June 17, 2024 / Todd Deatherage

Every Bombed Village Is My Hometown

"With prophetic urgency, these Palestinian Christian leaders pleaded with us to turn from our weaponized theologies, and from the ways we abuse our access to American political power to deny the humanity of Palestinians. We listened to their laments and pleas for action as they rebuked the church in the West for it’s failure to respond to what so much of the world, including the United Nations itself, calls a genocide."

"With prophetic urgency, these Palestinian Christian leaders pleaded with us to turn from our weaponized theologies, and from the ways we abuse our access to American political power to deny the humanity of Palestinians. We listened to their laments and pleas for action as they rebuked the church in the West for it’s failure to respond to what so much of the world, including the United Nations itself, calls a genocide."

*Editorial Note: Our colleagues at The Telos Group have invited us to stand in solidarity with them in calling for a permanent and lasting ceasefire in Gaza. Several weeks ago, Todd Deatherage, the Executive and Co-Founder of The Telos Group, led a group of American Christian leaders in a solidarity pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine to listen to and mourn with Palestinian and Israeli friends as the senseless violence in Gaza rages on. Todd published his initial reflections in a post entitled “Every Bombed Village Is My Hometown.” He has graciously given us permission to share his message to the Telos community, in hopes for increased advocacy to result in lasting peace across the Holy Land. We urge you to prayerfully engage with Todd’s reflections, inviting the Holy Spirit to make known how you must engage with the suffering of our global neighbors in Gaza. ~Missio Alliance


During the Vietnam War, James Baldwin once remarked, “Every bombed village is my hometown.”1

That profound insight, born of his own experience as a Black man in America, but also rooted in a deep and universal understanding of mutuality, is a call to solidarity with those who are suffering.

That’s the kind of solidarity we at the Telos Group have been trying to live out these past fifteen years, and never more so than since October 7th, 2023. The relational proximity we’ve stewarded all these years with Palestinians and Israelis ultimately led a small group of us to travel to Israel/Palestine in late May 2024, to mourn with those who are mourning.

This was my 63rd Telos trip, but one like no other. The air was almost too thick to breathe, the faces of friends and strangers alike bore the weight of pain, sorrow, anger, and despair. While we were there, trucks carrying aid to starving Gazans were attacked and diverted by Israeli settlers. Sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and central Israel as Hamas defiantly fired more rockets from the besieged southern Gaza Strip. More Israeli soldiers were killed in the north of Gaza, a place the IDF said it had previously cleared in the earlier operations there that displaced so many innocent civilians. And then, at the end of our trip, a massacre in Rafah. Women, men, and children were burned alive after an Israeli airstrike, one that was carried out with American munitions.

No doubt Baldwin would tell us that today, Rafah is our hometown.

We went simply to be present, to sit alongside, to hear whatever stories needed to be shared, and to share whatever silences needed to be observed. When or whether to even go was not an easy decision. Those of us who were horrified by the morning of October 7th and have been horrified by every day since (and who were horrified by so many of the days leading up to October 7th) know that our work is here in the United States where so much power and influence is wielded in the service of a number of lies and misunderstandings about the path to human flourishing. Nothing Hamas did on October 7th made Palestinians more free, and nothing Israel has done since October 7th has made Israelis more safe and secure. The overlapping, complex violences of displacement, terrorism, hostage-taking, occupation, siege, and mass slaughter keep us trapped. This is how we got here, not how we ultimately get out.

For those of us who believe these things to be true, we have so much work to do here in the United States. But our friends are living amidst the terror unfolding in Gaza, and eventually it became clear that as the nightmare they are living extends indefinitely, that our showing up and being with them, seeing their faces, and hearing their stories was an additional act of solidarity. It wasn’t a substitute for the action of advocacy and justice required of us here in America, but it was an important, albeit fumbling, way to be a peacemaker in a time of horrific violence in Gaza.

We have so much work to do here in the United States. But our friends are living amidst the terror unfolding in Gaza, and it became clear that our showing up and hearing their stories was an additional act of solidarity. (1/2) Share on X

It wasn't a substitute for the action of advocacy and justice required of us here in America, but it was an important, albeit fumbling, way to be a peacemaker in a time of horrific violence in Gaza. (2/2) Share on X

Our First 36 Hours in the Land

And so a small band of us converged on the land, from diverse cities and cultural perspectives across America: Washington, D.C., Chicago, Selma, South Bend, Orlando, Western Michigan, and Des Moines. We entered into the shock and grief, the terror and anger, and the pain and sadness of deeply traumatized people, and yet we also experienced our friends resilient beauty and wisdom. The strength of so many we met gave us hope, even as a fellow traveler from Selma, a civil rights activist and expert in nonviolence, cautioned us not to allow their resilience to absolve us of our own obligation to do the work we have to do. It is an unsettling thing to return home having been proximate to such pain, having wept so many tears, and yet finding hope not dead, but being nurtured and pressed into more deeply. We are reminded that hope is not an emotion, it is what you do. Hope, especially in lived action, is as necessary for life as food and water.

We began by seeing a brilliant couple, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have devoted their considerable talents to creating the world they want to see: A world where Palestinians and Jews live as neighbors, partners, and friends, in shared equality across a land devoid of supremacist and exclusionary ideologies. Today, some of their long-standing relationships are frayed by their expressions of grief for the destruction in Gaza. They fear both societal and governmental retaliation as they watch fellow Palestinian citizens of Israel endure harassment and even arrest for social media posts and other expressions of dissent from the Israeli government’s policies. The vision of mutuality this kind and courageous couple has cultivated like a well-tended garden has been plowed under in haste, the land sowed with salt. Their pained and despondent looks seemed to wonder if anything good could ever grow in this soil again.

We met an Israeli Jew whose mother, famous for her peace activism, was murdered on October 7th. He recounted the horror of his final phone call with her, as they spoke together until the Hamas gunmen were literally banging at her door. His mother’s vision was not killed that day, even though she was, as her son has picked up her baton and joined the reconciliation work of the Parents Circle. This Israeli Jewish man has quit his job and committed his entire life to creating a shared future of truth and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, after the events of October 7th! He is equally determined not to pass on his mother’s work to his own three children, but to finish it in his lifetime. His conviction? There is no other way forward but life for all.

We met with our longtime Israeli friend who has lived on the border of the Gaza Strip for decades and has long been involved in the work of peace. We heard of that harrowing October morning when she, her children, and her grandchildren came terrifyingly close to death as gunmen searched her daughter’s home while the family huddled in a secret closet under the basement stairs. Somehow they miraculously avoided notice, only to find that the men went next door and murdered their neighbors in cold blood. Our friend’s initial response was deep shock and confusion, uncertain if everything she’d long worked for was even possible any longer. But eight months later, she’s regained her voice, and remains more committed than ever before that the only way out of this mess is through peaceful negotiation, discussion, respect, mutuality, and nonviolence.

We sat with a woman whose compounding tragedies include two relatives murdered in Kibbutz Beeri, with three others taken hostage. Although two of these family members were released in last year’s temporary ceasefire, a third remains in captivity. Her deep frustration and lament remains with the willful indifference and neglect of her own government, in particular her Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

All of these traumatic stories, deep laments, and intractable frustration came pouring out of our friends in our first 36 hours in the land. And then we went to Bethlehem.

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Their strength gave us hope, even as a fellow traveler from Selma, a civil rights activist and expert in nonviolence, cautioned us not to allow their resilience to absolve us of our own obligation to do the work we have to do. (1/2) Share on X

It is an unsettling thing to return home having been proximate to such pain. We are reminded that hope is not an emotion, it is what you do. Hope, especially in lived action, is as necessary for life as food and water. (2/2) Share on X

From Bethlehem

Bethlehem. The birthplace of the one known as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:1-7). No Palestinians have been allowed work permits to travel into Israel for their jobs since October 7th. Many of the Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem have family connections with the Christian community in Gaza. Most have loved ones who’ve died in Gaza or remain huddled inside the few remaining churches. All feel connected to Gaza, unable to remove themselves from the news they receive from an area less than 50 miles from them. At times, they can even hear the bombs exploding in Gaza from the streets of Bethlehem. Whether or not they are blood kin, these Palestinian Christians see their own family’s faces in the faces of the men, women, and children bearing the ceaseless horrors of war, famine, displacement, and interminable bombing.

Walking around Bethlehem felt post-apocalyptic. The streets were empty and the shops were closed, with no pilgrims meandering through a town built on tourism. The despair was clearly evident in the eyes of grown men reduced to selling Kleenex and bottled water on the street. After 8 months of no work, with Israeli settler violence all around them, and the ongoing trauma of what’s happening nearby in Gaza, their faces were nearly unbearable to witness.

We went to a powerful gathering called “Christ at the Checkpoint” at Bethlehem Bible College in which local Palestinian Christian leaders called on Christians in America to repent of their support for Palestinian destruction. With prophetic urgency, they pleaded with us to turn from our weaponized theologies, and from the ways we abuse our access to American political power to deny the humanity of Palestinians. We listened to their laments and pleas for action as they rebuked the church in the West for it’s failure to respond to what so much of the world, including the United Nations itself, calls a genocide. Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, founder of Dar al Kalima University, an arts and music school in Bethlehem, told us about the recent bombing of his campus in the West Bank. With its destruction, all the institutions of higher learning in Palestinian territories have now been leveled by the IDF. Rev. Dr. Raheb showed photos of his graduates who have been killed, filmmakers and musicians alike who will tell no more stories or sing any more songs.

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With prophetic urgency, these Palestinian Christian leaders pleaded with us to turn from our weaponized theologies, and from the ways we abuse our access to American political power to deny the humanity of Palestinians. (1/2) Share on X

We listened to their laments and pleas for action as they rebuked the church in the West for it’s failure to respond to what so much of the world, including the United Nations itself, calls a genocide. (2/2) Share on X

To the Judean Hills

After this conference, we drove through the winding, narrow roads of the Judean hills southwest of Bethlehem to a farm owned by a Palestinian family for generations, with Ottoman-era deeds to support their claim. They live in an area designated by the Oslo Accords of the 1990s as Area C, the sixty percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control. This family is denied permission to extend electricity or running water to their land, nor can they build any structures on land that has been owned by their family for hundreds of years. For more than 30 years, they have engaged in a legal battle in the Israeli civilian and military courts for basic rights, while simultaneously cultivating their land, making it sustainable off the grid.

This Palestinian family hosts summer camps for children where they teach environmentalism and nonviolence. Their reality is always fraught, but since October 7th they’ve suffered even greater isolation as their access to the main highway has been blockaded by the Israeli military. New Israeli settler outposts have been established on the perimeter of their property, and Israeli settlers have attempted to build a road onto their farm, prompting two women, a family member and an international volunteer, to place their bodies in the path of a bulldozer. Another family member was recently held at gunpoint for three hours by settlers in Israeli military uniforms.

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And Finally, to Jerusalem

We next ascended to the holy city of Jerusalem and met with two friends who are Israeli human rights activists. Our friends engage in co-liberation activism with Palestinians from a local neighborhood that routinely has homes demolished by the Jerusalem municipality. Finally, we received a fitting benediction to our profound experience from members of The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF). Rami Elhanan, who lost his 14 year old daughter in the conflict in 1997, told us,

“The power of pain is enormous. You can use it to bring massive destruction, or you can use it to bring hope and healing.”

Rami and others in The Parents Circle, such as Bassam Aramin, Lailah alSheikh, and Robi Damelin (each of whom have lost a child in this brutal conflict), use their pain in service of a shared future of mutuality between Israelis and Palestinians. They seek an end to systems of occupation and control, and to pursue a lasting reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian families. After our meeting with them, a pastor from Chicago remarked that she was struck by how courageous these people are, but then realized that what motivates them “is not courage but love.”

To speak of love in such a time as this: Is that delusional? Or is it more delusional to wonder if anything good can come from from the carnage and destruction of war, a thirst for revenge that results in the senseless death of women and children?

