I am embarking on my long-delayed vocation as a writer.
I am not engaged in it full-time yet–have to finish some important work for People of Faith for Equality in Virginia (POFEV), and deal with another big project in my life–but I am committed to writing regularly. In fact, I have pledged to write daily.
One vehicle I have chosen is every day to offer a few thoughts on my Facebook page–spiritual or poetic or even issue-oriented (but not related to my work for POFEV)–as a form of accountability. It is one sure way to make sure I do what I say I am going to do.
Yesterday, I dropped the ball–visiting my daughter Robin and husband Christopher in Brooklyn (and having great conversation with her after he went to work), and then taking the Long Island Railroad to Yaphank (what a name!) to spend several days with daughter Meg and her family, husband Kevin and daughters Juna and Annie–and wrote nothing.
This is not a confession so much as an opportunity to say why I am writing daily (almost) on Facebook.
I do not intend any of the short pieces to be final and complete–some might actually become polished poems or maybe the start of a longer essay or spiritual reflection. But for now, they are ways for me to record some thoughts–to notice what is going on and to write it down, which is, according Anne Lamott, what writers do.
Whatever, the key to writing is to write. A writer writes. I am a writer who writes.
The psalmist, speaking in the voice of exiles far from home,
Struggling to hold on to their integrity in the face of taunts and demands for entertainment–like minstrels held captive in Dixie–says
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”
One does not need to be in another country for this question
to be on the tip of tongues, bursting from hearts who experience dislocation at the nearest mall.
Can we even remember the words to the song
Or have they been drowned out by the din of cries for security
Achieved at the point of guns and the devastation of drones?
Still we can sing, we must sing, whatever words and tune we know
The song awaits us, the world pretends not to notice
Yet yearns for a new song, the one that has been around since Creation began.
It is good. It is all good.
[This continues the meditations from December 9, 10, and 12, 2014, and January 9. 2015. reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.]
As Thursday’s sun continued to warm me and the rocks on which I sat, I knew the moment was coming for me to walk naked into the frigid mountain lake waters (see December 10, 2014).
But before this exposure–pushing aside my shame by showing my body to whomever was at the shore, and daring the icy waters my fellow Quester told me about two days before–I felt the need to meditate and write more. I wear only my Radical Faerie/RFD pansy t-shirt for inspiration (left).
I find a spot where I can sit away from the public path (only a few day trippers come through, but still after a time of being alone each one feels like an intrusion, even though of course they have as much right to be here as I do) but where I also can see the lake and the pines and the great bowl of rock around me . . . and as soon as I am settled, I say to myself, sort of out loud but mostly inside myself, “I am afraid.”
It is not being alone here–some of my fellow Questers are, I think, within shouting distance, at least if I really yelled–or even my hunger which is beginning to nudge me around the edges, but as soon as I say it, I know it is because something is rising up in me, something what will create big change in my life.
It is what I came for, I suppose, to connect with this “something” that has been getting under my skin for a couple of years, and longer, maybe for most of my adult life, something about my life that needs to change. I write down that fear, and also some of the good things I am learning–how to reconnect with trees (December 12, 2014) and how to observe creatures in nature (January 9, 2015). In some ways, I realize what I am learning is how to pay attention to the wild, the natural, as a source of wisdom (something our culture actively discourages) . . . .
. . . and I say, again, I am afraid there is more . . . and then it happens. The more comes.
In that moment, out of my control, I say out loud–and I write exactly at the same moment in my journal. . . “and the writing keeps crying out.”
The writing keeps crying out.
I did not say this and then write it down, or write it and then say it out loud. This was a simultaneous action of speaking and writing, as if my voice was moving my pen, or perhaps my pen was moving my voice. Either way, my voice hung in the air for just a moment or two, and I burst into sobs, I wail, I cry out big loud cries of agony and joy all mixed together. I try to stifle the noise, and then I know I must be even louder, this is decades of denial that needs to come out. I breathe, it feels as if I am taking in big gulps of truth which then send me into tears. I exhale. I drink. I breathe. I cry. I sit.
