Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Walled In

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today my friend and colleague took me on a tour of the wall around Bethlehem. The Israelis I spoke with on the interfaith listening trip said often only five percent of the wall—they prefer security fence or barrier—is a wall; the rest is a fence. In Bethlehem they say one hundred percent of the barrier around the city is a wall.

I had a much more emotional response to what I saw and the narrative I heard here in Bethlehem. I am not a disinterested reporter. The plight of the Palestinian people living under occupation touches me deeply. Here I resist saying what in the Israeli narrative touches me. There is no competition. There is no binary. There is no parity. And I believe the impulse, and often demand, to treat each side the same in discourse disregards the hierarchical nature of the relationship and engagement between the two peoples. 

There is a kinship between black people and Palestinian peoples that stems from our origins on the same continent and similar experiences of occupation and justice struggles from apartheid to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a common understanding that (former) Prime Minister Sharon went to South Africa to study apartheid and imported the bantustan system to Palestine.

The wall represents a craven land grab to the Palestinian people. One that is continuing. The wall is being rebuilt, moved, to take more of Palestinian land. By some accounts, eighty six percent of Bethehemite (mostly Christian land) has been walled off on the Israeli side. The wall is often right against people’s houses, cutting them off completely from their land, or immediately adjacent to the road with not even a sidewalk. Even though they are still the owners of some of that land on paper, they are not allowed access to it and when their olive trees fail and the land lies fallow it is often seized. The Bethlehemite lands become available for the Israeli settlements that are growing right up to their newly imposed borders. 

 

The pastor I spoke with lamented that this generation of children don’t know the green Bethlehem of his youth. Every square (remaining) inch is built on and build up into multi-story buildings because they can’t expand sideways. There is real concern about the impact of walling so many people in with increasing population, static or reducing space, and increasingly limited employment opportunities. These mechanisms of the occupation are systemically violent and often neglected when physical mechanical violence by individual Palestinians is condemned. Violence takes many forms here. Even so, my colleague calls for creative and non-violent resistance, not violent resistance. He sees no victory in using the sword of the empire and enriching arms dealers.

We talked about what the future might bring. There is little belief in a two or even one state system anymore. He raised the possibility of a three or four state eventuality. Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and, perhaps a settler state in the middle of the West Bank. According to Human Rights Watch [map], there are some 500,000 settlers in 237 settlements in the West Bank. They are connected by private bypass roads that bypass Palestinian towns and villages, living them a singular footprint.

Our talk and tour did not leave me with a lot of hope for the future. Survival and endurance are the order of the day. And in the midst, finding beauty and joy, living as fully as possible, and resisting the occupation and proclaiming its evil to everyone who will listen.

That doesn’t feel like enough to me.

I have my loved my time here in Bethlehem’s Old City where I can’t see the wall and there is an underground water tank so we don’t suffer water shortages from the rationing. 

Today at the Church of the Nativity, some young Palestinians asked me if would record a statement supporting freedom of movement for Palestinian people. I did. Freedom of movement. The ability to leave one’s home town to marry, work, go to school, shop, or travel the world. That people should have to ask for this basic human dignity angers me. I bear witness to these stories and think of the passes my enslaved and free ancestors needed to move about, the ghettos into which Jews were walled in during World War II (with a special irony), native peoples herded on to reservations in the US, and apartheid. 

In the US now many of us are saying don’t normalize that which is not normal, that which is not decent, that which is not humane. Palestinian occupation has become normalized and that degrades the humanity of everyone involved. 

And now, we are talking about building our own wall…

 

White Supremacy in the White House, in the Church, and in the Streets

Take note of the women and children.

Before folk start issuing calls for racial reconciliation… Again. No.

Reconciliation is the culmination of a process that begins with conviction and leads to confession and contrition, public and private, followed by individual and communal repentance. Much like the stages of grief, these steps are not rigidly sequential, though some more easily presage others. Persons and institutions may move from one to another and back again. Some like repentance may occur repeatedly, for example repentance may (and should) both lead to and follow confession.

