‘Step onto your land’

Mar 13, 2018 by

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On the first day of the Mennonite Central Committee Ottawa Office student seminar, MPs and government officials explained to us all the reasons why Canada will not pressure Israel to end the military occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

On the second day, we spread forest green blankets on the floor of Knox Presbyterian Church.

“Remove your shoes,” MCC staff Joanna Hiebert Bergen and Jon Nofziger instructed us, “and step onto your land.”

I’ve never been comfortable with ‘heart’ exercises, or practices that are meant to provide an emotional experience alongside an intellectual one. The policy talks had brought me to the edge of my seat, and left me wanting more. Yet when Joanna and Jon invited us onto the blanket to begin what is known as the Palestine Land Exercise, my first thought was that someone had misspelled “Jerico” on the label under my toes. I worked hard to repress the need to share that observation.

The exercise began with an invitation for participants to step onto the blankets and find a spot somewhere in historic Palestine between Lebanon and Sinai, Jordan and the Mediterranean. As events unfolded — the 1948 War, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the continuing occupation — the blankets were slowly folded up until most participants were crowded together on tiny patches of green in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Of the 30 conference attendees who had begun as symbolic Palestinians in the exercise, only a handful had avoided expulsion as refugees, death or incarceration.

The chronology of events is interspersed by the stories of historical and contemporary Palestinians that are read out by participants in the exercise. Some cried as they listened to the stories of displacement and struggle. Others, like the three Syrian women who recently came to Canada as refugees, seemed distinctly haunted.

It was meant to be a powerful, emotional experience, and for many it was. Yet I was tired and bloated, with a gnawing ache in my lower back.

My role, I knew, was to participate as fully as I was able, and to keep my mouth shut. The church, like the proverbial village, needs all kinds, and therefore an MCC conference, like a Sunday service, must appeal to many different constituencies. In fact, I think that this recognition of diversity is one of the strengths of MCC more generally; it has made balancing head and heart, hard policy, grassroots advocacy and traditional theology, into a well-practiced art. It is one of the reasons that MCC is so respected in Ottawa, and why our speakers list raised impressed eyebrows among political insiders.

I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the heart’s role in geopolitics recently, especially as I’ve become more aware of my great blessing in growing up in a sleepy Canadian city among an undivided family of almost-middle class standing. I was reminded of this as I watched one of the Syrian participants, Basma, quietly take a friend’s keffiyeh (the black and white head scarf associated with Palestinian nationalism) and wrap it around her own head in a gesture of solidarity. As a PhD student, I’ve spent much of my life in the classroom where debates around the Middle East are abstract and esoteric. Basma reminded me that for some people, the Middle East is home.

Despite these real consequences for people from the region, it has recently become fashionable to avoid conversations about the Israel-Palestine conflict, to consign the topic to the closet of social faux pas alongside the abortion debate or (until recently) gun control. Many feel that the debate has become so polarizing, the situation so intractable, that no good can come from such discussions.

There is no easy solution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Yet that is no reason to assume that we have no responsibility for what is happening right now on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank. The military occupation is illegal under our current international laws, it is unjust, and it is a barrier to shalom. Therefore, it is our responsibility as Christians to engage in nonviolent resistance to the power of the sword held over the Palestinian people. There is a way for both Jews and Arab Palestinians to live together in the Holy Land, and Christians must continue to struggle toward that frail but beautiful possibility.

I am proud that MCC is willing to instigate conversations as part of its theological mandate to seek peace and justice around the world. I am proud to see the influence that the small advocacy office has in Ottawa, and to hear the passion and wisdom of my fellow students during the seminar. I am not always a ‘heart’ person, yet there are moments when I am fiercely proud to call myself Mennonite.

For all my doubts, I am glad I stepped onto that green blanket. I am glad that MCC has both the sensitivity to listen carefully, and the courage to speak truth to power. This conference forced me to engage both my heart and my head, and reminded me that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he did the same.

Paul Esau is from Abbotsford, B.C, and is a Ph.D. student in history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. This post originally appeared at MCC Ottawa Office Notebook.

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