Thinking about the World’s Largest Open-air Prison on Martin Luther King Day

A cold rain drizzles on the street outside the cafe where I’m sipping tea on this Martin Luther King Day. Of course, this holiday goes unnoticed here in Amman,

President Obama marks MLK Day at VermontAve. Baptist Church in Washington D.C. (NY Times Photo)

Jordan – it is a uniquely American recognition of the life and work of one of the world’s great civil rights and peace activists. MLK’s life’s work and ultimately his sacrifice in death paved the way for the positive changes in the circumstances of African Americans in the US over the last 40-50 years; and indeed race relations in general. While no one would deny that there is still much room for improvement, 46 years after King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington an African American serves in Washington as President of the United States. Yesterday President Obama spoke at Vermont Avenue Baptist church and invoked the memory of MLK’s hard work and influence .

Obama quoted a bit from a sermon King had preached at the same church almost a half century earlier, which itself was a quote from a poem:

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne…
And behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

With this verse, I couldn’t help but think of another anniversary that was marked today. A year ago today, Israel’s deadly offensive into Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) ended. The result? Shattered homes and lives.

Gazans among the rubble of destroyed homes (AFP Image)

1,385 Palestinans dead (762 non-combatants – 318 children)
13 Israelis dead (3 non-combatants – 0 children)

3,500 residential buildings destroyed in Gaza
20,000 Palestinians left homeless
(stats from B’Tselem the Israeli Center for Human Rights)

Israeli attacks over Gaza (Getty Image)

A bombed out medical center - note the destroyed mobile medical clinic in the background

Gaza school recieving incoming Israeli fire during conflict; children back at school after the conflict (AFP image)

Gazan on a destroyed building (AFP photo)

Gazan climbs down from destroyed building (AFP photo)

A year later, the devastation still persists. A group of 8 NGO’s (Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, CAFOD,
Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire) recently released a report detailing the current abysmal situation in Gaza (T h e G a z a S t r i p : A H uma n i t a r i a n Imp l o s i o n). None of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are allowed in or out of the territory and a strict blockade has prohibited the import of goods and supplies, including building materials, food, and much needed medicines. 95% of Gaza’s industry remains non-functional because of lack of power and supplies. Electricity is only available sporadically (8-12 hours per day). The Gaza power plant which at one time could produce 140mW off power now is only capable of 60mW. The Deep Poverty Line for Gaza is $2.3 per day – 70% of the population now lives on the equivalent of $1.2 per day. 80% of the population relies on outside Humanitarian aid which has been restricted from 200 trucks per day to 45 (500-600 are estimated to adequately meet current need). Millions of liters of sewage remain untreated daily and runs openly into the sea. The healthcare situation is horrendous with a lack of supplies and electricity and cases of easily preventable disease are on the rise. Doctors report a growing mental health crisis as Gazans cope with loss of life, livelihood, and the daily anxiety of trying to survive. 56% of the population are children who will bear the brunt of this mass imprisonment and humanitarian debacle for decades to come.

Gazan girl in damaged building (AFP photo)

The chief reason cited for this nearly complete blockade (imprisonment?) of Gaza by Israel is security, namely the on-going Qassem rocket attacks on Southern Israel by militant groups in Gaza. In four years these have resulted in 11 Israeli deaths. In the same time period over 2500 Gazans have been killed in retaliatory attacks. One of the objectives of Operation Cast Lead was to end this largely ineffective rocket attacks. A year later they still occur as a beleaguered populace lashes out against the decades old military occupation.

A network of smuggler’s tunnels that would put Hogan’s Heroes to shame has developed over the years beneath the Gaza-Egypt border. Everything from medecine to food to cement to guns are reportedly moved through this network. To Gazans these tunnels are a life line. Egypt recently began building a security wall which will apparently extend 20 meters deep in hopes of cutting off this activity. The project also includes pipelines which will flood any remaining tunnels with sea water with unknown consequences for the natural aquifer and already limited fresh water supply in the area.

And so to echo the poem in MLK’s sermon from so long ago . . .

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne…
And behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

The stark truth of the situation in Gaza is readily available to anyone who cares to find out, from any High School student with an internet connection to the halls of power in the the most affluent and influential nations in the world. Wrong remains on the thrones in both Israel and Palestine, and indeed around the world, as those who govern turn blind eyes and issue anemic policy statements and position papers. The future of Gaza seems not just a dim unknown, but shrouded in deepest night. Some scientists figure that the environmental toll alone will take decades to reverse – the entire area might be condemned as uninhabitable if American EPA standards were enforced.

And yet God himself is in the shadows keeping watch above his own. When, oh when, will justice roll down for Gaza? Justice will never be fully meted out by walls, rockets, guns, or the strong arm of man. It will only come at the merciful hands of the Almighty and in His time. When will the day of justice come for the weak and widowed and orphaned of Gaza? Not a day too soon. But on that day woe to any who has the blood of injustice on their hands. Those stains can be invisible in the normal light of day but will be shockingly revealed when the light of Him who watches from the shadows is fully revealed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 on the day he deliveredthe "I Have a Dream" speech

I do not mean to say that the situation is fully hopeless on the human level. I firmly believe that one of the greatest gifts that God bestowed upon humanity is that of freedom. By it’s nature this freedom is a bit of a two-edged sword. It gives us the capacity for both great good and great evil. Both Israelis and Palestinians can still work towards peace and security and freedom. As the NGO report says, “The current situation in Gaza is man-made, completely avoidable
and, with the necessary political will, can also be reversed.” Or perhaps as MLK said more eloquently:

“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

These words were spoken with conviction in the hours of dark night for the African American community, yet today a black man is President of the United States of America. What will the situation in Gaza be 50 years from now? From a human perspective the same or much worse than today. But if frail yet arrogant humanity would get out of the way of God’s mercy and justice then perhaps much, much better. In another part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he recognized whites who had

“come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We can not walk alone.”

This truth resonates today as much as it did in 1963, but it applies not just to blacks and whites, but to Israelis and Palestinians and indeed, all peoples of the world.

We cannot walk alone, nor can we simply expect to lay down centuries of hatred and walk arm in arm singing kumbaya. No, we must walk together humbly in fear of God for the shadow we perceive around him is of our own making and will one day be laid bare. On that day we will be ashamed of the sufferings we have imposed on each other in the name of what we supposed to be right and dear and true.

Was Joseph Lowery’s Benediction at Barack Obama’s Inauguration Racist?

Rev. Lowery to the left of MLK in Ithaca, NY during the civil rights era (cornell photo)

Rev. Lowery to the left of MLK in Ithaca, NY during the civil rights era (cornell photo)

A long time civil rights leader and companion of Martin Luther King, Jr.,   Reverend Joseph Lowery, stirred up a little controversy in some circles due to the benediction he gave at President Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday.  The benediction which lasted a little over 5 minutes asked for God’s guidance and forgiveness, expressed thanks for our 44th president and ended on what some are calling a racist note.  What?!  Rev. Joseph Lowery racist?    Here’s an excerpt:

Rev. Joseph Lowery

Rev. Joseph Lowery

God of our weary years, god of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our god, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee . . . .We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other . . . .Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

(Full transcript of Lowery’s Benediction here)

Or if you prefer to watch/listen to it again:

The closing words of the prayer have gotten a few people’s dander up.  What do you think?   Was the reference to black, brown, yellow, red, and white going too far?  “Red man” certainly seems to be a pejorative these days.  Is asking for the day “white will embrace what is right” a racist comment?  Some have also pointed out that the phrases were reflective of common thinking in the civil rights era and that he was giving a nod to that time.  The phrasing about black brown and white might have been inspired  by his blues song back in the late 1950s (not sure where the yellow and red references come from):

What do you think?  Was the benediction racist or offensive to you personally?  If so, please tell us why.  If not, tell us why you think it was ok.

A message from Martin Luther King Jr. to Israel, Palestine, and Obama on Inauguration Eve

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. (photo public domain from wikipedia)

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  and on the eve of the inauguration of a new American president, I believe words spoken eloquently and powerfully by MLK when he visited India 50 years ago could be given today  as a message to Israel, Palestine and President-Elect Obama.  My friend David pointed out the short (3 minute) NPR broadcast highlighting the newly discovered speeches, including this pointed and chillingly relevant fragment:

Since visiting India I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity . . . . in these days when . . .  ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere no nation can win a war.  Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence, it is either non-violence or non-existence.  Martin Luther King Junior, 1959

MLK’s unwavering and powerful commitment to non-violent resistance changed the tide of history in America.  He did not seek to kill his enemies, nor to be killed himself.  Yet his tragic assassination (martyrdom?), served as an exclamation point to the end of a life lived fully for God and others.  Change did not happen overnight in America and deep pockets of inequality, intolerance and injustice can still be found.  But part of the legacy of Dr. King’s life will be played out on the national stage tomorrow when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th (and first black) President of the United States of America.  We have come a long ways since the days of slavery, lynchings, and race riots.