I cry more, and I write. And cry. Some long neglected part of me has come home, I think, or more accurately, I have come home to it.
I reflect on how out of balance my life has become. I have lost my earth connection, I say. I don’t dig in the soil, I don’t run the soil through my fingers like natural rosary beads, seeking its truth. And I admit I am afraid to write from my soul, afraid I will be found out as a fraud by others.
It felt good to write a poem back in Richmond to bring to give to my fellow Quest pilgrims. I then wonder what it would be like to spend an entire day writing, and then another day, and another, a rhythm of writing, digging, reading, playing, walking, resting, writing. Is that my vision, I ask.
I ponder, and write a poem (still needs work!) about the Cathedral Peak behind me, and reflect about the smoke that blows from fires not that far away (what are we doing to the earth?).
And I write of how the question of whether to stop my pastoring and organizing and turn to writing, perhaps in conjunction with some teaching, is not exactly a new one for me. I wonder if I made the wrong choice when I left pastoring MCC Richmond and took up leading People of Faith for Equality in Virginia (POFEV). Did I hear God wrong?
I pause. I seek some peace. I breathe.
I realize all I know right now is that “the writing keeps crying out.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the two or three most amazing persons of my first 68 years. I am glad we have a holiday to honor him.
I just wish we followed him more closely. He gave us useful and powerful guides to how we, as a nation, should structure our society and live our corporate life.
So often, however, people demonstrate that they never really heard him, or perhaps it is better say that they never really listened.
People focus on “the speech,” understandably. The closing compares, very favorably, in its powerful evocation of our national ideals with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the closing of his Second Inaugural. If you add Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and John Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” you probably have the list of the most iconic political writing and speaking in our national history.
But King was so much more than a speech. And he had more than a dream.
He saw way beyond his moment to a vision of a United States that was truly free–free from all the petty delusions and ugly divisions that continue to drag us down.
In his cadences, and in his denunciation of discrimination and war and the causes of poverty, I always think of the prophet Isaiah. He could cut right to the quick of what was wrong, and point out how it got that way.
But more than a critic, he was a builder. He really wanted peace. And he knew the path to peace goes through justice.
The lack of civil rights, the wrong of the war in Vietnam, the poor treatment of sanitation workers and other workers, public and private, were actually all of of a piece for him. Injustice–i.e., dealing with people not as people but as objects, not as siblings in the family of God but as items to be judged and, in too many cases, tossed aside as unworthy and irrelevant–anywhere means injustice everywhere, and that leads to discontent and unrest and a lack of peace.
Shalom. The Hebrew word usually translated as “peace,” was actually what King saw, and he knew that it means so much more than the absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord–for all.
As I write this, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering bills to deny in-state tuition for college students who were brought to this country illegally, while children, by their parents. These students have graduated from Virginia high schools and been admitted to Virginia colleges, and are paying tuition and keeping up their grades. But some, including Sen. Dick Black, want to turn them away, tell them they are not welcome in Virginia.
Can you imagine how Dr. King would respond?
I can’t write the way he did, or speak the way he did, but I suspect his oratory would soar as he talked about killing the dream–how when we kill the dream for some we deny the dream for all of us.
He knew that we are all in this together, and that raising folks up who are struggling against unjust barriers raises us all. We are all better when more of us are doing better. When we live on the basis of love, on the ground of generosity, on the health of hope, we help all to thrive.
And he knew, as so many of us but not all, know, that if it feels like discrimination, if it smells like injustice, if it holds some back while others get to forward smoothly, then it needs to be stopped or changed.
Some folks are still trying to kill the dream, to stop the vision. But even the assassin’s bullet can’t stop the movement of justice and peace. Dr. King, like Isaiah and so many others, knew that God calls us to stand up for justice, without end.
And that means we have to live in love.
It means the rest of us have to pick up the sign and march, get on our knees and pray, get out our pens and write letters, and gather our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens and congregants everywhere and keep on organizing, and agitating–with joy and hope in our hearts and love on our lips.