We haven’t been through that process, as a nation or as the Church in the US or in the West. It is a process and none of the steps are optional. Services of reconciliation without confession, liturgical litanies of confession without conviction, the language of repentance without conviction, all of these are theater, none of these are healing and the multiplication of these kinds of programs squander whatever ethical capital and good will the white church and white Christians have.

 

It is well past time to talk about whiteness in the church–which is white people’s work–but because white people are not doing it adequately or sufficiently it falls to people of color. It is not easy. It is not nice. It is work. It is difficult work. Which perhaps is why it is often left to people of color who can then be blamed and dismissed for the feelings it generates.

Whiteness is the unspoken norm against which everyone else is defined. The categories of race and ethnicity were invented to articulate how other people differ from the persons constructed as the standard, normative, default or base model of humanity. Whiteness has been equated with Christianity and civilization so that to be Christian was to be civilized when the only Christianity that was recognized was white Christianity.

Our religious language in and out of the scriptures is used to reify whiteness. Christ is the light of the world. The light that overcomes darkness. Light and dark are antithetical, one vanquishes the other. It does not matter that light is not white and dark is not black. There are light and dark shades of human flesh so the struggle of light against darkness has been mapped onto human bodies and provided the rhetoric for civilizing the dark heart of Africa with slavery and the light of Christianity, conveniently ignoring the most ancient Christian tradition, Egyptian Coptic Christianity. We can’t escape that language in our scriptures but we can take care how we use it, how we preach it. The mechanism that enforces whiteness as the norm in and out of the church is white supremacy.

The doctrine of white supremacy is for me best articulated by philosopher David Hume in his Essays: Moral, Political and Literary:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

This is the ideology that is in the White House in there person of the president who welcomed and cultivated the support of white supremacist groups from the Klu Klux Klan to neo-Nazis and appointed some of them as his advisors. This is the ideology that worships at the altar of the Confederate treason and will kill to protect its icons. This is the ideology that has murdered—crucified, lynched—castrated and raped black children, women, and men, and Jews and Latinos, and the occasional white folk labeled race traitors. This is the ideology held by the folk who beat protestors and clergy and murdered a man and injured others in a domestic terror attack in Charlottesville. White supremacy are the words the president refuses to say while he governs because of its voting power.

The role of white supremacy in the church is neither accidental nor incidental. The role of the Church in the carving up and colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas is history many white folk and churches don’t bother teaching or learning. That is white privilege. I won’t spoon feed it here. The Church is also implicated in the settling of this continent articulated in the language of the settlement of Canaan providing divine sanction for the genocide of its inhabitants just like Joshua alleges happened to the peoples of Canaan. And then there is the way the church and every other American institution has profited materially from slave labor and the exploitation and plundering of black wealth. (Google 15 major corporations you never knew benefitted from slave labor; look up medical experimentation on black people.) 

White supremacy in the church doesn’t always wear a white sheet but can regularly be found in the sanctuary. Unexamined whiteness endures in the sanctuary, in the halls, on the walls, and yes even on the altar in the sacraments of the Church, in biblical interpretation, understandings of God, Jesus and ultimately effects Christian identity and its expressions: theology, liturgy and iconography. When the images of God, Christ, the angels, the saints and the faithful are white, and only white, white supremacy is at work. When those images are all that children see, even when their Sunday school and vacation bible school curricula include pictures of black and brown children – because Jesus loves us all – but maintains an unchallenged white norm for Jesus and biblical characters, white supremacy is successfully passed down to another generation. White supremacy blinds, distorts, cripples. It obscures the image of God in the scriptures, in the church, in the world and particularly in black and brown bodies. Jesus is Jesus. But Black Jesus is extra.

