Hatred never sees a human face
By Ken Wheeler
In 2009, my wife and I were a part of a delegation that spent nine days in Israel. We visited many of the holy sites that are meaningful and important to Christians. We saw first-hand how in so many ways Israel is a land of contrasts, both geographically and politically.
Prior to our excursion we were told that, although we should expect to go through security checkpoints, we should not feel overly concerned because we were Americans. We did go through those checkpoints, and what was so striking about the first time that we were stopped was the age of the soldier who came onto our bus – a young woman who looked to be no more than 18 or 19. But she was armed with an Uzi. And I assumed that, if she needed to, she was very capable of using it.
However the checkpoint for us was rather pedantic and uneventful. There was a car in front of us where the action looked to be a lot more involved with the possibility of some tension. The four young men in the car were ordered out by an Israeli soldier who had his weapon poised. The young men were Palestinian. The driver was asked to open the trunk. Another soldier removed four large garbage bags and proceeded to go through them.
The soldier who was holding the gun happened to look up in the direction of our bus. He was conscious that we were watching with some interest. A few moments later the driver was given back his license/passport and was told to put the bags back in the trunk. All four young men got back in the car and the soldiers motioned them and us to proceed.
One of our members who was seated across from my wife and I on the bus asked, "Pastor, what do you think would have happened had we not been present?" It was an answer that I could only speculate about and it was a speculation that I kept to myself. I simply said, “I am thankful that our bus was present.”
Without pretending to know all of the complexities of the tension that colors this region and that has colored it for centuries, what is indisputable is that what is happening in this land, which has been characterized as "holy," is anything but holy:
- Three teenage Jewish youths kidnapped and executed by Palestinian extremists.
- A Palestinian youth killed in retaliation by Israeli teens.
- Four Palestinian children playing on a beach in Gaza where they had played many times before – cousins – their lives were cut short by a missile that fell on that beach and turned it into a graveyard.
And here in the United States, thousands of immigrants are coming across our southern border, many of them children sent by their parents to what they imagine will be a life better than what they are experiencing in their own lands. The issue feels close to home to me as an African American as I have been watching in dismay some of the crowds that have gathered in these border states to voice their opposition. I hear the ugliness coming from their lips. I see it in their eyes. I see it in their body language. The very image conjures up another time in America when our own citizens were demanding a better life and a better education and demanded entrance into the all-White Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
These weren't immigrants coming across a border. They were already here. They were U.S. citizens demanding that they be afforded the freedoms of American citizenship. Nine black students would show up to walk through the doors of Central High escorted by 100 members of the National Guard. Four hundred angry Whites would show up to protest and prevent the entrance of these students. From the news clips I’ve seen of that day, what I remember so vividly are the twisted and contorted faces of these protesters who were willing to die to keep their schools and their world white.
The picture was ugly. The words were ugly. That day was ugly. And it is that ugliness that has been once again etched into our minds as we watch what is happening on our southern borders and what is happening in Israel.
America's greatness has always been about its promise. It was the promise of America that inspired men, women and children to challenge the law and the rubric of White supremacy and racial separation. It will be the promise that America is not just a land of laws but a land of opportunity and justice that will lead us to not paint these immigrants with one brush, but rather to realize that many of those we are seeking to turn away are good and decent human beings merely looking for opportunities to build a new life – and more importantly, to live as free and emancipated human beings unencumbered by the threat of violence and death.
And even in Israel, where bombs and missiles explode as freely as rain falls from the sky killing innocent people and where at the moment there seems to be nothing holy about what is happening, even in this darkness there is the biblical promise articulated by the prophet Isaiah that catches our imagination:
A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse; … He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. … Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:1-6 NIV).
This picture is not what exists now, but it is because of this vision that we can imagine this kind of peace. It is because of this vision that we can work toward that kind of peace. It is because of God's promise that we can envision a land big enough to hold Israelis and Palestinians – not just as uneasy strangers but as the brothers and sisters they are.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.