The landmark interfaith delegation to Israel/Palestine which the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship helped coordinate and sponsor with Jewish Voice for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine has run into some challenges. Five members of the delegation were denied entry to Israel, not even permitted to board or check in their luggage for their Lufthansa flight from Dulles, Washington. Subsequently, ministers in the Israeli government confirmed that the reason for their exclusion was their vocal support for Palestinian human rights.
Some of the media coverage and commentary has been critical of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship for advocating nonviolent resistance in support of Palestinian liberation. We are clear, however, about what the real work of peacemaking entails, and we are proud of the courage and steadfast perseverance this interfaith delegation is showing in meeting with dozens of faith-based organizations, grassroots activists and human rights groups in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They are continuing this work with the intention to learn, witness and co-resist Israeli occupation, displacement and siege with Palestinian and Israeli partners on the ground. They deserve your support.
With the faithful efforts of the interfaith delegation foremost in our minds, and aware that there are many opponents of liberation movements that will try to undermine what this level of nonviolent witness represents, and by extension seek to disparage our organization, we would like to lay out three challenges we see in this moment. While these relate directly to the conversation surrounding this delegation, they are easily relatable to other areas of witness the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship engages in:
#1 Mistaking Neutrality for Peacefulness.
The fiction that all that is required for peace is to “bring both sides together” depends upon never looking closely at the nature of the conflict. Opponents of liberation movements assiduously avoid analyzing power dynamics in any of their commentary regarding Israel-Palestine not only because it is hard work, but because neutrality in a situation where there is a serious power imbalance constitutes de facto support for the oppressor. As Desmond Tutu famously quipped, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
God hears the cries of the oppressed and God responds. This is the witness of the Torah and the Prophets. It is the witness of Mary, mother of Jesus, who sang that God puts down the powerful and exalts the humble. And of course it is the essence of the ministry of Jesus, who summoned his disciples to take sides in favor of the oppressed when he instructed us to take up our crosses and follow him, and when he said “that which you do for the least of these, you do for me.”
This is what the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship means by “co-resistance”. We mean standing in solidarity with the oppressed. We mean responding to the call from Palestinian civil society for resistance to the occupation through time-honored nonviolent strategies of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. We mean supporting the efforts of marginalized peoples to self-liberate, because we are convicted by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
#2 Mistaking Nonviolence for Non-Resistance.
One of the most disingenuous strategies of critics of liberation movements is to conflate all forms of resistance with the most violent expressions in order to delegitimize resistance itself. This is why Black Lives Matter protests are painted as riots in the media. It is why calls to resist the occupation are sometimes portrayed as indistinguishable from promoting terrorism. Terrorism itself is a politicized term designed to paint the violence of the disenfranchised as somehow worse and less legitimate than the violence of the state.
This is not new. Jesus was executed as a political dissident and accused of attempting violent insurrection even as he was ordering his disciples to put away their weapons. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has been committed to following the nonviolent way of Christ for over 70 years, since our beginning during the second World War in order to help soldiers who wanted to become conscientious objectors. But we have never mistaken nonviolence for non-resistance.
We understand what Jesus meant when he said, “I haven’t come to bring peace, but a sword.” Far from a call to arms, he meant that his disciples can not hide from conflict, or refrain from taking the side of the oppressed. In the context of oppression, true peace is disruptive, because the only lasting ground of peace is justice. When we are united in working nonviolently toward a just peace, those who are invested in maintaining the status quo become increasingly desperate to portray effective tactics like boycotts as nefarious and violent, even as they hypocritically excuse the overwhelming violence of the state.
#3 Mistaking the (temporary/partial) Absence of Violence for Peace.
Opponents of liberation movements are so eager to redirect your energy from resistance to co-existence because it breeds complacency about injustice. Police Departments would rather run a PR campaign depicting police officers giving out ice cream cones to children of color than be forced to analyze the systemic pressures which lead to the deaths of so many unarmed black and brown boys. The Israeli Defense Force would much rather peace activists fill their time hosting interfaith dialogues than organizing to uncover human rights abuses.
Once more, this is not a new phenomenon. Prescribing co-existence in the midst of apartheid is akin to the false prophets in Jerusalem that Jeremiah decried when he said, “they treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.” Those that counsel that we should just avoid conflict, that we should refrain from siding with oppressed, and instead focus on “building relationships” want to substitute good feelings for concrete efforts to establish justice.
What is worse is that this tactic asks us to willfully ignore the ongoing reality of ultraviolence that is sustaining the unjust status quo. When we are focused on the interpersonal over the systemic we are encouraged to ignore the billions in military aid the United States gives to Israel annually, the separation wall, the checkpoints, the accelerating settlement process, the detainment and torture of children, and the continual use of disproportionate force by the IDF, among other factors.
What the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship understands is that we cannot be like the white moderate, which Martin Luther King Jr. described in his letter from Birmingham Jail, “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” We cannot mistake neutrality for peacefulness, nonviolence for non-resistance, or the absence of violence for peace itself. We seek to engage this spirit in the work we invite in Palestine, Colombia, anti-racism, militarism, gun violence and desecration of the Creation that our God of love called good. We are increasingly calling ourselves into self-discernment around the hardest parts of internal nonviolence and complicity as acts of faithfulness.
Peacemaking is difficult and dangerous work. It summons us to die to ourselves for the sake of the oppressed. It requires us to stand alongside the oppressed and support their efforts toward liberation. We do this because we know that in their liberation is our liberation. Justice for them means justice for all.
As the delegation we are honored to be co-participants in makes its way through the land called Holy by Muslims, Jews and Christians this week, we invite you to follow along. You can receive blogs from the delegation and this Sunday July 30th we invite you to participate in the webinar with the delegation from 2-3PM EST. Follow it everywhere online at #JustFaith17
With hope and love,
Aric Clark & Shannan Vance-Ocampo
Co-Moderators, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship