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.

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.

Recent Thoughts on Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden has been getting on my nerves lately. Not personally, mind you – we’ve never met. But he released a speech recently that did two annoying things.

(1) he claimed that the Pope was responsible for recent reprints of the cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press, stating that Benedict XVI was part of a “new crusade”against Islam.

(2) Bin Laden again co-opteed the Palestinian cause for his own purposes saying that, “Palestine cannot be retaken by negotiations and dialogue, but with fire and iron.” (BBC reporting here) And also encouraging support for Palestine by joining the “jihad” in Iraq. Like that even makes any sense.

I find these two items annoying for two different reasons.

(1) When Bin Laden speaks out against the cartoons of Muhammad and links them in some obscure and nefarious plot by the Pope he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Muslim/Arab psyche. Namely that Christians are in the business of antagonizing and disrespecting Muslims and that, worse yet, Christian leaders are plotting a crusade against Islam.

(2) When Bin Laden links himself to the Palestinian cause he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Western psyche. Namely that muslims are religious extremists and that bin Laden, the Palestinians, and probably most Muslims are in cahoots against Israel and the US (and apparently Europe now).

Basically Osama bin Laden is a fear monger playing both sides against each other. Hitting at the core of what both sides worry about and what the other side doesn’t exactly understand. (Americans don’t generally get how anyone could be that upset about a cartoon and Muslims don’t understand why they are always guilty by cultural/ethnic association).

I was simmering in this annoyance the other day when I heard a fascinating episode of Fresh Air on NPR. Host Terry Gross was interviewing New Yorker writer Steve Coll about his new book entitled, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

Coll has studied the extended bin Laden family (54 children born to Osama’s father Muhammad bin Laden) and their rise from Yemeni poverty to Saudi wealth, and international notoriety. I was surprised to learn such facts as:

  • Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash caused by an American pilot’s error
  • Osama’s brother Salem died in an ultralight crash in San Antonio Texas
  • Before his death Muhammad bin Laden was the sole contractor for religious building projects in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem
  • That Muhammad bin Laden owned property in Jerusalem that was confiscated by the Israeli government in 1967

Hmm . . . and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Interesting, though to note the thin thread of connection with Palestine that I had not been previously aware of. Also interesting how having access to obscene amounts of money and powerful networks can “help”you cope with life’s tragedies in any way you want – from buying real estate and cars to fomenting religious extremism.

The episode is around 40 minutes long and well worth a listen (Fresh Air -The Bin Ladens a Complicated Family Tree). You can also find an excerpt from Steve Coll’s new book which deals with the broader family – not just Osama.

And now for the MLK connection. Today (well, Friday April 4th) is the 40th anniversary of his assassination. My friend David has posted a fitting recognition with some meaningful links. You can also look at a nice photo essay on BBC about some of today’s commemorative activities or a photo essay about MLK’s life at TIME.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Osama Bin Laden. Both charismatic. Both standing against oppression. Both still speaking today even though one is in hiding and one is in the grave. History will most likely count both of them as great leaders. Yet, these two men could not be more different.

One espouses the glories of martyrdom for a cause he is barely connected with, in hopes of using violence to end one form of oppression in favor of another. The other man dying as a martyr while he peacefully, but actively struggled to bring an end to an oppression that he knew all to well. MLK did not look at death as something to be sought, but was not afraid to face it. His martyrdom was significant in bringing a peace (though imperfect) to a troubled nation.

Both men fighting against oppression. One preaching violence, another peace. One encouraging others to die from a distance. The other dying unexpectedly right in the thick of the struggle. Who knows what historians will say about Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King 100 or 200 years from now. All I know is that from this angle, the martyrdom of MLK speaks more loudly from beyond the grave and is more relevant to Christians, Muslims, and Jews everywhere in this troubled world than OBL’s poisonous rhetoric from his hideout in a cave.

Here’s a 9-minute clip of MLK’s last speech given 40-years ago this past Thursday. If you don’t have time for that, click on the second one – it’s only 90 seconds or so. Profound, timeless, and a relevant example for all those seeking to end oppression and make peace in this world.