January 21st – Steve Jungkeit and Shelly Altman + audio
Texts: Luke 19: 41-42;
Revelation 22: 1-5
We were pleased to welcome Shelly Altman to the pulpit this morning. Shelly is the co-chair of Jewish Voice for Peace, New Haven, and he traveled on our Tree of Life journey this year. It is a pleasure to have both Shelly and his wife Susan with us this morning.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
There are two metaphors I’d like to share with you this morning. Here’s the first: a tree of life shall grow for the healing of the nations, the book of Revelation tells us. Standing in the Wadi Rum of Jordan, I encountered a tree boldly growing from the cracks of a boulder, the image found on our bulletins today. Let it stand as a metaphor for all that Shelly Altman and I will share today. Life growing between a rock and a hard place, stubborn hope emerging through the cracks of a stone face. For all the impediments – lack of moisture, a sweltering sun, and an impossible location, the tree stubbornly grows, a metaphor for the life of the human spirit.
Here’s the second metaphor. It’s taken from a story from Ghassan Kanafani, and it requires a wider telling. Kanafani was a Palestinian writer and activist who died tragically during the early 1970’s. The story is called “Men in the Sun,” and I referred to it often as our Tree of Life group traveled throughout Palestine and Israel. It concerns three Palestinian refugees, fleeing across the Iraqi desert in search of work in the oil fields of Kuwait. None of the three know each other. But each left desperate circumstances behind them, having all languished in refugee camps for decades without hope or economic means following the creation of the state of Israel. And so the three men convene in the city of Basra, looking for a smuggler to help them across the heavily policed border into Kuwait. They settle upon a man who appears more compassionate than the rest, one who offers a novel way to cross the checkpoints. He drives a water tanker back and forth on a regular basis for a construction company, is well known and trusted by the border police, and can place the men inside the empty water tank at each of the border checkpoints. The men eventually agree to a price, one that relieves them of their meager life savings, even as hope rises as they contemplate their future employment, and the money they might send back to their families in the refugee camps.
They begin their journey early in the morning, before the desert heat becomes unbearable. Even so, the temperature climbs as they drive, sweat streaming down their faces. Soon they approach the first checkpoint. The driver pulls the truck out of sight, and opens the hatch to the water tank, telling the others to climb in. The tank is sweltering, an airless furnace, but the three refugees crawl in, trusting that soon they’ll be across. Knowing that time is of the essence, the driver races back to the cab, and speeds to the checkpoint, where he gets his papers checked and stamped. He then speeds to a bend around the road, where he pulls over and unlocks the hatch of the tank. It had been a mere five minutes in total, but the men crawl out dazed and exhausted, near to suffocation. “Just one more like that, and then we’re through,” the driver says. “Have you ever had to do that,” one of the refugees gasps? “No,” says the driver, ashamed. “But there’s one more to go.”
When they approach the final checkpoint, the men reluctantly climb back into the tank, and the driver races to cross the border. He gets to the checkpoint, but the officers there recognize him, and begin to tease him about a woman he knows. The encounter takes all of several minutes, but each second is agonizing to the driver, for he knows that they all count. Finally, his papers are stamped and returned, and he speeds down the road, just to a little bend where the truck will be out of sight. He jumps out of the cab, unlatches the hatch, and calls down into the tank: “Hey, are you there? Hey, we made it.” But there is no sound, and no movement. He lowers himself into the sweltering tank, and finds to his horror that the men in his charge had died. He’s overcome by a wave of grief and rage, and the story ends with the driver shouting to the expired men, “Why did you not knock? Why did you not knock?” They all would have gotten in trouble, it’s true, but they would have been alive, not suffocated in a boiling and airless tank. “Why did you not knock,” the grieving driver shouts?
The story serves as Kanafani’s metaphor for all of Palestinian life. Trapped in a kind of airless and suffocating situation, Palestinians have been all but forgotten by the world. Some 800,000 displaced refugees have now grown to nearly 6 million people, an inconvenient afterthought of Israel’s miracle in the desert. Kanafani’s frustration can be felt in those final lines, as he shouts at his fellow exiles: “Why did you not knock? Why do you not remind the world that you’re there? Why don’t you pound on the walls of your imprisonment, to make sure someone hears you? Why did you not knock,” Kanafani cries through the pages of his story?
