instead, Scripture makes it clear that privilege such as this is simply an opportunity for you to help someone else who does not have that advantage. A significant chunk of the Law of Moses lays out ways that privilege should be used to protect others, be it leaving gleanings in your field or ensuring that if you have a home it is built and cared for in a way that protects the community.  This is a core principle of the Kingdom of God as displayed in the texts but does not often get attention in most western white evangelical churches.

So as I considered this perspective on my own privilege, I was forced to confront some uncomfortable questions about how I was living my life. I certainly had set aside some privileges to go out into the wilderness, no longer earning a regular paycheck or living in comfort, but I nonetheless was transferring that to a different set of privileges of freedom and rest. What’s more, I did not set aside these privileges in the service of others, but did so for myself. I certainly met several wonderful individuals who told me that my journeys and my writings inspired them or gave them hope, but that had not been the core concern when I set off on my journey. My core concern was largely self serving.

So what to do then? As I continued to pray and examine the world around me, I became increasingly troubled. Following the news back in civilization did not give me good heart either, rather I became increasingly concerned that there were things to be done and I was hiding out of the way instead. So I made the difficult decision to come home. I wasn’t sure what my next step would be at that time, but I felt the need to lean into my opportunities a bit. I would return to a stable job with some decent (though certainly not great) pay, and work for an open schedule that would allow me the opportunity to put myself at some kind of service to others. Again, I am not in a place of complete comfort and certainly not wealth, but I was able to establish a base from which to work.

I’ve pursued a few smaller opportunities, giving financially to organizations I feel are doing necessary work, as well as giving time, going into a local homeless shelter to help out during extreme cold, going on outings with local churches to give out food, and generally try to look for opportunities in my daily life. But I couldn’t help but feel like more was called for.

After returning home, one thing I found as crucial to jump into as quickly as possible was to establish new social connections, and as a part of this jumped at an opportunity to join a monthly book club. The first reading choice was “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, a fantastic book I’d highly recommend that further brought these issues to focus for me. The main character finds herself dragged through time as an African American woman in the American slave south who repeatedly saves the life of a white slave owning ancestor. There is so much to unpack in the story, but the dynamic of privilege kept coming to me. How the main character was certainly not “privileged” as we might normally view the term, but she certainly had a situational privilege which she put to use to save her white ancestor, a decidedly unworthy recipient of such care. What’s more, a secondary character, her white husband who was also dragged back in time at one point in the story, is disturbingly unaware of how the position of his own skin color affects the different experiences they have in the past, that is until he is forced to remain there for an extended period of time, at which point he throws himself into helping on the Underground Railroad and providing cover for slaves where he can.

I again was forced to ask myself if I was sufficiently using my position of privilege to pursue a better world for others. If I was considering for “just such a time as this” I was intended to do.

My journey as someone who gave up on my faith and returned to it has gifted me with a special perspective on a number of points because I was forced to re-examine many assumptions I had originally brought along with me. Ideas of what Christianity is meant to look like is often colored less by the Scripture and direct experience of God and more of the cultural conditions in which we live. The early Church struggled with the idea of separating life of a Christian from Jewish dietary and holy day practices, and modern American Christians, at least in the social context I was familiar with, carried it’s own baggage. Perhaps chief among these is a devotion to nationalism and respect for military power. The more I have examined the teachings of Jesus, the more foreign these concepts should seem to be as often taught in the Church. Again, I want to stress, this is based on my own church life, I know of many traditions, even in the United States that do not carry this particular set of assumptions.

Because of this clash of viewpoints that I see as core contradiction between my own faith background and a more “true orthodox” teaching of Scripture as I’ve come to understand it, the greater need I’ve seen for the celebration of a devotion to peacemaking in the Christian life. This then lead me to considering the emission of Christian Peacekeeper Teams. CPT works in areas around the world to pursue a goal of building peace through nonviolent means. They have long term and short term missions available. I certainly could have simply donated funds, but I felt the need to involve myself in a more hands on way. After some prayer, I applied to join their delegation to the Palestinian region. This is a region that has often been on my heart as echoing too closely the tragedies of the Old Testament as the people of God fail to fulfill the promises given to Abraham that through his line “all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18) The recent news of the so-called “Muslim ban” and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought to highlight how my own community of white evangelical Christians in the United States had served to exacerbate the pain of this difficult, fraught, and complicated issue rather than serving as a voice for peace and mutual service.

So that’s why this year, instead of heading back out into my beloved Appalachian Mountains, I’m saving my vacation time and working through the year to prepare for a new journey, that will take me even further from home than I ever have been before, both literally and figuratively. While I’ll still occasionally use this blog to talk about local hiking, cooking recipes, and occasional Bible studies, I’m also going to be working to keep you all up to date on my preparations for this new journey, and what I’ll be learning along the way.

I am also going to be asking you to help out. I am devoting my own finances to this journey, but would like to invite you to participate as well. Donations can be made at just be sure where it says “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know. I want my donation to be dedicated:” please include a note “James Scott October Hebron delegation.”

I look forward to your questions and our discussions as this journey progresses, I am going to do everything I can to share as much of it with all of you as possible!