I have often wondered when the Palestinian (or for that matter Israeli) Martin Luther King Jr. will step forward and declare non-violence as the “most potent weapon available to an oppressed people.”  Things have been quiet in Gaza since Israel and Hamas stopped flinging artillery at each other on Sunday.  Israel has declared that they will pull out troops by the time Obama is inaugurated.  To me, this confirms my gut suspicions three weeks ago that this was a carefully calculated “shift-change” war.  Just like the cat burglar who knows the streets won’t be watched for 30 minutes or so while the local police changes shift, Israel struck when there was very little America could say or do.  George W. and his crew were on their way out and Obama and his on the way in.  To me it actually seems like a kind of political slap-in-the-face from our supposed strongest ally in this part of the world.  That said, I hope the Israeli army does honor it’s inaugural deadline.  Maybe I’m too cynical.  Maybe they really are interested in seeing what Obama brings to the table.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table?  Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his team) will be a success.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table? Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his political team) will be a success. Of course, when it comes to baseball - Go Cubs!

I know that I am very interested to see what kind of change he can bring at home and abroad.  Personally, I’m excited that Barack Obama will be our new president.  I know all of my seriously conservative friends are scared of all the what-ifs, but we should all really be genuinely hoping that President Obama is a brilliant success.  If he isn’t the hopes and dreams of so many will be dashed.  All politics aside this is a huge step in American history, one that us “majority” folk probably don’t truly understand.  But truly,  I can’t imagine where the country or the world will be 4-8 years from now if Obama is a failure.   I think it is in everyone’s best interest that he does a fantastic job (whatever that means – personally, I wouldn’t wish being President of the USA on anyone – way too many headaches).

So as Americans celebrate the inauguration of a truly historic new President (or fret and hold their breath) Gazans pick up the peices of their lives after 3 weeks of fighting.  Over 1200 Palestinians are dead.  Around 1/2 civilians.  Maybe 1/3 children. 13 Israelis dead.  3 or 4 civilians.  Will the quiet last?  I doubt it.

It’s uncanny how 5 decades later Martin Luther King Jr’s words still hold a haunting power.  World leaders would do well to listen carefully to these words from the past.  I think if he were here today, MLK would make the very same speech.  I am hopeful that Obama will be man enough to follow in the footsteps of the peaceful revolutionary who paved the way for his presidency so many years ago.  If only those in both Israel and Palestine whose hands are responsible for carving “highways of death through the stratosphere” would also heed MLKs message and take up a different, more potent weapon.

*******

PS. – If you are interested my friend David is chronicling (as he is able) his trip to the inauguration on his blog Signs of Life.  If you don’t read it on a regular basis, maybe now would be a good time to check it out.  Also, if you like the Obama/White Sox poster it can be found here.

Barack Obama at the Western Wall

With all our final preparations to move to the Middle East I haven’t had much time to post anything of late.  Which is unfortunate, because a lot has gone on of late that is comment-worthy.  Particularly Barack Obama’s tour of the Middle East.  I’m hoping to get the local scuttle-butt on his time in Jordan when we arrive there next week.  In the meantime, I found the TIME report that Obama’s prayer at the Western/Wailing Wall had been stolen and leaked to the press to be interesting.

Western Wall with Pilgrims and Dome of the Rock at Top

Western Wall with Pilgrims and Dome of the Rock at Top

For those who do not know the Western Wall is what remains of the Jewish temple complex that is mentioned in the Gospels.  It served as a retaining wall, and was not part of the Temple itself.  Over the centuries it has been customary for Jews to pray at the wall, often loudly mourning the loss of the Temple, hence the wall’s other appellation “The Wailing Wall.”  Pilgrims of all sorts (Jew and Gentile) stand at the wall to pray, often stuffing handwritten prayers on small pieces of paper into the cracks in the wall.

Back in the summers of ’97 and ’98 I stood and prayed and stuffed a small note in the wall along with 100s of other pilgrims.   I’m not really sure what’s up with stuffing a handwritten note to God in an ancient retaining wall, but it was a very tangible, meaningful and spiritually significant act for me in that moment.  Honestly, I don’t remember what I wrote on either occasion, but I do remember the sense of renewal that I had as I prayed in this location. I never really thought about what would happen to my note after.  It seemed like a sacred place and I guess I just assumed the note would be left alone or disposed of appropriately. (Apparently the million or so notes are usually collected 2x per year and burned on the Mount of Olives).

TIME image of Obama at Western Wall

Fast forward to 2008 and enter Barack Obama into this sacred, yet very public space.  On any given day/night the square around the Western Wall might be nearly deserted or packed with throngs of pilgrims.  On Obama’s visit I’ve got to imagine there were a ton of people there observing one of the most interesting US presidential candidates in years offer his prayers to God.  I’m sure many were curious about the contents of his prayers.  I know I would have been.  The temptation to find out was too great for one man, who retrieved Obama’s paper and leaked it to the press.   This is apparently what Obama had penned:

Lord, protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.

So what do you make of all this?  Would you have stolen Obama’s prayer, too?  What do you make of the prayer? What if someone stole your prayer – would it be publishable and/or newsworthy?