Here’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conclusion, in a famous speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?,”given in 1967, during an especially fraught moment of the Civil Rights struggle:

“I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood and sisterhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that. And so I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems.”2

From Cornel West comes a similar insight: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”3 To love our neighbor as ourselves often requires us to work for a more just world not only for myself, but for my neighbor as well. My flourishing is intertwined with my neighbor’s well-being. Mother Teresa echoes this sentiment, once remarking “If we have no peace it’s because we’ve forgotten we belong to each other.”4

Remembering requires moral imagination to see beyond our differences. It requires a deliberate choice to reject the violent impulses that we desire to inflict upon our ‘enemies’ while simultaneously mustering the strength to work for the flourishing of my neighbor in love, redressing the injustices they face.

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Remembering requires moral imagination to see beyond our differences. (1/2) Share on X

Remembering requires a deliberate choice to reject the violent impulses that we inflict upon our 'enemies' while mustering the strength to work for the flourishing of my neighbor in love, redressing their injustices. (2/2) Share on X

Permanent Ceasefire: The Only Way Forward

Weeks later, a thought from Bethlehem still captures my attention. A young scholar named Dr. Lamma Mansour spoke of the role of hope and of the necessity of creating this kind of moral imagination. Dr. Mansour said that if we don’t cast a vision for a world more just and more whole, we will live within the distorted constraints of the imaginations of oppressors and of the violent. This is the nightmare world that we are trapped in at the moment.

To wake up, the bombs must stop falling. The refugees in Gaza must be allowed to breathe, to eat, and to sleep without fear. The Israeli ground invasion in Rafah must cease. Military aid to Israel from the West must be constrained until it abides by international humanitarian and human rights law. The survivors in Gaza and in Israel need the time and space to grieve, mourn, and lament, but also to begin to live again.

Beauty can arise, even these ashes. In fact, it is already doing so, for I witnessed it with my very own eyes.

An immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and across Israel is the only way forward.

All those held hostage must be released. A lifting of all blockades and barriers to allow food, medicine, and deeply-needed supplies to reach the hungry, the sick, and the dying is the only way we can begin to collectively wake up.

An end to the occupation of Palestinian territories and a viable path towards dignity, security, freedom, and equality for both Palestinians and Israelis in equal measure must be invested in.

The world we have to imagine and then work for is one in which all can flourish in the land.

The message we heard from many of our Palestinian and Israeli friends is that America is part of the problem, but also needs to be part of the solution. They were too polite to say that we have blood on our hands, but as an American, I acknowledge that we do. In our country’s desire to embrace and support Israel militarily, what we are actually doing is helping it to self-destruct on the global stage as we provide cover for the mass destruction of Palestinian lives.

This trip was a stark call to radically alter our involvement, and to be a common friend of all those who are working for peace.

We’re back home now, but today Rafah must be our hometown. And every place where there is suffering and injustice, and in particular those places where we are complicit, we are duty bound to be in solidarity with those who are vulnerable and afraid. We are responsible to act on their behalf.

This is our work: To stand with all those who are yearning for a better world and who need allies to join with them until the bombs are silenced, the hostages are freed, the blockade is lifted, and the hungry are fed. This is the great work of solidarity for Palestinians, and it is past due time for it to begin.

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Today, Rafah must be our hometown. Share on X


*Editorial Note 2: Missio Alliance has spoken out against the senseless violence in Gaza over the past few months, advocating for justice for the vulnerable, and lasting peace for all. For further reading, please see our shared piece, “Holding Vigil: Beneath a Binary Perspective on the Israeli War in Gaza,” first published on November 2nd, 2023, and “Rachel Weeping for Her Children,” a lament written by Leading Voice Dr. MaryKate Morse on December 22nd, 2023. ~CK


Footnotes

1 Bill Mullen. James Baldwin: Living In Fire. London: Pluto Press, 2019. 131.

2 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here?” Given August 16th, 1967 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. Accessed on June 15th, 2024 from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here.

3 Editorial Note: Ibid. This well known quote is widely attributed to Dr. Cornel West, although its exact citation is hard to pin down. ~CK

4 Editorial Note: Ibid. This quote is attributed to Mother Teresa, although its exact citation is hard to pin down. ~CK