Thursday, February 7, 2008

In the Middle East, God is on the side of peace

Eric Shafer, formerly my boss at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is traveling in the Holy Land now with Bishop Claire Burkat of the ELCA's Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.

Eric sent the op ed piece below to his hometome paper, The Morning Call, in the Allentown, Pa. area.

For pictures from the delegation, see the synod's web page:

Video produced by Tim Frakes is available at

In the Middle East, God is on the side of peace
By Eric C. Shafer
February 6, 2008,0,7678242.story

On a February Sunday in 2004, my wife, Kris, and I were traveling with a group of U.S. Lutheran communicators in the West Bank, the area of biblical Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967. We were scheduled to worship at Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala, a town next to Bethlehem. But that Sunday the entire area was under an Israeli army curfew. Since we were accompanied by the Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, we were able to get through the military checkpoint from Jerusalem.

This was a surreal experience -- our two Lutheran World Federation vans following the bishop's car into the Beit Jala area. Our three vehicles, with hazard lights blinking, were the only ones on the road that morning. All businesses, schools and homes were closed, even boarded up. Normally on a Sunday morning, a work day for the majority Muslim population, the streets would have been teeming with people. Not this day. The streets and sidewalks were completely vacant and quiet except for an occasional stray dog. The Israeli curfew kept everyone at home and off the streets. Those who ventured out risked arrest and prison.

The church bells were ringing as we approached Reformation Lutheran Church in Beit Jala. We wondered if anyone would be there. As we entered the church grounds, there were hundreds of people waiting for the bishop and for worship. Surprised by their bravery, bravery I thought might be foolhardy, I asked one of our hosts why he had violated the curfew and risked imprisonment to come to worship that day. ''If God calls us, we're coming,'' was all he needed to say.

Like most Americans my age, I had watched the invasion of Jordanian territory by the Israelis during the 1967 war and had assumed that the Israelis were the good guys. I would say that I had even assumed that God was on the side of the Israelis. That's certainly what most U.S. Christians and most Americans probably still believe.

However, I have now heard different views, views expressed to me when I have traveled several times to Jerusalem, Jordan and the West Bank and met Palestinian Christians, Lutherans who are part of the Lutheran World Federation. They are Palestinians who had their homes and pastures and olive tree groves forcefully taken from them during the 1967 war. They are Palestinians -- Muslim and Christian -- who now have to live elsewhere, no longer able to make a living on lands which had been part of their families since the time of Christ.

I have long been a real admirer of modern Israel, what the Israeli people have done with their country created out of desert lands in 1948. But, much to my surprise, these lands may have been desert, but they were not deserted! Real people, Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, lived on these lands and were forcibly removed in 1948 and again in 1967.

We have seen what legacy these wars have brought to the people of the Middle East and the world. Sixty years of almost constant war and conflict with extremists reveling in death and destruction, wars and conflicts which seem to simmer under the surface and regularly erupt as they have in Lebanon and Gaza.

Abraham Lincoln, when asked if God was on the side of the Union forces (and, by implication, not on the side of the Confederate forces), is said to have responded, ''The question is not, is God on our side, the question is, are we on God's side?''

In the Middle East, as in most earthly conflicts, there are Godly people on all sides of the current conflicts. The extremists on both sides may get the headlines. Often forgotten are the majority of people who live behind the headlines; Israelis who fear suicide bombers, Palestinians cut off from oil and heat, food, employment and medical care. The question then is Lincoln's question: Are we on God's side?

And what would God's side be? In the Gospels, Jesus Christ gives us some ideas. God's side is standing for and with the poor and powerless. God's side is standing for peace in the face of violence and war, ''turning the other cheek,'' as Jesus says. God's side is realizing that God is calling us to be peace makers even in the face of opposing forces all claiming God's direction. God's side is for peace in the Middle East and throughout this world.

We are called to be on God's side, to stand with God and God's values of peace and love for humankind and to stand with others who share these values, in Israel and Palestine and everywhere.

The Rev. Eric C. Shafer, senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, is traveling in Jerusalem and the West Bank and plans to preach today from Jerusalem via satellite. His daily blog and sermon are available online at .
Copyright © 2008, The Morning Call

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