The question continues to linger, even 40 years after the story was published. Our Tree of Life journey met with a wide array of individuals and organizations along the way who were all knocking, finding ways to say, “Here we are. We exist.” There were the Bedouins, indigenous people of the desert finding creative ways to save their communities from the onslaught of development and erasure. There was the independent scholar documenting the 532 disappeared Palestinian villages from 1948, the ruins of which have now been turned into parks. There was the man who is leading the charge on boycotts and divestment, as powerful a thinker as anyone I’ve ever encountered. There was the young Israeli conscientious objector, who chose prison over military conscription, and there was the former Yale professor, returned to the West Bank to form a natural history museum. They’re all remarkable individuals, and they’re all finding creative and nonviolent ways of knocking on the walls of a sweltering situation, saying to the world, “We’re here. Don’t let us suffocate.” They’re also, to return to my first metaphor, examples of life, trees, growing through the cracks of a hard place.
Shelly Altman, along with his wife Susan, participated in our Tree of Life journey this year. Shelly is a friend and ally of the Tree of Life, and he co-chairs the New Haven chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. I’ve admired Shelly’s courage in speaking the hard truths of the Israeli occupation from a Jewish perspective, and I’ve been glad for the way Shelly has distinguished between the religious practice of Judaism and the machinations of a nation state. I’m grateful for Shelly’s witness, for his presence on our Tree of Life journey, and for his willingness to be with us this morning.
Remarks by Shelly Altman are delivered here, but are available on the audio only. He had no prepared text.
Steve Jungkeit – conclusion
I believe that to confront a global issue like that in Palestine and Israel is also to confront our own personal stories. The political and the pastoral are implicated in one another, like a Mobius strip, where the one folds into the other. And so I’d like to conclude by asking you to think about Ghassan Kanafani’s metaphor once more, where human beings are trapped in a tank, unable to get out. “Why did they not knock,” Kanafani asks? Is that not a metaphor for all of human life? Is there not a part of each one of us that sometimes feels as though we’re trapped in a tank, searching for redemption and flourishing, searching for a new life? Are there not moments for all of us when we feel trapped and stifled by circumstances that seem to overwhelm our capacities for speech and action? Are there not moments when each of us requires help, when instead of suffering in solitude, we need to knock on the walls of whatever water tank we find ourselves in, saying, “Here I am! I’m here! Please help me!” When we’re feeling emotionally lost, or vulnerable, when we’re undergoing an illness or a life change, when we’re struggling with some unnameable burden, when we’re struggling simply to be seen or heard. Sometimes we each of us need reminders to knock on the walls that imprison us, lest our spirits, our souls, suffocate and die.
I believe that’s one of the functions of churches and faith communities like ours. They’re for learning to pay attention to the lost and forgotten voices in the world that are knocking on the walls of a water tanker is a sweltering desert, trying to gain release. They’re for learning to pay attention to the voices trapped inside our own hearts, the ones that have been forgotten or disallowed by the regimes of power we all participate in. What emotions can’t emerge within you? What questions can’t be spoken in your life? What longings can’t be met, what insights can’t be voiced, what needs can’t be fulfilled? Learning to listen to such voices is the mark of a prophetic community. I think it’s what Jesus means when he weeps over Jerusalem, and says to the city, “If only you knew what made for peace.” He’s referring to the silencing of the prophets, the inability to hear their insistent cries. To be a prophetic community of faith is to hear those cries, to listen to the knocks on the wall, and to dare to respond. It takes courage to do that. Shelly is doing it, and Jewish Voice for Peace is doing it. We’re doing our best here in Old Lyme as well. I want you to know that it matters. I want you to know that it’s a way of staying human, as our friend Mazin Qumsiyah, living in Bethlehem, is fond of saying. Listen to the knocks. Listen to the stifled words of prophets. Listen to your heart. And stay human. Amen