Historically, the whitening of the holy served to identify the holy with whiteness against all others explicitly and intentionally. Some of what is at stake in talking about the biblical world as “the Middle East” and not the confluence of Africa and Asia, is claiming ancient Israel and its theological significance and ancient Egypt and its cultural significance as white. Ancient Israel and its peoples, like its languages are Afro-Asiatic. The African and Syrian tectonic plates come together in the Great Rift Valley in which the Jordan River lies. The valley runs from the Nile River Valley in Egypt—which is in Africa—to the Zambezi River Valley in Zimbabwe. Ancient Israel straddled the Jordan with the bulk on the cis-Jordan, African side, i.e. Galilee and Jerusalem, and only the territorial holdings of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh on the trans-Jordan, Syrian side. Contemporarily the Jordan is the boundary between Israel and Jordan and the West Bank and Jordan so that Israel and the Palestinian territories are all on the African side.

Contemporarily white iconography continues the work of whitening the scriptures (as did its classical forbears), without the active reflection of those whom it shapes. It is of course, not a sin to see the holy in yourself and those like you. Seeing God in your image and only in your image makes it hard to see those who are not like you in the image of God; it is even harder when nothing in your experience has every portrayed God unlike you. 

In many churches the Blessed Sacrament is white and only white. Is it any wonder everyone else is other? Of course some churches use dark bread, and have multicultural art and icons whether their people are people of color or people of pallor. I’m talking about the dominant construction of God in the Church, in our nation and in the Western dominated world, those places where Christianity coincided happily, prosperously and intentionally with slavery and colonization and in which the cry of Black Lives Matter is all too often muted to All Lives Matter or combatted with Blue Lives Matter. 

There is a direct line from whiteness to domination in and out of the Church. Decentering whiteness requires centering black and brown iconography – not adding a piece or two or more, but dethroning white jesus and casting him out as the idol of white supremacy that he is.

We will never dismantle white supremacy in the White House, in the Church or in the streets if we dare not say its name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[The text of this post was adapted from two of my prior public lectures at predominantly white churches.] 

Beginning in Bethlehem

I got the number of a cab company and crossed smoothly in to Bethlehem. In all honesty the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) is more concerned with who comes out of the Palestinian Territories into to Israel than who goes in. 

I arrived at the Diyar Consortium, a (Lutheran) church based organization that serves the people of the region without regard to religion, providing education in the arts, leadership and civic engagement, education and enrichment for children and youth, elder services, and a robust publishing arm focusing on Palestinian history. The Consortium is affiliated with Dar al-Kalima University which specializes in fine arts.

Unlike my trip to Israel, I have neither formal program nor fellow travelers. My informal plan is to immerse myself in this Palestinian community and shadow my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, prolific author, speaker and pastor.

Tonight there was a concert with a second generation Palestinian American who retuned home. Her own songs mixed with Cold Play, Sam Smith, Amy Winehouse and Elvis. Then there was conversation and bible talk with a Catholic youth group comprised of visitors from Spain and Palestinian youth. It was a masterclass in accessible Palestinian hermeneutics. (Some quotes, some paraphrase and some expansions follow.)

– The bible is a Palestinian document and should be stamped “Made in Palestine.”
– The bible (as a collection) begins in and is written under occupation.
– The bible is anti-imperial literature.
– The interdiction of the sages by Herod was an act of empire flexing its will to interrogate travelers at the checkpoint because of who they were and who they were going to see, as happens now at the crossings between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
– Joseph and Mary went to be registered because it was the requirement of the empire to manage and profit off of the subjugated population.
– Proof of registration in the text is like the magnetic card that Palestinians need to cross into Israel.
– There is hope that empires can be redeemed, see Jonah and the lion and the lamb in Isaiah.
– Jonah runs away from his call to preach repentance to the empire because he known it may well repent and he carries so much anger, hurt, and trauma that he is not ready to move forward into another paradigm.
– The lion who lies down with the lamb represents the empire. In order for the two to lie down in safety the lion will have to be completely transformed, its essential nature re-created.

I am so grateful to be here, to live—sleep and wake and sleep and wake again and again. I look forward to the next iteration my introduction to the Hebrew Bible course and perhaps a course on Palestinian hermeneutics.