Count me an agitator for justice and peace, an “angelic troublemaker,” in the words of Bayard Rustin. I know who my drum major is; I am marching with Dr. King. How about you?
It’s a busy day in Virginia . . . . well, for some people at least.
State employees are on holiday today and on Monday, too, so they may be less busy than usual. The reason state offices are closed: Lee-Jackson Day today, and Martin Luther King Day on Monday.
And today is another special day, too: Religious Freedom Day. Nobody gets that day off.
The confluence of these three days feels rather amazing, and confusing, to me. I am feeling out of sorts about some of this, and not sure what to say. But here are a few observations.
Some folks are celebrating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two Virginia-born heroes of the Confederate forces in the Civil Wars–you know, that war that was about whether a major share of the country should be allowed to continue enslaving people–while on Monday, some folks–probably not the same ones–will be celebrating the birthday of the man who had more to do with ending the legalized oppression, Jim Crow and segregation, which was the aftermath of that slavery, than just about anybody else.
And then there is religious freedom.
What many who came here from religiously oppressive Europe wanted–to practice their religion their way, and what many of those of the dominant religious tradition did not want to share with others who believed differently (or did not believe at all).
Freedom. What the slaves wanted and the planters feared. And what Generals Lee and Jackson, and a host of other generals and leaders and plenty of ordinary folk fought to preseve: enslaved Africans making profit for their masters. Note: to his credit, before the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson taught free and enslaved Africans how to read the Bible, even though it was against the law to teach slaves to read.
Two of the planters who opposed freedom for Africans were the architects of religious freedom in Virginia, and thus, in the nation. Jefferson and Madison authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which ended the religious monopoly of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in Virginia and which became the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We owe them an enormous debt. People became free to exercise their consciences, including to not believe in any deity or religion. That was, and is, a big deal.
Sadly, however, these architects of freeing consciences were not the architects of freeing bodies. So, as we celebrate them and their achievement in one area, we are reminded of their failure in another.
And every year, when the state persists in honoring those who fought their own nation to preserve the enslavement of others we are reminded of our painful heritage. Some don’t see the pain–then or now. If you go to the City of Lexington today and tomorrow, you can participate in a well-planned celebration of Lee (he lived there after what the local organizers call “The War Between the States” and built up what is now Washington and Lee University) and Jackson (who lived there before the same war)–scholarly talks and a buffet lunch and dance, and a parade, too.
I love Virginia. It is simply a grand place to live and work. I could spend the rest of my life here, happily.
But I also must say we remain a badly fractured people. I live in Richmond, and the divide between it, with its large African-American population, and the surrounding counties, far more white, is stark. Poverty rates, HIV infection rates, joblessness, inadequate housing and homelessness–Richmond “wins” every time.
So, although we have much political freedom–although LGBT Virginians still suffer legal discrimination–we need social and economic freedom.
Its time to stop glorifying Lee and Jackson–and the Confederacy generally. Its time to admit that every time this is done, African Americans feel the injury. It is our history, so we need to study it and learn from it, but we need not be proud.
Lee-Jackson Day is now the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. Thank goodness we no longer observe Lee-Jackson-King Day!
If we must have this observance, perhaps we should keep state government open and ask all departments to use the day to inventory and publish how they help and/or hinder the progress of African-Americans. They could have open houses to showcase their findings.
The Governor could go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond–he could take the Mayor with him–and participate in a prayer vigil of remembrance and repentance for all the slaves sold (and the ones who died) at Lumpkin’s Jail.
And maybe, in a burst of religious openness and freedom, Christians and Jews and Muslims could visit the houses of worship of each other, to learn something about the faith that is not their own. They could even go to meetings organized by atheists to learn more about why so many don’t believe any more.
I don’t have great answers, but I do know this: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Lee and Jackson did not understand that, nor did Jefferson and Madison. Dr. King did.
And if you read him, as I do, you understand that it was his faith in a God of love that provided the base for that belief. And he knew that God was not a Christian God. And he knew that sometimes those who do not believe in God were better allies for freedom than those who do.
