This past Thursday, October 19, our synod staff was led in devotions by Pastor Carl Shankweiler, who has experience and connections to the Middle East. He gave me permission to share his words with you.
On the Way of Jesus together,
Bishop Christopher deForest
DEVOTIONS FOR THE SYNOD STAFF
NORTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA SYNOD, ELCA
October 19, 2023
By Pastor Carl Shankweiler
This past Sunday, October 15, our First Reading was Isaiah 25:1-9. Two verses in particular caught my attention. Consider Isaiah 25:2, “you have made the city a heap.” And Isaiah 25:5, “the song of the ruthless was stilled.”
In the massacre that took place in Israel almost two weeks ago we saw ruthlessness in capital letters: everyone from babies to the elderly, slaughtered by Hamas. Truly, truly dreadful.
On the other hand, we have also seen dreadful pictures from Gaza, where the terrorists came from. These pictures show buildings that are now “heaps,” thanks to deliberate airstrikes and/or errant missiles, with the promise of more “heaps” to come—to use Isaiah’s word, “heap.”
These are not just abstract concepts or numerical reports. We can see and hear very personal stories. A teenage girl named Rut Perez was abducted by Hamas, taken as a hostage. Rut has muscular dystrophy. She “cannot walk or talk and needs to be fed through a tube.”
And on the other side, consider Zarefah Baroud, who lives in Seattle and is Palestinian American. She learned from a cousin of hers who lives in Gaza “that her aunt and five cousins, ages 9 to 18, had been killed in a retaliatory airstrike.”
Those verses from Isaiah talk about ruthlessness being stilled, quieted. It seems that ruthlessness still has a long way to go until it is brought to an end.
In the meantime, what applies? Deuteronomy 19:21 says, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. . . .” That would say one-for-one, meant to limit retaliation. Or should it be two-for-one? Or do you stand with Jesus who said in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
Or do you fight to bring Hamas to an end, no matter how many die? Or do you listen to an Israeli woman named Neta Heiman who writes in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “My 84-year-old mother was taken hostage. In her name, too, I plead: Don’t destroy Gaza. My mother, and many of her friends on Kibbutz Nir Oz who were massacred, were people of peace, people who believe that there are human beings with rights also on the other side of the border fence.” Neta directs her greatest anger at Israeli politicians who did nothing for decades to solve the underlying problems; who only made matters worse.
Has it always been this way? Yes and no.
Yes, there has always been ruthlessness, sad to say. Consider, for example, what happened on March 8, 1782, at the Moravian missionary village of Gnadenhutten, Ohio. Ninety-six pacifist Moravian Native Americans (primarily Lenape and Mohican) were killed by U.S. militiamen from Pennsylvania under the command of David Williamson. Due to their commitment to pacifism, these Native Americans did not take sides during the American Revolutionary War, which caused them to be viewed with suspicion by both the British and the Americans.
In this case, the American militia rounded up the unarmed Moravians and said that they planned to execute them for being spies, which of course the Moravians denied. The Moravians asked to be allowed to pray and worship on the night before their execution; and they were allowed to spend that night praying as well as singing Christian hymns and psalms. Eighteen of the U.S. militiamen were opposed to the killing and refused to take part, but they were outvoted by those who wanted to murder the Christian Indians. As they were being killed, the Moravians sang "hymns and spoke words of encouragement and consolation one to another until they were all slain.” Believing in nonresistance, they pleaded for their lives to be spared, but did not fight back against their persecutors. More than a century later, Theodore Roosevelt called the massacre "a stain on frontier character that the lapse of time cannot wash away." Yes, ruthlessness has been all too common in human history, Pennsylvania as well as Palestine.
But no, in Palestine/Israel it was not always this way. Life there went downhill in the twentieth century after Great Britain promised during World War I to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Sounds great! The problem was that there was already an Arab population there, Christians as well as Muslims. And when Israel was finally created in the late 1940s, as many as 700,000 Palestinians were either expelled or, if they had already moved out of the way of the fighting, were not allowed to return to their homes.
To me this is not ancient history or someone else’s history. My intern year was spent teaching at a Christian orphanage in the country of Lebanon, school year 1970 to 1971. Only this orphanage and its related school did not begin in Lebanon. From 1860 to 1948 it was located outside Jerusalem, when it was taken over by Israel and turned at first into a military base. Several of the adults I worked with at the school were themselves Palestinian refugees. And I had some students who were the children of refugees living still in refugee camps.
Back in the late 1940s the seeds were sown for today’s troubles in the way Israel was established. As Arab villages were depopulated, it must have seemed a good thing to the new inhabitants. We have land! We have homes! But long term it only caused resentment and ongoing strife with the people who were displaced.
When I came back from the Middle East in the early 1970s, I often gave talks about that region. A question that I would frequently be asked was, “What is the solution?” My answer: there is none in that two very different groups of people want the same land. Unfortunately, for the more than fifty years since I left the Middle East—more than seventy years since the late 1940s—there has been no solution, only conflict and, at times, ruthlessness.
What do you do when there seems to be no solution? Continue to work for peace, regardless? Write letters? Send assistance to rebuild the damaged cities once again? Protest or resign, like Josh Paul, a State Department official whose resignation was reported today (October 19) over arms transfers? And if there really is no solution, do you simply pray that God will act, even today, over and over—stopping those who would be ruthless? Pray in thanksgiving when the ruthless are stilled?
Isaiah began today’s reading with praise for God: “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things. . . . For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress. . . . When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, . . . the song of the ruthless was stilled.” May it be so. Amen.
Carl D. Shankweiler