Zionist, Settler, Israeli Stories

“Zionist” is regarded as a slur in many of the spaces in which I find myself. Settlers are regarded as (nearly) single-handedly destroying the peace process in those same spaces—inhabited by Jews as well as Muslins, Christians and non-religious folk. So it was a visceral shock to hear several of our speakers describe themselves as Zionist settlers, even though I knew the word has a variety of implications including normative Israeli patriotism.

I am here in Israel to hear stories from Israeli and Palestinian voices as a way to promote coexistence and peace-making. So I listened to hear and understand. But I am not a blank slate so I hear in concert with my own internal voices and try to hold the two streams in respectful conversation.

It was helpful for me to hear settlers talk about how they understood settling, as occupation=habitation, not colonialism as do the Palestinians and many in the West and some in Israel. They spoke of the importance of Hebron (in the West Bank) as the home of Abraham and the other locations of so much of the Hebrew Bible’s narratives drawing them home to fulfill a mission to inhabit the land. They also acknowledged that their religious narrative was not the only narrative and that they were—at different paces—listening to the narratives of Palestinians. 

I also got a feel for the/a Israeli pioneering narrative, occupying/settling the land to cultivate it border to contested border to fulfill a calling to (re)build a nation. What was missing was the early (1943-1945) understanding of how the people in the land could be expected to respond to mass immigration and nation-building in their midst. Someone mentioned the slogan, “A people with no land and a land with no people.” (I could not help but think of similarities between the Afrikaner mythos and that of Israel here as with the roads that bypass the Palestinians.) 

The settlers talked about how isolated the two communities are, particularly since the erection of the security barrier. I was surprised to learn how isolated they truly are. The settlers didn’t know that there were Palestinian villages one and six miles from them. There was no way to drive to or by those villages; the Israeli roads go from settlement to settlement to Jerusalem bypassing Arab villages. They have no casual interactions with the exception of labor. As the Israeli journalist who accompanied us to the West Bank today said, “Palestinians built Israel.” They are a significant portion of the workers in hotel and restaurants and construction. Yet there are virtually no places (but one market and one intentional program) to be in the same place on the same footing.

I also gained an understanding of the layers of trauma with which many Israelis live as a part of their national story: The enduring horror of the Holocaust, particularly poignant in the missing elders and all that was lost with them, the sense of the miraculous after the 6 Day war dashed by the losses in the 72 war, the pervasive terror unleashed by the bombings in the Second Intifada from 2000-2005, and the accompanying and continuing rocket, mortar and sniper attacks—all on civilian communities, sometimes deliberately targeting children. The man who designed and implemented the security border—wall and high tech fencing—oriented us to it and communicated the desperation, trauma and terror that led to its implementation. These things helped me to hear and understand the Israeli story from Israeli perspectives even as I critique some of what I heard and hold it in tension with what our Palestinian conversation partners shared. It helped me to hear them that they acknowledged the reality of the occupation with that word.

There is not surprisingly a lot of anger towards the Palestinians, particularly their leadership for not putting an end to the continuing attacks on communities near the Gaza border and for rejecting the Clinton-Olmert plan. They blame the Palestinians for walking away from a viable peace deal.

They spoke of 500,000 settlers and how difficult, nearly or completely impossible it will be to dislodge them. For one that meant the two-state solution was dead, and a one-state solution was on the table but with no easy answers about how to remain culturally and demographically Jewish while granting full rights to the occupied. The other held out hope for a two-state solution against the evidence. Conversations invoked the peaceful transition in South Africa and more difficult one in Ireland, and the evacuation of 100,000 Fresh colonists in Algeria.

They seem to want to write an end for their story that will result in peace and dignity for all but each question/chapter is still unresolved and there are some sacrifices they will not make. Nationalist zionism, a particular Jewish/Israeli hermeneutic, lingering trauma, anger, and fear are the lenses through which I hear the Israeli story. It is as are all stories, more complicated than any one presentation.