That’s what we need to celebrate, and work for: ending a world overrun with injustice, creating a world filled with justice, a world where whether you believe in God or not, all are treated as the beloved of God.
Hear ye! Hear ye! The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is now in session. May God save the people of this Commonwealth!
That is my somewhat tongue-in-cheek sentiment, but it also reflects my real fear at how much damage an ideologically driven legislature can do. Some of that damage comes from things they will not do, and other risks lie in what they will do. The former means things can’t get worse, but that does mean we can breathe easy. The latter may not ultimately occur because Governor McAuliiffe will use his veto pen and is unlikely to be overridden in the Senate.
But I still pray for us every day the GA is I session, and I encourage you to do so, too.
It seems reasonable to assume they won’t advance LGBT equality, but in that way they will actually continue to do real damage. Kids will still be subjected to “therapeutic bullying,” workers will still fear losing jobs (and some will) if they come out, renters will still face discrimination, and transgender Virginians will still lack some fundamental protections.
And they won’t pass Medicaid expansion, so hundreds of thousands will continue to suffer from the lack of adequate health care. Sadly, too many legislators focus only on money and miss how we all are impoverished when some of us face structural obstacles to good health. Failing that test of corporate well-being is missing the true bottom line.
There are some good signs: there may be improvements in public school standards and they may work with the Governor to improve management of public-private partnerships for roads and other public works.
But it seems safe to say they will continue to shortchange higher education in their rush to cut spending instead of raising revenue, and they will do nothing to stop the flow of guns in and out of the Commonwealth (or their unsafe use here).
I am always a hope-filled person– my middle name is Hawley but in many ways The “H” stands for HOPE–but I am praying, my friends, big time.
There are some stand outs–Senators McEachin, Watkins, and Howell, and Delegates Krupicka, Loupassi, McClellan, Plum, and Rust, come to mind (and there are undoubtedly others)–among the sea of political mediocrity in the world’s oldest deliberative legislative body, but on the whole we are not being well-served.
We will survive, I am sure, but oh what a wondrous thing it would be if this fall a goodly number of these legislators were replaced (and not by the voluntary absence of senior members and others who are tired of “the games” too many of their colleagues play). We need a GA with more grown-ups.
More than one million people marched in Paris, in solidarity with the victims of the violence perpetrated by some thugs masquerading as devoted followers of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. They also marched in support of free speech for all.
Of course, such speech does not, and cannot, include violence. It must be peaceful speech, albeit often passionate and unsettling and irritating and even enraging to those who disagree.
The perpetrators cited what they called “blasphemy” against the Prophet in a cartoon in an irreverent publication. That was their alleged reason to kill twelve people, and terrorize many more, attempting to terrorize a nation, indeed the world.
Never mind that the Quran does not speak of blasphemy. The medieval image (right) of Mohammed preaching is from “Depicting the Prophet Mohammed” on a blog by Clouddragon (click here to read and see more). Images of the Prophet are common in the history of Islam (although not in mosques and other holy places, to guard against idol worship). According to Fareed Zakaria, “On several occasions, Muhammad treated people who ridiculed him and his teachings with understanding and kindness.” (you can read more from Zakaria here).
We are having a hard time with dialogue these days. Our national leaders seem unable to engage in meaningful conversation across the political party divide. Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and so many of their people, have so little regard for, or trust of, the other that it seems most doubt their shared humanity.
How can we change this? It seems clear to me that these leaders–and others around the globe–cannot be trusted to do it. It is up to people, ordinary people, people like you and me.
It starts with living our own lives as peacefully as possible. That means setting our intention to be peaceful. And loving. Caring. Trusting. Inviting trust by being trustworthy ourselves.
That means loving our enemies as we love ourselves, loving our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, and Matthew 19:19, Mark 12:33, and Luke 10:27).
