Kara Newell has life-long history of Quaker life, worship, and service. With her husband, John, also a life-long Quaker, she attends Quaker Bible study at Multnomah Friends Meeting House—as do I—early Monday mornings. Last week news had just begun flashing on our telephone screens of the killings at the Gaza border. After several minutes of silent worship, Kara spoke first, her voice broken as she said, “Today I am weeping. I weep because Palestinians are my friends. I weep because of years and years of seeking peace along side these people I love. I weep at the sight of dead children. I weep for the endless suffering, renewed so horribly today at the Gaza border, for all of years-long work just being ripped apart!”
In 1978 Kara was called to be the executive secretary of Friends United Meeting, a consortium of fifteen Yearly Meetings on three continents serving more than a quarter million Quakers. Her first visit in her new position was to Ramallah Friends Meeting on the West Bank where there is a school for girls even then one hundred years old. (The boys’ school is newer but even so now more than 100 years old.) Years of relationship and cooperation with Palestinians in Ramallah, both Christian and Muslim, prompted the emotions out of which Kara’s tears flowed. I thought of how Kara herself grieves the loss of her own daughter to cancer a few months ago, so she knows well the agony of dozens of families in Gaza at their losses, compounded for Kara, surely, by all the years of witnessing such losses among her Palestinian friends. (Kara later led American Friends Service Committee and is rejoicing that the newest leader of AFSC is Joyce Ajlouny, a Palestinian graduate of Ramallah Girls School.)
As the group moved on into discussion of 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5, with Paul’s explicit instruction to be children of light amid the darkness of surrounding culture, I had difficulty keeping touch, for Kara’s emotions and words—spoken with such disorienting authenticity—had taken over and expanded within me to include the travesty of events in Jerusalem that day that ignited the Gaza protests so cruelly subdued. I thought of the baldfaced political cynicism and unprincipled self-seeking that composed that incendiary event, and mixed up in all of that the scandal of idolizing mega-pastors self-assured in their far right skewed millennial theology calling down the blessings of God as bullets tear apart human beings a few miles away—all becoming more and more excruciating as I felt any hope for real change draining from me. That heaviness still grips me when I remember Kara’s tears.
Those thoughts were still strong when I came to my Thursday Bible study group, even earlier in the morning, when I meet with five GenX business men. Each of us have a present or past connection to Sunset Covenant Church, which had organized this Bible study decades past. Each of us would accept being called evangelicals, despite, for some of us, dismay at the current use and abuse of the title. Our study passage was 1 Samuel 11. Saul has been anointed as the first king of Israel but not yet accepted by all 12 of the tribes. Ammonites to the east in what is now Jordan, with a long history of harassment of the Hebrew settlers, had set up a siege of Hebrew town, the Ammonite king threatening to gouge out the right eye of every Hebrew. A cry for help goes out to the other tribes, and Saul rises to the occasion, recruits an army, then wins the battle with much killing and survivors retreating in total disarray. Thus he solidifies his kingly esteem and power over all Israel.
Naturally, we Bible studiers seek a word from God in such a story but strangely around that cafe table there appeared no ready grasping place. Still remembering Kara’s tears and strong words about the deaths at the Gaza fence, what struck me was that when someone holds on to the belief that 1 Samuel 11 must be a word from God, well, then, naturally they can find there vindication for Israel’s protecting itself with whatever means seems necessary, with God’s blessing, and can readily offer profuse prayers of gratitude for Israel’s success. Yet that viewpoint seemed not to be gelling in our small group.
I told the story of Kara’s tears, and another story also emerged into the indecision. Two of our group had recently attended a gathering of several hundred people in support of Israel, sponsored by a nearby evangelical church. The principle speaker was an aged Holocaust survivor who maintained fervently that Israel must have Christian support for protecting its place in its divinely-promised homeland. One of the tellers of this story reported that because there was no mention of Palestinians, even implied, in all that was said, he would not applaud the presentation. The other told us that he had applauded but felt his applause was out of respect for the speaker, the survivor of Holocaust, not therefore necessarily for the ideas expressed. The dilemma was obvious: how shall the Bible be read? As divine guidance in all of its parts, or perhaps sorting out and weighing, holding fast to Jesus, the crucified Jew, whom we know to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life? So we left it, the businessmen going off to their daily round of work, and I back to my home, each with no sure sense of what had happened in our time together but committed to return for another round of honest-to-goodness searching with one another next Thursday.*
Two groups, vastly different in background and commitments, yet each determined to seek Light, Enlightenment, Truth, God, and to find thoughts and words that will vibrate in daily life and in service to others, and in each group deep community that can only be described as love—and every week I am in each of these groups, unwilling to miss the possibility of someone’s tears and another’s insights and for sure as well the presence of Holy Spirit.
*(For insight into dilemmas expressed here with regard to evangelical support of Israel, you may find this article by Richard Mouw helpful. You may also find intriguing a recent poll of evangelicals indicating much greater support for attention to concerns of Palestinians than might be expected. Throughout the survey, young evangelicals show significantly greater concern for Palestinians.)