[I am on my way to Bethlehem to immerse myself in the Palestinian story since this trip was far more one-sided than I was led to believe and the Palestinian story was mediated more than once through Israeli voices, and when in a Palestinian voice sometimes rebutted. Stay tuned for that reflection.] 

Pilgrimage of Prayer

In between conversations and presentations I am going to the most sacred places in my faith, not as a scholar or priest, but as a pilgrim. My companions are my Anglican rosary gifted to me by a sister from my home church, the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas, and a silver medal with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. They are holy totems, made more precious through the sanctification of the pilgrimage. I have followed the ancient practice of placing them on the most holy touchstones.

The stone in Gethsemane

Golgotha

The stone on which Jesus was laid after his death

The place from which he rose

It does not matter to me if some or any of the traditions around these places is unfounded or even quite wrong. Those places have been bathed in the prayers of the faithful the believed in them or even just hoped there was something to the stories. And God meets her people in those prayers in those places. So they have become sacred.

 

Holocausts and Memorials

The Angel who watches over the Field of Angels at the Whitney Plantation

The sheer scope of the evil manifested in the holocaust is nearly unimaginable. Today’s visit to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem held the inhumanity of those who planned in meticulous detail to annihilate the Jews of Europe and began carrying out their unfathomable horror in the sharpest contrast with the fragile yet resilient humanity of the Jews who lived in an died in and escaped from and survived the work camps and death camps and marches. The incomprehensible rabidity of the hatred of Jews stupefies me.

The numbers are dizzying: A million and a half children murdered. Zero—because Estonia was declared “Jew free.” An entire population murdered. 500,000 people crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto that held 50,000 the day before. 90% of Poland’s Jews murdered. 

Images I will carry with me: Baby pictures. The pages of testimony—accounts of the live of those stolen. A catalogue of the number of Jews in Europe to facilitate their extinction. Four million names known of those taken from this life. Wall of binders ceiling to floor each with the profoundly spare details of 800 souls.

The pages of testimony of those lost/stolen/murdered had strong resonances for me with my visit to the children’s memorial  at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. All of those name plates. And in both cases, no bodies to bury because of the unimaginable cruelty of human beings.

Questions I will take with me: Why did the Poles and Russians turn on their own Jewish citizens with such frenzy? Why did so many of their citizens volunteer to help exterminate the Jews? Why were the North African Jews largely overlooked in the holocaust? Was it because as Africans they were not an affront to the pseudo-Aryan notion of whiteness?

Words I will take with me: “The Nazis were the first holocaust deniers.” The audacity—and not holy womanist audacity—the unmitigated gall to deny the evil work of their guilty hands.

An important conversation and presentation helped me ask who is telling the story, how and why? For example how is the Israeli holocaust museum different from the one in DC? What does the change in perspective mean? E.g. Americans as liberators telling the story versus Israelis as survivors or as those speaking for the dead.

An unexpected response to the anguished question-Why? One of our companions in this conversation drew out the ways some Jews blamed themselves as a people for the Holocaust. From the Satmar Rebbe saying it was punishment for the sins of the people, specifically for Zionism (!) to the early Zionists who said they were not Zionist enough…

How we tell the stories of our sorrows and how we remember our dead reveals who and where we are as much as it says anything about what and who we invoke. Listening to stories about the denigration of the Jews and refusal to recognize them as human, I could not help but think of the many contexts and conflicts in which basic human dignity is denied. We cannot just keep saying “Never again.” 

Lingering thoughts: There was a terrible irony for me in the video of the building of the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto. I cannot not but think of the wall around Bethlehem. With all of the differences in circumstances, there is still something very much similar about them.

Lastly, how to pray in the face of the witness to such great evil, such great suffering, so much sorrow? Walking through the children’s memorial, all I could do was pray each name I heard on a bead of my rosary, remembering the opening words of Exodus, “These are the names…”

Tangled Threads

I am on what I call a deep listening tour in Israel and Palestine with Interfaith Partners for Peace. They have selected threads to weave together in conversation, each of which is connected to other threads, tangled, torn, frayed, yet still revealing shadows and shapes larger and more complex than the frames we have.