Neighbors are important in this. It is not enough for us to be loving in ourselves; the seriousness of these times require that we band together with others to practice love more fully and actively, relying on each other to encourage us in difficult times and to hold us accountable for our shortcomings.
We need a new peace movement, from the ground up. We must, I believe, learn to be more God-like. I don’t mean to be God, but live grounded in the family inheritance of godliness, to live as the children of God we are.
The poet Mark Nepo quotes Orest Bedrij, scientist, businessman and author (Seeing God Face to Face), as saying, “To know God without being God-like is like trying to swim without entering water.”
Pollyanna? Maybe. But what else is there?
Jonathan and I have joined a small group, Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine (RPIP), to help educate citizens here about the issues in that conflict and to work together to create peace. Yes, create peace.
Peace is created out of the chaos and anger and animosities and conflicts and poverty and wealth and hope and joy of life as it is lived every day. It takes work, more work than war, which is why we have so much war and so little real peace.
RPIP is committed to showing films and hosting discussions about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We want people to have more information, not less. And we want the information to be less filtered than what we so often receive through our mainstream media. There is not one of us in RPIP who wants Israel to die, indeed a safe and thriving Israel is our goal, side by side with a safe and thriving Palestine, but we also recognize that, like our own country, Israel has made many mistakes and bears significant responsibility (though far from all responsibility) for the rise of an angry Palestinian/Islamist movement.
This is not to let the hoodlums in Paris off the hook, not at all, but it is to say that if all we–whatever we are–do is engage violence with more violence, no matter how righteous–or even just have a march–then they will keep on killing. And the killing will get worse and worse.
Mark Nepo offers a startling thought: “the best chance to be whole is to love whatever gets in the way, until it ceases to be an obstacle.” (The Book of Awakening, p. 13)
Who do I need to learn to love today? And you? And how do we show the love? How do we stay with it and nurture it even in the face of hate?
No answers here today, but a heart that yearns for peace. Join me, I hope.
[This continues the meditations from December 9, 10, and 12, 2014, reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.]
What can I learn from ducks?
It is now Thursday, on this several day sojourn in the wilderness, what I now call my Soul Quest. It will become a momentous day for me, but here I am going to focus on just one piece of the gift of paying attention.
The sun rises, I pray to the four directions as Tomas, our shaman, has taught us, and I seek a spot to sit. It is not easy; the rocks are hard and still cold in the early morning. I feel a little wobbly, having had no food since Tuesday evening.
But the day is bright and my tree friends are looking grand. As does the lake. Oh, right, the lake. I am committed to going in to its frigid waters later in the day, naked as a newborn babe (and with probably as much sense, I say to myself).
But for now, I sit and look around. I seek to clear my mind and just experience the stillness that underlies the wind and the sun and the birds flying and squirrels busily moving about. After a while, I walk to the lake, not yet ready to take the plunge but wanting a preparatory look, and to dip my hand in and filter some water for drinking.
As I approach the lake, I see ducks, five of them, swimming slowly and sometimes just sitting in the water. I find a perch and watch them for what feels a long time. I am enthralled by the pattern of their group dynamics. Four of the ducks congregate, one stays apart. At first, I think that the separate one is being shunned by the group. But then I note something else; they are connected, and he is the leader. He moves a little and they move a little. I mean a little, it is subtle but clear. In my mind, I begin to call him LD (Lead Duck).
Then one of the four moves out, a little away from the group and LD. After that ones stays put a little while, LD begins to move ahead in the same direction the other one was moving, and they all follow LD. It is an interesting dance of leader and follower, what I interpret as their being two leaders, one who is clearly part of the group–like a lieutenant or Vice-Lead Duck–and whose consent is required for Lead Duck to move out, followed by the others. This causes me to want to reflect on this in terms of being a leader.
The day is warming fast. I remove some clothing, and find a rock on which to sit and make notes in my journal.
What I notice in this movement of the ducks is that they cannot be led unless they are willing to follow. It is a lesson I still need to learn. I am always moving to somewhere or something, but not always very concerned about whether anyone is actually following. I just expect people to follow. I certainly have not been very conscious of gathering people before attempting to lead them.
