A vigil for Gaza with The Revd Dr Munther Isaac

A vigil for Gaza with The Revd Dr Munther Isaac
On Sunday 18th February 2024 at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, The Revd Dr Munther Isaac, pastor of Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, issued an uncompromising call to the UK church. He said that they are called “to be the church, and to act in costly solidarity towards an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire. This is a moral obligation. This is not the time for neutrality or soft diplomacy."
Building on his Christmas Sermon “Christ in the Rubble: A Liturgy of Lament”, Dr Isaac said: “Gaza is the moral compass of the world. We either side with the logic or power and ruthlessness, with the lords of war, and with those who justify and rationalize the killing of children. Or you side with the victims of oppression and injustice, and those who are besieged and dehumanized by the forces of Empire and colonization. It is really a simple choice: you either support a genocide, turn a blind eye or justify a genocide, or you cry out: No! Not in our name.” (The full text of the sermon is below).

Sisters and brothers

It has been more than more than 130 days since the war on Gaza began. It is beyond my comprehension to believe that this war, this genocide is still going on.

28,000 thousand killed; including 12,500 children, and 8,300 women. Thousands more still missing under the rubble. 68,000 injured. 1.7 million displaced; trapped and starved. This is beyond inhuman!

What happened to the conscious of the world leaders; I say world leaders, and lord of wars, because the voices in the street are speaking loud and clear: stop this genocide. But will the war lords listen?

The International Court of Justice was clear in its description of what is happening and its rebuke to Israel and those complicit in it, yet even the ruling of the ICJ was not enough to stop this genocide. And now we fear that Israel will assault Rafah! Could it get even worse?

The people of Gaza broadcast to us scenes of their genocide, and the war leaders declared to us and to the world their intention to wipe out Gaza and recolonize it, and the world is still debating and deliberating whether what is happening is a war of genocide or not.

Israeli solders are posting mocking videos of the destruction of an entire civilization… while the world still debates and deliberates!

Friends. Truth is evident for all to see. There is nothing to debate. Apartheid is clear. Genocide is clear. We don’t need to explain anymore. Truth is evident for all to see World leaders know the truth. They are denying it. In fact, they have been denying it for 76 years. How many delegations did we receive? How many lectures did we give? How many times we explain things?

Meanwhile, Israel alleges that some members from UNRWA were involved in the attacks on October 7th, and support to UNRWA stops directly from countries around the world. The amount of hypocrisy is incomprehensible. The level of racism involved for such hypocrisy is appalling. I cannot get beyond this!

Some world leaders and church leaders are beginning to change their stance. It is too late! You showed up to Jerusalem to show support; you provided the theological and political cover, you described it as self-defense and as such gave a green light; you even paid the bill, and now you are showing concern? I am sorry…you can undo what happened. You cannot change history. You cannot wash the blood from your hand.

Indeed, the conscience of the world is dead. They have grown numb. World leaders are obsessed about their thrones. They are intoxicated with power. They are literally signing / autographing the missiles! They love war. They don’t care for the victims. In fact, they already labelled them as terrorists, animals, and evil.

Don’t tell me it is not racism! Those complicit in this genocide do not see us as equals, as humans. How else do you explain this lack of empathy for human lives? For children dying, pulled from under the rubble, for babies found decomposed in Gaza hospitals?

We are tired of sharing these stories; we are tired of sharing about the killing of our people. We have been pleading “Lord Have Mercy!” for more than 130 days; indeed, for 76 years.

As Palestinians… we find comfort in our faith. We find hope in the Word of God. This Sunday is the first season of lent. As we journey towards the cross, may we reflect on the meaning of this season:

  • It is time of Repentance.
  • It is a time of fasting, and such a time to reflect on the meaning of true piety
  • It is a time to reflect on the mystery of suffering and how the road to glory goes through the Cross

All three have profound meaning and message to what is happening in Gaza today.

Repentance: oh how our world needs to repent today from apathy; numbness to suffering; and normalizing and justifying a genocide.

When world leaders watch a genocide and ethnic cleansing unfold live on TV and social media, yet continue to explain it, while only raising concern over the death of innocent civilians --- our collective humanity is at stake.

When churches justify a genocide or are silent watching from distance, making carefully crafted balanced statements --- the credibility of the Gospel is at stake.

We need to repent from our racism, superiority, and bigotry. This war confirmed to me that the world does not look at us as equals. They describe a genocide as a “misstep”, or “over the top”. We need to repent from the sin apartheid – the idea that certain people are more entitled than others. 

In this lent season, we are also called to reflect on our religious practices. God’s message to us through fasting: Piety that does not produce compassion and mercy is false piety! Piety that does not lead to hunger for justice is false piety.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

Our world is full of false piety; A piety that lacks mercy, justice, and truth. Today’s reading from Isaiah is as if it were talking about today.

Friends, these words from Isaiah go beyond “charity”. This is about taking a stance and active participation to bring justice and liberation. (not a statement!)

Jesus did not say: I was hungry, and you prayed for me and made a statement! Jesus said: I was a prisoner and you came to me!

This is not about “praying for peace”, “raising concern”, and sending support. Piety, says Isaiah, means active participation in loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the straps of yoke, letting the oppressed go free, and breaking every yoke. This is active solidarity; this is about action.

I ask: Is this what the church is doing today? Let us be honest with ourselves! Do you see why I have been crying out --- where is the church? The question when we face injustice and suffering should not always be “where is God?” Many times the question is “where the church?”

We are occupied by religious practices…theological discussions…

Moreover… today I feel the thing we lack the most is courage. We know the truth. But we are not speaking… we fear the consequences… we fear the backlash!

The church wants to avoid controversy. Can you imagine of Jesus walked on earth avoiding controversy! Can you imagine if time he was asked a question, he would craft a balanced statement that aimed at appealing to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the disciples and the Romans (and if possible his heavenly father!!)

The way church statements dance around the issue of “ceasefire” or (god forbid) condemning Israel is indeed amazing. They write 2 pages long statements that basically say nothing other than unequivocally condemning Hamas!

Honestly, we should not be surprised; as Palestinian Christians, how many times did we experience rejection from the church? How many times were invitations sent to us to speak in global venues canceled? For fear of controversy. There are church leaders who are willing to sacrifice for the sake of avoiding the hustle of having to explain to outsides why they are meeting with us Palestinian Christians! They sacrifice us for comfort.

(Jesus sat with sinners, right? Consider me a sinner!) It is indeed appalling.

They sacrifice us for comfort, the same way they offered us as an atonement sacrifice for their own racism and anti-racism – repenting on our land over a sin they committed in their land!

All of this while we claim follow a crucified savior, who sacrificed everything, endured pain and rejection for the sake of those he lived!

When the church does not want to lose its comfort… something is seriously wrong with our Christian witness.

When the church sacrifices truth for the sake of conformity and avoiding controversy --- something is seriously wrong with our Christian witness.

So thirdly, this is a season in which we reflect on the mystery of Christ’ suffering and consider our identity in the cross and as followers of a crucified yet risen savior. We need to think of the meaning of costly solidarity.

Jesus said: “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Jesus here tells us what it means to be a Christians --- a follower of a crucified savior. Jesus says that a Christian is one who denies himself, who carries his cross, and who loses himself for the sake of Christ and the Gospel! He is the one who understands that if he wins the whole world, it has no value without saving himself.

Christianity without sacrifice is not Christianity. The first and most important thing we sacrifice is our “self/ego” – the “I”. This is the logic of Jesus himself, and this is how he lived. He was the one who denied himself for us, and he was the one who was crucified for us humans. He wants the same from his followers.

Jesus’ logic is sacrifice for the other; denying oneself for the sake of another; the logic of love that sacrifices for, and does not seek what is for itself, but rather what is for others. The love that says: The other is before me, and I am here for the other.

Here we come to the famous saying of Jesus: For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?

Oh God, when I think about the amount of wisdom hidden in this phrase! How many people have lost themselves and sold their values in pursuit of glory and power... and in some cases, comfort. I am not just talking about political leaders.

How many peoples lost their soul and values when they took the same approach, the approach of colonialism, genocide and exploitation. The approach of force and tyranny... How many leaders and peoples chose silence in the face of genocide in order to win the world? To gain the world, but in reality they lost their soul; What the world needs today is courage and sacrifice to speak the truth! There are political and religious leaders we know who have been bought off and lack the courage to speak the truth. Is this how we follow Christ? They won the world, and lost themselves.

(I know influential church leaders who changed their stance completely)

I am tired and fed up of church leaders who share with me behind close doors in confidentiality that they support us 100%, but that they are confined in what they can say! I hear this all the time, from church leaders and diplomats! You know how frustrating it is? Leaders in their comfort zone lack the courage to speak up, while the honorable people of Gaza risk everything for the sake of freedom and dignity. They have more honor and dignity than those politicians or faith leaders.

Friends: The followers of Jesus risk all to speak truth to power.

In Palestine, we do not only talk about solidarity; we talk about costly solidarity.

This war has shaken our faith --- in humanity and even God. We continue to search for God. We continue to cry with the psalmist…

“My God, my God, why did you leave Gaza? How long will you forget her completely? Why do you hide your face from her? In the daytime I call upon you, but you do not answer; by night we find no rest.

Do not depart from the people of Gaza, for distress is near, for there is no one to help. O Lord God of our salvation, day and night we have cried before you … let our prayer come before you ... incline your ear to our cries ... for surely you have been satisfied with afflictions. Our souls and our lives approach the abyss ... our eyes melt from humiliation. We call upon you, Lord, every day. We stretch out our hands to you. Why, Lord, do you reject our souls? Why do you hide your face from us?” (Adapted from Psalms 13, 22, and 88)  

We search for God on this land. Theologically, philosophically, we ask: Where is God when we suffer? How do we explain his silence?

But away from philosophy and existential questions. In this land, even God is a victim of oppression, death, the war machine, and colonialism. We see the Son of God on this land crying out the same question on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why do you let me be tortured? Crucified?

God suffers with the people of this land, sharing the same fate with us.

This remains our comfort in the midst of suffering: God’s presence amid pain, and even amid death, for Jesus is no stranger to pain, arrest, torture, and death. He walks with us in our pain.

God is under the rubble in Gaza. He is with the frightened and the refugees. He is in the operating room. This is our consolation. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. If we want to pray, my prayer is that those who are suffering will feel this healing and comforting presence.

If Jesus were to enter our world today, it will be in Gaza among those under the rubble. Jesus under the rubble is the message of God identifying with humanity in its suffering and pain. It is about the Gos who sides with the oppressed, even being born among them, as one of them, becoming a refugee and a victim of the violence of Empire.

God is in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed. He takes sides; he is not neutral…

And here is my message: God’s solidity should become our solidarity! If God takes sides, so should we.

Dear friends: Gaza is indeed today the moral compass of the world. This war, I truly believe, has clearly divided the world; and maybe this is good thing. Gaza is the moral compass of the world. We either side with the logic or power and ruthlessness, with the lords of war, and with those who justify and rationalize the killing of children. Or you side with the victims of oppression and injustice, and those who are besieged and dehumanized by the forces of Empire and colonization. It is really a simple choice: you either support a genocide, turn a blind eye or justify a genocide, or you cry out: No! Not in our name.

I call the church in the UK: as churches that seek justice and righteousness, in obedience to the commandment of Christ, we must have the courage to speak our and call things by name! This is not a conflict; Israel is not exercising its right for self-defense. Rather; Israel is the colonizer; Israel is a settler colonial entity. We live under apartheid. What is happening in Gaza in a genocide and ethnic cleansing. Continuing to repeat the Empire narrative only serves to empower the aggressors.

On the basis of the foregoing, we must no longer speak in our churches of “peace,” or even of the resolution of conflict - but of an end to tyranny and injustice. Vocabulary is important. We are not talking about a struggle between equal forces. This is not simply about a ceasefire; but putting an end to 76 years of ethnic cleansing. And today, ending a genocide in Gaza.

This is a time to act: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…

It is time for the church to be the church!

The way and how the churches of the world deal with injustice in our land will reveal a great deal about these churches. We do not exaggerate to say that the credibility of the churches and our Christian witness is at stake. I recall here something the South African theologian and thinker Allan Boesak said, namely that Palestine today is the gauge for churches and the conscience of churches today.

Here is our call today:

  • End the genocide NOW.

This is moral call. This is an urgent call. We cannot afford more death! We cannot rest until this genocide is over.

  • Creative Non-violent resistance

We encourage you to speak out, join demonstrations, mobilize within your community, put pressure on your political leaders through calls and written correspondence, and organize nonviolent direct-action campaigns and sit-ins. Whatever it takes to compel your government and decision-makers to take action. This is beyond urgent.

We need to accountability in the face war crimes. Call things by name. The reports on apartheid, the ICJ --- all demand that we act; invest morally; implement the International, boycott, sanction…

  • Consider what it means to be true peacemakers.

It is time the church here in the UK moves from its shallow diplomacy and neutrality into prophetic peacemaking and costly solidarity. “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:18)

I want to conclude by referring to a letter we wrote back in October!

October 20th… Call to Repentance! We saw it coming!

God “will judge the world in justice” (Acts 17:31).

We also remind ourselves and our Palestinian people that our sumud (“steadfastness”) is anchored in our just cause and our historical rootedness in this land. As Palestinian Christians, we also continue to find our courage and consolation in the God who dwells with those of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa 57:15). We find courage in the solidarity we receive from the crucified Christ, and we find hope in the empty tomb. We are also encouraged and empowered by the costly solidarity and support of many churches and grassroots faith movements around the world, challenging the dominance of ideologies of power and supremacy. We refuse to give in, even when our siblings abandon us. We are steadfast in our hope, resilient in our witness, and continue to be committed to the Gospel of faith, hope, and love, in the face of tyranny and darkness. “In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope. We believe in God, good and just. We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and of death that still persist in our land. We will see here ‘a new land’ and ‘a new human being’, capable of rising up in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers and sisters” (Kairos Palestine, §10).