Today the threads were:

Conversation with my seat mate on the flight over, a seventy something woman (I guess) who was terrified of flying because of a plane crash that left her widowed with a 10 month-old daughter. Later she explained what happened as “Arafat put a bomb in a suitcase on the plane and blew it up.” Her sorrow and fear are a tight wound still bleeding thread in the tapestry of this place and these peoples.

Riding from the airport in Lod/Tev Aviv-Yafo hearing the geography narrated when our guide points out the valley of Ajalon. I ask him to point out Upper and Lower Beth Horon. I don’t know that I have seen them on previous trips, even form a distance. I am thrilled to have touched such an ancient thread from such a powerful woman in my spiritual ancestry. Those cities are two the the three the scriptures say was built by a woman, Sheerah.

Pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher/Anastasis. It is a place of particularly holy prayer for me. I took my rosary, given by a saint at the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas and hallowed it on the touchstones of my faith.

Conversations and presentations wrestling with the future of Israel and Palestine, Jewish settler Zionist voices and one secular Palestinian voice all affirming two indigenous peoples in one land, wrestling with what a political—geographical—just future looks like.

Living with the threads in tension. 

A Seat At The Table

 Have a seat at the table. Whose table is it? Who is issuing the invitation? Can we have a meaningful conversation when one presumes they own the table and the other disputes that claim?

 It may be that no one can sit at that table. We may have to sit somewhere else to figure out what must be done about that table and the very limited number of chairs around it. 

Deep Listening

A Jerusalem rose, Wil Gafney, January 2010

I am returning to a place I love, a place that breaks my heart: Jerusalem.

It’s a complicated place with conflicting and contradictory stories. I am going to listen to some of those stories, as deeply as I can. I will bring my question, hopes, prayers, and beliefs with me. I will try to keep them in my pocket, like the beads of my rosary, to touch for strength and guidance.

Yet is there is any reason in the world to hope, to believe that which cannot be seen or does not adhere to the rules of logic it is Jerusalem where Holiness touched earth.

I am traveling with Interfaith Partners for Peace. Among their commitments these are the ones that carry with me:

We recognize with profound pain the suffering that continues on both sides in the land.  We have precious bonds with Israelis and Palestinians and we hear their voices.  Each and every human being is created in the divine image.  When one person suffers, we all suffer.  

 We recognize that there are multiple narratives in the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We commit to hear narratives that are not our own, and to engage in and encourage deep listening so that we may challenge our assumptions.

Seasons of Sorrow

Reconstruction of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum (Jerusalem)

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, on the Jewish calendar marks a series of sorrows, most notably the multiple destructions of the temple in Jerusalem. It has always struck me as impoverishing that Christians neglect the story of the fall in the lectionary and in non-lectionary preaching as my students over the years have confirmed. 

The fall of the temple is so important in and for the Hebrew Scriptures that I begin my introductory courses there:

The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens.

There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial.

And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for the king and his court to toy with.

And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.

It must have seemed like the stories of Miriam and Moses and the promises God made to their descendents either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.

The scriptures of Israel were written in response to the occupation of its smallest surviving enclave by the Babylonians and recorded from oral traditions passed down from one generation to another. In the face of the overwhelming power of the Babylonian military which they touted as proof that their gods were more powerful than Israel’s lone god, in the face of their liturgy and pageantry and against the back-drop of Babylonian scripture, some Israelites were tempted and swayed to adopt Babylonian culture and religion. Others began collecting their own stories of who they were and who is their God.

The only response to such sorrow is lamentation. Indeed the book of Lamentations is the liturgical reading for Tisha B’Av. Christians in the African diaspora also know the power of lament. The most poignant laments I know come from African American spirituals. Sadly, in this world, the songs of lament will never be silenced.