As I write in my journal, I note that not a lot of people are following my lead in People of Faith for Equality in Virginia. We are not building a substantial network. I wonder if perhaps it is because I don’t know how to gather them together and help us move together. I think of my ten-year pastorate, and realize that may have been true there as well.
Watching these ducks reminds me that leadership, like much of life in communities and families, is a dance. It takes partners, because it is not a solo.
I conclude that LD is a very wise duck indeed. Whether I can learn what he and the others teach is another question. But they have shown me wisdom today. As I have been told, wilderness can teach us much. I am grateful to be here.
Too often, we who are Christians have taken the life out of our religion. Our traditions become relics, almost bloodless, empty of connection with how people, we, actually live (and how the people in the stories on which the traditions are based actually lived, too).
Of course, this varies by culture and particular religious traditions. For example, Three Kings Day, or the Feast of the Epiphany, does not get much notice in many western Christian circles–but in Hispanic or Latino/a cultures and churches, January 6 is a really big deal.
Despite the song that celebrates the “Twelve Days of Christmas”–omnipresent in every store for at least six weeks prior to December 25–most people are surprised that, according to the liturgical calendar, Christmas actually lasts twelve days.
Surely, they think, the last day of Christmas is the day, or maybe two days, after Christmas Day when people rush to the malls for bargains and/or to return or exchange gift items. Truly, Christmas has become a secular holiday for most, and a much-needed boost to consumer spending. For most, Christmas begins when the shopping season begins, and ends with Christmas dinner or a day or two of post-holiday shopping. In the church, Christmas Day is the beginning not the ending. Or at least, it is supposed to be.
And, much of the time, when there is attention to Epiphany, it is the magi who are most noticed, even though they came to see the infant. Of course, the infant is the center of the story. Infants usually are.
The infant. Do we really believe he was a baby? He is usually pictured soundly sleeping, or at least resting quietly–“no crying he makes,” says the carol we sing each year. What kind of baby is that? Is that a real baby?
And what about his parents and the situation they were in? The stable and the manger-crib always look so tidy, as if Housekeeping had just come by and gotten everything in order.
Several pictures that I have seen over the past couple of weeks have reminded me that despite the sweet carols we sing, and the adorable pageants that youth offer in many churches, this was not an easy time for Mary (any one who has given birth or even been present as someone else is doing so knows it is incredibly hard, painful work), and even Joseph and Jesus, too.
And the magi–whether there were three or 103, the biblical record does not say, despite the tradition–seem an odd group, bringing treasure and worship, even though they were not Jewish, let alone Christian(!).
So, pictured to the right is a humorous attempt to make the story a bit more real–the Three Wiser Women arriving to provide more homely, practical gifts needed by the parents of every newborn.
And pictured here are two views of a sculpture at the entrance to St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Anglican Church), Trafalgar Square, London, by Michael Chapman. In one, we see the whole sculpture from a side view. The sculptor has chiseled the phrase “In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and lived among us” from chapter one of John’s Gospel around the stone (visible is “In the beginning” on the right, and “lived among us” on the left).
The second shows the top of the sculpture, with the baby Jesus looking different from most portrayals. First, he has baby boy genitals. We don’t often see Jesus this way. And even more startling is the umbilical cord still attached.
When I saw this, at a Jazz Vespers service at the Gayton Kirk (Presbyterian Church) in Richmond’s West End, I was deeply moved. Here is a “real baby,” vulnerable like babies are–not wrapped in swaddling clothes with angels singing and shepherds and worldly wise men praying–given a prominent place among the high and important buildings (including the towering monument to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar) in this historic section of one of the world’s major cities.
Yes, he is carved out of stone–the sculpture can appear as a tombstone, so perhaps the artist seeks to remind us of what happens later–but I can actually hear a baby cry, and know that he will pee and poop, and that when the cord is cut there will be blood as there always is during birth.
This baby became a real man, the most perfect and wise and powerful man of whom I have ever known, and for me, as for so many other believers, he lives among us still. Seeing him this way, and seeing the women above, reminds me that just as the baby was a human being so was the full-grown man.
He is the Lord to me, but he is Lord with whom I can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, and shoot the breeze, as well as Lord from whom I can continually learn how to be fully human, that is, how to live the fullness of the divine origins we share, as children created in the image of God.
That is a question that was raised for me during our visit to Jerusalem, when I made an acquaintance with a 50-year-old cab driver, a native of Jerusalem, a man whose father and grandfather, and even earlier generations, were born in that holy place.
This man, Muhammed Siam, was as gentle a man as I would ever hope to meet. He took me and Jonathan to a mall so I could buy a connector for my camera, and then I arranged for him to take me a couple of days later to Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center on the outskirts of Jerusalem (more about that in a future Journal entry).
It was on that second trip that I learned he was not a citizen of Israel. Indeed, he carries a Jordanian passport, even though he has lived his entire 50+ years in Jerusalem.
I am a citizen of the United States, by virtue of being born here–in Ann Arbor, Michigan on October 10, 1946. I have never lived in any other country. I have resided in Milford and in Ann Arbor (during college) in Michigan, and in the states of Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and now Virginia. And if I moved to France or Mexico or Israel, or even neighboring Maryland, I could retain my U.S. citizenship.
The reality for my friend Muhammed, and another man also named Muhammed, a tour guide I got to know while he guided us to Masada and the Dead Sea and showed us other things on the way to and from these destinations, is that the place of their birth is less important than their religion and politics and perhaps most of all their identity as Palestinians. I started to write “their nationality as Palestinians,” but realized that this is not so clear.
Can we say someone has a nationality when there is no nation? Recently, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority unsuccessfully sought recognition for their “country” from the United Nations. Does this mean there is no nation? No Palestine? Legally, it is so.
Morally, it is not so, at least to me. Clearly, the intent of the 1948 UN Declaration was that there would be two nations, side by side, Israel and Palestine. That has not happened. Initially, that seems to be because the Palestinians, and their Arab allies, were unwilling to share what had for millenia been their land, their home. They thought they could defeat the upstart Jews who had settled there and even expel them.
The reverse was true. The Jewish Agency forces defeated the Arabs/Palestinians and forced many Palestinians to leave (I will get in trouble with some Israelis and allies for saying this, but it is nonetheless true–maybe a few Palestinians left willingly, but most of the hundreds of thousands did not). This is an ordinary outcome of war. People are displaced.
But for my two Muhammed friends it is not so simple. They are residents of East Jerusalem, an area that Jordan ruled following the 1948 war, until 1967. So they became Jordanian citizens. But in 1967, Israel defeated Jordan and Syria (and Egypt in a war that was initially focused on Israel attacking and defeating Egypt in the Sinai and Gaza). When the six days ended, Israel had control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 300,000 Palestinians fled those two areas, but many also stayed.
Hence, the situation of my two friends.
They carry identity cards as residents of Jerusalem, but they are not citizens of Israel. This would be somewhat analogous to foreign nationals who obtain Permanent Residency status in the United States.
But it is not the same, because Muhammed the cab driver cannot leave Israel to visit his grandchildren in Jordan (his daughter married a Jordanian) unless he is willing not to return to his home in Jerusalem. A permanent resident of the United States is allowed to leave and return, within certain time restraints.
Muhammed told me that Israel does allow people like him to apply for citizenship, but that most, including him, refuse because to do so is to recognize Israel’s authority to determine whether or not they are actually citizens of the land into which they were born. He also says that Israel makes it very difficult and time-consuming for those who do apply.
So, he remains a legal visitor in his native land–without the freedom to come and go.
I have been sitting with this ever since he told me on October 25. I understand Israeli concerns–if they allowed all the Palestinians to be citizens, and thus to vote, they would most likely no longer have a Jewish homeland–but I also understand the feelings of Muhammed–an alien in his home.
I am not sure I could remain as patient as him, in a similar situation in the United States.